And the Mome Raths Outgrabe

By Matthew Cheney

The upcoming movie The Last Mimzy, directed by the head of New Line Cinema, Bob Shaye, may be marvelous or may be terrible, but even before its release it has accomplished one good thing: A collection of stories by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore is now widely available in trade paperback, because the movie is based in some way on "Mimsy were the Borogoves," a short story that first appeared in the February 1943 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Kuttner and Moore married in 1940, both having separately established reputations for themselves as writers for the pulp magazines, and thereafter many collaborative stories appeared under a wide variety of pseudonyms, including Lewis Padgett, the name under which "Mimsy were the Borogoves" was published.

The collection being released by Del Rey is titled after the movie, but it originally appeared from Ballantine in 1975 under the title The Best of Henry Kuttner. At the same time, Ballantine released The Best of C.L. Moore, which, not having a movie to provide interest and marketing for it, remains out of print. (In 2004, Centipede Press did publish a generous collection of Kuttner and Moore's stories, Two-Handed Engine, which is also available from The Science Fiction Book Club.)

The one problem with the re-released book is that it gives very little notice to Catherine Moore aside from a mention on the back cover. There are probably many reasons for this, including the book's original title (which, I assume, Moore approved, because she was the executor of Kuttner's estate), but it seems unfortunate, nonetheless.

Consider what Damon Knight, who knew both writers, wrote in In Search of Wonder:

When Kuttner married Catherine Moore in 1940, two seemingly discordant talents merged. Kuttner's previous stories had been superficial and clever, well constructed but without much content or conviction; Moore had written moody fantasies, meaningful but a little thin. In the forties, working together, they began to turn out stories in which the practical solidity of Kuttner's plots seemed to provide a vessel for Moore's poetic imagination. Probably the truth is a good deal more complex; the Kuttners themselves say they do not know any more which of them wrote what. . . .

When David Curtis edited Two-Handed Engine for Centipede Press, he decided to label all of the stories therein as by both Kuttner and Moore (except for "Shambleau" and "The Graveyard Rats," each author's first publication, written before they knew each other). This seems like a sensible approach, because even though figuring out the exact influences on any author's work is impossible, and nearly every published story retains traces from friends and colleagues and editors, we know that Moore and Kuttner collaborated constantly and intimately on what they wrote. (There is even a story, perhaps apocryphal, of the two writers working at separate typewriters, then switching off whenever they reached an impasse in a tale, or wanted the other person to take over.) Some scholars assume that the stories, such as "Mimsy were the Borogoves," published under the Padgett name were mostly or entirely the work of Kuttner, but even if we grant this likelihood and recognize that most of the stories in the book originally appeared either under Kuttner's byline or the Padgett pseudonym, one of them, "Two-Handed Engine," was published in the August 1955 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.

The reissued collection includes the introduction Ray Bradbury wrote for the first edition. Nowhere in that introduction does C.L. Moore's name appear. Bradbury tells the story of Kuttner recommending writers to him, and the first two are Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. He mentions another writer Kuttner mentored, Leigh Brackett. Thus, we know that women were not invisible to Bradbury when he wrote the introduction, only wives who wrote stories with their husbands. Bradbury's introduction begins:

Move around in high schools and colleges, in various semi-intellectual circles high and low, and listen to the names spoken there when books come into the conversation. A great deal of the time you hear:

Tolkien. Lovecraft. Heinlein. Sturgeon. Wells. Verne. Orwell. Vonnegut. And, you should excuse the expression, Bradbury.

But not often enough—Kuttner.

And never, apparently, Moore.

It was more than thirty years ago, though, that Bradbury wrote his introduction, and C.L. Moore was still alive (she died in 1987) and generally well acknowledged within the science fiction community, so it is understandable if Bradbury felt more of a need to draw attention to Kuttner, who had died in 1958. (But still, no mention? Of his wife, his collaborator, his partner? Not once?)

Now, though, we need to condemn the erasure and wonder if it would have been so difficult to include, if not Moore's name prominently on the cover of the reissued book (though why not?), then at least a note that the authors collaborated so closely as to forget who wrote what exactly. Or at the very least, for the sake of accuracy and honesty, the original byline to "Two-Handed Engine."

A new introduction might have been a good thing, though of course Bradbury's name comes with wide recognition. I would have been curious to hear from another writer in addition to Bradbury, a writer from a more recent generation, one who could speak to the power of Moore and Kuttner's stories for writers and readers today. Are the stories, in fact, anything more than historical artifacts, the remnants of a pulp past now one part amusing and one part embarrassing, good for a whiff of simpler yesterdays, but on the whole irrelevant to anything a modern reader might care about?

My own answer to the question of whether the stories still deserve to be read would be a strong, though qualified, yes—qualified, because the stories are so very much of their era and situation. "Mimsy were the Borogoves," actually, is likely to strike most readers today as awkward, with its long passages of needless exposition and a tendency to make sure that whatever is obvious stays so. There's little reason for the story to be anything more than a three-page joke tale, but instead it is ten times that length. But "Mimsy were the Borogoves," despite its canonized status within the first Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology, is not the story to judge Kuttner and Moore by. Luckily, there are others in the collection that offer greater pleasures, such as the aforementioned "Two-Handed Engine," which overcomes its moments of clunky exposition with a tense and affecting portrait of paranoia. There are clever, amusing stories here, too, such as "Proud Robot" and "The Twonky," and numerous tales with sharp dialogue, well-executed plots, and a view of the world and humanity that is clearly affected by the writers' having lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and McCarthyism.

Anyone with a taste for careful, efficient popular fiction will find much of interest within these stories, as they will within stories not included here, such as "No Woman Born," which originally appeared under C.L. Moore's name in 1944, or "Vintage Season," or "Home is the Hunter," or Fury. Some of the best commercial science fiction of the '40s and '50s. Classics, even. By Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.