Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Henry Kuttner

Astounding Stories #9: “The Mule”

with 6 comments

"The Mule" by Isaac Asimov

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

Of the four writers who stand at the heart of Astounding, the one who has been the hardest to pin down is Isaac Asimov. This might seem surprising, given that the other three figures are John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, all of whom, by any measure, had personalities and private lives of daunting complexity. Asimov, by contrast, seems like a relatively accessible figure: his life was comparatively uneventful in its externals, and he spent much of it in the lab at Boston University, giving speeches, or writing at home. He was also the author of two enormously detailed volumes of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, that track his life on almost a daily basis, which would make them indispensable primary sources even if they weren’t also a huge pleasure to read. (A third volume, I, Asimov, is less essential, but still a must for fans.) He was also more of a public figure than any other science fiction writer of his time. With his glasses and sideburns, he was instantly recognizable, and I suspect that he might be the novelist, of any era, whom the greatest number of living Americans would be able to identify at sight. Decades after his death, he still has the highest name recognition of any writer in the genre. But separating the persona that he deliberately cultivated from the real man underneath presents undeniable challenges—all the more so because Asimov managed to convince millions of readers that they knew him well, when he really kept so many aspects of himself under close guard.

Asimov’s unique status as a celebrity also encourages a number of misconceptions about his career. He’s often cited as a monstrous fiction-writing machine, as Stephen King did in a recent essay for the New York Times on whether a novelist can be too productive. After evoking the likes of Max Brand and Alexandre Dumas, King continues: “And then there’s Isaac Asimov, who sold his first short story at nineteen, hammered out more than five hundred books, and revolutionized science fiction.” But there’s a big misapprehension here. Asimov was undoubtedly one of the most prolific writers who ever lived, but not on the fiction side. When you add up his novels and short stories, it’s an impressive body of work, but not that much larger than that of many other writers of his generation, and Asimov could go for years without producing much in the way of fiction at all. It was in nonfiction, and particularly in popular science, that he made his greatest mark on the world’s libraries, as well as on the consciousness of the public. For most of his life, Asimov was among the most highly regarded of authors within the closed circle of science fiction readers, but he didn’t have a mainstream bestseller until he returned to the Foundation series toward the end of his career. It was in the sheer volume of his nonfiction—which Asimov was among the first to realize would be newsworthy in itself—that he became famous to a general audience, less because of any one book than thanks to the familiarity of his face and byline.

Portrait of Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill

This makes it a little harder to objectively evaluate his fiction. There’s no doubt that he would be regarded as a major writer within the genre, even if he hadn’t become so famous outside of it, but his output is frankly more mixed than that of, say, Heinlein. It took Asimov a while to find his footing—although we should never forget, as King points out, that he was unbelievably young when he sold his first stories, and that he did much of his growing up as an author in full view. His single greatest breakthrough, “Nightfall,” has been voted the best science fiction story of all time on multiple occasions, although Asimov himself felt that it was overrated. The positronic robot stories are an indisputable landmark as a whole, but I’m not sure if any one installment in the series inspires particularly warm feelings in readers, and its most significant element, the Three Laws of Robotics, was really developed by Campbell. And Asimov’s limitations as a writer are more evident than they are in the best of his contemporaries. I’ve come to believe that Heinlein, Sturgeon, and the writing team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, to name only the most obvious examples, could do just about anything, while Asimov seemed more comfortable working within a narrow range: it’s impossible to imagine him writing a story like “Vintage Season” or “Killdozer.” He helped define the genre, but he rarely strayed from a specific subset of it during the golden age, and it wasn’t until later, in stories like “The Last Question,” that he began to push into unexplored regions.

But I don’t want to understate his talent, because many of the stories he wrote during this early period are extraordinary. My personal favorite is “The Red Queen’s Race,” a relatively unheralded work about a professor who tries to change the future by sending physics textbooks back in time to ancient Greece: maybe it’s because of my own classics background, but I think it’s a perfect story. And then there’s the Foundation series, which remains his most lasting achievement, despite what even Asimov, on rereading it after three decades, saw as a decided lack of action or conventional suspense. (“I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.”) Elsewhere, the writer James Gunn notes that “the romance is almost invisible,” which is another way of saying that there are almost no women in sight. Still, it remains a fascinating work, in part because of the appeal of the notion of a secret society of psychohistorians, which had a strange afterlife when Campbell tried to create one for real at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And it includes one undeniably great novella, “The Mule,” which was Asimov’s own favorite. It benefits from having a significant female character for once, in the form of Bayta Darell, and a stunning twist ending that still works like gangbusters today. Asimov wrote it in response to Campbell’s insistence that the Seldon Plan, the “connecting backbone” of the series, had to be disrupted: “I was horrified. No, I said, no, no, no. But Campbell said: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and I knew I wasn’t going to sell him a no, no.” And as Asimov himself knew well, even the best of plans have a way of going in unexpected directions—and in life as well as in fiction.

Astounding Stories #7: “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”

with 2 comments

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.

Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore

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.

%d bloggers like this: