Monday, September 29, 2014

"The Big Night" and "Don't Look Now": The Finale of Best of Kuttner Volume 1

It is time to finish off my bedraggled copy of The Best of Kuttner 1, published by Mayflower in Great Britain in 1965.  Perhaps appropriately, isfdb credits these last two stories solely to Henry Kuttner, unlike many of the tales in the book, which Kuttner wrote in collaboration with C. L. Moore.

"The Big Night" (1947)

This one appeared under the Hudson Hastings pseudonym in Thrilling Wonder Stories.  "The Big Night" is an entertaining space opera, complete with a risky mission in a decrepit space ship, alien civilizations, an unscrupulous space captain who exploits impressed crewmen and contemplates running drugs and participating in the slave trade, and a second in command who considers mutiny.

The "Big Night" of the title is a euphemism for interstellar space, but also for Fate or entropy, the fact that everything eventually decays and is forgotten. One of the alien characters is among the last of his race, a race which once ruled a hundred systems.  The aforementioned space captain is taking desperate measures because he is one of the last hyper ship captains and his rusty old ship, the unfortunately named La Cucaracha, is one of the last of the hyper ships--the new teleportation network has rendered interstellar space ships obsolete and it is almost impossible for him to find jobs carrying legal cargo.

The end of the story, while admitting that we and all our works will be forgotten, affirms the value of endeavor and of friendship.

A fun piece of work.

"Don't Look Now" (1948)

I wish "The Big Night" had been the last story in this book, because then I could have put it back on the shelf after hitting a high note.  "Don't Look Now," which was first published in Startling Stories, is one of those joke stories I find so dreadful.

Two men, one called Lyman and one who is not named but whom we learn works at a newspaper, are sitting in a bar.  Lyman, who seems like a drunk paranoid, explains to the journalist at great length that Martians have "owned the world" for centuries, that they walk among us in disguise, that they hate cats (cats ruled the world before them), that our lives are so difficult--plagued with wars, uncomfortable bathtubs and irritating radio shows--because this serves the Martians' inscrutable purposes.      

For a while the reporter resists, but eventually admits he has had his own suspicions about aliens, and shows Lyman two infra red photographs he has taken which hint at an alien presence.  Lyman takes one of the photos, and, after the journalist departs, comes the punchline twist--Lyman is an alien!

The jokes didn't make me laugh, and the twist made me groan.  Despite my reservations abut the story, "Don't Look Now" has been widely anthologized in books with titles like The 18 Greatest Science Fiction Stories and even My Best Science Fiction Story--Kuttner himself thought "Don't Look Now" was his best work!  I guess this makes me some kind of science fiction dissident!

Maybe people like this story because they see it as a satire of the kind of people who think that Jewish bankers (or The Bilderberg Group or The Trilateral Commission, though they were founded long after this story was published) are running the world, or of fears of communist infiltration.  But I think since, in the story, aliens really have infiltrated and really are manipulating humanity (and since Kuttner and Moore use a similar theme in "Juke-Box") it is either not meant that way, or is a weak example of such a satire.

Too bad to end the volume on a boring trifle like this.


To sum up. let's rank the fifteen stories in Best of Kuttner 1 from best to worst, and split them into three categories, good, passable, and a waste of time.

Piper's Son
Housing Problem
The Big Night

Year Day
Proud Robot
A Gnome There Was

Call Him Demon
Ego Machine
Don't Look Now
Or Else
Cold War
See You Later

Not a stellar collection, but a worthwhile one.


The last two pages of The Best of Kuttner 1 consist of advertising for other Mayflower titles.  It is an odd selection.  Only one of the eleven books is a science fiction book, Judith Merril's Best of Sci-Fi No. 2.  According to isfdb this is properly known as The Best of Sci-Fi—Two and is a British edition of the American title The 7th Annual of the Year's Best S-F.  It has a disturbing cover and includes several writers I've never heard of, and a few whom I don't think of as SF writers, like Lawrence Durrell, Muriel Spark, and John Dos Passos.  The cover is so riveting I would be sorely tempted to purchase it if I ran into it in a store, but a quick survey of Abebooks, Amazon and ebay suggests this book is not easily found here in the good ol' USA.

The rest of the list consists of two important books about the First World War, a book of literary short stories, and seven titles which, we are led to believe, will appeal to the prurient.  These include "the story of a man beyond innocence [and] of a woman aching for experience," one about "a reckless love affair between a beautiful worldly woman and a sixteen year old boy" that has been reprinted fourteen times, and a novel about young lovers that "may astound some readers."  I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that most of these books would seem astoundingly tame to us jaded 21st century readers. 


  1. I love the last part of this post: the scan of the ad page. There is such a cultural divide that is great food for thought.

    (In general, I must say I love the meta-commentary you give. The back cover blurbs, the notes from previous book owners, the physical condition of the book - these things can be interesting as well, and in the case of some books, perhaps more interesting than the actual story. ;)

  2. I love the meta-commentary as well -- a window into your engagement with these old paperbacks I so dearly love... Sometimes I wish I could send in the order slips in this day and age and snag myself some beautiful new copies of these old gems.

    1. Agreed, agreed! (And not to mention those bargain prices!!)