Friday, September 09, 2011

Forgotten Books: The Creature From Beyond Infinity - Henry Kuttner


Henry Kuttner is one of my favorite authors from the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  He wrote a lot, in several different styles, but his work was nearly always fast-paced, full of action, and either humorous or creepy, depending on what was called for.  His novel THE CREATURE FROM BEYOND INFINITY has some of all of that, and more.

Originally published in its entirety in the November 1940 issue of the pulp STARTLING STORIES under the title "A Million Years to Conquer", this novel starts out far, far back in Earth's pre-history with the crash-landing of a spaceship from an advanced civilization.  A couple of the aliens, Ardath and Theron, are the only survivors, and Theron, who is the commander of the expedition, is mortally injured and lives just long enough to order Ardath to complete their mission, which is to find a suitable planet where their doomed civilization can relocate.

This is going to be difficult since Ardath is the only survivor and the spaceship is damaged enough that it can't achieve interstellar travel anymore.  It can, however, make it back into earth orbit, and since the equipment used to put its crew into stasis is still working, Ardath decides to put himself to sleep and wake up every few thousand years to check on how Earth is developing. He has a machine that will detect super-intellects, and he figures that if he can find enough of them, he can breed them and recreate his own advanced civilization on Earth.

Kuttner zooms through all this back-story in just a few pages, then jumps to 1924, when Stephen Court, one of those super-intellects Ardath is searching for, is eight years old and already aware that he's a genius.  The little boy runs away from his parents, takes up with a hobo, and sets about making himself the world's leading scientist.

Back into pre-history Kuttner goes, switching storylines as Ardath wakes up and captures a barbarian named Thordred, who is smart enough that Ardath can transfer some of his knowledge to him through one of the alien machines.  Then back to 1941, where Stephen Court has succeeded in his quest to be the world's leading scientist, even though he's a cold, emotionless, all-around jerk of a guy.  He'll need all his scientific genius, because a strange new plague that turns people radioactive has cropped up, and it threatens the very existence of the world.

Keeping up?  Good, because all of this hopping back and forth in time that Kuttner does will tie together eventually and wind up with our scientist hero Court going head-to-head against the evil Thordred, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the character Vandal Savage, who came along in 1943 to be one of DC's longest-lasting villains in comic books.  Did the writer who came up with Vandal Savage (another SF author, Alfred Bester) read Kuttner's novel in STARTLING STORIES?  Who knows, but there are definitely similarities.

It's amazing that Kuttner could cram all of this kitchen-sink plot (I didn't even mention the trip to Atlantis) into a novel that's probably around 40,000 words and still make an exciting, coherent story out of it.  Like most SF from that era, THE CREATURE FROM BEYOND INFINITY is pretty dated at times, but it also has the cosmic sweep and sense of wonder that used to be common in science fiction.  (I'm not saying you can't find that in today's SF, but I think it's harder to do so.)  It's also a lot of fun as Kuttner keeps things racing along, pausing only occasionally for a moment that's either eerie or poignant, and very effectively so.  And yes, the scene depicted in that great Frazetta cover on the paperback reprint does take place in the novel, and it's a dandy.

I wouldn't recommend THE CREATURE FROM BEYOND INFINITY to everyone who reads science fiction, but if you're an old geezer like me or a younger reader who can put yourself in the right frame of mind (just imagine it's 1940), I think there's a good chance you'll enjoy it, and copies of the paperback are plentiful and inexpensive on-line.

(And if you can read that title and not hear Buzz Lightyear saying it in your head, you're better than I am.) 

20 comments:

Walker Martin said...

STARTLING STORIES is one of my favorite pulps and still fairly easy to collect. There were 99 issues and it was actually one of the better SF magazines under Sam Merwin and Sam Mines.

As James makes clear, it printed interesting SF even in the early years. Then along came the digest revolution in the early 1950's and the pulps were killed off. Now the digests are living on borrowed time as the e-books swarm over the magazine format.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

This is cool stuff. I love scifi but unfortunately early SF novels are hard to come by and so I usually read them online which isn't the same thing. The last scifi book I read was VENUS ON THE HALF-SHELL by Kilgore Trout, created by Kurt Vonnegut, and I enjoyed it.

Bill Crider said...

I've had this one on my shelves for a long, long time, but I've never read it. Maybe now I'll make time for it.

Charles Gramlich said...

I read this not long ago actually. Enjoyed it. But then I'm an old geezer like you. :)

George said...

Henry Kuttner was one of those writers who could write with that Sense of Wonder. Nice Frazetta cover, too!

Randy Johnson said...

Not at all familiar with this one. Must find it now.

Todd Mason said...

Prashant: VENUS ON THE HALF SHELL was the first in a series of books and stories "by" Vonnegut characters written by Philip Jose Farmer, not Vonnegut. I think all of them first appeared in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION in the 1970s, including at least one story by a dog character in Kilgore Trout's stories...and you can still subscribe to F&SF as a bound paper magazine or as an e-magazine! (Or as an Audible audiomagazine, iinm.)

Kuttner and Ms. Moore were truly the masters of compression, even more deft at this than Sturgeon or Leiber or Heinlein and maybe even Brackett in the '40s, among that crew...

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

I stand corrected, Todd. Thanks for the info. I read the paperback a few months ago and remember checking up on Kilgore Trout on the internet and feeling pretty confused about it. I am vague about this but I also remember reading that the Kilgore Trout series were written without Vonnegut's permission or something to that effect.

Anonymous said...

Your theory about Kuttner's uplifted caveman possibly influencing the creation of Vandal Savage is totally plausible -- Savage was created by Alfred Bester, who frequently cited Kuttner as one of his favorite sf writers. Good call!

"Creaure From Beyond Infinity / Million Years to Conquer" is a great example of Kuttner's freewheeling "Everything but the kitchen sink" epic gosh-wow sf period. Check out his "Time Trap" (reprinted in Brian Aldiss' "Space Opera" anthology) and "When New York Vanished" for more of the same.

Keith said...

Like Bill, I've had this one on my shelf but haven't read it because it's on the verge of falling apart. It's shame more of Kuttner hasn't been reprinted, although Haffner Press and a few others are changing that. Some of the unreprinted stuff I've read is as good or better than what's been put in book form.

I tracked down all of the pulps with unreprinted Kuttner a few years ago, at least the ones I could afford. I'll try to highlight some of those tales over on my own blog throughout the next year.

Also, I knew Alfred Bester had worked in comics in the forties, I didn't know he had created the character of Vandal Savage. That would explain why I like the DC characters from that time period so much.

Great post, James. Thanks.

James Reasoner said...

Keith,
I have to admit, the paperback copy I read was falling apart, too. The cover had come loose almost completely, and some of the pages were partially loose, too. I read it carefully and managed to make it to the end without it coming completely undone. That's a real problem with some paperbacks from the Sixties and Seventies. The ones from the Forties and Fifties seem to have held together better.

Richard R. said...

Wonderful post / review, and a great set of comments too! THIS is what makes Forgotten Book Fridays such a treat. This is a rich day, with Kuttner and Mack Reynolds (Todd Mason's blog) both in the mix. Problem is, who has time to read all this great stuff?

Todd Mason said...

Prashant: Actually, Vonnegut gave permission, but resented afterward people thinking he wrote the book and to some extent the subsequent stories (part of the fun for Farmer and his readers was the "goof" of pretending that the fictional character Trout wrote VENUS, and then that the fictional character Jonathan Swift Somers III, whom "Trout" writes about, wrote stories about the sentient dog Ralph Von Wau Wau, and then Ralph Von Wau Wau wrote a story...).

James: They often were using better paper even during wartime, and certainly better glue/thicker binding...some of the "tonier" original mass markets even had sewn bindings, after all.

Rick: If not us, then who? If not now, then when? (and, thanks! Though no one so far seems to enjoy Muriel Spark, whom I was amused to see in some close parallels with Reynolds).

James Reasoner said...

I always thought that Lancers from the Sixties were the worst about falling apart, but this Popular Libary book was just about as bad.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Thanks again, Todd! I can see through the fog now. I agree with Richard. When am I going to read all the great books I have been reading about on all your wonderful blogs when I am barely able to clear my own wish-list? I'm up for the challenge, though. I usually read a minimum of three books by each author.

Anonymous said...

Re: '60s / '70s paperbacks that fall apart : yep, Lancer and Popular Library books are terrible (most of my "Frankenstein Horror Library" books have come loose from their jackets) and Berkley Medallions from that specific period tend to crack and fall apart too.

SteveHL said...

"I didn't even mention the trip to Atlantis."

If Kuttner's book is as good as your review, it is certainly worth seeking out!

Rittster said...

Sleaze writer Clyde Allison (real name, William Knoles) wrote an excellent article titled GIRLS FOR THE SLIME GOD for the November 1960issue of Playboy. The article (as by Knoles) emphasized the "spicy" aspect of 1930's pulp sci-fi written by Kuttner and other sci-fi writers.

Jack Badelaire said...

Oh man...yet another book to add to the "must buy if I ever find it" pile...very cool!

Andy said...

I thought this book was a lot of fun, also.

Another comics thing, but the titular creature also reminded me to some degree of some of the ideas that later went in Marvel's Galactus - the idea of a planet-devouring creature that predates the universe itself (am I remembering that right?).