Rediscovering Henry Kuttner

January is Vintage Science Fiction Month, so I’m diving into the short stories of the prolific author Ray Bradbury dubbed “a neglected master.”

“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” was adapted into the 2007 film The Last Mimzy.

Henry Kuttner is, for me, one of those authors I saw frequently represented in anthologies of the golden age of science fiction, but whom I rarely had a strong picture of as an individual, someone with a singular set of preoccupations or stylistic tics. One story would be horror, the next social science fiction, and still another might be light fantasy. If Kuttner is today not a household name*, perhaps it is his ability to work in several different veins, and his ability to channel a variety of authorial voices, that keeps the man himself out of focus. (For this article, I read the 1975 collection The Best of Henry Kuttner, but several other stories I consulted were found in scattered multi-author anthologies.)

As an example, I first encountered Kuttner as a younger member of the Weird Tales circle embroidering on H. P. Lovecraft’s growing Cthulhu cycle. “The Salem Horror” (1937) was included in August Derleth’s seminal Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and Kuttner’s Weird Tales output also included pastiches of Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery stories.

As Kuttner discovered his own voice, a strain of light fantasy emerged, with concepts from folklore or mythology existing in the modern world, often using the incongruity as a source of gentle (or not-so gentle) comedy. In “Masquerade,” from 1942, a honeymooning couple stumbles on a family of degenerates (who may or may not be vampires) living in a former lunatic asylum, wryly commenting on how cliché it all is (“Look, if I started a story like this, any editor would shoot it back,” the narrating husband tells his wife.)

“Masquerade” was adapted in a 1961 episode of Thriller.

Some of these stories are reminiscent of his contemporaries Robert Bloch (with whom Kuttner sometimes collaborated) and L. Sprague de Camp, or even the earlier Thorne Smith (“The Misguided Halo” is one of these), and had a clear influence on the younger Ray Bradbury. Still other stories fit the description of science fiction as “the fiction of ideas,” with theories of social or technological development, and the question of man’s future, front and center, although the dialogue and characterization are often better than that description would suggest: if, like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Kuttner sometimes wrote stories whose sole purpose seems to be making use of a social theory or scientific factoid, Kuttner’s strength was to humanize that impulse, showing the effects of progress and change from an individual’s perspective. In that sense, there is a continuity between Kuttner’s stories and the early fiction of Philip K. Dick. If Kuttner had lived longer (he died in 1958 at the age of 43), it’s possible that he would have made the leap to the more introspective, experimental science fiction of the 1960s. Instead, he foreshadowed it.

When discussing themes in Kuttner’s work, one must also acknowledge the author’s long collaboration with wife and writing partner C. L. (Catherine) Moore, whom he married in 1940. I’m a big fan of Moore’s writing, especially her “Northwest Smith” and “Jirel of Joiry” series, both of which appeared in Weird Tales. Untangling who contributed what to stories published under Kuttner’s and Moore’s individual names can be tricky, and many of the stories now attributed to one or the other of them originally appeared under the joint pseudonym “Lewis Padgett” or numerous other pen names. The couple shared a single typewriter and bragged that either of them could pick up the thread of a story where the other had left off without a break. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction holds that all of the stories in The Best of Henry Kuttner were in fact collaborations, so perhaps it would be best to think of “Kuttner and Moore” as a team like “Lennon and McCartney,” with some projects being independent work but always in the context of the ongoing partnership.

Two themes emerge strongly in Kuttner’s mature stories: in one strand, the Lovecraftian concepts Kuttner cut his teeth on are adapted to notions of technological and social evolution. In stories like “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” and “The Twonky,” the intrusions from other worlds are not the work of sinister alien gods and their cults, but are carelessly scattered artifacts from civilizations at a different level of development, either a future state of evolution or from a parallel reality in which “normal” has a very different definition than ours. “Mimsy” centers on a box of unearthly educational toys that gradually condition their users to life in four or more dimensions; in “The Twonky,” a combination radio-phonograph turns out to be an artificial intelligence in disguise, an in-home butler, watchdog . . . and jailer.

In Arch Oboler’s 1953 adaptation of “The Twonky,” the story’s radio-phonograph was replaced by a television.

These unnerving (and prescient) stories broach the idea that futuristic technologies could rewire human brains, turning their users into geniuses, madmen, or passive slaves. As in “Call Him Demon” (one of Kuttner’s finest tales, a story of cosmic horror told through the lens of recollected childhood), it is only children, their minds not yet set into routine patterns, who can truly pick up on these messages from outside. To adults, the signs are either undetectable or incomprehensible. Ray Bradbury, noting the impact these stories had on himself and others, wrote “I very much doubt that ‘Zero Hour,’ or for that matter ‘The Veldt,’ would ever have leaped out of my typewriter if Kuttner’s imagination had not led the way.” (In retrospect, Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time builds on the foundation “Mimsy” established; I would also include C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag” as another tale indebted to Kuttner’s concepts, with that author’s own bitterly ironic twist, of course.)

The other prominent thread relates to mankind’s future evolution and the possibility of beneficial mutation. In the humorous Hogben stories, a family of backwoods mutants with incredible mental powers do their best to live beneath the notice of snooping big-city scientists and other busybodies. These are tall tales for the nuclear age, providing fantastical solutions to common problems, as when Junior Hogben jury-rigs a time machine to make cream sour faster in “Cold War.”

In other stories, the implications of human evolution are much darker, and the prospect of a struggle between homo sapiens and homo superior looms. Some of the new breed wish only to live in peace like the Hogbens, but others seek to dominate their merely human inferiors or bide their time until there are enough others like them, realizing that unmutated humans would hate and fear them if they knew that supermen lived among them. Combining nuclear anxiety, metaphors of societal prejudice, and drawing clear comparisons with early humans’ elimination of Neanderthal competition, these stories are instantly recognizable as an inspiration for Marvel Comics’ X-Men.

In stories like “Absalom,” there is a specifically Oedipal dimension to this struggle, and we’re back around full circle to the notion that children are essentially psychopathic, their minds still malleable, buffeted between conflicting influences. Parenting is tough enough, but in a family of telepaths, where does one draw the line? “The Piper’s Son” (part of the “Baldy” series expanded into the novel Mutant) sensitively asks that question, comparing the balance of power within a family to the uneasy search for a growing Baldy minority’s place in a rebuilding postwar society.

Beyond these major themes, there are plenty of surprises. Judging science fiction by the accuracy of its predictions is a rookie mistake, but in addition to Kuttner’s farsighted critiques of technology as an agent of conditioning, one finds, for example, the suggestion of a viral meme (in the form of a catchy song) used to disrupt an enemy’s organization in the wartime tale “Nothing But Gingerbread Left.” In “The Proud Robot,” one sees subscription-based television services more like Netflix than the radio-license model Kuttner seems to have had in mind. Of course, the predictions that ring true are more likely to jump out at the reader–I’m still waiting for the robotic judge, jury, and executioner described in “Two-Handed Engine,” and I’ll probably continue to wait–and whether a prediction comes true doesn’t say anything about the quality of that story. It’s a truism that every story is really about the time it was written, no matter what year it’s supposed to be set in. Don’t we read old science fiction in part for those glimpses of a world that could have turned out differently? In the case of Henry Kuttner, there is still entertainment–and thoughtful observation of humanity–to be had, if we but look.

* Don’t take my word for it: Robert M. Price wrote in his 1995 introduction to The Book of Iod, a collection of Kuttner’s youthful Lovecraft pastiches, “Henry Kuttner’s star shines neither so brightly nor so high up in the firmament as it once did. . . . Today it is sad but safe to say that just about all of Kuttner’s exceedingly clever fiction is the property of literary nostalgia-lovers and antiquarians.”

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Vintage Sci Fi Round up! | the Little Red Reviewer

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