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Holiday Reading: Henry Kuttner’s “Robots Have No Tails”

Filed under Reading / Watching / Consuming

Robots Have No Tails (Henry Kuttner)

I used to wonder if my sleeping self were a completely different creature than the waking me who’s typing this now. My sleeping self, I thought, had his own personality, his own urge to survive, and simple wants: to be left alone so he could survive – which meant, of course, not waking up.

My sleeping self could carry on a short conversation. He might promise to do anything, if it seemed like once he’d made the promise, he’d get to survive (sleep). He even might answer the phone and do those things remotely. Once he picked up the phone and just said “Why are you doing this to me?” before he hung up.

He had a fairly short window in which to make the world go away because after a couple of minutes the waking me would take his place. So he was wily. Often enough I found myself dealing with what he’d done as my day went on.

But the sleeping me was nothing compared to the alternate self of Galloway Gallegher, as we see in this collection of short stories by Henry Kuttner.

Gallegher, says Gallegher, does science by ear. He doesn’t know how. Somehow – in spite of not having a lot of formal training – his subconscious has picked up a lot of knowledge along the way and if his conscious mind just gets out of its way it can do such amazing things that it makes him the most gifted – if unusual – inventor in the world.

Fortunately for his subconscious, this happens when Gallegher is supremely drunk. It’s fortunate because that happens pretty often.

And that’s the setup for each of these stories – because although Gallegher (drunk) can solve just about any problem that’s presented to him he does it "by ear", using whatever materials are at hand – and sometimes, whatever he can have delivered. He doesn’t make notes, and he’s suspicious of any attempt to record what he’s up to. He’ll meet with clients, cobble together some bizarre machine to solve their problems – often more than one at a time – and then pass out, leaving Gallegher (sober) to try to figure out what’s happened. Why, for example, he now has a machine that’s eaten all the dirt in his back yard and does nothing else except to sing "Saint James Infirmary". And, just as often, why everyone seems to be out to get him.

I remember Henry Kuttner mainly for his fantasy stories from the 1940s and 1950s. They were among the many pulp stories reprinted when I was young. Discovering these, though, was a great pleasure – they’re science fiction screwball comedies, and I just wish there were more of them.

Robots Have No Tails (Henry Kuttner)

Four of the five Gallegher stories were written in 1942 (under the name Lewis Padgett), before Kuttner went off to war. The last was published in 1948. The near-future world of these stories is one in which rapid changes in technology have confused matters a bit – especially in the legal system – and that makes us feel right at home there, doesn’t it?

These stories were first gathered together as a book in 1952. This Planet Stories edition has a new cover by Tomasz Jedruszek and some fine interior illustrations by Brian Snoddy, a new introduction by F. Paul Wilson, and the original 1952 introduction by C.L. Moore – Kuttner’s wife, herself the author of Shambleau and the Jirel of Joiry stories.

Highly recommended!

[tags]science fiction, henry kuttner, robots have no tails, planet stories, paizo publishing, astounding magazine, lewis padgett[/tags]


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