Thursday, September 4, 2014

Three stories from Best of Kuttner 1: "Or Else," "Year Day," and "Shock"

Don't let the sticker fool you;
I paid 48 cents for this one
The advertisement I read yesterday in the back of The Green Odyssey brought Henry Kuttner to mind. (See--advertising works!) My most faithful readers will recall that I really enjoyed Kuttner's "The Graveyard Rats" and Kuttner and Moore's "Home is the Hunter" and Vintage Season.  Also, that I didn't care for Kuttner's The Dark World, The Well of the Worlds, or Kuttner and Moore's Earth's Last Citadel.  For me, Kuttner and Moore are all over the place.

Today I dug out my copy of the UK collection, The Best of Kuttner 1, printed by Mayflower in 1965. Flipping through the book I realized I had read all the stories a few years ago, but had forgotten almost everything about them.  Curious, I started rereading them, today reading the first three in the volume.

"Or Else" (1953) 

According to isfdb, this is a collaboration with Kuttner's wife, C. L. Moore.  It appeared in Amazing Stories the same year it appeared in the collection Ahead of Time.  It has been widely anthologized; I guess people like it.

I don't like it.  Two comedy relief Mexicans are fighting over a watering hole in the middle of the parched desert, popping at each other across a valley with bolt action rifles.  A flying saucer lands, and a seven foot tall guy with blue feathers on his head emerges.  He claims to be a representative of an invincible space police force which has taken responsibility for this solar system.  If Miguel and Fernandez don't stop fighting he is authorized to destroy the Earth.  The Mexicans try to explain that they would be happy to live in peace, but in a world of limited resources they must fight or die; the watering hole does not yield enough water for both their families.  The alien ignores this altogether, flies away, and Miguel and Fernandez renew hostilities.

I guess people like this story because they think it is funny, and/or because of its ambiguous message about war.  The Mexicans, who think the alien is from the United States even though he uses telepathy, are obviously ignorant and stupid.  But the alien also seems foolish.  For one thing, he is talking to two impoverished Mexicans instead of Truman and Stalin and Mao (or maybe it is Ike and Khrushchev by the time this story was written.)  He also totally ignores the reason that Miguel and Fernandez are fighting.  The alien is also a hypocrite: he tells the Mexicans that force is evil, that it is wrong to solve problems via force, yet his solution to the problem of violence on Earth is to threaten to exterminate the human race.

I don't like joke stories that are not funny, and the message about the tragedy of life in a world of scarcity and the hypocrisy of those in power isn't interesting or profound enough to elevate the story, so thumbs down.

"Year Day" (1953) 

This one apparently first appeared in the collection Ahead of Time.

"Year Day" is a satire about advertising.  In the war torn and economically depressed future of the 1990s advertising is ubiquitous, to the point that people wear earplugs when they walk around and pay for devices to mute the ads that are beamed directly into their homes.  Kuttner promulgates the theory that advertising and the media condition us to be dissatisfied with our lives, because we'll never have as awesome a wedding or as sexy a spouse as do Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.  Our narrator is one of the few people sophisticated enough to resist this conditioning.  But he is still a victim of our advertising-corrupted society.  His ex-wife tricks him into thinking they are getting back together, steals all his money, and uses the money to rent an apartment where she can have sex with a hologram of the perfect man advertising has conditioned her and nearly all women to crave.

I don't buy into this alarmist view of advertising, and I don't think people are that easily conditioned, but "Year Day" is much better than "Or Else," being better written, containing some genuine human emotion, and actually succeeding in its aim where "Or Else" failed.  So I'd say it is on that borderline between acceptable and good.  People who think that fashion magazines and internet porn are ruining everybody's relationships will likely be thrilled by Kuttner's perspicacity. 

"Shock" (1943)

This story, a collaboration with C. L. Moore, appeared in Astounding under the Lewis Padgett byline.

"Shock" is a traditional sort of SF story with a twist ending.  One day Gregg is sitting around when suddenly a hole opens up in space and a strange man in a toga climbs through it into Gregg's  apartment.  In broken English, the man, who has an over-sized head, explains that he is from thousands of years in the future, and is in 1953 on an unspecified mission.  The portal through space and time will open at night and close during the day.  The future man borrows some 1953 clothes and then runs off, explaining that he will be back in a few days to make an appointment back in the future.

Gregg is an optimistic and ambitious type.  He figures that the future is a perfect world, and if he can get a hold of some future artifacts and/or information he can became a top rank scientist and help the world of the 20th century.  His more cautious friend warns him against it, but Gregg starts going through the hole every evening to investigate the future.

The hole leads into a small apartment full of odd devices and a one way window that looks out onto the future city with its towering skyscrapers and flying bikes. Frustratingly, Gregg can't find the door out of the future apartment.  This is not that mysterious, because it took him a long time to figure out how to open the cabinets, which are operated by practically invisible buttons.

When the future guy fails to show up for his appointment, Gregg goes through the portal.  He'll stay in the future world during the day and keep the appointment himself; he expects to meet another future person and learn how to leave the future apartment, thereby getting more info on the perfect future world.  The time space portal closes behind him, but what he does not realize is that the future man he met is insane, the future "apartment" is a cell in an asylum, and the appointment is not with a person, but with the machine that administers shock treatment!  Zing!

This is a good story, I like the tone, pacing, and the whole horror story/reckless-optimism-is-punished attitude of the thing.  (I also like that it doesn't feel like its trying to address some newspaper editorial topic like the Cold War or those "sinister hidden persuaders.")  Kuttner and Moore also do a good job describing what the future world looks like, including the odd devices in the cell which turn out to be just toys.  (Toys from the future also show up in Kuttner and Moore's famous "Mimsy were the Borogroves," published a month earlier in Astounding, also under the Lewis Padgett pseudonym.)


Two hits and one miss isn't a bad record.  In the future we'll see if Best of Kuttner 1 can maintain this respectable batting average.  

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