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And The Demon Keeps Me Singing

Two-Handed Engine

By Henry Kuttner & C L Moore 

26 Oct, 2021

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Two-Handed Engine is a collection of vintage science fiction and fantasy by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. The stories were written in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They were collected and published in 2004 by Centipede Press. Some stories were by Kuttner or Moore solo; most were collaborations. 

Everyone has their favourite Kuttner and Moore collection. Two-Handed Engine is mine. Indeed, I read thousands of books sent me by the SFBC over the decade and a half that I worked for them as a reader and of all of them, this 910-page deluxe anthology may well have been my favourite. I have fond memories of sitting down with the manuscript early one morning and reading straight through to midnight. My recent reread had to be spaced out over a month, but the tome lived up to my fond memories. 

The writing is very 1940s1 (the prose styles of the 1930s and 1950s stories aren’t that much different). Yet the subjects of the stories often seem quite modern: there’s something like a singularity in here (although not one that kills stories) and the authors seem to have hit on the concept of memewar decades before anyone else.

There are one or two duds in here, a few stories that look like they were rushed through to fill a hole in a pulp magazine issue, but on the whole, this is a very solid collection. I recognized about two thirds from their titles alone, even though some of them are seventy years old. (I hasten to add that I myself am not — though my editor is :/) For me, the standouts were Daemon, Mimsey Were the Borogoves, The Twonky,” No Woman Born, and Year Day.” 

My only quibble might have been the cost for the Centipede Press edition: at $225.00 USD, it’s not an impulse buy. Happily, the SFBC edition was a lot more affordable (Granted, without Centipede’s production standards). Both are very much out of print — maybe I should have got around to reviewing this seventeen years earlier — but used copies seem to be easy to come by. 

Now for the nitty-gritty.

Introduction (Two-Handed Engine) • (2005) • essay by David Curtis

A very short introduction explaining: who Kuttner and Moore were and why these particular stores were collected. Most of the stories were collaborations, with the exceptions of Moore’s Shambleau tales and Kuttner’s Graveyard Rats.

I enjoyed this essay and really wish that it had been longer … even though this is a massive book already.

Shambleau • [Northwest Smith] • (1933)

Northwest Smith, an attractive but genre-blind knucklehead, offers a monster-in-woman-form refuge from a lynch mob, only to discover she is a monster-in-human form. Typical dumb Northwest Smith caper. 

This story was probably intended as gothic space horror. Because I know that Smith will never ever learn from experience, I found this a bit funny. 

The Graveyard Rats” • (1936) • short story

A caretaker/grave robber sets out to deal with the graveyard rats, in the process finding a solution for all his cares. 

A Gnome There Was • (1941) • novelette

Transformed into a gnome, a labor organizer puts his unionizing skills to work to help escape his situation. Alas, things don’t turn out well. 

The Twonky” • (1942) • short story

In possession of what they believe is a fancy new radio — which is, in fact, a behavior-modifying robot from the future — a couple is transformed beyond their wildest expectations. 

Compliments of the Author • (1942) • novelette

A slain magician is survived by his grimoire. The excessively optimistic killer is tempted by the book’s promise to grant him immunity to fate. 

There were 1940s authors who might have had the bad guy get away with it, but none of them were named Kuttner or Moore. The hook is the novel way that just desserts are served. 

Mimsy Were the Borogoves • (1943) • novelette

A relic of the future educates children to levels their parents can only dream of. 

The theme of children: half-human and mostly mad” comes up a lot in this book. As does time travel: threat or menace?”

Shock” • (1943) • short story

Confronted with a time traveller and a time portal, it’s only natural to investigate the other end of the portal. It is also very ill-advised. 

Reader, I Hate You! • (1943) • short story

Henry Kuttner and Virgil Finley are drafted by a powerful but careless superhuman to help the superman recover his wife from an SF fan. This goes exactly to plan, but the results are unpleasant. 

It’s possible that that the wife-stealing fan is Forest J. Ackerman. 

The World Is Mine • [Gallegher (Henry Kuttner)] • (1943) • novelette 

Gallegher is brilliant when blackout drunk. He has invented a device that turns out to deposit corpses on his lawn. That would be bad enough. It’s worse that the dead bodies are those of far future Galleghers. 

See note above about time travel. 

When the Bough Breaks • (1944) • novelette 

A superbaby probes the limits of his merely human parents.

The Cure” • (1946) • short story

A doomed man embraces fantasy rather than grim reality. 

The Code • (1945) • novelette 

An attempt to extend an old man’s life succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. 

Line to Tomorrow” • (1945) • short story

A time-phone-based get-rich-quick scheme solves mere financial woes. But there are, as you would expect, side-effects. 

Clash by Night • [Keeps • 1] • (1943) • novella 

Loyal to outmoded custom, Venusian mercenaries waste their lives in pointless war. Despite the monumental meaningless of it all, they are key to keeping alive the last spark of civilization. 

Ghost” • (1943) • short story

Supercomputer displays vexing emergent properties. Said properties seem close to supernatural. Efforts to deal with them go poorly.

The Proud Robot • [Gallegher (Henry Kuttner)] • (1943) • novelette 

Gallegher distracts himself try to solve an entertainment impresario’s problems. But the real mystery is a seemingly useless robot that Gallegher invented during one of his drunken blackouts.

Nothing But Gingerbread Left” • (1943) • short story

A catchy phrase spells Nazi doom!

One wonders if Monty Python had ever read this story. There does not seem to be any way to turn this meme-bomb off: did all hearing German-speaking non-deaf folks die?

No Woman Born • (1944) • novella

Horribly burned, a woman is recreated as a wonderous cyborg. But is she still truly human?

Both the woman and her savior would say no. However, he fears that by rebuilding her he made her less than human, whereas she believes that her new chassis transcends mere human limits. 

Housing Problem” • (1944) • short story

Nosy landlords drive off established tenants. Replacements are easy to come by, but the landlords soon regret not treating their original tenants better. 

What You Need” • (1945) • short story

A merchant with a time-viewer doles out thematically appropriate rewards. 

Absalom” • (1946) • short story 

A manipulative genius grudgingly accepts that his son is superior, taking bitter pleasure in the certainty that any grandchild will be even more superior. 

Call Him Demon • (1946) • novelette 

Eldritch horrors are no match for the ruthless terror that is a small child. 

Daemon • (1946) • novelette by C. L. Moore

A simple-minded, soulless man who can see souls tells his tale to a priest. An odd series of events left the man dying on an apparently deserted island. 

Vintage Season • (1946) • novelette 

A greedy landlord rents a house to peculiar tourists, unaware until too late that his building has a peculiar quality that makes it of great interest to the visitors.

Supporting character Kleph is an unpleasant take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: she’s perfectly happy to upend the landlord’s life because she knows she won’t have to deal with the consequences. 

Dark Angel • (1946) • novelette 

A mutant woman leaves her husband because she is searching for her superhuman destiny.

Before I Wake” • (1945) • short story 

The adults around the young man deploy their best efforts to crush his imagination. Nevertheless he perseveres and embraces his occult destiny.

Exit the Professor” • [Hogben • 2] • (1947) • short story 

An inquisitive professor attempts to study the mutant Hogbens; the Hogbens give him with an unparalleled opportunity to do so. 

The Big Night • (1947) • novelette

Although the age of the hyper ships is over (they have been displaced by the recent invention of interstellar teleportation) a handful of spacers cling to their dying occupation.

Very Last Watch on the Midland.

A Wild Surmise” • (1953) • short story 

Two psychiatrists, one human and one not, try to cure an apparently delusional patient. He’s not delusional, which they do not understand until it is too late. 

Don’t Look Now” • (1948) • short story

An insufficiently paranoid human discovers a nefarious Martian plot.

Private Eye • (1949) • novelette

Time viewers make crime seemingly impossible. A homicidal nebbish spots a loophole. He does not forsee the consequences of getting away with murder. 

By These Presents” • (1953) • short story

Having sold his soul for immortality, a jaded sinner convinces himself that the Devil cheated by taking his soul prematurely. As the man swiftly discovers when he demands the return of his soul, the truth is much, much worse. 

Home Is the Hunter” • (1953) • short story 

A futuristic head hunter goes to extremes to avoid defeat. 

Or Else” • (1953) • short story

Well-intended but poorly informed peacemaking is doomed before it begins. 

Year Day” • (1953) • short story 

In a world saturated with advertisements, freedom from ads is worth a crime … any crime. 

A Cross of Centuries” • (1958) • short story

The immortal man who brought peace to the world is destroyed when his secret (how he ended war and violence) is revealed.

Two-Handed Engine • (1955) • novelette

A post-scarcity world avoids decadence thanks to implacable, merciless justice. 

1: There’s also pulp-era biology and physics. Oh well.