Monday, May 4, 2015

Four stories by Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore

As I crisscross America's Middle West, I scour the shelves of used book stores, thrift shops, and library sales, in search of classic SF bargains.  Recent purchases of anthologies brought the number of as-yet-unread Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore stories in my possession to a critical mass, and this weekend I read four Kuttner and Moore stories, first published in the 1940s and '50s, that draw heavily on psychological theories, classical mythology, and Lewis Carroll.

"Piggy Bank" (1942)

"Piggy Bank" first appeared in the same issue of Astounding as A. E. Van Vogt's famous "The Weapon Shop," under the Lewis Padgett pseudonym.  I read it in Volume 2 of Anthony Boucher's 1959 A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, where it is credited to Henry Kuttner.  The isfdb has Moore as a second author.

Fellow SF fan R. R. Nurmi,
we salute you!
My copy of the two-volume A Treasury of Great Science Fiction was once owned by an R. R. Nurmi of Des Moines, Iowa. Mr. or Ms. Nurmi had a cool ink stamp with which to mark his or her books; it depicts a chess piece (a knight) in the center of a spider's web.  Pretty neat!

"Piggy Bank" takes us to New York City at the turn of the 21st century, when corrupt and ruthless robber barons and organized crime dominate society, the perpetual struggles between rival conglomerates throwing the world into economic chaos.  "Science and government were handicapped by the Powers," Kuttner tells us, "which were really industrial empires, completely self-contained if not self-supporting units.  Their semanticists and propagandists worked on the people, ladling out soothing sirup."  We've seen Kuttner's hostility to private enterprise and advertising before, in the 1953 story "Year Day."

Our main characters in this proto-cyberpunk drama include robber baron Ballard and scientist Gunther.  Gunther has figured out a way to manufacture diamonds that are indistinguishable from natural stones, and Ballard sells them.  Or he would sell them, if they didn't always get stolen.  Ballard gets Gunther to build him an invulnerable robot; with its super senses and super speed it can detect and avoid any trap, any attack.  Ballard has the robot ostentatiously plated in gold and studded with all his diamonds.  Ballard, doing a neat bit of self-analysis, admits that he has designed the robot to show off his wealth in order to compensate for a childhood inferiority complex.  (Kuttner aspired to be a clinical psychologist, and both he and his wife had undergraduate degrees in psychology.)

In a sequence like one in a detective thriller, Ballard's thugs pursue and murder Gunther.  Gunther was on Ballard's hit list because the scientist was the only other guy who knew the diamonds were fake, and how to deactivate the robot.  But when Ballard has money troubles and needs some of those diamonds he realizes he made a boo boo in liquidating Gunther--Gunther changed the robot's password.  There follows a long sequence in which Ballard and his boffins try to figure out a way to catch the robot.  In the end, the only way to stop the robot also renders the diamonds worthless by revealing to the world the formula for how they were created; Ballard's business empire collapses and Ballard goes insane.

This story is OK; I liked how Gunther set things up so if he died Ballard would be financially ruined, but nothing in the story engaged me emotionally or intellectually--I didn't care how or if Ballard caught the robot or salvaged his finances.


"The Children's Hour" (1944)

This story also appears in A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, in Volume 1. Originally it was published in Astounding, under the Lawrence O'Donnell pseudonym.  A Treasury of Great Science Fiction credits Moore as second author, but elsewhere Kuttner has received sole credit.

It is World War Two, and Sergeant Lessing is part of an experimental U. S. Army hypnosis program; the brass want to be able to hypnotize the dogfaces so they will be impervious to any hunger or pain they may experience while they are liberating Europe and Asia from the fascists (or preserving markets for American industry, as your college professor may have put it.)  While he is trying to turn Lessing into the latest Captain America, psychiatrist Lieutenant Dyke discovers that many of Lessing's memories of a three month period two years ago have been suppressed.  Dykes and Lessing struggle to uncover these memories, and a story comes to light that could shatter our view of life and the universe!

Back before he started his military service, in beautiful New York City, Lessing met and fell in love with a beautiful black-eyed girl, Clarissa.  Clarissa is a special woman; whenever Lessing is with her, the world seems brighter, clearer, more beautiful. Bizarre events (e.g., it rains, and as Lessing and Clarissa are running for shelter the shelter suddenly vanishes) lead Lessing to believe that Clarissa is being guided (or manipulated) through life by a superior being of infinite power.  Lessing, jealous, conceives of Clarissa being like Danae of the brazen tower, the love interest of a divinity.  (Kuttner and/or Moore must have really been into classical mythology; Danae also got a mention in "Piggy Bank.")  Lessing tries to get Clarissa away from New York and out of this mysterious being's influence, but to no avail--the being can twist reality to make sure that Clarissa is right where it wants her!

Dyke, thinking of the example of his own high I.Q. child, debunks the Danae theory and figures out what is really going on.  Like some other Kuttner and Moore stories ("Absalom" springs immediately to mind), "The Children's Hour" is about child psychology.  Clarissa is an infant member of our successor species, homo superior, and to this race of supermen, who live on alien planets in a universe where "a cube may have many more than six sides," our little old Earth is like a playground or boarding school.  Dyke has a whole speech about how kids can't quite understand adults, and need to spend time with other kids in order to mature in a healthy way, and tells Lessing he had to make his own genius son go out and play with the normal kids so he would be socialized.  The superhumans sent Clarissa to our Earth, with its meagre number of dimensions, to play with us dummies for a while before taking up the mantle of adulthood.

(It is actually more complicated than that, with dozens of Clarissas, each a single facet of the super-Clarissa that will be formed when they have all matured and will be combined.)

"The Children's Hour" is full of connections to other SF literature.  Charles Fort and James Branch Cabell are mentioned, and a scene in Alice in Wonderland  is referred to (Kuttner and Moore's most famous story, "Mimsy were the Borogoves," prominently features Lewis Carroll).  I wondered if the talk of cubes and tesseracts in "The Children's Hour" was influenced by Heinlein's "--And He Built a Crooked House--," which had appeared in Astounding three years earlier, or if Heinlein and Kuttner and Moore were just drawing on the same source material.

Looking back on the story it is easy to like it, but while I was reading it it felt long (it's like 33 pages) and kind of confusing.  There are some scenes in which Lessing is transported to some of the other planets which are hosting facets of Clarissa that I think are not very interesting and could have been left out.  The fact that the protagonists aren't doing very much, but instead are victims of manipulation instead of agents who drive the plot, and that there is no real villain, also makes the story seem long.        

"The Cure" (1946)  

Another Lewis Padgett story from Astounding.  This one I read in my copy of A Science Fiction Argosy, edited by Damon Knight in 1972, where it is credited to Kuttner and Moore.  Like my volumes of A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, it was originally owned by R. R. Nurmi.

A middle-aged lawyer whose office is in a New York skyscraper is suffering brief, repetitive hallucinations.  A few visits to a psychiatrist help the lawyer realize the meaning of the vivid, specific hallucinations: he is from the far future, when humans have evolved into a vastly superior race, one with ESP and eight fingers on a hand!

But this sixteen-fingered future is no utopia!  In fact, the human race is going extinct due to a plague of insanity, the result of "the herd instinct" apparently resulting from an over reliance on machines.  Only four thousand people remain sane, but they have hit upon a method of therapy to keep themselves from going bonkers: time travel! They send your psyche back to a body in the rough and tumble individualistic 19th or 20th centuries for a few decades--only six months pass for your "real" future body, and when you return to it you are rejuvenated.

(Thomas Disch had a kind of time-travel-as-therapy thing going in "Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire," didn't he?)

The lawyer's hallucinations are, in fact, clues about how to get back to the future.  But when he goes back he finds that society has collapsed, his 3999 colleagues have all succumbed to the disease, and are scampering around like monkeys.  All he can do is live out a five-fingered existence in the primitive, but relatively sane, 20th century.

There are obvious similarities to "The Children's Hour," though the optimistic sense-of-wonder ending of that story is replaced by a pessimistic conclusion in "The Cure." While there is no Greek mythology this time, "The Cure" does refer to Tweedledum and the Red King from Through the Looking Glass.

I liked "The Cure" quite a bit; it has the virtue of packing as much punch as "The Children's Hour" into a package a quarter the size, and includes several striking, memorable images.      

"Two-Handed Engine" (1955)

This novelette has been widely anthologized, and is actually the title story of a 2005 collection of Kuttner and Moore tales published by Centipede Press.  In some places, like where I read it, a 1976 anthology edited by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison called Decade: The 1950s, Kuttner receives full credit for the story.  But in some places Moore is listed as a second author, and in still others Moore is listed as the primary author with Kuttner as second author.

In the future, computers and robots will become so powerful and efficient that human beings need do no work, and all people have equal access to sumptuous luxuries.  Everybody spends his or her time playing what we would call virtual reality video games (Kuttner and Moore call them "Escape Machines that fed them joyous, impossible adventure and made the waking world seem too dull to bother with.")  People stop talking to each other, stop living as families and even stop having sex, leading to a collapse of all social institutions and a precipitous population decline.

Before mankind goes extinct some far-sighted individual reprograms the computers that are running the world.  The Escape Machines are shut down and all those free handouts come to an end, forcing people to work again.  The period of anarchic individualism, however, has left humanity with no sense of morality, no conscience,  To enforce the law against murder and spur a regrowth of the human sense of guilt and sin, the machines have their Furies (Orestes is mentioned in the first line of the story.)  The Furies, invincible robots, follow murderers around for days or months, haunting them until finally, unexpectedly, they execute the malefactor.

The plot of the story follows some murderers who thought they had figured out a way to escape the Furies.  Kuttner and Moore do a great job of "getting into the murderers' heads;" there are lots of tense psychological scenes that build character and drama--I prefer this kind of psychology in my stories to scenes in which a character throws around words from a college textbook or expatiates on child-rearing theories.  Of the four stories discussed in this blog post, "Two-Handed Engine" is my favorite.  

Aldiss and Harrison tell us in an introduction that their Decades series reprints the most entertaining and most important SF stories, and I think "Two-Handed Engine" fits the bill.

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All four of these stories are worth reading, but "The Cure" and "Two-Handed Engine" in particular have the kind of economy, emotional impact, and powerful images that I hope to find in a story.

So far all these anthologies I have been buying have proven to be a good investment. I think next I'll sample some stories by writers with whom I am unfamiliar.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. I am on a similar quest and just read Piggy Bank and the Children's hour. The connections to my favored Zelazny, who was said to be heavily influenced by Kuttner, clearly shine through. Now I have to read Cabell again.

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