Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s “Critical Mass”

Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s “Critical Mass” is a fantastic extrapolative story about the seemingly eternal, but teetering on paradigmatic shift, Cold War. Pohl and Kornbluth often collaborated together until Kornbluth’s death in 1962, and this story is an excellent example of their cooperative work.

The story is set in 1998, and the Cold War is reaching a crisis point. Politicians are using the extended war to their advantage by providing false hopes through long term, but fruitless programs to save the American people from missiles coming over the North Pole. However, the lack of a preemptive strike by either side is leading up to crisis, because the statistical probability of a strike under protracted war increases.

The authors map the story’s characters to the physical components of a fission chain reaction. There are the energetic neutrons with apparently new discoveries and prophecy that strike nuclei, which perpetuates the chain reaction began by the pile attaining critical mass.

There are some interesting points that I’d like to make about the story. One pertains to the way in which women are portrayed in the story. In this future, the present follows on a failed, or at best semi-successful, “Female Integration” that began through the efforts of a previous president and his “Century of the Common Woman” plan. Two women characters in the story epitomize this through dressing like men, and one holding a corncob pipe. There is also the mention of integrated sports teams and jail lockups. In the case of sports teams, integration means a level playing field of equal numbers of men and women but with a chauvinistic slant:

There wasn’t anything really wrong with Female Integration. Maggie wasn’t a nut. Take baseball. why that was the Integrationist’s major conquest, when women demanded and got equal representation on every major-league team in spite of the fact that they could not throw or run on competitive terms with men (213).

Despite integration, women are still treated as less than men. Given that the rest of the story is satirical, I believe the authors were not promoting feminist ideals by projecting such an antifeminist viewpoint.

The story also has connections to our current Global War on Terrorism milieu. The Democratic Part is called the “Party of Treason,” which sounds like something you’d hear on Fox News (215). Also, saying “politicians” or talking about politics is considered obscene in this future America. In fact, obscenities in general are severely looked down upon.

The current administration’s desire for a missile defense system is analogous to the debate going on within the story. The party in power supports the construction of civilian shelters to protect America’s population in the event of an attack. However, the president remembers an atomic weapons training movie he saw in the National Guard that depicted a desert wasteland following a strike. He muses why there is a need for shelters when there will be nothing left to return to. Senator Harkness reminds the President that:

We slapped CSB [Civilian Shelter Bill] in our platform, and we won…You know, you never get credit in this game for what you’ve done. Only for what you’re going to do. And, hell, Brad,’ he crowed, suddenly exultant as a child who found a dime in the street, ‘this thing is good for years (220)!

Like the current American administration, there’s a lot of money being spent and a lot of talk, but there hasn’t been that many solid results, and there’s never been a solid explanation of why a defense system is needed as urgently in the Post-Cold War world.

Another topic is incarceration. When several characters are caught in an air raid drill, they realize that they don’t have their required emergency equipment:

The roundup had bagged nearly fifty hardened criminals, like Denzer and Maggie, caught flagrantly naked of dosimeters and next-0f-kin tags. There were a surly lot…Office girls, executives, errand boys, even one hangdog ARP guard himself; they were a motley assortment (223).

This criminalization of preparedness sounds akin to the current American administration’s imposing and promotion of “diligence.” If they could have, I suspect that the Patriot Act would have a few lines devoted to providing for scapegoats who weren’t diligent enough in stopping future terrorist attacks.

A final note concerns baseball. Everyone in this future are so concerned about the All-Star game, that a mathematician figures out that the feared first strike will occur during the big game when everyone’s eyes are turned in the other direction. American’s preoccupation with ephemeral things is a boon to opportunistic persons in politics and democracy takes a punch to the gut for it.

This is a great story to read, because it has much to say to our present even though it’s drenched in Cold War narrative.

I found the story in Frederik Pohl’s The Eighth Galaxy Reader, but you can also find it in these other collections.

Wikipedia has detailed entries on Fredrik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, as well as one on “Critical Mass” that has a scan of the cover of Galaxy magazine where the story first appeared.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.