Henry Kuttner is, for me, one of those authors who never disappoints, and is always thought-provoking. He had an incredibly vivid imagination, and each of his works is absolutely unique, seamlessly blending pulp adventure with science fiction. I've discussed a number of his stories previously on this blog, and I've loved each one of them. Most recently, I sat down to read Destination Infinity (1956), originally published with the title Fury (1947):
(Image taken from fantasticfiction.co.uk.)
This novel is the first of Kuttner's that I've read that is wholeheartedly science fiction; it is also the first novel of his that features an anti-hero! However, it still retains the flavor of Kuttner's earlier pulp adventures, and is a lot of fun.
The novel is set in the twenty-seventh century, some six hundred years after the earth had been destroyed in violent atomic wars. The remnants of mankind have moved to Venus, but the surface is an inhospitable jungle filled with murderous beasts, carnivorous plants, violent weather and deadly fungus that can rot a person to the core in minutes. Colonies have instead been established on the ocean floors, in keeps with sentimental names such as Delaware Keep and Canada Keep. Life in the keeps is safe and uneventful, too much so, in fact -- after hundreds of years of isolation, it seems that mankind has stagnated, and men have lost most of their ambition for exploring, expanding their territory, and enduring hardship.
Ruling over the bulk of humanity are a relatively small collection of Immortals. As a side effect of the radiation of the first atomic wars on earth, a new race of humans were created that can live in principle for thousands of years. By virtue of their longevity, the Immortals can see the downward trend of human ambition, and can even see how the race will inevitably wither and die of its sloth; they are, however, too cautious themselves to do anything about it.
Into this world is born our protagonist, Sam Harker:
Sam Harker's birth was a double prophecy. It showed what was happening to the great Keeps where civilization's lights still burned, and it foreshadowed Sam's life in those underwater fortresses and out of them. His mother Bessi was a fragile, pretty woman who should have known better than to have a child. She was narrow-hipped and tiny, and she died in the emergency Caesarean that released Sam into a world that he had to smash before it could smash him.
Sam's parents are two of the Immortals, and so by heredity is Sam. In what has to be the ultimate act of displaced aggression, Sam's father blames him for his mother's death and inflicts a horrific punishment, surgically altering his infant body to hide all traces of Immortal birth and leave him a bald, stunted, almost deformed adult. Hidden away in the company of ordinary humans, Sam grows up unaware of his heritage, but with a definite feeling that he has been cheated of something in life, and a simmering anger and passion that arises from that feeling. In short, Sam has inadvertently been surgically altered to possess the unscrupulous ambition that is fading in his fellow man.
The novel follows Sam as he pursues his ambitions, first in criminal enterprises and eventually in a plan to successfully colonize the deadly surface of Venus, and beyond. His plans bring him into conflict with other Immortals, who at different times work with him or against him. The Immortals, and eventually Sam himself, are playing a game of strategy with moves that are planned hundreds of years in advance. At stake is no less than the future of humanity, which could be invigorated by the colonizing of the surface of Venus and the other planets, or discouraged and destroyed by the attempt.
The novel is classic Kuttner, with many unexpected twists and turns and filled with the imaginative and thought-provoking details that made me love his work to begin with. I especially love the depiction of the surface of Venus, a place in which every native form of life is death to human beings. Sam Harker is a fascinating character, simultaneously embodying the best and worst features of humanity; it is not unusual to cheer for him on one page and then root against him on the next. Clearly Kuttner is using the novel to ask: are the positive, moral aspects of humanity all that are necessary for survival?
Again, like most other work of Kuttner that I've read, I can highly recommend Destination Infinity. Relatively inexpensive print editions are available.
The ending of the novel is also great: a two-word epilogue that has quite significant implications.