BOOK REVIEW: The Best of Kuttner 1

Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • Contains 15 short stories by Henry Kuttner
  • Published by Mayflower Books
  • Published in 1965
  • Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction
  • 286 pages

Back in the day, science fiction was almost entirely ruled by the magazine industry. Names like Astounding, Amazing Stories, and Analog are but the alphabetical tip of the iceberg here. If you wanted to take a shot at science fiction writing, submitting to these magazines was the best bet. Editors such as John W. Campbell and Hugo Gernsback could essentially dictate the trajectory of an author’s career. Not that they were cruel overlords. Each month, dozens of new and exciting names would enter the field of science fiction. Some would go on to great things. This is, after all, the setting that gave rise to Isaac Asimov. Others fell by the wayside, their names now forgotten. And then there are those who shone brightly for a short period, only to dim over time. Authors who were household names during their lives, but are now remembered only by the most curious of historians. Henry Kuttner is a man who lands in this final category.

Part of the problem is one of identity. Kuttner wrote dozens of stories, but not always under his own name. The stories in this collection alone were originally cited as the work of Lewis Padgett, Woodrow Wilson Smith, Keith Hammond, and Hudson Hastings. Many of these are pseudonyms that Kuttner shared with his wife, and fellow science fiction author, C.L. Moore. The pair were frequent collaborators. Given all this, and the relatively poor records of the time, it is hard to definitively attribute many works to Kuttner alone. Further complicating Kuttner’s disappearance into the annals of history is the fact that much of his work has fallen out of print. Not out of copyright, but simply out of print. This has changed in the past few years with the Gollancz Masterworks release of Fury, but other than that you’d be lucky to find a short story of Kuttner’s anthologised.

Happily, there are older collections of his work available on the second-hand market. This collection is the first of two to proclaim themselves his best work. Personally, I rate Fury higher. But that’s largely a preference of longer form storytelling on my part. What The Best of Kuttner 1 does prove is that the man (and his alter egos and writing partners) was one of the more varied writers of the time. ‘The Proud Robot’ would stand happily in an Asimov anthology, while ‘See You Later’ with its hillbilly narrative and rambling humour couldn’t be more different. No two stroies in this collection are the same, though a common theme does start to emerge if you squint hard enough.

Science fiction from this period has a reputation for being dry and clinical. Fairly deserved in many cases, I must say, but not in Kuttner’s. While I enjoy the dry and clinical stylings of some, Kuttner has a messier and much darker sensibility. ‘Absolom’ is, on the surface, a story about a school for geniuses and the inevitable intellectual development of humanity. But dig a little, and all the signs of generational trauma are there. Father corrupts son corrupts son and so on, ad infinitum. Meanwhile, ‘A Gnome There Was’ is a darkly twisted fairy tale about little men beneath the earth, and all their deviant ways. These are stories that blur the lines between science fiction and fantasy, and often tilt into full-blown horror.

Not every story here hits the mark, but when they do, they hit hard. If you’ve never encountered Kuttner before, this is a great place to start.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Fury, by Henry Kuttner
Return to Otherness, by Henry Kuttner
Northwest of Earth, by C.L. Moore

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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