Mimsy Review: The Best of Henry Kuttner
It was a most instructive toy.
The Ballantine Classic Library of Science Fiction is uniformly great; but, as you might guess from the title of this blog, the Henry Kuttner volume is especially worth searching out.
While I have been a fan of Lewis Carroll for slightly longer than I’ve been a fan of Henry Kuttner (or Lewis Padgett, as I knew him—and his wife and co-author, C. L. Moore—when), my blog isn’t named only after Lewis Carroll’s nonsense rhyme from Through the Looking Glass. It’s also inspired by Kuttner’s most famous short story, about an educational toy that taught too much.
Kuttner, in a Douglas Adams-like twist, surreptitiously purloined Carroll’s poem and turned Carroll into the one doing the copying—it’s amazing what you can do with time travel.
I probably read the story first in the amazing Science Fiction Hall of Fame collection edited by Robert Silverberg. Unless you are extremely well read in early science fiction, that collection is strongly recommended. It contains some of the best and most influential short stories of pre-Nebula years of science fiction, from 1929 to 1964. Besides being an education in great science fiction, it will give you a great idea of who from that era you will enjoy reading further.
I, unfortunately, didn’t see much Kuttner afterward; he died in 1958 so that by the time I started reading science fiction his books were too old-hat to show up in the local supermarket, my only source of books outside the library—which itself had only a handful of science fiction books.
Thanks to used bookstores, I’ve since managed to pick up most of the Ballantine/Del Rey best of collections from the seventies, and recently found The Best of Henry Kuttner. The collection starts with Mimsy Were the Borogoves, and then moves on.
Mimsy Were the Borogoves is still brilliant forty years later. My blog does it little justice.
The book has an introduction by Ray Bradbury, five years younger than Kuttner; Bradbury claims Kuttner gave him the advice that got him writing: “shut up”. That is, stop wasting your stories talking about them, and start writing them down. Bradbury says he was 17 at the time, so Kuttner would have been about 22. I’d have to say after reading Kuttner’s stories that there’s likely an influence one way or the other, or both, between the authors. There is a family resemblance in the sort of whimsy they use, at least in their short stories.
While the book is a “best of Henry Kuttner”, at least ten of the seventeen stories were originally published either under a pseudonym used by both Kuttner and Moore—such as the Lewis Padgett pseudonym they used for Mimsy—or under joint authorship with each other.
These are all fun stories, and the writing quality is a step up even from the uniformly high standards of this Best Of series. There’s a great story about using nonsense songs against Nazi Germany, and it mentions a song I’ve not heard until now—an earworm called The Hut-Sut Song—which I then coincidentally discovered in a Homer and Jethro album the next day that had been on my “to listen” shelf.
Many of his stories come from combining genres. He’s got a great future crime story in Two-Handed Engine, about a world where robot consciences follow people who commit crimes and at some unknown random or arbitrary time, kill them. And a caper story that’s sort of a locked room challenge met by a con-man trying to avoid his victims, in The Voice of the Lobster.1
And there are stories about secretly improving the human race from unlikely sources, one a family of hillbilly supermen and another a Park Avenue merchant.
And a good time travel story, which is hard; I love a good time travel story, and dislike bad ones. Most of them are bad. In this one, there’s a neat adventure tied up with a worthwhile twist at the end.
While the original edition is one of the harder books to find in the series, unlike most of the series this one is still in print. The 2007 fantasy The Last Mimsy was very loosely based on Mimsy Were the Borogoves and rather than rewrite the short story into a novel Del Rey simply republished the collection under the movie’s title. So you don’t have to haunt used bookstores like some time-lost pallid wraith to read it.
In this story, only the title is influenced by Lewis Carroll.↑
The Best of Henry Kuttner