Monday, 29 November 2010

Review: Cold War

"Cold War" by Henry Kuttner Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1949

I saw the 2002 version of Tuck Everleasting the other day and I realised after all these years that I was wrong.  Though I'd always believed I'd read the book by Natalie Babbit that it was based on, I really hadn't.   That's because I was confusing Miss Babbit's story of immortal country folk in rural America with the Hogben series of short stories by the science fiction writer Henry Kuttner.

It was a bit of a let down because where I found Tuck Everlasting a slow and predictable teen romance that came across like the Twilight series without the sparkly emo vampires, barely suppressed eroticism, and phenomenally bad writing, the Hogben stories have a charmingly comic sense of wonder about them that is very rare in fantasy writing.

Published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1947 and 1949, the Hogben series isn't very well known today.  They follow the adventures of the Hogben family, who are immortal, super-intelligent mutants who possess all manner of psychic powers including telepathy and telekinesis.  Having settled in the United States sometime after the Great Fire of London, the Hogbens live in Appalachia.  They pass themselves off as hillbillies because they're tired of dealing with the slow-witted human race, but often have trouble keeping a low profile because Maw fixes a broken water mill by tinkering together an atomic reactor and son Sauk (who is a mere 400  years old) makes sour milk by putting it in a time machine he made one morning out of bits of wire.

"Cold War" focuses on Uncle Lem Hogben, who helped out a local woman of more than passing ugliness by giving her the power to defend herself against local bullies with her mind.  Unfortunately, the woman in question found a man named Pugh, who was even uglier than her, whom she married and before she passed away they had a son who looked more like a gorilla than his father did.  Worse, the young boy inherited her mother's powers to an incredible degree and could cause pain or death at will. Realising the power that the son has, and that no woman would ever marry the brute, the father Pugh blackmails Uncle Lem into making sure that his lineage "never dies out" or he'll have his son reek destruction wherever they go.  Since Hogbens are forbidden to take a life, Sauk and Uncle Lem are faced with dilemma of either letting the pair run amok, or accede to their demands and watch them conquer the human race.

Needless to say, Uncle Lem comes up with a solution that allows the Pugh line to never die out and even to conquer the human race, but in a way that has a wonderful twist of natural justice to it.

The Hogben series isn't the most successful of Kuttner's work.  Kuttner himself admitted that the stories were an experiment in dialect story telling and mixing comedy hillbilly stories with science fiction has only limited mileage before it descends into farce or sentimentality, but Kuttner scores a win with his invention of an eccentric family of supermen who take their powers as a matter of course and handle their incredible adventures as matter of factly (or otherwise) as one of their neighbours would getting a cow unstuck from a bog. 

Recently reprinted in the Kuttner anthology Detour to Otherness, the Hogbens are a family well worth a reintroduction.

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