Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"The Time Trap" and "The Lifestone" by Henry Kuttner

This week I read two more selections from Haffner Press's Thunder in the Void, a 2011 collection of Henry Kuttner stories.  

"The Time Trap" (1938)

One of the (many) shortcomings of this blog is that I louse up whether a work gets quote marks or italics.  Is it The Time Trap or "The Time Trap?"  At over 100 pages, is this a novel (novella?  novellete?) or a short story?  Since it was a portion of a magazine in 1938 and of a hardcover collection in 2011, I'm sticking with quotes.

"The Time Trap" first appeared in Marvel Science Stories, and in the 1970s Brian Aldiss included it in his anthology Evil Earths, which has had some pretty memorable covers. (I'd like to read Aldiss's intro to the"The Time Trap.")  Mike Resnick also included it in his collection Girls for the Slime God.
  
Kent Mason is an adventurous archaeologist, searching the Arabian desert for the ancient city of Al Bekr.  When he finds it, lightning activates a time machine among the ruins and he is transported four thousand years into the past, to the time when the ruins were a bustling city.  Al Bekr turns out to be a sort of Grand Central Station of time travel, where Mason meets a bunch of sinister freakazoids, among them the sexy priestess of Selene and mistress of intelligent leopards, Nirvor, and Greddar Klon, the evil genius who builds time machines and robots and currently rules Al Bekr with an iron fist.

Look, it's Nirvor and Greddar Klon!
Like "Avengers of Space," which we looked at in our last Henry Kuttner-oriented blog post, "Time Trap" includes a high proportion of prurient scenes.  In the first 10 pages, Mason, fleeing from robots, sneaks into Nirvor's room, and watches her preform a nude ceremony, invoking aid from her goddess, Selene.  Nirvor, we learn, is from the 22nd century, and, like Mason, accidentally activated the time machine and ended up in ancient times. Nirvor is astoundingly gorgeous, and she is very lonely, and tries to seduce Mason. But Mason can see the evil in her eyes, and a real man is not only good at attracting women, he's also good at resisting them! Rebuffed, Nirvor orders her two leopards, genetically engineered to be highly intelligent, to kill Mason!

After Mason escapes becoming cat food he meets Greddar Klon.  Klon is from a time thousands of years later than Mason and Nirvor's time periods, when people were good looking.  Klon is from the time period just after everybody got hit with the ugly stick; he is short, squat, with a huge bald head that holds a huge evil brain.  He has thick legs to hold up that massive skull, but skinny rubbery arms.  Klon rides around in a car that looks like a cup, and has his robots do all the physical labor.  He doesn't even torture people himself!  It was Klon who invented the time machine which is accidentally transporting people all over the calendar; in fact, he didn't intend to travel to Al Bekr in 2000 BC, either.

Alasha is the one sleeping in the floating prison;
she isn't being tortured here, but her turn will come!
Klon's Time Machine 1.0 was the kind that doesn't come with you (he was trying to travel to the future on his first trip, but somehow put 'er in reverse!) so he's been stuck in Al Bekr for a while.  He has taken time off from building his robots and Time Machine 2.0 to make himself dictator of Al Bekr.  In the first 20 pages of the book we see how he keeps the population under his thumb.  Klon calls an assembly of all the town's residents, and has his robots publicly torture a naked girl to death. (This scene is immortalized on the cover of Marvel Science Stories.)

When he took over, Klon imprisoned the legitimate ruler of Al Bekr, Alasha, an "elfin" beauty.  Mason rescues her, but then Nirvor catches Mason and the queen in a pit, where a centaur (stitched together Dr. Frankenstein-style by Klon) tries to rape Alasha.  Mason kills the centaur, and Kuttner tells us how the blood of the monster covers Alasha's pale naked body!

Klon finishes his second time machine and disappears into the future with Nirvor.  The bulk of the 105 page novel follows Mason, Alasha, and some other characters as they pursue Klon through time.  Klon plans to go to different periods of time, stock up on weapons, and then make himself the dictator of the Earth of 1929, and Mason and friends hope to stop him.

Lookin' good, Mother Earth!
Like "Avengers of Space," "Time Trap" is episodic; the characters move from locale to locale, fighting the creatures they encounter at each locale, getting captured, escaping, and witnessing women being tortured or killed.  (One woman is eaten by a plesiosaur!)  Some of the situations they find themselves in and creatures they meet are great (I love the image of a desolate far future Earth, the moon so close that it takes up a third of sky and causes tsunami-like tides) so I found the story entertaining and am willing to recommend it.  I was even taken by surprise at the end by one character's betrayal and by the revelation that Nirvor was not born human, but is a leopard turned human by Klon; those two leopards I thought her pets are her sisters!

I think "Time Trap" is probably better than "Avengers of Space," to which I have been comparing it.  The characters are more interesting, their motivations are more compelling.  Nirvor, for example, is a leopard elevated to the status of a human, but is frustrated in her dreams of having her humanity validated by receiving the love of a "real" human.  However, I want to note that Thunder in the Void is ostensibly a collection of space operas, and "Time Trap" is not really a space opera.  There are robots and ray guns, it is true, but the characters never leave the Earth!

"The Lifestone" (1940)

This one appeared in the February issue of Astonishing Stories, under the pen name Paul Edmonds.  Seventy years passed before "The Lifestone" was reprinted in Thunder in the Void.  All you cheapos out there can read the original issue of Astonishing at retrojunkie.com's magazine page.

A thousand years in the future mankind has colonized the solar system and humans live side by side with various alien natives.  The natives of Mars are one such race.  In the days of the Neanderthals the Martians had an advanced culture, but currently they live as desert nomads.  The Martians worship an ancient stone, the Lifestone, which humans are forbidden to see, much less handle.  When human Felix Lang steals the Lifestone and sneaks it onto the merchant spaceship Starbird, the nomads go berserk and threaten to kill all the humans on the planet!

The 27 page story begins on the Starbird.  Captain Griffin has figured out Lang is the thief, and holds him at needle gun point.  Then a meteor wrecks the Starbird, and Griffin and Lang end up together in a lifeboat.  They are rescued by a ship owned by two natives of the Moon, but these guys are crooks and steal the Lifestone for themselves.  

"The Lifestone" includes some racial essentialism you might not see in a story written today:
Griffin was sure now that Lang had some of the conscienceless Callistan stock in him--the cold-blooded, passionless exactitude of that race, and probably some candid, naive Venusian blood as well.
Moon people, we learn, are addicted to gambling, and, instead of splitting the profits from holding the Lifestone for ransom, the Selenites gamble to determine which of them should take custody of the stone and monopolize the profits.  What to gamble on?  How about a fight to the death between Lang and Griffin in the jungles of Titan?

Can Griffin survive Titan, outwit the Selenites, and get the Lifestone back to Mars before the human residents of Mars are massacred?

This is a fun story; in particular, Kuttner shows a lot of creativity in the bizarre creatures with which he populates the jungle on Titan.  

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The violence against women in "The Time Trap" may offend some, and I wouldn't expect members of the Callistan Anti-Defamation League or the Interplanetary Society for the Improvement of Venusians to appreciate "Lifestone," but I enjoyed these fast paced adventure stories, full of strange creatures and striking settings.  So far, Thunder in the Void is a winner.

2 comments:

  1. I believe Time Trap is a novella and the quotes around the title are correct. I did a little counting when I read it a few months ago... :-)

    Time Trap tallies:
    Female characters: 4
    Naked female characters: 4
    Naked female characters who make out with protag upon first sight: 3
    Naked female characters who preface make out session by saying some version of "I am young, I want to know love...": 2
    Naked female characters covered in blood: 3
    Occurrences of female characters forcibly stripped naked: Every act. I lost count. (Poor Alasa.)
    Occurrence of " breasts heaving tumultuously": 1
    Weapons described as looking suspiciously like my garage door opener: 1

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  2. You're right to be confused about 'lousing up' the italics vs. quotes, but in fact there is nothing to worry about. There are no clear guidelines. I've read that if a short work is published by itself, then it should be italics, and as part of a selection, in quotes. But as these days the publishing lines become more fuzzy, so too does the formatting dilemma. I used to put novels and novellas in italics, and anything shorter in quotes. But as the difference between novellas and novelettes is often not clear, I've taken to putting anything below novel in quotes. But I'm still left with: what's a novel? Should Leiber's change war book appear as The Big Time or "The Big Time"? And Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"?

    Go with what you feel and don't look back!

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