On My Shelves: Gladiator-At-Law, by C.M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl



Written in 1954, Gladiator-At-Law focuses on Charles Mundin, a criminal attorney barely making ends meet in a world where corporate influence has become more powerful than government (indeed, there is very little evidence of actual government operating at all) and where many professions, including those of corporate lawyer, have become hereditary and closed to outsiders. Mundin may survive as a criminal lawyer, but he'll never be rich… and he can never manage to rise into the world of corporate law, unless someone has an "in" for him. And no one has an "in".


     Until Mundin is introduced to Donald Lavin and his sister Norma, who just happen to be the children of Dr. Lavin, the inventor of the "GML Home", a super-advanced, easily-manufactured, affordable house which is the ultimate in luxury. But the GML company was taken over by a Mr. Moffat, who turned the perfect home into a perk offered by companies to their workers… and thus unattainable by anyone not working for a giant multinational. GML is one of the largest companies in the world… and one of the most ruthless.


     But the nearly broke and homeless Lavins own twenty-five percent of GML… if they can only reach it. But Don's been kidnapped and brainwashed to forget what he knows about where it is and how to get it, and if they do manage to find out… the almost omniscient and seemingly untouchable firm of Green, Charlesworth will have them, and anyone with them, put out of the way.


     And so begins a quixotic mission – one down-on-his-luck lawyer, a pair of orphans with a secret, and a few other quirky allies ranging from an out-of-work designer of gladiatorial games to the pre-teen leader of a savage child gang, against the entire might of the corporate world. Along the way he'll have to brave the stock market which has become a pari-mutuel betting enterprise, enter a stockholder's meeting that's more dangerously exciting than most combats, risk himself in one of the gladiatorial "Field Days", and confront Green, Charlesworth themselves…  all for a showdown which involves trying to crash the entire stock market in one day.


     The world of Gladiator-At-Law presages many dystopian and cyberpunk tropes, with the omnipowerful corporations, brainwashing, death-sports with high-tech accoutrements, the corporate enclaves of peace and comfort surrounded by slums of run-down houses filled with such criminal activity that the most honest residents are simply the ones who won't do the vicious types of crime, and so on. It's also filled with parodies and references to its own era; with my current gaming experience, I see echoes of that world in the background of Fallout, especially in the advertisements for "Belle Reve" housing development, which over time becomes "Belly Rave", one of the most notorious slums.


     Gladiator-At-Law is both very much a product of its time – as I mention, one can see echoes of classic 1950s "memes" in many aspects of its world and writing – and one that is terribly apropos today. We haven't reached the point of bread-and-circuses gladiatorial games in which the common people can compete for money and fame… or death…, but I have to wonder sometimes if things like the so-called "reality shows" are merely the modern era equivalent, for those of us who simply don't quite have the energy to go down to the Colosseum and break out the old trident and net. Goldman-Sachs may not be actually run by centuries-old Struldbrugs, but they and their ilk do sometimes seem to echo Green, Charlesworth a little too well for my liking.


     No matter its relevance, though, the story remains strong and gripping, even if we may have to adjust our perceptions slightly for the changes in our own world to really grasp what we're seeing. Pohl and Kornbluth were an excellent writing team of the Golden Age, producing some of the best novels of their time, and in my view Gladiator-At-Law is one of their best works. If you have an interest in older science fiction, don't miss this one!





  1. I bookblogged it a few years ago, and like you, was struck by the extent to which it was both a reflection of its own era, and very relevant to today. I should really re-read it soon. Alas, it doesn’t seem to be available (legally) in ebook format, and I’m not taking my precious paperback on the bus, which is where I do most of my reading these days.

  2. Just a note. Before I read the blog entry and discovered we were talking about lawyers, I misread the title as Gladiator-in-law.

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