Book Review: Clash by Night and Other Stories, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (1980)

Story


3.5/5 (collated rating: Good)

From 1937 to 1958, the dynamic writing duo of Henry Kuttner (1915-1958) and his wife C. L. Moore (1911-1987) wrote countless stories together. As SF Encyclopedia puts it, “much of [Kuttner’s] later work is inextricably entwined” with that of Moore–often to the point of being unable to entangle who wrote what. While the cover of Clash by Night and Other Stories (1980) does not mention Moore, all the stories in the collection were co-written with her.1

Final note before the reviews: Don’t let the collated rating of the collection dissuade you! 1946’s “Vintage Season” is worth the price alone. I enjoy the more serious, ruminative, and dark takes that the couple (and individually) were capable of. I bounce off most joke or lightly comedic stories (give me black comedy!). I reacted similarly to Damon Knight’s mixed collection Far Out (1961).

I look forward to reading more of Kuttner and Moore’s fiction.

Brief Summary and Analysis

“Clash by Night” (1943), 3.75/5 (Good): First appeared in Astounding Science-Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (March 1943). You can read it online here.

An early example of what we now call military science fiction, “Clash by Night” is a surprisingly ruminative look at the psychological and social impact of war. The first layer of the story, a prologue written nine hundred years after the legendary events it recounts, positions a reader in a future in which the “islands and continents of Venus have been tamed, and there is no war” (2). The legendary past recounted by the narrator is an altogether different time: isolated underwater Keeps wage war on each other using the Free Companies, professional warriors who reside on the surface (exposed to the sun’s radiation). In their off time, the Free Company soldiers visit the Keeps to experience the benefits of “civilized” life and to visit their free-marriage wives. The story follows one of these legendary warriors, Captain Brian Scott of Doone’s Free Companions, who “may never have existed’ (3) and his deep doubts about his place in a rapidly changing world.

Venus takes on the geographic analog of the American West in its early stages of colonization. There is a ton of scholarship about the role of the Old West “frontier” and its relevancy to science fiction’s colonization of space. In Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont’s summary of the scholarship, they note that the frontiersman (or space explorer) must penetrate a “passive, and feminized” wilderness.2 “Clash by Night” presents Venus, with its pockets of civilization like colonies on the East Coast, a landscape waiting to be conquered. In the present of the story, the Venusian landscape has already been pacified. In the legendary past, the deeds of the Free Company men in their wars between the powers of the day are the last violent movements between men before nature, with its horrors and threats, becomes the primary adversary.

Captain Brian Scott metaphorically represents a juncture in this grand narrative of Venus’ past. He ruminates: “we fight to protect the culture [of the Keeps] that will eventually wipe us out” (18). He promises that after the next battle he will give up his ways: “One last fight” […] “I’m glad it’s going to be a good one” (34). But there’s something seductive and sinister about battle, and bloodlust…

I found Kuttner and Moore’s meditations on the psychological and social impacts of war on its combatants far more interesting than the pulp-like battles between the Keeps that the soldiers wage. And while on the simple side, I enjoyed the interplay between the “present” (a Venus untamed) and the “past” (filled with legendary figures like Captain Brian Scott in an untamed world).

Recommended.

“When the Bough Breaks” (1944), 2.5/5 (Bad): First appeared in Astounding Science-Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (November 1944). You can read it online here.

This represents the more comedic Kuttner and Moore stories that I do not enjoy. Anthologized countless times, “When the Bough Breaks” follows a couple with a new child named Alexander who luck into an inexpensive apartment in a city high rents (68). Soon after moving in, Calderon, a “fine research physicist” and Myre, a frustrated housewife, encounter “four tiny men standing in the hall” with immense craniums (69). And they outrageously claim that they are the descendants of Alexander, the first super child, and will play a part in the child’s education. All types of ridiculous hijinks occur as Alexander, a toddler, learns how to operate futuristic gadgets and play outrageous tricks on his parents.

Yes, it’s a smoothly told satire of gender roles and parents who want to birth genius children…. It’s not for me. I love a good domestic strife story, but not one populated by annoying super humans of the future.

“Juke-Box” (1947), 3/5 (Average): First appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, ed. Sam Merwin, Jr. (February 1947). You can read it online here.

Jerry Foster spends his time confessing his personal life–“nobody loved him” (97)–to his bartender at his local dive bar. He of course had a girl, but ditched her, and ran off with another. And one day, Jerry drapes himself over the bar juke-box and “patted it sleek sides” and murmurs “you’re my girl” (98). And so begins a bizarre SF horror experience…. The juke-box seems to communicate with Jerry via the songs “she” plays. And soon the lyrics she conveys influences Jerry’s career writing catchy melodies for a music producer. When Jerry seems to want to detach himself from her charm, she lashes out. He finds himself caught by the juke-box, and the ritual of visiting her and listening to her songs.

Kuttner and Moore spell out what Jerry represents: “he was essentially a reactionary, so it was a mistake for him to have been born in an era of great changes” (101). Unable to find himself in the “vast technological and sociological changes the mid-Twentieth century offered” (101). Jerry finds himself–and others like him–entirely trapped by the world he resists. He cannot function without the technological marvel. He cannot find real connections to other humans. The juke-box is his mana, the juke-box is his muse, the juke-box guides his every move. Sounds similar to my students unable to detach themselves from their phones!

Somewhat recommended.

“The Ego Machine” (1952), 3/5 (Average): First appeared in Space Science Fiction, ed. Lester del Rey (May 1952). You can read it online here.

Nicholas Martin wants to be known as a real literary author. Unfortunately, the director St. Cyr, from an poor and obscure little Balkan country of Mixo-Lydia, loves to sink his teeth and claws into hit plays and writers. St. Cyr sneaks fine print into a contract for an adaption of Martin’s hit play Angelina Noel, about a Portuguese captain of a fishing boat and a mermaid. Martin wants to be released from the contract but doesn’t have the gumption or smarts to exert himself, yet alone declare his love for his workaholic, and “competent” (115), agent Erika.

This changes when a robot named ENIAC Gamma the Ninety-Third, with an addiction to electrical shocks, appears in Martin’s office. ENIAC wants him to participate in a “valuable socio-cultural experiment for the benefit of all mankind” that involves taking on the personalities of historical figures like Benjamin Disraeli and Ivan the Terrible (123). Martin sees the experiment as a way out of his contract with St. Cyr. Mayhem ensues.

Another comedy, but, unlike “When the Bough Breaks” (1944), I actually laughed. It’s a zippy satire of the Hollywood movie studio system that controlled its actors and writers. It felt a bit like a 50s version of Futurama (1999-present)–madcap, relentless, over-the-top, silly, oh, and crazy robot that indulges in vice. Hence the average rating!

“Vintage Season” (1946), 5/5 (Masterpiece): First appeared in Astounding Science-Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (September 1946). You can read it online here. Possibly my favorite ever 40s science fiction short story (so far).

Oliver Wilson rents rooms in his house to a group of strange foreigners–Omerie, Kleph, and Klia–who seem to embody perfection (165). An offer to purchase the house, for three-times its going rate, compels Oliver to attempt to convince his new tenants to leave. However, their strange behavior, interactions, and fascinations fascinate him. They only want to watch parts of third-rate films (172). They obsess over the weather and make odd comments about this particular May (175). Kleph takes an interest in Oliver (the nature of which he realizes too late), and in moments under the influence of a “fragrant tea” she reveals fragments of their purpose (178). Kleph mentions that they’re on a pilgrimage, although to what isn’t exactly clear. In another meeting, she shows him a three-dimensional screen that swirls with sound and motion. The music and visuals “transcended all art-forms he knew, blended them, and out of the blend produced subtleties his mind could not begin to grasp” (190). But what he sees terrifies him–glimpses of a terrible calamity, faces in the moment of death, a panorama of suffering (191). And when he turns to Kleph he notices the most unsettling element of it all, she enjoys what she sees!

“Vintage Season” reads as a fascinating glimpse into the immediate post-WWII America, and the underlying fear of cataclysmic conflict to come. Oliver describes the moment in which he lives as the liminal point in which the nation enters “into “one of those fabulous eras which are later referred to as the Gay Forties or the Golden Sixties–a pleasant period of national euphoria” (170). I can’t help but speculate that “Vintage Season” represents an attempt to classify and grapple with the perverse horror that people held for the devastation wrecked by American nuclear weapons in Japan. I found the viewpoint of war and violence in “Vintage Season” clashed wildly with “Clash by Night” (1943), published a mere three years earlier. In “Class by Night” the actions of heroic warriors foreshadow eventual peace–the past as a triumphant parade of progress. In “Vintage Season”, the true horror lies in how the impact of cataclysm and violence will be become in itself entertainment by bored future generations.

Highly recommended.


Notes


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