Tag Archives: henry kuttner

[September 13, 2017] GRAZING THE BAR (the October 1962 Amazing)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by John Boston

Space!  Mankind’s dream!  Well, some people’s dream.  A lot of us seem to be more concerned with making a living, taking care of families, trying to keep a straight face at school, and other highly terrestrial activities.  But even in this small town in the boondocks, people mostly seem to take pride in the first human ventures off the planet, though you do hear the occasional grumble that all that money could be better spent right here on Earth.

I wasn’t so confident a couple of years ago, when I witnessed the second most remarkable thing I have seen here.  (First place is claimed by the man I saw walking a raccoon on a leash.  Raccoons do tend to have their own agendas.) I was downtown on a Saturday morning, which is when the farmers come into town to take care of their business.  The banks are open then, which I am told is not the case in larger cities.  The farmers come in their cars, their pickup trucks, and in some cases their horse-drawn wagons, all parked around the courthouse square.  On this Saturday, a man was preaching from the back of one of the wagons . . . against the evils of space travel.  “If Man reaches out to touch the face of God’s Moon,” he thundered, “God will BLAST HIM FROM THE EARTH!” But no one paid any attention, and I’ve heard nothing further about his prophecy.

I was reminded of this episode by the cover story of the October Amazing, Poul Anderson’s Escape from Orbit.  It’s another near-space epic like Third Stage from the February issue, also, like that one, illustrated by a Popular Mechanics-style cutaway depiction of guys in a space vehicle.  The situation: meteor destroys spacecraft, crew escapes in lifecraft without propulsion, now they’re stuck in Moon orbit with no one close enough to rescue them, and a solar flare due in 48 hours.  The only bright spot is that the ship’s big, heavy main air tank is nearby and retrievable, giving them enough to breathe until they get killed by the flare.  The air tank—that’s it!  In a paroxysm of arithmetic (work shown only at the end), the protagonist, second banana at Orbital Command on Earth, sees the solution. 

This five or six pages’ worth of story is stretched to 20 by extensive detail about our hero’s home and inner life, including his unsatisfactory wife, the woman he wishes he had married, his physical deterioration (he’s 34) and how he feels about it, his career anxieties, etc.  It takes five paragraphs to get from the early morning ringing phone to actually answering it, and several pages to get him out the door and on the road to Base.  Maybe somebody told Anderson he needed more human interest in his stories, or maybe he hoped to sell this one to Cosmopolitan (well, no, not with the complaints about the wife) or the Saturday Evening Post.  Whatever.  The whole thing is forced and clumsy.  Two stars.

This month’s “Classic Reprint” is The Young Old Man by Earl L. Bell, from the magazine’s September 1929 issue, which serves mainly to show how boring a story can be even if short.  Campers in the Ozarks encounter a storekeeper who looks about 45 but he’s obviously ancient, just look at his eyes.  The revelation is that immortality, which he received via thaumaturgist in the 11th Century, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.  How fortunate we are that most SF writers these days at least try to develop their ideas, rather than just laying them out like a dead fish on ice.  One star.

Things look up a bit after that one.  Ben Bova has taken a break from his article series and contributed a short story, Answer, Please Answer , about a couple of guys wintering in Antarctica (draftees in a war with the Soviets), who by coincidence are both astronomers.  So in their considerable spare time, they look for extraterrestrial signals from variable stars, and boy do they find them and are they sobering.  This is as much a one-gimmick story as Anderson’s, but it’s much better done by this guy with a decade’s less experience writing fiction.  It builds up smoothly, dropping in just enough background on the characters to make them characters, comes to its revelation, then stops.  Three stars for unpretentious cleverness and competence.

Jeff Sutton’s After Ixmal is readable but silly: a super-computer develops consciousness, albeit the consciousness of a petulant child, tricks humanity into destroying itself, lords it over the dead Earth for eons until it discovers a rival consciousness, and goes to war with it, just because.  As SF it’s barely thought through at all, and as fable or myth or whatever it lacks the necessary sonority, gravitas, etc.  Two stars.

The versatile Robert F. Young, who knows so many ways of being entirely too cute, is back with Boy Meets Dyevitza.  Captain Andrews of the United States Space Force, who thinks he is the first Earth-person on Venus, encounters Major Mikhailovna of the USSR, who is washing her stockings in a stream, having beaten him there the previous day.  As for conditions on Venus, hey, this is science fiction, so: “The data supplied by the Venus probes during the early 60’s, while inconclusive with regard to her cloud-cover, had conclusively disproved former theories to the effect that she lacked a breathable atmosphere and possessed a surface temperature of more than 100 degrees Centigrade, and had prepared him for what he found—an atmosphere richer in oxygen content than Earth’s, a comfortable climate [etc.].” See?  Science!  Extrapolation!  [And complete bollocks — Young should know better.]

Then the human indigenes show up, wearing brass collars; shocked by the Earthfolks’ naked necks, they later kidnap them and put brass collars on them, which can’t be removed by human tools and prevent them from getting very far from each other.  They are married, Venusian style.  But they discover they don’t really mind, and (to summarize brutally) the folks back home say “Awwww,” and—never mind.  Two stars for Young’s usual professional execution, heavily discounted for cloy.

The fiction contents are rounded out by Pattern, the second story in the SF magazines by the very youthful Robert H. Rohrer, Jr. (b. 1946), less slick but more interesting than Young’s polished artifact: a life form consisting of organized electricity tries to take over and consume the energy flows of human spaceship pilot Captain Brenner.  This is not exactly an original plot—see, or remember, van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle—but it’s much better worked out than, say, After Ixmal, with a nasty twist at the end.  Three stars and good if not great expectations for this new writer.

Sam Moskowitz’s SF Profile is The Secret Lives of Henry Kuttner—not one of his best.  Per his custom, he describes Kuttner’s early pulp stories in detail and gives very short shrift to his later and better work, emphasizing his pseudonyms and what Moskowitz thinks is his work’s derivative aspects (sometimes rightly and sometimes decidedly not), and summarizing his career: “Lured by opportunism, suffering from an acute sense of inadequacy, he refused to stand alone, but leaned for support upon a parade of greats: H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Stanley G. Weinbaum, A. Merritt, John Collier, A.E. van Vogt, and, of course, C.L. Moore.” This about the man who by the early ‘40s had become one of the most capable writers in the field, who produced a disproportionate number of the best-remembered stories of the ‘40s and early ‘50s, and whose work was pored over by the likes of Sturgeon and Bradbury.  Terrible analysis, terrible judgment.  Two stars, being generous.

Frank Tinsley, it turns out, isn’t gone.  He’s here with The Nuclear Putt-Putt, an article about Project Orion, a proposed gigantic spaceship to be powered by a succession of nuclear bombs.  Small ones, to be sure, but still.  Especially since this insane behemoth is apparently supposed to launch from Earth.  Can we say radiation?  Fallout?  Not a word about how these are to be contained.  Two stars for overlooking a rather obvious problem.

And Benedict Breadfruit . . . is gone as of this issue.  His last bow is actually reasonably clever . . . unlike most of its predecessors.

So the magazine bumbles along.  The wearying thing is not how bad its worst stories are, but that the top of its range is still readable competence and little more.




[June 16, 1962] Picking Up Charles Finney (The Circus of Dr. Lao)


by Victoria Lucas

I am so honored to be taking up space here!  The Traveler thought enough of my letters to the editor that he asked me to become a regular contributor.  In my letters I mentioned how I’ve just graduated from Stanford and am going back to my old job in the Drama Department at the University of Arizona, and my mother’s home, where I’m typing on an old portable Smith-Corona that has seen far too many papers, dissertations, theses, and so on as I’ve struggled to work my way through college. 

Last fall I tacked up on my bulletin board (unfortunately in the sun) a short column of news about somebody with whom I sometimes work in Tucson little theatre–Bob Hammond, a French professor at the University of Arizona who once won a Fulbright to Paris and never recovered.  He writes his plays in French and English and translates from each language into the other.  The blurb introduced Hammond as one of four playwrights who formed a producing group for their work.  One of the other playwrights was a fellow by the name of Charles Finney who was supposed to produce a play of his this year. 

The article reminded me that I may have met Finney as I house-managed and assistant-directed Bob’s plays.  Or I might have seen him in his workplace, the newspaper building downtown, where he has been editor of the Arizona Daily Star for 32 years (I spent my Saturdays at the Tucson Daily Citizen my senior year in high school helping to put out the “Teen Citizen,” a section of the paper.) So when I ran across The Circus of Dr. Lao and Other Improbable Stories I picked it up.  It’s edited by Ray Bradbury and published by Bantam Books, first out 1956.

In the very first sentence of his introduction to this book of short and long stories, Bradbury asserts that the works in this book “are fantasies, not science-fiction.” He goes on to list some adjectives and statements that contrast science fiction and fantasy as genres (or at least his idea of the genres).  Then, in two short, strident paragraphs, like trochees in a poem, he argues:

“Science-fiction balances you on the cliff.

Fantasy shoves you off.”

This book of short stories (and one long one) conforms to that opinion.  At least the shoving-off-cliffs part.

Charles Finney’s novella The Circus of Dr. Lao is on the cover and first in the book.  Finney uses figures of mythical people and animals to produce what seems like an almost metaphorical story of Abalone, Arizona, which apparently is what Charles Finney calls Tucson.  He began the story while he was in the US Army in China in 1929, and it has seen numerous editions since it was first in print in 1935. 

Lao Tzu (or Laozi, or Lao Tse or …) is a mythical/historical figure who is said to be the author of the Tao Te Ching, a book of philosophy, and the founder of Taoism (Daoism), variously a religion and a philosophy.  The presence of this part man part myth as the owner of a circus is better understood when you see who and what the circus animals and people are: a medusa, a sea serpent, Apollonius of Tyana (15 to 100 AD, a Christ-like figure who incongruously wears and uses a cross), a satyr, a Roc chick, Sphinx, Chimera, and so on.  The real venerable philosopher (Dr.) Lao did not preach withdrawal from the world but discernment and enjoyment of what is in it, apparently here containing the inventions of the human imagination that might include himself (does that tangle your nervous system?)

These animals and humanlike entities do not mix well, and they look strange marching through the town of Abalone as circuses used to do.  They are so bizarre that the people of Abalone do not know what to make of them, and they argue incessantly about whether one of the circus figures is a bear, a “Russian,” or a man.  Finney doesn’t even settle the matter in his ending “Catalogue” of characters, questions, and other matters at the end.

I cannot recommend this story enough.  Although Bradbury calls it fantasy, it fits in no genre, has no particular moral, steps in no one else’s shoes.  I am only familiar with one other book of Finney’s, The Unholy City, which seems to me again to be without identifiable genre, one that calls out human foibles but does not condemn them.  Both books are funny but not laugh-out-loud funny.  Their humor emanates quietly from human (and mythic) limitations and self-aggrandizement.

What I find most amusing is the way the good (or not-so-good) doctor can change in an instant back and forth from a stereotype of an ignorant and hysterical “heathen Chinee,” misplaced letters “L” and all, to a calm, philosophical global traveller speaking perfect English. 

In one scene, he “came dashing up, ‘Whatsah mattah Glod damn college punks come this place?’ …’You no savvee nothing here.  Glet to hell out!  This my show, by Glod!'” Eventually he “glets” them out by shouting, “Hey, Lube!  (instead of the circus/carnival rallying cry, “Hey, Rube!”).

A little later he expounds on his Hound of the Hedges (supposedly a living dog made out of vegetable matter).  He begins with “Epitomizing the fragrance of grassplots, lawns, and hedgy, thickset places, this behemoth of hounds stands unique in the mysterious lexicon of life.”  Elsewhere he maintains his innocence of fraud by saying “You see: I no fool you.  This place no catchum fake.” 

(In my experience, some clever people conceived in foreign lands or looking still foreign in this one use this ability to believably imitate their stereotypes in order to maintain their privacy and ward off unwelcome demands.)

As the show goes on, there are casualties, mainly from the Medusa’s ability to turn people to stone, but Dr. Lao is almost killed himself.  He survives, though, and just as he came to town by no visible means (not by truck or train), he leaves with his menagerie the same way.

“I am a calm, intelligent girl.” Miss Agnes Birdsong reassures herself.  “I am a calm, intelligent girl, and I have not seen Pan on Main Street.” Circus of Dr. Lao

“When I let go of who I am, I become what I might be.” Lao Tzu

The rest of the book consists of short stories of varying length.  The first, Nigel Kneale’s story The Pond, seems to me to have congealed around a particular idea the way the white of a boiled egg encircles the yolk.  Anything I say about it will probably spoil the ending of this extremely short story, so I will just state that it is of frogs and men.

The Hour of Letdown by E. B. White pits men against an artificial brain.  One that likes to get drunk after a hard job well done.

So far humans aren’t doing very well.  Let’s see how things go with Roald Dahl’s The Wish.  Hmmm.  Imagination 3, human beings 0. 

And “The Summer People”?  Well, I know Shirley Jackson’s work, and her imagination tends to the … let’s just say she’s well known for The Haunting of Hill House, a ghost story.  A couple lucky enough to have a summer home decide to stay there after Labor Day, something they’ve never done before.  Be prepared for unending suspense.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of the next story, is taught in school as one of America’s first, most celebrated authors.  He is probably best known for his book The Scarlet Letter (1850), about fictional events 200 years earlier in Puritan Boston, where an adulteress is forced to wear a red letter “A” on her dress.  This story, Earth’s Holocaust, dates from 1844 and is strongly reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, whose work Hawthorne probably would have read.  Its moral: beware of reforms, because evil will spring forth anew.

Loren Eiseley is an anthropologist, not a writer of fiction, but this story (essay?) was published in 1948 in Harper’s Magazine, when he was head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Pennsylvania.  “Bone hunters,” he writes, “are listeners.  They have to be.”  He hears about Buzby’s Petrified Woman (the story title) while hunting for fossils, and he has to find out if it’s “a bone.”  Because it’s in this collection I would think it’s fantasy.  Because it’s Eiseley I’m inclined to believe it’s a memory.  You judge.

Oliver La Farge is also an anthropologist, but he wrote recognized fiction.  This story, The Resting Place, also became part of his collection A Pause in the Desert (1957) (Oh, I wish they hadn’t misspelled “Chinle”–with an extra “e.”  It’s one of my favorite spots.) So I do understand “the old man’s” obsession with Navajo country.  Its beauty is formidable, its mystery eternal.  This story does not challenge that view.

Threshold is by Henry Kuttner – an author with more pseudonyms than anyone else I know.  His most frequent one was Lewis Padgett, a name he used when he wrote with his wife C. L. Moore, but apparently Kuttner attributed this story to himself.  Kuttner is notable for his correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft, the inventor of the world of Cthulu.  If you have read or read about Lovecraft’s work, you can guess the atmosphere and maybe one of the few characters in this story, which has been described elsewhere as “horror.”  Apparently the husband-and-wife team of Kuttner and Moore did not have two egotists on it, because Kuttner writes here, “egotists cannot live together.”  Beware: this is the second time a devil has appeared in this book.  Third time’s a charm.

In James H. Schmitz’s Greenface a barking dog begins to “churn up the night” as the owner of a fishing camp tries to decide how to deal with a green horror that has driven away his campers–and his girlfriend. 

The Limits of Walter Horton features this quote by author John Seymour Sharnik: “Even if one accepted Horton’s rare talent as the purest sort of inspiration, that didn’t explain what was happening.” 

What if, while you are woolgathering, you are really not all there?  What if part of you is truly in the place and time you are thinking about, and the you in the present has somehow diminished?  Maybe this story, The Man Who Vanished by Robert M. Coates, would be the result.

For me, the stories in this book are uneven in quality and interest, but however you can get it, I absolutely recommend The Circus of Dr. Lao.  If you like Galactic Journey, you’ll like Finney.