Old friends: Clash by Night (1980) by Henry Kuttner and CL Moore

The spectacularly ugly cover of clashing colours and motifs.

If one of the domains of science fiction is to extrapolate a present phenomenon into an imagined future outcome, the anthology of stories by husband and wife writing team Henry Kuttner (1915-1958) and Catherine Lucille Moore (1911-1987), Clash by Night, is an exemplar of the genre that has weathered time more handsomely than most.

Published in 1980, but containing stories that were already decades older, I lost my copy to the Brisbane flood of 2010/2011, along with hundreds of other books.  To my knowledge the book has not been reprinted, and the authors are now largely forgotten in the Sturm und Drang attending the rapid, enforced obsolescence that is a hallmark of the internet-driven cult of the new.  Fortunately I was able to replace this one recently, and made it my bedside reading for a few nights earlier this month.

The anthology contains one novella – ‘Clash by Night’ – three novelettes – ‘When the Bough Breaks, ‘The Ego Machine’, and ‘Vintage Season’ – and one short story – ‘Juke-Box’.  The most contemporary story dates back to 1952, and the earliest to 1943, but there is something to the writing and themes that make these works timeless in a way that many others of the time are not.

As an aside, if you ever wondered, like I did decades ago, what makes the difference in the taxonomy I used above, the contemporary meaning for science fiction and fantasy is probably most heavily influenced by the categories in the Hugo Awards, inaugurated in 1953, for the best science fiction and fantasy writing of the year:

  • Best Novel, works of 40,000 words or more;
  • Best Novella, between 17,500 and 40,000 words;
  • Best Novelette, between 7,500 and 17,500 words; and
  • Best Short Story, less than 7,500 words.

I must confess that I got a few pages into ‘When the Bough Breaks’ before I skipped the story for being tedious. It means I have not much to say about it; I certainly don’t remember it from any earlier reading. It was first published by the now legendary Astounding Science Fiction pulp magazine in November 1944. Perhaps I would have had more patience for it if I had strong feelings about being the parent of an insufferably arrogant child prodigy.

‘Clash By Night’ was originally published by Astounding Science Fiction in March 1943, under the joint pseudonym of Lawrence O’Donnell.  I first read it during the mid-1970s, in some earlier SF anthology.  It is probably the weakest of the stories I actually re-read in the Hamlyn anthology to which it gave its name in 1980.

The narrative establishes a mythology of a future Venus that was more fully realised in the 1950 novel Fury.  It begins with an introduction that establishes the events of the story to be part of a bygone historical epoch, though the story proper is told in fairly uncomplicated prose from a third person perspective.

It grapples with the doubts about his profession as a mercenary of Brian Scott, a member of the ‘free companions’ – bands of mercenaries fighting proxy wars for the civilizations of the undersea domed cities that are the Venusian ‘Keeps’ of a prospective human future.  Wars fought by the free companions are initiated by the rulers of the Keeps, but never destroy their property or harm their citizens.  Only the soldiers die in this ritualised and honourable combat.  By 1943 the realisation that WWII was far from honourable or noble must have been beginning to set in even for the people of an American mainland neither invaded nor bombed, so a more honourable approach in a more advanced future might have seemed like progress.

‘Clash by Night’ appears on the surface to be predominantly Kuttner’s work, but it actually fits more neatly into Moore’s earlier story-telling patterns.

She began her pulp fiction career with a series of cowboys-in-space stories featuring the hardnosed, aquare-jawed character ‘Northwest Smith’, branching into fantasy with the warrior queen Jirel of Joiry.  She met Henry Kuttner first by way of a fan letter from him, and then in person through HP Lovecraft.  They conducted a relationship by letter, augmented by road trips Kuttner took between his residence in New York to hers in Indiana.  Their first collaboration on a story was ‘Quest of the Star Stone’ (Weird Tales, November 1937), which brought Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry together into a single story.

Henry Kuttner’s career began as a fan of HP Lovecraft, and then an emulator.  Starting with fan letters, he became a personal acquaintance of both HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith.  In the later 1930s he gained renown as a popular writer of horror stories that skirted decency laws by playing to exactly the lurid fetish sexuality themes for which some pulp fiction became infamous, even if that piquancy was tame by contemporary standards.  By the mid 1930s Kuttner’s agent, Julius Schwartz, advised him to try his hand at the emerging genre of science fiction, which promised to be a bigger market for a professional writer than the horror pulps.

‘When the Bough Breaks’, first published in Astounding Science Fiction, November 1944. ‘Clash by Night’ first published in Astounding Science Fiction, March 1943.

In ‘Clash by Night’, it is possible to see Moore’s Northwest Smith more clearly than Kuttner’s background in horror, and there is no hint here of Kuttner’s developing reputation for satire.  Yet the pacing and mounting tension may have been his contribution.

In many ways this was a ‘Boys Own’ kind of story, chronicling swashbuckling derring do, sustained by the action of one conflict from inception to victory.  But underneath it also explores the theme of war becoming obsolete as a means of resolving material disputes.  In a more contemporary reading, that theme remains valid in the context of war by proxy through drone strikes and the prospect of ‘autonomous’ robotic killing machines.  A victimless war, however, was fantasy then, and remains fantasy now.

There was a surprisingly frank discussion of sexual relationships. The protagonist is torn between the young, beautiful socialite, Ilene Kane, who seduces him with the lure of the pleasures without responsibility pursued by the privileged, leisured class of the Keeps, and the merits of maintaining his ‘free-marriage’ to Jeana, an older woman who had been his companion for some time, as a ‘soldier’s wife’, expecting the exigency of death or disability, and both of them free to walk away from their commitment to each other.

I couldn’t help chuckling at the description of Ilene: ‘The girl was lovely in the manner of a plastic figurine, lit from within by vibrant life. Her blonde hair was cropped in the prevalent mode, and her eyes, Scott saw, were an unusual shade of green. She was more than merely pretty – she was instantly exciting.’  The lure of the Barbie doll bimbo seems not to have changed much in 70 years.

More seriously, the interlude with Kane illustrated a still unresolved tension between privilege and responsibility today.  Particularly in a time during which America’s endless post-war imperial military adventurism is fought and paid for mostly by the plebeians of the USA, not its patricians, some of whom are definitely very privileged and ostentatiously irresponsible.  None more so than its draft-dodging president himself.

At the time I first read the story, I was a teenager grappling with the idea that I would have to choose a vocation soon, so I could turn the last years of my high school education into the right direction for that choice.  One of the options I was discussing seriously with my father was a military career, possibly as a mercenary after a stint at a military academy.  I confess to having been charmed by the romanticised vision of war presented in ‘Clash by Night’.  I am not so charmed by it now, and its portrayal of honourable, ‘civilized’ warfare is definitely too naïve to ring true today.  Had I been older at the time, I might have realised it even in the mid-1970s, with the debacle that was America’s intervention in Indo-China intruding much more strongly on my consciousness than it did at the time.

There’s a contemporary school of readers who demand from their science fiction a realistic verité that withstands all the latest scientific insights.  It is a benighting insistence on a literalism paralleled only by the insistence of religious extremists in the literal truth of their chosen scriptures.  ‘Clash By Night’ is set on a Venus we know never was, and never will be the kind of planet described in the fiction.  However, from my perspective the setting is not so relevant to the story as to invalidate its core messages.  Nor does it undermine my temporal relationship with its content.

Harold Gauer, Robert Bloch, Catherine Moore, and Henry Kuttner in Milwaukee, c1940s; Kuttner and Moore, c1940s, Kuttner c1930s; Moore c1970s.

Catherine Moore said of Kuttner: ‘… as his writing must show and his friends could testify, [he] was wonderfully resourceful, perceptive, fresh in his viewpoints and very, very funny. I think it’s his humor that most of us remember most vividly. But he also had a quality of quiet strength and discipline that I have sensed in very few other people and for which I have enormous respect on the few occasions I do encounter it.’

They married on 7 June 1940 in a quiet New York ceremony, apparently attended only by the renowned SF artist Virgil Finlay and his wife.  After that they collaborated frequently in a way few others could emulate.

Sam Moskowitz, in the 1967 edition of his survey of extant science fiction writers, Seekers for Tomorrow, reveals the nature of their literary partnership: ‘One story told of them most graphically illustrates the method. Henry Kuttner, who became somewhat of a recluse when on a writing binge, had fallen asleep from exhaustion without finishing a story he was working on. Catherine came into the room, read the manuscript, and by the time he awoke the story was completed and on his desk.

‘He was strong on beginnings, she was powerful on endings, and so a specialization grew up where each compensated for the weakness of the other. Some nineteen pen names were used, among them Lawrence O’Donnell, Lewis Padgett, C. H. Liddell, and Kelvin Kent. Collaborations were so involved that after a while both parties found it impossible to tell where one broke off and the other began.’

‘Juke-Box’ was originally published by Thrilling Wonder Stories in February 1947 under the joint pseudonym, Woodrow Wilson Smith!  (The same edition also carried the novelette ‘Trouble on Titan’ under Kuttner’s name.)

My recollection of ‘Juke-Box’ was as not ‘science-fictiony’ enough for my tastes of the time.  The idea of a an unrequited love between a robot juke box, controlled by malevolent aliens, and a hack writer, for whom it is the muse required to spark career success, seemed silly to me back then.

It is a satire, for sure, and probably more about the tribulations of being a writer forced to cater to the whims of tyrannical employers, with the literary taste of barbarians, than about robotic juke boxes and aliens.  I didn’t come to appreciate that sentiment until I worked as a writer myself fifteen years later.

‘Juke-Box’ originally published in
Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1947; ‘The Ego Machine’ originally published in Space Science Fiction, May 1952.

Returning to it again today, though, made it irresistible for me to read into the story also a symbolic relationship between contemporary gadget technology and the malevolent technocrat ‘aliens’ who manipulate us all through those gadgets.  With the devil to pay at the end of it.  I know Phillip K Dick had nothing at all to do with this, but I couldn’t help thinking of his comment on his 1953 short story ‘Colony’: ‘The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you, but when everything is against you.  Instead of “My boss is plotting against me,” it would be “My Boss’s phone is plotting against me.”  Objects sometimes seem to possess a will of their own anyhow, to the normal mind; they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, they get in the way, they show an unnatural resistance to change.’

Now imagine a robotic juke box falling love with you, but exercising a catastrophic revenge on you for being spurned.

‘Juke-Box’ was limited by its brevity, but it felt incomplete nevertheless.  Missing some unifying thread.

In Clash by Night I much preferred ‘The Ego Machine’, which took up a similar theme, but in a more funny, sustained romp through the life of a timid script writer, Nicholas Martin, who is under the thumb of an insufferable director and unable to tell his agent he loves her.  Our timid hero has an improbable encounter with a time travelling robot who lends him, for twelve hours at a time, the personalities of Benjamin Disraeli, Ivan the Terrible, and a cave man.  The consequences are entertainingly hilarious, approaching PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh for high farce.  I thought so in the 1970s, and I believe it now.  This one’s just irresistibly entertaining, and may satirise, in some ways, Kuttner’s early relationship with Moore.

Underneath the romp was another theme too that I don’t think has lost its relevance, and not just for writers: the importance in professional life, of being able to act out rôles to suit the requirements of tasks, clients, colleagues, and bosses.  Contemporary HR people like to talk about emotional intelligence and empathy.  I see it much more as staging different personas to complement or counter the un-selfreflective personalities of other people. There is nothing quite so intrusively destructive as someone with no self-awareness allowing free reign to their ego, id, and superego to flow into their work and other people’s lives; it can wreak havoc on projects, environments, and personal relationships.

Originally published by Space Science Fiction in May 1952, ‘The Ego Machine’ was credited solely to Henry Kuttner back then.  If Moore is right about Kuttner’s irresistible humorous side, it may be that she had a lesser rôle in this piece, which seems to echo Kuttner’s style in his stories about the binge-drinking inventor, Galloway Gallegher, who must constantly discover the purpose and utility of machines he built while so drunk that afterwards he can’t remember why he did it.

The final tale, ‘Vintage Season’ is the most haunting and personally meaningful story in the collection.

First published by Astounding Science Fiction in September 1946 under the pseudonym Lawrence O’Donnell, it has subsequently been republished since under CL Moore’s name alone.

It relates the arrival in a small town of visitors from a future who are there to observe a major historical disaster, taking up rooms in protagonist Oliver Wilson’s boarding house, and putting his relationship with his fiancée Sue under strain.  There is some humour in the piece, illustrating the tense and adolescent relationship between Wilson and Sue, but what I remember most vividly, and what retains my attention today, is a building, brooding, febrile quality, as if of an unfolding, fevered nightmare.  It is a gradual unwinding of an almost yokelish naïveté in the presence of far more sophisticated, but decadent and somehow menacing outsiders.

In its time, this theme may have been motivated by the loss of innocence that came from exploding nuclear warheads over Japanese cities.  When I first read it, though, in some other anthology, it had a much more personal meaning.

In those days of the mid-1970s I knew an older girl, in her early 20s, who was very kind to me.  Her name was Laurel, but I always thought of her as Ophelia, in a comparison to the John Everett Millais painting.  There was something haunting about her, something sickly about her pallor, slightness, and her dark rimmed eyes.  I suppose I had a crush on her, but ours was never a sexual relationship, though at times it was quite close for such mismatched companions.  A few years later I would have known instantly that she was a junkie, but I was naïve about such things at the time.  Still, I had an intuitive feel for the desperate self-destruction at work there, and mistook it for a kind of romantic Victorian Gothic flavour.

In some sense Ophelia was my Kleph Sancisco, playing sad songs by Leonard Cohen to me, serving me tea and cheesecake, and wrapping herself around me while we talked softly.  If I had known her longer, she might have introduced me to her poison, and I might have watched our joint disaster unfold with her, like Oliver Wilson did with Kleph in the story, and maybe also with the same outcome.

‘Vintage Season’ originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, September 1946.

But I lost track of Ophelia when that school term expired and I returned to my father’s house in London.

An unsettling feeling of lost opportunity emanates from ‘Vintage Season’, insinuating itself into thoughts about how I might have handled situations in the past more capably, and extending to the broader societal and historical examples of missed opportunities for preventing disasters and blighting developments. There is also a hint here of my own belief that all great art arises to some degree from pain and suffering.

The story was adapted for a disappointing 1992 film, Timescape, AKA Grand Tour: Disaster in Time by writer/director David Twohy, with a forgettable cast and an antithetical happy ending; I saw it in passing and remember it now only for Jeff Daniels, who so impressed me a year later in Gettysburg.  Twohy went on to write the script for The Fugitive (1993) with Harrison Ford, and to both write and direct Pitch Black (2000), The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), and Riddick (2013), which I regard as better science fiction films than the contemporary treadmill Star Wars and superhero franchises.

‘Vintage Season’ has been declared CL Moore’s unsurpassed masterpiece, suggesting she was at least the major contributor to this piece, if not its sole author.

Sadly, Henry Kuttner died of a heart attack in 1958, not yet 43, and CL Moore ceased to write science fiction thereafter.

This anthology might be a friend for personal reasons, but I’d recommend it to anyone else who enjoys well-crafted fiction.  Particularly if they are not obsessed by the cult of the new that has so egregiously devalued the treasures of the past in the last two decades.

 

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