Henry Kuttner is one of the lost masters of science fiction, according to Ray Bradbury, who wrote the introduction to a posthumous collection of Kuttner's short fiction. Writing under numerous pseudonyms (and often with his wife, C.M. Moore as a collaborator) for numerous low-rent sci-fi publications in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, (like "Unknown," "Weird Tales," and "Astounding Science Fiction"), he possessed a flair for many of the different subgenres of the time. He wrote prolifically about robots, outer space, and futuristic technology, and his taste for the supernatural and nasty endings for his protagonists helped him frequently cross over into fantasy and horror. Then he died at the age of 42, after publishing fewer than 200 stories. Bradbury says that he had an influence disproportionate to his fame, and luminaries like Roger Zelazny (and Bradbury himself) have personally claimed him as an inspiration. It's easy to see his fingerprints over much of Philip K. Dick's work. It's just a shame he's not a good writer. Kurt Vonnegut's brilliant composite of every bad sci-fi writer with promise, Kilgore Trout, describes Kuttner well: "Kilgore Trout's unpopularity was deserved. His prose was frightful. Only his ideas were good."
That said, there is a lot of good in his stories: he possesses a pulp writer's knack for evoking a whole world in just a few paragraphs, revealing it in pieces, and moving a plot along quickly. The first story in this collection -- which was rebranded as The Last Mimzy, after the recent movie based on the first story -- is "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," his best-known story and one of the best-realized. It's also one of the only stories in the collection set in the world of Kuttner's time period, with the usual unimaginable technology sent back in time. The second story, "Two-Handed Engine," anticipates Dick's "Minority Report," with a twist: in the future, the only crime is murder, and the only punishment is an avenging robot who follows the murderer around for the rest of his or her life, eventually killing them. The robot is judge, jury, and executioner, a perfect crimefighter... unless, of course, it's wrong. "The Twonky" anticipates a number of Dick stories, including "The Unreconstructed M"; it's a story about a machine that appears like a common household appliance but has a much more sinister plan in mind. "The Big Night" is a lovely elegy to the sort of people who are left behind by advancing technology, set in time when interstellar travel itself is going out of style.
But he stumbles badly whenever he tries for humor or dialect. His stories about the mutant Hogben family are written in an awful attempted Appalachian dialect, and are nowhere near interesting enough to justify it. A drunken genius inventor named Gallagher is another recurring star of his, represented here by the story "The Proud Robot," but the perpetually sloshed Gallegher and his needlessly narcissistic robot are easily the most annoying aspects of an otherwise interesting story. His fantasy stories, "A Gnome There Was" and "Housing Problem," about a man turned into a gnome and a landlord who discovers a tenant owns a family of pixies, are decent but generally less interesting than the sci-fi.
Henry Kuttner's prose isn't exactly frightful, but his unpopularity is mostly deserved. Parts of the stories are very good, but few of them are truly satisfying from beginning to end. For all but the most devoted of sci-fi genre fans, the writers he influenced are more worth reading than he himself.
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.
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