Birthday Reviews: Kuttner, Smith, Weinbaum

Oddly, this week’s birthday reviews are all novelettes in series which come from the pages of Astounding over the span of a mere eight years (though across the tenures of two editors).

Henry Kuttner (1915-04-07–1958-02-04)

“The Proud Robot” (Astounding, October 1943)

Gallagher is an inventor/scientist but only when he’s drunk. Coming off a bender, he finds that he needs money badly, has made a deal with a businessman he doesn’t remember anything about, and has apparently made a proud robot of strange capabilities named Joe. He spends the rest of the story trying to get drunk again and figure out what was going on. This is in a series of stories about Gallegher and, while perhaps not fully sustaining the novelette length, is a funny tale which does touch on some interesting ideas about social behavior and change related to media and does have a heck of an explanation regarding Joe’s nature.

George O. Smith (1911-04-09–1981-05-27)

“QRM – Interplanetary” (Astounding, October 1942)

Rewinding exactly one year, George O. Smith also launches a series – the Venus Equilateral series which made him famous. This is a bizarre combination of very advanced and dated SF all at once, as it’s about the Venus Equilateral Relay Station, a communication satellite, but one which made out of an asteroid, staffed with the population of a small city, and which is situated ahead of Venus in the Trojan position so as to facilitate communications when Mars or Terra are around the sun from Venus or each other. All is well as long as someone like Channing, who knows what he’s doing, is in charge, even on a temporary basis. All is not well when a businessman is installed as the permanent boss and doesn’t know what he’s doing. The only real problem with this story is that, while it tries to be somewhat fair to the businessman and make him somewhat of a human character, when it comes to the climactic snafu, the businessman is almost (though, alas, not absolutely) too stupid to be believed. Either way, the depiction of the station is wonderful and the series does go on to be a great depiction of heroes who save the day with diagrams jotted onto paper napkins at a bar.

Stanley G. Weinbaum (1902-04-04–1935-12-14)

“Parasite Planet” (Astounding, February 1935)

Rewinding still further, this one even predates Campbell but it’s a superb story by a writer whose tragically early death (even earlier than Kuttner’s) was a major loss to the field. Weinbaum is best known for “A Martian Odyssey” which did for aliens what Asimov did for robots. It’s superb and I recommend it to everyone but I wanted to focus on Weinbaum’s Venus (also a series). This is a Venus that Asher fans should love, as it’s an elaborate and exceedingly nasty ecology which produces frissons of horror amidst great adventure. Its only flaw is an uncomfortable mixture of romance (not unique to this story) but the relationship between the two characters has Han/Leia vibes and Pat Burlingame is about as competent as Leia, too. The plot is simple: disaster strikes, “Ham” Hammond must make his arduous way to distant safety, he encounters another person, disaster strikes and strikes again! But this simple plot is executed very well, keeping the pulse pounding through a very fast read. Though aspects of the denouement will cause many (including me) to groan for various reasons, I enthusiastically recommend the tale.