Wolfbane is widely regarded as one of the very best science fiction stories from the 1950s. It was originally serialized in Galaxy magazine in 1957, with illustrations by Wally Wood. It is the original version of the story which we have lovingly reproduced in this volume. The writing team of Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth (who were both successful science fiction writers in their own right) worked together to produce some of the most acclaimed science fiction novels of the 1950s. Significantly, they were both members of the Futurians. The Futurians was a collective of science fiction fans, many of whom went on to become editors and writers. The Futurians followed Marxist ideology, were based in New York City and were a major force in the development of contemporary science fiction writing.
Wolfbane marked the final collaboration between Kornbluth and Pohl. Tragically, Cyril M.Kornbluth died at the age of just 34 in Levittown, New York. Rushing to get to an interview for the position of editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Kornbluth had to shovel snow from his driveway which made him late. He suffered a fatal heart attack on the platform, after running to catch his train. This was an inestimable loss to the world of science fiction.
Wolfbane opens with a very ambitious premise: An advanced alien civilization called “the Pyramids” has invaded the Solar System and has stolen Planet Earth – and all of humanity with it. The story begins hundreds of years into this dystopian future where the shattered remnants of the human race eke out a tightly calorie-controlled existence on the wandering Earth. The only warmth comes from the moon, that the aliens have turned into a tiny artificial sun:
When the little sun was burned to a clinker, they—whoever “they” were, for men saw only the one Pyramid—would hang a new one in the sky. It happened every five clock-years, more or less. It was the same old moon-turned-sun, but it burned out, and the fires needed to be rekindled.
The first of these suns had looked down on an Earthly population of ten billion. As the sequence of suns waxed and waned, there were changes, climatic fluctuation, all but immeasurable differences in the quantity and kind of radiation from the new source.
The changes were such that the forty-fifth such sun looked down on a shrinking human race that could not muster up a hundred million.
A frustrated man drives inward; it is the same with a race. The hundred million that clung to existence were not the same as the bold, vital ten billion.
The thing on Everest had, in its time, received many labels, too: The Devil, The Friend, The Beast, A Pseudo-living Entity of Quite Unknown Electrochemical Properties.
The world-building in the first section of the book is remarkable. Pohl and Kornbluth do a brilliant job of explaining how the leftovers of the human race have organised their society around meditation as a form of social control. The pinnacle of meditative success is translation. Once a higher state of consciousness is reached, translation occurs, and the meditator disappears. The process of “translation” initially seems to reward extremes of passivity, so this could be seen as the alien’s method of controlling the subjugated populace. However, it’s the constraints of this straight-jacketed lifestyle that frequently causes Citizens to breakdown and run ‘amok,’ attacking anyone within reach.
A tiny proportion of the remaining population of Earth are different from everyone else. They self-identify as “Wolves” and are considered a threat by the rest of society. “Wolves” see themselves as fundamentally better than everyone else and refer to Citizens as “Sheep”. However, Pohl and Kornbluth ironically invert this metaphor as “Wolves” actively try to prevent “Sheep” from finding their settlements, while “Wolves” that are caught by “Sheep” are ritually sacrificed by having their spinal fluid drained and their heads chopped off!
Wolfbane is often cited as a source of inspiration for the original Matrix movie. The similarities are certainly quite startling. Wolfbane is one of the first works of Science fiction to portray subjugated human beings that are integrated into machines. It also reveals this as the true reality “behind the curtain” in a very similar manner to the original Matrix movie that was released 40 years after Wolfbane was published. The machine integration element of Wolfbane is well-thought-out and nuanced. In particular, the concept of hive minds that allows human beings to complete tasks of a level of complexity beyond their individual abilities is beautifully realised. In this respect, Wolfbane can be seen as an early example of transhumanism in science fiction. The concept of a snowflake of human minds is written in a very accessible way that is both easy to read and compelling for such a sophisticated concept:
I appear, thought Tropile crazily, to be a sort of eight-branched snowflake. Each of my branches is the human body.
He stirred, and added another datum: I appear also to be in a tank of fluid and yet I do not drown.
There were certain deductions to be made from that. Either someone—the Pyramids?—had done something to his lungs, or else the fluid was as good an oxygenating medium as air. Or both.
Suddenly a burst of data-lights twinkled on the board below him. Instantly and involuntarily, his sixteen hands began working the switches, transmitting complex directions in a lightning-like stream of on-off clicks.
Tropile relaxed and let it happen. He had no choice; the power that made it right to respond to the board made it impossible for his brain to concentrate while the response was going on. Perhaps, he thought drowsily, he would never have awakened at all if it had not been for the long period with no lights….
So, what is Wolfbane about? Without spoiling the narrative, at its core, it is a book about misplaced faith and how it is human nature to follow. How freedom is based around calories consumed. It’s a book about how true individuals are very rare but also deeply valuable. It is a book about heroes fighting against impossible odds. After reading Wolfbane, you will never think about a pan of boiling water in quite the same way ever again! Pohl and Kornbluth succeed in providing an astonishingly brutal vision of what an alien civilization might be like. The text of this book is from the original magazine publication of the story, which we have reproduced faithfully including one significant continuity error that relates to the translation of Gala Tropile. Wolfbane is the sort of story that sticks with you long after you have turned the last page. In many respects, this is due to the ruthless nature of the Alien menace that abducts the Earth as part of its endless and mindless quest for new components.