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Fury by Henry Kuttner
(Victor Gollancz SF Collectors' Editions, 9.99, 208 pages, paperback; first published in magazine form 1947 as by "Lawrence O'Donnell"; first published in book form as by Kuttner; this edition 16 November 2000.)

When I was in my teens and still at school, I was an addict of the paperback-remainder bins that were in every Woolworths, for there one could find countless sf and fantasy books, mainly US remainders dumped in the UK, at cover scana trivial cost. It was thanks to those bins that I built the nucleus of an excellent sf/fantasy library. (It was also thanks to them that I became an avid fan of Richard Powers's cover art, but that's another story.) There I discovered many US authors I'd never before heard of, one of the most notable being Henry Kuttner, whose Bypass to Otherness (1961) I still regard as one of the best story collections ever published, in any genre; I re-read my copy, and pressed it on friends and relatives to read, until it finally dropped to bits.

Among the other authors who impressed me at the time were two, Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O'Donnell, who seemed to have something of the Kuttner flair, although in my youthful critical opinion they weren't as good. It came as a considerable shock, years later, to discover that Kuttner, Padgett and O'Donnell were one and the same person.

Or, rather, two and the same person. For all three names (and others besides) were used largely for collaborations between Kuttner himself and his wife, Catherine L. Moore. Fury was one such collaboration, and is perhaps their most famous effort. To the teenager that I once was, however, it was actually a disappointment: I expected from the title some magisterial tale, as hot or as cold as fire, and instead found a novel that was really more about political machination than anything else. Coming back to it decades later has been an interesting experience.

The tale is this. Mankind has destroyed Earth in an atomic blaze. Centuries later, the survivors live in great domed colonies (Keeps) at the bottom of the oceans of Venus, confined there because wild animals and plants make the planet's land surface unremittingly hostile. Human society is stagnant through lack of the need to struggle, and it is clear to a few that the species is on its slow way out. Matters are not helped by the presence of a ruling caste of Immortals (not in fact immortal but rendered exceptionally long-lived as an inheritable consequence of the atomic wars on Earth), who, with a perspective of centuries, have a habit of perpetual procrastination.

To one of these Immortals, Blaze Harker, is born a son, Sam. The mother dies in the birthing, and in grief Blaze has the baby hideously mutilated and cast adrift among the (mortal) plebs, where he grows up unknowing of his heritage. He becomes a petty and then a major criminal, with a strong psychopathic bent. He also, purely for commercial reasons, becomes fired with the idea that humanity should claim and colonize the land surface. This project Sam powers by large-scale deception and subterfuge, until finally it is brought to fruition as the first stepping stone towards humanity's destiny among the stars.

Fury is, essentially, the biography of Sam Harker.

The most striking thing about this half-century-old novel is how modern it seems: shift the scene to a hostile planet other than Venus, remove one or two incongruous gender asides (Sam realizes he is repelled by one woman because she displays the aggressive self-confidence that really ought to be the province of men alone), and add a heap of cusswords plus a couple of detailed gratuitous sex scenes, and this could easily be a novel written in the 1980s or any time afterwards, right up until the present day. The politics are simplified, but that's true in all political novels. The human relationships are depicted in a generally adult fashion that contrasts starkly with the adolescence permeating most pulp novels of the 1940s and indeed for some decades afterwards. And the Kuttner/Moore combo succeeds in a trick that is remarkably sophisticated in both intention and attainment for fiction of that era: although the murderous, wholly self-interested Sam is as dislikable a figure as many a fictional villain, we somehow end up identifying with him, rooting for him.

The teenage me was wrong in his disappointment. This is a fine novel.

There are carps to be carped about this edition, however. First, it seems odd in a self-styled collectors' to maintain the lie that this was a solo effort by Kuttner; why not bill the authorship properly, and give Moore her share of the credit? The information that it was a collaborative work is tucked away on the back flap, but really it should be on the front cover. Second, the frequent typographical errors retained from the original Gollancz printing are a profound irritation, as are some crazily positioned line-spaces.

Some of them practically mid-sentence. If this is to be a collectors' edition, then such blemishes should have been erased. There is no cosy glow of nostalgia on encountering yet another blasted typo; instead there is the profound feeling that one's being short-changed -- which of course is exactly the case, because the reason the corrections weren't made can only be because it would have cost money. Not very much money, to be sure; so it's kind of contemptuous to the readership that nothing has been done.

Still, the cover price is relatively modest, and if you've never read Fury it represents an excellent investment. If you merely need a copy for your shelves, you might perhaps be better searching the dealers for a second-hand copy of a different edition.

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 24 February 2001