Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Well of the Worlds by Henry Kuttner

On Sunday I read two really good Henry Kuttner stories, which inspired me to do a little hunting for Kuttner things I had not read yet.  I was able to get an electronic version of the Prologue Books edition of Well of the Worlds through a university library with which I am associated.  The novel originally appeared in 1952 in Startling Stories; I can't find any info about the Prologue edition on their website, so I'll just have to trust that this is a good text.  There are several errors that I guess are scanning errors, like "black" for "back," "top" for "too," and quotation marks where they don't belong.

On the eighth level of a uranium mine in the northern wastes of Canada a passage to another world has opened, filling the mine with things the workers think are ghosts!  A beautiful girl from the other world, Klai, has come through the gateway, but she is afflicted with amnesia and remembers nothing about the other side.  A ruthless fat old man, Alper, has managed to contact an even more ruthless woman through the gate - this alien woman, Nethe, gives him energy which will prolong his life and health, but in return she wants him to murder Klai!  All these shenanigans have lowered uranium production, so the government sends manly man Sawyer to investigate. 

The plot is pretty convoluted.  Nethe is one of the aristocrats (the Isier) from the alien world, and Klai is one of the slaves (the Khom.)  The Isier are virtually indestructible because they can tap the energy from other dimensions, but Nethe has tampered with the Well through which they get such energy in an effort to overthrow the current monarch and take her place.  The Isier are now losing their invulnerability, so the Khom are going to try to rise up; at the same time an army of reptile people who live on neighboring flying islands are launching an invasion of the fortified city where the Isier and Khom live.  Sawyer and Alper, who hate each other and keep trying to outwit or kill each other, end up in the alien city in the middle of all these various conflicts, taking sides and trying to survive.  A lot of the story involves high tech devices which the characters steal from each other and use to dominate each other; we get page after page of "You'll never get the thing if you kill me!" and "Give me the thing or I'll kill you!" negotiations.  

It is noteworthy that Kuttner includes many references to "high" culture; Etruscan sculpture, "Laocoon," El Greco, a character from War and Peace.  Does this show that early 1950s SF fans were very literate, or that Kuttner hoped to inspire them to be so?  There's also lots of mumbo jumbo about atoms, electrons, isotopes, electricity, etc.  I guess a lot of pre-1960 SF fans were really into the nuts and bolts of science and engineering.  This novel gave me the opportunity to feel like a smarty pants ("Of course I am familiar with classical sculpture") and like an ignoramus ("A 'cathode' is a part of a TV, right?") 

In "Graveyard Rats" and "Home is the Hunter" the pace was quick, the writing economical, the images clear and vivid.  In Well of the Worlds everything seems to happen slowly, laboriously, and the images are vague and not very compelling.  The action scenes don't move, and the exotic images (of flying islands and travel between dimensions and the like) are hard to visualize.  There is also lots of dialogue, which drags things down.  The characters aren't very interesting, either; their motivations are thin, and there isn't much reason to care who succeeds or fails, lives or dies.  The obsessive status-seeker in "Home is the Hunter" and even the greedy and terrified caretaker in "Graveyard Rats" are more "real" psychologically than the characters in this story, which is like ten times as long.

I'm afraid I cannot recommend Well of the Worlds; the plot is average and the execution is poor.  It might, however, be a valuable read for those interested in attitudes about gender, class, and science and technology in 1950s SF, with its multitude of gadgets and science lectures, its female ruler battling a would-be female usurper, and its society of invincible aristocrats and throngs of slaves.       

No comments:

Post a Comment