“The Education of Tigress Macardle” by C. M. Kornbluth – Classics of Science Fiction

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Group Read 72: The Best Science Fiction Stories of 1957

“The Education of Tigress Macardle” by C. M. Kornbluth #10 of 20 (ReadListen)

C. M. Kornbluth came out with four short stories in 1957 – “MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie,” “The Education of Tigress Macardle,” “The Slave,” and “The Last Man Left in the Bar.” None of them stood out as an obvious favorite among readers, with each story having its fans. Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg couldn’t decide between “The Education of Tigress Macardle” and “The Last Man Left in the Bar” so they published both in The Great SF Stories 19 (1957). Kornbluth died in early 1958, at age 34, so these were the last of his short stories that Kornbluth got to see in print.

I picked “The Education of Tigress Macardle” for the best of 1957 because it had two citations in CSFquery, and the others only had one. However, I’ve had people tell me they preferred either “The Last Man Left in the Bar” or “MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie.” After reading all three, I feel CSFquery was right, but what do you all think? Follow the links to read the two other stories. I don’t have a link to “The Slave” but it was a novella promoted as a short novel.

Kornbluth was famous for his sharp satire. His brutal wit stabs at several topics in “The Education of Tigress Macardle.” The bit that amused me the most was a throwaway paragraph about the Civil War Book-of-the-Week Club. I chuckled at Mightier than the Sword: A Study of Pens and Pencils in the Army of the Potomac, 1863-1865. There really is a seemingly endless amount published about the Civil War.

“The Education of Tigress Macardle” begins by informing its readers that in the future, a popular personality was elected President, and he got the 28th Amendment passed that made him King Purvis I. (I hope that’s not prophetic.) King Purvis inspired a guy name Gerald Wang to play at Dr. Fu Manchu and unfold a sneak attack on the United States. We learn all of this because the story is told from the year 2756 A.D. in a class at Columbia University called Chronoscope History Seminar 201. The students of this class watch what happens to George and Diana “the Tigress” Macardle on a chronoscope.

You must read between the lines to pick up all the well-hidden sexual innuendo, and if you miss what little there is, the story might lose a lot of its charm. Kornbluth is aiming at humor, but I’m not sure how many of his jokes I get. George thought he had achieved bachelor nirvana when the Tigress would have sex with him on his bear skin rug in his downtown bachelor pad. Then she whined that she wanted to get married. Then she whined she wanted to have a house in the suburbs. Evidently, George kept getting all the sex he wanted because he kept giving in. Then the Tigress whined to have a baby.

Now here’s where the fun starts. King Purvis degreed that all Americans who wanted to have children must pass a Parental Qualifications Program (P.Q.P.). And Dr. Wang devises a doozy of a potential parent exam that secretly works at his plan to take over America. Parents are given a robotic toddler to take care of for three months. If it’s black box records proper care George and the Tigress will get a permit to breed.

You can imagine the fun Kornbluth provides with this setup. You might not guess the surprise ending. I didn’t.

Another reason I preferred “The Education of Tigress Macardle” over the other two Kornbluth short stories, is because the story is more to the point and clearer. I’m not saying it’s perfectly clear. Kornbluth writing style includes a constant flourish of asides. His prose is baroque with allusions that he hopes will make us smile or admire his wit.

But those filigrees also make it hard to read Kornbluth. Kornbluth relies heavily on things from the future, or beings from other dimensions, or observers from the future. They’re usually a gimmick, a foundation, a diving board, for him to riff with his clever wordiness. Usually, his stories are fun, but seldom have much impact. He has twenty-four stories in CSFquery, but most of them don’t have many citations. I wonder if Kornbluth would have been a good standup comedian. It helps to hear his stories read by a narrator that does voices.

Personally, I believe “The Education of Tigress Macardle” would have been a far superior story if Kornbluth would have hacked off the sections with King Purvis, Gerald Wang, and students from the future. He should have focused entirely on George and the Tigress and spent all his energy making the story subtle, funny, and insightful. The setup with the tryout toddler is great by itself. And he should have worked on the characterizations of George and the Tigress. In 1957 the Playboy bachelor and the emerging liberated woman were ripe for satire.

James Wallace Harris, 4/2/24

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