The more I read of Henry Kuttner, the more ashamed I am that I didn’t read all of his works long ago! Henry Kuttner (1915-1958) was a versatile writer of pretty much every genre of weird fiction imaginable: science fiction, horror, fantasy, adventure, and things that defy ready classification. His is undeniably one of the most influential science fiction writers of the early 20th century, and many of his short stories are beautiful and classic.
I’ve been using this blog as an excuse to read more of Kuttner’s work, though I don’t really need one! I’ve previously written about his foray into sword-and-sorcery fiction, in his Elak of Atlantis stories, and his exploration of adventure stories, with Thunder Jim Wade. All of these are short stories, however, so I finally got around to reading one of his novel-length works, The Time Axis (1948):
It’s great! Like a lot of Kuttner’s work, it manages to blend a pulp adventure tale together seamlessly with a science fiction story, and gives the reader a sense of awe and wonder that is altogether rare in fiction.
The story really grabs your attention right from the first sentences:
The whole thing never happened and I can prove it — now. But Ira De Kalb made me wait a billion years to write the story.
So we start with a paradox. But the strangest thing of all is that there are no real paradoxes involved, not one. This is a record of logic. Not human logic, of course, not the logic of this time or this space.
The narrator is a newspaper journalist named Jerry Cortland, who has had much success but now feels lost and without purpose in life. Living in a drunken haze in Rio, he is oblivious to reports of mysterious burning deaths in the United States — until the night he encounters a shadowy creature in a dark alley. The creature lurches at him, and Jerry grabs its arms in self-defense, burning his hands in the process. The creature vanishes, but Cortland has been marked; somehow he is now connected to it and its murders.
Unexpectedly, Cortland is hired by the brilliant scientist Ira De Kalb, and he travels to meet the man. Once there, he meets two other guests of De Kalb’s: Dr. Letta Essen, a genius atomic scientist, and Colonel Harrison Murray, who funds De Kalb’s research. De Kalb surprisingly explains that he knows about the creature, its nature, and much more.
The creature is a manifestation of the nekron:
“An absolutely new form of matter, the death of energy. It breaks a supreme law of our universe, the law of increasing entropy. Entropy trends toward chaos, naturally. But the nekron is the other extreme, a pattern, a dead null-energy pattern of negation.”
De Kalb accidentally released the creature from an ancient time capsule that he found buried in an excavation in Crete — a capsule from billions of years into the future. At the end of time, the evolved remnants of humanity reside in a city guarded by a massive face protruding from the side of a mountain: The Face of Ea. The nekron has overwhelmed most of the universe, leaving only the City of the Face unharmed, and its inhabitants have sent a distress call back in time. The four adventurers plan an expedition to the distant future, to try and aid its inhabitants and defeat the nekron. But what can four twentieth century humans do against a force which equals the death of energy?
I won’t say too much about what happens on that journey, other than to say that it involves an unexpected turn, and that the story ties together in quite a surprising and satisfying way. It is not a particularly deep tale, but Kuttner manages to evoke a sense of cosmic wonder in his descriptions. For instance, we never really see the future humans — but in a few short sentences, he manages to describe them perfectly.
One pleasant surprise is Kuttner’s use of real mathematics in his tale. In particular, Kuttner finds a very imaginative use of the Banach-Tarski paradox. This theorem in set-theoretic geometry, first published in 1924, suggests that there is a way to divide a sphere into pieces such that the pieces can be put back together into two spheres, each with the volume of the original sphere! This highly non-intuitive result involves ‘pieces’ which are structured sets of infinitesmal points, so it isn’t something that can be done in any real experiment, so don’t start chopping up your bowling ball at home just yet! Kuttner manages to make the paradox an important and even plausible part of the plot of his story.
I absolutely love stories like this, which manage to work in mind-bending concepts while at the same time telling a ripping yarn. Like everything of Kuttner’s I’ve read so far, The Time Axis is highly recommended.