Monday, September 8, 2014

"See You Later," "Cold War," & "The Proud Robot": Best of Kuttner 1: Part 2

I'm rereading the British anthology of Henry Kuttner stories printed in 1965 entitled The Best of Kuttner 1In our first episode we had alien scolds, time travel, and an attack on advertising.  In this installment we look at stories which were meant to be amusing.  

isfdb image of 1970 edition
"See You Later" (1949)

This is a joke story about the Hogbens, immortal mutants from Atlantis living as hillbillies in 20th century America.  They can turn themselves invisible, move objects with telekinesis, predict the future, just about anything that comes to Kuttner's mind.  The story feels long, largely because it is written entirely in what is supposed to be a funny hillbilly dialect, reminiscent of Ernest T. Bass.  "Our Perfesser feller told us oncet the baby emitted a subsonic.  Imagine!"  There are five Hogben stories, two of which appear in The Best of Kuttner 1.  The Hogben stories have prominent fans, like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, and in 2013 a hardcover collection of the stories was published.

The plot of "See You Later" is absurd.  A mean hillbilly, Yancey, has a grudge against the world.  The Hogbens suddenly owe him a favor because they accidentally killed his eight sons with their powers.  Yancey convinces the Hogbens to build a machine that will duplicate him, and teleport one duplicate next to every single human being on Earth.  These duplicates will endure for five seconds, and enabling Yancey to strike every person in the world with a wrench simultaneously and achieve vengeance on all of mankind.

In order to prevent this atrocity without breaking their word to Yancey, one of the Hogbens tests the duplicator/teleporter before Yancey uses it.  He appears before every person in the world, provides each with a defensive weapon, and inspires each to strike Yancey first.  Instead of assaulting every person in the world, Yancey finds that he has been clobbered by every person in the world.

Some people will find this extravagant and ridiculous flight of fancy appealing; I thought it a waste of my time.  

"Cold War" (1949)

This is the other Hogben story in The Best of Kuttner 1.  The isfdb gives C. L. Moore primary author credit, with Kuttner listed as the second author.  (The isfdb entry for "See You Later" has Kuttner first and Moore second.)

Like "See You Later," "Cold War" is a convoluted and farcical story in which a cruel hillbilly tries to use the miraculous powers of the Hogbens for malicious purposes, but is outwitted by the Hogbens and receives his comeuppance.

Lily Lou Mutz was so ugly that when people saw her they were inspired to throw stones at her.  Taking pity on her, one of the Hogbens used his mental powers to alter Lily Lou's genes and provide her a mental power, the ability to make people ill.  Lily Lou used this power only for self defense.  A man as ugly as she was, Ed Pugh (whom we are told looks like a gorilla), married Lily Lou, and when they had a child the baby boy inherited Lily Lou's power to afflict people with everything from a headache to the bubonic plague.

Our story takes place some years after Lily Lou's death.  Ed Pugh is proving himself a total jackass, using his son's power to abuse the community.  (For example, giving everyone a headache so they will buy Pugh's snake oil headache cure.)  Pugh threatens to make one of the Hogbens sick, so that the authorities will take the afflicted Hogben to the hospital.  Any medical examination will reveal that the Hogbens are not ordinary humans, and so Pugh has the Hogbens over a barrel, and demands that they do something that will "make sure the Pugh line will never die out." (The Pugh son is so ugly it is impossible that he will ever attract a woman, and Ed Pugh dreams of his descendents one day conquering the world with their power to inflict diseases on people.)

Grandpa Hogben, oldest and wisest of the Hogbens, has the Pughs get into the Hogbens' time machine (made out of an old sled and pieces of wire) and transports them back to caveman times.  In a way I did not understand, apparently due to "heterochromatinic activity," the Pugh line shrinks as it evolves, eventually evolving into the common cold virus.

I'm not into these "whimsical" kind of stories; to me this seems like total nonsense.

"The Proud Robot" (1943)

A recent edition of the complete Gallagher stories
This is one of the Gallagher stories.  Gallagher is a genius inventor and a drunk living in Manhattan a few centuries in the future.  The gag of the these stories is that Gallagher invents things while he is inebriated, falls asleep, and when he wakes up he has forgotten all about his invention, and then has to figure out how it works.  (This is a sort of Jekyll and Hyde scenario, but instead of being a terrible creep, the Jekyll facet of Gallagher, representing his subconscious mind, is a man of abilities superior to the sober, conscious, Gallagher.)

The isfdb credits the Gallagher stories to Kuttner and Moore, but also reminds us that in print Moore has claimed she did not contribute anything to the Gallagher stories.  (The matter of who deserves credit for what in the Kuttner/Moore body of work is a little confusing, and I am too lazy to do a lot of research figuring it all out.)  

In "The Proud Robot," Gallagher comes to his senses to find he has built a robot, and that he was hired by the owner of the Vox View TV network.  The robot is arrogant and self-important, endlessly bragging about its beauty and its singing voice.  It has sensitive detectors and sensors, the ability to hypnotize people, and even considerable precognitive powers, based on its ability to employ exacting logic.

The Vox View network is losing business because a rival network is pirating its content, and has bribed the courts so that Vox View can't sue the pirates.  Gallagher has been hired to devise some technical means of saving Vox View.  In his efforts to figure out how to solve the TV network's problem, and remember why he built the narcissistic robot, Gallegher travels around New York City and Long Island, meeting TV executives and a famous actress as well as landing in court.  Finally he realizes the singing robot can emit a subsonic tone which can be used to render the pirated content unwatchable.

The most interesting thing about this story is Kuttner's 1943 depictions of what TV will be like.  The TV networks lease television sets for a nominal fee, and people who rent TVs from a network can only use the set to watch the shows transmitted by that network.  The networks make their money by charging you for how many minutes the TV set is on; a reader visits your home every month to check the meter. 

Also interesting is Kuttner's depiction of the police and the courts as absolutely corrupt.  Perhaps also noteworthy is evidence of Kuttner's interest in "subsonics," which also came up in "See You Later," and his idea that ordinary people easily fall victim to conditioning by the media and advertising.

"The Proud Robot" is a far better story than either of the Hogben tales.  The plot is kind of lame, mostly serving as a structure upon which Kuttner can hang his speculations and his jokes.  I like that the story is set in the future, that Kuttner speculates about life in the New York of the future; there are air cars, men shave by spreading a depilatory goop on their faces, and there is the whole thing about TV.  I didn't laugh out loud at the jokes, but they are better than the jokes in the Hogben stories---the narcissistic robot's condescending dialogue is kind of funny ("You may treasure the sound and sight of me till your dying day.")

"The Proud Robot" deserves a mild recommendation.


I don't get the Hogben stories, but many critics and readers seem to love them, and they have been published again and again.  "The Proud Robot" is alright, largely because, as he did in "Year Day," Kuttner makes interesting extrapolations about what the mass media will be like in the future. 

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