Sunday, August 17, 2008

BOOKS: Robots Have No Tails - Henry Kuttner

Going through a recent issue of Locus, I noticed that next spring will see a paperback reprint of a book I have long cherished. Henry Kuttner's collection of Gallegher tales called Robots Have No Tails, might be as funny a science fiction book as has ever been published.

A little publication history. The book originally was published in 1952 or thereabouts. It was also by-lined at that time by Lewis Padgett, which was a pseudonym used by Kuttner, sometimes with, and sometimes without, the aid of writer wife C.L. Moore. The edition I first came across last century was a 1969 reprint, which credited Kuttner, although it's apparent Moore had some input into at least some of the five stories in the book. These are all somewhat long short stories, nearly novella length fun and frivolity.

Galloway Gallegher was a genius. Actually, that's partially a lie. Gallegher's sub-conscious was a genius. A demented genius, amoral to the extreme. And the only way to get through to the genius was for Gallegher to get truly plastered, a job Gallegher was always way too willing to do. That part, with today's political correctness about drinking (and I am a teetotaler myself, so I COULD be disturbed, but I am not) will offend some readers. You've been forewarned. Yet the drunkenness is so completely over the top as to be laughable. Very, very laughable.

While in the state of drunken bliss, Gallegher can "start with a twist of wire, a few batteries, and a button hook, and before he finished, he might contrive a new type of refrigerating unit." The sole issue resulting from his drunken excesses of success, is that the sober Gallegher isn't much brighter than the average Joe off the street. Most times, he looks at what the smart-ass inside of him invented and has not the tiniest little clue as to what it does.

That's part of the charm of the stories. Gallegher gets into a pickle his sub-conscious solves. Then he has to approach inebriation close enough to get a tad smarter, but still not enough in the sack not to remember the explanation for the cure that's staring him in the face. Tends to be delicate. And hilarious. And inventive. More than a half-century later.

I went looking for my copy of the book and couldn't find it. That tends to happen in my over-flowing library. But I DID latch onto a copy of The Best of Henry Kuttner. A seventies reprint of the 1965 original. I should mention here that Kuttner died in the late 50's, having already given up writing science fiction, which he was amongst the masters of in the preceding two decades. The Best of book only features one Gallegher tale, the original (I think), Proud Robot.

In it, Gallegher wakes up from his latest binge to find Joe, the impossibly vain robot of the title, preening into a mirror. Genius-Gallegher invented him to solve a problem with the TV industry where the number two company has patented a new Magna process to expand TV so that it will play in flawless high-definition format in theatres, long abandoned after TV's advent into the home had killed off the movie industry (well, he got THAT one wrong). What's worse, the louts for the suddenly dominant number two company, have been stealing from the good guys, the industry leaders, who pay and treat talent well and had assumed the leadership on merit. Patent law and a corrupt judge or two has put the good guys into dire straights. Unless Gallegher invents a Magna rival that isn't patent-breaking, the bad guys will win.

Well, you KNOW the bad guys won't win. This WAS the day of black hats and white hats. Joe, despite all appearances, DOES have a talent or two. I invite you to solve the problem along with Gallegher the UnDrunk. I'd forgotten the solution in the 30 years or so since I first read the story. Was a true pleasure as I realized just how the bad guys were going to get undone. A real grin.

In Robots Have No Tails, there's four more just like that one. If you can't wait and can't dig up a copy of any earlier edition DO try out the Best of book, which is much more universally available.

And if you do, check out the lead-off story, Or Else. A re-write of a Mexican stand-off, ACTUALLY using Mexicans as stars, this story could have been re-written for today's world, with Sunnis and Shiites playing the Mexican roles. The USA would be the alien peacemaker who lands in the middle of a firefight between two Mexicans, each desperately trying to gain dominion of the only small water spring in their part of the Sonora desert. The tale is as true today as it was 60 years ago when Kuttner (and maybe Moore) first wrote it.

Sure, the stories are dated and are possibly a little politically incorrect. But this IS classic science fiction. I can't recommend either book more highly.


bilbrimstone said...

Back in 1956 at 12 years old and living on a US military housing area in Tokyo, I happened to find it at the library. I read and re-read it several more times during the summer school break each time finding just that much more to savor. It was difficult to find anyone else who shared my excitement at finding such a gem. In the end I just kept it to myself.
Now some 50 odd years later I happened to remember it and tried a search, not expecting to find much, still remembering my dad saying something about the crap I seemed to like rather those worthwhile books. Imagine my joy to find so much and such high praise for the author(s).
I can't wait for the copy I've ordered to arrive so I can go back to where I left off!

Thanks for your efforts

Gary Mugford said...

The pleasure is ours both!