The Best of Henry Kuttner
I know Henry Kuttner primarily from his Sword-and-Sorcery excursions: his Elak of Atlantis stories, The Mask of Circe, etc. And of course he was married to C.L. Moore, she of Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith fame. Kuttner, sadly, died young. And yet, it turns out, he produced a substantial body of work in the time he had. The Best of Henry Kuttner collects some of it.
Ray Bradbury offers up an exemplary introduction. No surprise there; it’s Ray Bradubury. I won’t quote bits of it here or I’d end up excerpting probably twenty to thirty percent of it. If you normally skip intros and dive right into the first story, try to exercise patience and read this one.
Mimsy Were the Borogroves. A Borogrove-shaped hole in my life — the existence of which I had been unaware — has now been filled. There is, I understand, a film adaptation of this story, but I’m unfamiliar with it and unsure if I want to alter that condition. Mimsy is a truly unique work of imagination, cerebral yet familiarly domestic. Bradbury, in his introduction, states that this story informed his classic, The Veldt. I can understand that now. Terrific stuff (both stories.) After reading Mimsy, I can see I must elevate my appreciation of Kuttner. Note, however, that I believe Mimsy was a collaboration with C.L. Moore, Kuttner’s wife. Should I throttle back the encomium? Let’s move on and see.
Two-Handed Engine. A sci-fi morality tale of sin and conscience; an exegesis suggesting society generates guilt rather than guil occurring as a natural human function in vacuum. Interesting and worth the read. Kuttner seems to have been a man who observed and considered, and not merely at a surface level.
The Proud Robot. A humorous tale proving yet again Homer Simpson’s adage that alcohol is the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. Apparently one of a series. Slight, but amusing. I’d read the others if they crossed my path.
The Misguided Halo. A humorous fantasy. I’m sure Kuttner had some point to make with this one, but it seemed to merely limp to a conclusion, as if Kuttner had grown bored with it.
The Voice of the Lobster. More SF comedy. I’m sensing a trend. This rather overlong tale features a perennially favorite archetype — the down on his luck conman/scoundrel who overcomes against all odds. Though, as usual in this sort of yarn, in retrospect you discover he’s stacked the odds in his favor.
Exit the Professor. A — wait for it — SF comedy. This one just about hits the sweet spot for length. And it’s reasonably funny, featuring a hillbilly family that is revealed to be substantially more than that. The backwoods dialect holds up, once you get used to it.
The Twonky. Commences as, you guessed it, a humorous sci-fi story. But it gradually turns more serious and culminates as a tragedy, or even a horror story. There is a warning Kuttner is attempting to convey, a warning that perhaps each generation will interpret as something else, something prescient.
A Gnome There Was. This time, merely as a change of pace, we are treated to a humorous fantasy. It starts off amusingly and promisingly enough. But as Kuttner builds his premise and sets up the pay off, it starts to drag. It’s okay.
The Big Night. I’m stunned. Big Night is straight up, old-fashioned SF. Very little humor to be found in this story of space faring, the end of an era, and the men who face it.
Nothing But Gingerbread Left. This may be my second favorite story in the book. SF as WWII propaganda. Clever, even plausible. And catchy. LEFT! LEFT…
The Iron Standard. More old-fashioned SF. Could we be seeing another trend? I’m not completely sold on the Venusian socio-economic system presented, but I liked the story just fine.
Cold War. Another story featuring the characters from Exit the Professor. It had its moments, but the premise and payoff didn’t really work for me. So much for the trend.
Or Else. Humorous, poignant. A gem and a poke in the eye for moralizing utopian SF writers.
Endowment Policy. I pegged this early on as a time travel story. Some action, a touch of suspense, but ultimately not particularly compelling. Interesting mostly for the future end point to be set in 2016. Nope — no time machines yet. I checked.
Housing Problem. Humorous fantasy. Fine, but a slog to get there and the punchline isn’t worth the effort.
What You Need. A well constructed Twilight Zone-style story, a sort of conceptual precursor to Steven King’s Needful Things.
Absalom. Dark, incisive SF story delving into the parent/child dynamic. Sends the anthology off on a high — and uncharacteristically serious — note.
So, what did I think of The Best of Henry Kuttner? I was somewhat disappointed not to find any of Kuttner’s S&S output. But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. For one, Ray Bradbury does not appear to be an action/adventure aficionado. I shouldn’t be surprised that an anthology he is attached to would be shy on the swash and the buckle. And second, I haven’t found Kuttner’s heroic fantasy to be top-tier stuff. Though I do think at least one or two of the Elak or Prince Raynor stories were at least as good as some of the weaker entries in this Best of volume. Final analysis: worth it, if only for Mimsy, Gingerbread, Or Else, and Absalom.
As always, I must end with shilling and grifting. Check out my Semi-Autos and Sorcery series. Book one available here.