Friday, January 25, 2019

"Clash By Night" and Fury by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

Back in May of last year, in our nation's capital, I purchased the 1975 Magnum/Prestige paperback edition of Fury by beloved SF writing team and married couple Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore.  I decided to read it this recent weekend but a quick look at the indispensable isfdb indicated it was a sequel to the story "Clash By Night," so first I went to the indispensable internet archive to read that story in a scan of its first appearance in John Campbell's Jr.'s Astounding.
"The Keeps know nothing of the Free Companions.  They don't want to."
"Clash By Night" (1943)

"Clash By Night" is widely admired, appearing in lots of "Best of" collections and in anthologies of military SF, so as a fan of Kuttner and Moore and a guy who likes stories about war and violence as much as anybody, I was looking forward to it.

Our tale is set on Venus, some centuries after the planet was colonized by Earthmen whose descendants today live in undersea dome cities, the surface being covered in deathworld jungles where every plant and animal strives to destroy the human and all his works.  These cities, known as Keeps, do not get along, and hire mercenaries in their wars on each other.  The mercenaries, known as Free Companions, unlike the soft city dwellers, have skins burned black (like Leigh Brackett's Mercurian hero Eric John Stark) by the rays of the sun because of all the time they spend on the surface, manning their warships and their coastal fortresses.

The protagonist of "Clash By Night" is Captain Brian Scott of Doone's Free Companions, and in this story we follow his evolving relationships with two women (the girlfriend he is leaving and the new one he is leaving her for) and a newly enlisted soldier (the new gf's brother), as well as Scott's rivalry with a fellow officer who envies Scott's higher rank.  We also observe one of Doone's Free Companions' military campaigns, consisting of some diplomacy as Scott is charged by the Doone's c-in-c with hiring another free company on as subcontractors, and then a big air-sea battle.

It is immediately apparent, from an introduction penned by historians residing in the peaceful Venus of the far future who doubt the veracity of what follows, and from an epigraph from Kipling's "Tommy," why "Clash By Night" appeals to military SF people like David Drake--the story sympathizes with soldiers, and one of its main themes is the gulf between civilians and fighting men: the civilian can never understand what the soldier has gone through, and civilians too often fail to appreciate how much they rely on soldiers for the peace, prosperity, and comfort they enjoy and how the progress a society makes is only possible behind the protection of its defenders.  The story's first scene takes place during a carnival season, in a bar, where civilians are insulting the Free Companions and Scott narrowly prevents a brawl from erupting.

"Clash By Night" has much to recommend it beyond this somewhat tendentious theme (we've all heard the case that service people make our cushy lives possible and don't get enough respect, but we've all also heard the case that we spend way too much on defense and a big military establishment and the glorification of the military leads to conflict.)  Another major theme of the story is change: the sadness of change, obstacles to the changes you want to see and the inevitability of the changes you'd rather not see.  Before the big battle Scott decides that it will be his last, that he will retire from the mercenary biz after the campaign and settle down within a Keep with that new girlfriend--but will events force him to remain with the company?  Throughout the story Scott harps on the idea that the days of warring Keeps and mercenary companies will soon (in a few hundred years) end and their exploits will be forgotten.  Earth was destroyed in a nuclear war after Venus colonization began (each Keep has a huge globe depicting the Earth in a central public place as a reminder of the world of their ancestors) and the use of nuclear power is forbidden on Venus--renegades who develop or employ atomic weapons are subject to summary execution, but these renegades keep popping up regardless.   

"Clash By Night" is also a very good adventure story.  Kuttner and Moore's Venus is a great setting, full of danger and intrigue, and the action scenes--surviving a ship wreck, traversing a monster-haunted jungle, fighting in a naval battle--are all well done.  The human drama scenes--yearning for a better life, clashes of will and differences of opinion--are also good.  I really enjoyed this one. had stopped growing.  His destiny was no longer to be found in the Keeps.  The great civilization of Earth must not reach a dead end under the seas of this fertile planet.
Fury (1947)

Fury first appeared as a serial over three issues of Astounding and, a big hit, has been reprinted numerous times, including under a different title (Destination: Infinity) and in various languages.  My 1977 edition includes an introduction by C. L. Moore in which Moore talks about her writing partnership with Kuttner and tells us what she believes are the main themes of Kuttner's work and of her own.  (Former: "Authority is dangerous and I will never submit to it."  Latter: "The most treacherous thing in life is love."  These are good themes!)  Moore says she wrote an eighth or less of Fury, that she didn't really identify with the protagonist, and we will soon see why!

Moore's intro alone is worth the three bucks I paid for this book, and I recommend it to all those interested in Golden Age SF and the pulps.  Remember that Barry Malzberg, a man with a deep knowledge and commitment to SF, idolizes Kuttner and Moore.  (One of Malzberg's many pseudonyms, K. M. O'Donnell, is based on their initials and their pen name, Lawrence O'Donnell, the name under which these Keep stories originally appeared.) 

Fury takes place a few centuries after "Clash By Night."  Venus is united under a single government, so the wars between the Keeps are over and the Free Companies have been disbanded.  In this novel Kuttner and Moore expand on one of the themes of "Clash By Night" I didn't talk much about above, that Keep society is decadent and many citizens are self-described hedonists who do no work and spend their time using drugs and sitting in virtual reality machines and that kind of thing.  K & M also add a new wrinkle to Keep society: a sizable minority of Keep inhabitants are mutants who are tall and thin and have life spans of up to seven or even ten centuries; the child of two mutant parents inherits this same longevity mutation.  Because of their ability to amass greater experience and wisdom than the physically shorter and shorter-lived majority, in the more or less democratic society of the Keeps these "Immortals" have become a sort of ruling class.

The protagonist of the novel is Sam Reed, born Sam Harker.  The Harkers are a family of Immortals, in fact the leading family on Venus, so Sam has a long life ahead of him, but he does not know it!  You see, Sam's father was one of those decadent hedonists and also mentally ill, and behaves irrationally: Sam's mother died giving birth to Sam, so his vengeful father had his infant body distorted (by a drug addict endocrinologist willing to do anything for money for her next hit) to appear like that of a mortal and cuts all ties to the kid, giving him up to adoption by a mortal family.

Little Sam, who has the brain of one of the superior mutants but the body and social standing of a normy, feels bored with ordinary life and acts out, running away from home as a child, trying various jobs, and quickly becoming a misanthropic and anti-social criminal--a thief, a conman and a murderer.

In his early forties, Sam gets mixed up in the politics of the Immortals who run the Keeps by manipulating the technically independent legislatures.  The Immortal intellectuals can see that the human race is in terminal decline because it is losing all its get-up-and-go, the result of life being too easy.  The solution to this problem is for the Keeps to take up the challenge of colonizing the radically inhospitable surface of Venus, those hellish jungles full of colossal monsters and venomous plants.  A minority faction led by Robin Hale, the last surviving Free Companion, wants to start the colonization effort at once.  The vast majority of Immortals think Hale is jumping the gun, that humanity isn't ready to wholeheartedly engage in the colonization effort and that Hale will fail and this will terminally demoralize the human race, putting the last nail in humanity's coffin, so to speak.  So, this majority faction, led by the Harkers, hires Sam to assassinate Hale, but Sam instead decides to become Hale's right hand man in the colonization effort!

Sam spends a couple of months as Hale's PR man, manipulating the media and the masses to win their support for the colonization plan (which is repeatedly likened to the Crusades--Fury was written before college professors had convinced everybody that the Crusaders were the bad guys.)  But then one of Sam's women, secretly in the employ of the Harkers, betrays Sam, drugging him!  When Sam wakes up, forty years have passed!  Seeing that four decades have wrought no substantial changes to his physique, Sam finally realizes he is an Immortal in a body that only looks like that of a mundane!

Via various complicated crimes and acts of espionage, Sam gets some money together, hooks up with Hale again, and gets the stalled colonization effort back on track.  The climax of this part of the book sees Sam carve out a modus vivendi with the majority faction of Immortals by trouncing the patriarch of the Harker clan in a televised political debate through the liberal use of lies, skulduggery and acts of terrorism!

The bravest, toughest and smartest men in the Keeps volunteer for service on the surface, where they expand the colony inch by inch in the face of the resistance of the ravenous pulsating jungle.  Over the course of five hard years of labor and fighting, these volunteers grow into a new breed of man, a breed like the pioneers and adventurers of Old Earth--they are disciplined and independent, courageous and industrious, and they have contempt for the softies back in the Keeps who live off the work of others and let the Immortals do their thinking for them.  Also after five years, they come to realize that Sam's promises of the glorious treasures awaiting them on the surface were a load of crap, and they launch a mutiny!  The hi-tech war that erupts forces the limp and decadent populations of the Keeps to flee their easy lives and move to the nightmare surface--but to what extent is this war real and to what extent is it just another scam from Sam the sham, manipulator of the Venus man?

The last few pages of the book show us what happens twenty years after the migration from the Keeps to the surface: the human race has been saved from irreversible decline by Sam's ruthlessness and duplicity, but Sam has outlived his usefulness and he is brought down by the machinations of the Immortals.  The human race was in such trouble that it needed a merciless brute like Sam to get itself out of its rut, but once that problem is solved, Sam--a selfish jerk with no conscience and overweening ambition--is himself a society-threatening problem, and so he is neutralized.  Kuttner compares Sam to Moses, who led his people to the promised land but could not live there himself, while I was reminded of the character of Pirrie in Death of Grass (AKA No Blade of Grass) by John Christopher and of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, who, in One Lonely Night, begins to think of himself as the sort of evil man whom society needs to defend itself from still more evil men.

The captive Sam is informed that he is in fact a member of the Harker family against whom he has struggled, and what happened to him during those 40 years of slumber.  Then he is put to sleep again--he will probably live for another 900 or 1000 years, and is told that if the human race again needs him, he will be awakened.  (This reminded me of King Arthur.)  This opens up the possibility of a sequel, but I don't believe Kuttner and Moore ever did write a third Keeps story.

Fury is a good novel full of drama and SF ideas.  Parts of it read like scenes from organized crime fiction, with heists and intrigues in which Sam plays members of the powerful Harker family against each other, taking advantage of love triangles and drug addictions (people in this novel use lots of weird drugs derived from Venusian flora and fauna.)  Like the protagonist of a hard-boiled mystery, Sam has to deal with lots of criminal scumbags, whom he manages to outwit, and plenty of femmes fatale, to whom he falls victim.  The novel includes lots of SF gadgets and gimmicks, like those weird drugs and various cool monsters and weapons, and also addresses SF ideas like "how would knowing you are going to live 700 or 1000 years change your psychology" and "how would knowing you are going to live 70 or 100 years but some other guy is going to live ten times as long affect your psychology?"  There are discussions of cultural change and cultural conservatism, and on whether or not you can usefully predict the future (there is a character who can more or less predict the future but can't tell people his predictions because doing so will render them inaccurate, I guess a riff on Cassandra, Hari Seldon and the observer effect/Heisenberg uncertainty principle.)

Prominent in the novel is the anti-Utopian theme we have seen numerous times in fiction discussed at this blog, the assertion that man needs challenge to thrive, that the easy life of living off hand outs and passing the time with drugs and immersive entertainment is not the good life--the good life is overcoming obstacles and building stuff.  Another main theme of Fury we see all the time in classic SF is the idea that the common people need to be manipulated by the cognitive elite for their own good--Kuttner and Moore essentially endorse the rule of the Immortals.

The novel's style is good, vivid but economical--there isn't any fat or filler, and things move along at a good pace.  The authors assume you are literate, or encourage you to be so, filling the book with quotes from and references to the Bible, Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, A. E. Housman, Dickens, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, etc.

The Keeps stories represent another big success for those stalwarts of Golden Age SF, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore.  Recommended. 


  1. I just read THE GREAT SF STORIES #5 (1943) edited by Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg. They included FIVE stories by Kuttner and Moore, from good to excellent. This writing team dominated 1943 with great stories!

    1. I've read three of those five stories, "Proud Robot," "Clash By Night" and "Mimsy Were the Borogroves," but have yet to read two of them. Seeing as you, Greenberg and Asimov endorse them, maybe I'll check them out soon.