Astounding Stories #7: “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”
Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here.
A few weeks ago, in a post about one of my own novels, I wrote: “Whenever I read stories from the golden age of science fiction, I’m struck by the absence of women, which seems less like a sin than a mistake. It’s hard to think of a story from that era that wouldn’t have been improved by turning half the men into women.” And I stand by this. We happen to be living through a moment in the genre—as well as in the larger culture—in which issues of representation are frequently discussed, so it might seem that I’m retrojecting my own values and concerns onto an era in which they don’t really fit. But when you read two or three hundred science fiction stories in a row, as I’ve recently done, it becomes harder to make that argument. The lack of women, and the interchangeability of many of the men, is a glaring flaw, and the monotonous stream of male protagonists would have seemed problematic even then. Even if much of it was unconscious or the result of the pressures of the market, that doesn’t make it any easier to defend. Most of the writers for Astounding were young men, and when you’re trying to crank out sellable stories at a rate that allows you to make a living, you’re likely to fall back on the sorts of characters you can write without thinking. This usually means writing about people who wear the same face that you see when you look in the mirror every morning. And when you’re expending your finite store of mental energy on coming up with passable twists, it becomes harder to develop empathy for men and women unlike yourself, unless you make a point of it.
This brings me to the remarkable writing team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, who would have stood out anywhere, but especially in the pages of Astounding. We can begin, properly, with the simple observation that they were both outstanding writers. In fact, I’d rank them second only to Heinlein among writers of the golden age in terms of their style, breadth of interest, and quality of ideas. The stories they wrote under their own names or under pseudonyms like Lawrence O’Donnell and Lewis Padgett are stunningly varied and invariably interesting: “The Twonky,” “Time Locker,” “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” “Clash by Night,” “When the Bough Breaks,” and “Vintage Season” alone would be a credit to any writer, and they’re often very different in tone, structure, and effect. The fact that Moore and Kuttner were a married couple who would often work on a story in turns, with one going upstairs to resume at the typewriter where the other had left off, goes part of the way toward explaining the sheer variety of their work. More to the point, it also helps to account for some of the qualities that make their work so appealing today: a genuine interest in women, in the inner lives of children, and particularly in married life, either as a focal point of the story or as its unstated backdrop. Reading them reminds us of how rarely the science fiction of the golden age has anything worthwhile to say about marriage or families, both of which are essential aspects of existence, and their darkly humorous—and sometimes just dark—take on these subjects has few parallels in the stories of the time.
Inevitably, readers have often tried to figure which of the two was primarily responsible for which stories, but Moore and Kuttner themselves said that they sometimes couldn’t remember who wrote what. There’s no question that they were exceptionally in tune, and that each brought out the best in the other. At times, you can almost feel them engaging in an internal dialogue to bring out the full potential of a premise, as in my two favorite stories written under the Lewis Padgett name, “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” and “When the Bough Breaks,” which are variations on the same core idea. The first, which is more famous, is about a scientist from the future who accidentally sends a box of toys from his era back to the twentieth century, where it’s found by an eleven-year-old boy and his two-year-old sister. (Another box goes back even earlier, to be found by a girl named Alice Liddell.) The toys—which include an impossibly lifelike anatomical doll, a tesseract puzzle, and a cube that can display projections of the user’s thoughts—reshape the brains of the two kids, and in the end, they learn a formula that allows them to vanish into the dimension from which the box came, leaving their bewildered parents behind. “When the Bough Breaks” builds on a similar premise, with a highly evolved man of the future sending a team of emissaries back in time to train him as a baby, much to the chagrin of his father and mother, who find themselves living with a child with superhuman intelligence and telepathic powers but the instinctive sadism and selfishness of a toddler. In the end, unable to cope with their monstrous son, they quietly agree to let him destroy himself.
These are two of the most memorable stories ever published in Astounding, and what I especially like about them, aside from the believable marriages they depict, is how they capture and allegorize the mixed feelings that most parents feel toward their own children. When you’re raising a child, you find that she can change from a miniature adult into a small, fierce animal from one moment to the next, that she spends much of her life in a secret world that you can never fully understand, and she has a latent capacity for cruelty as well as for love, both of which are bounded only by her physical limitations. “When the Bough Breaks,” in particular, takes these insights to their limit, and the result is the kind of story that never would have occurred to a writer who was unable to think himself into the lives of a couple with children. (It’s worth noting, too, that Moore and Kuttner had no children themselves, yet their rendering of the darker side of parenthood is frighteningly accurate—which reminds us that the sophisticated young parents of their fiction aren’t just a self-portrait, but the outcome of sustained sympathy and imagination.) Both Moore and Kuttner were more than capable of doing fine work individually, but it was their combined intelligence that took them into places that few other writers were willing or able to explore. Moore wrote some excellent stories on her own, notably the novella “No Woman Born,” but after Kuttner’s sudden death in 1958, she retired from short fiction. And they left behind a series of stories that, like the nonsense words in “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” open a window onto a world, or a genre, that is very different from the one we know today.