“With These Hands,” Cyril Kornbluth, 1951 – Europe has been destroyed by radiation or bombs. Roald Halvorsen, a sculptor and painter, finds he is out of work due to new tech (the esthetikon) and the literally “mass-produced” tastes of the time, which place no value on authenticity. Art is produced in response to subtle surveys which determine the preferences of the populace, such that it can create sculptures that have been customized to current desires (eg, 75% sexy, 25% inspirational). Halvorsen makes a subsistence living as an art teacher and lives in the slums. His last hope is the patronage of a local bishop, but even the church, the last source of employment for any craftsman, gives in and adopts the new machine. He takes on a female student; he both realizes she has a genuine interest in developing her artistic abilities and that he has fallen in love with her. But, he has no place in this world, and he realizes that her attraction to him is related to her pity due to this fact. Human connection is impossible, and life is boring. He travels to Denmark, which has been contaminated with radiation, and commits suicide at the feet of the statue of Orpheus.
Comments: Compares the photographic image with drawing. Narrator can be seen as somewhat chavaunistic; comments that female art students and wives are baggage that will come to despise him. Suggests connections between labor, technology, and art. Anticipates retouched images, virtual/unreal images, displaced craftsman, “corrected” media images. Read in New Dreams This Morning.
The Kindle edition of this story on Amazon.com notes: “WITH THESE HANDS was written at 27, very early in an ordinary career and a Biblical span, but already late career for Kornbluth and the story knows it. Kornbluth’s painter (a surrogate as is so often the case in literature for the writer) struggles with this issue, with his relevance, with the issue of spirit and is forced to knowledge unwillingly. The story is an excellent example of the prejudice and force of the editing of Horace Gold, the editor of GALAXY magazine: in THE BEST OF CYRIL KORNBLUTH (compiled in 1976 from several earlier collections) the story ends in corporeal despair and a kind of ambiguous spirituality. The original version in GALAXY which of course was mandatory for The Galaxy Project collection has a far more optimistic ending; the final long scene of salvation was obviously either written by Gold or by Kornbluth at Gold’s insistence. This provides unusual insight into the laboratory of writer-editor synergy…whether the ending was actually done by Kornbluth to editorial order or whether Gold added it to the story (he had been known to edit this brutally) is the most significant part of the compound mystery of the novelette.”
Author: Wikipedia: “Cyril M. Kornbluth (July 2, 1923 – March 21, 1958) was an American science fiction author and a notable member of the Futurians.” Interested readers: “Re-reading Kornbluth” by Robert Silverberg. See also James Sallis’s review of C. M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary (2010) in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.