Monday, 19 August 2013

Don’t Look Now by Henry Kuttner

First published in Startling Stories, March 1948

There’s always been a lot of common ground between science fiction and the work of Charles Fort. Like SF writers, Charles Fort tried to make his readers see a world that was like their own but changed. Fort understood the fundamental law of SF that we are always just one surprise discovery away from the paradigm shift.

Stories like this one are usually associated with the saucer craze and Cold War paranoia, but the current issue of Fortean Times covers (number 305) – coincidentally – a very similar tale that has it’s origins in the years immediately after World War I. There are even older examples if these type of delusions like the air loom gang from the early 19th century, and Arthur Miller famously drew parallels between the atmosphere of the Cold War in America and the 17th century witch craze in Salem, Massachusetts.

So, this sort of story was already out there before the red scare, in the popular consciousness. In many ways, it just waiting for the red menace to come along and give it a credible human origin, because science fiction had already created and discarded its own version of the insidious enemy within in the shape of the Shaver mystery.

Kuttner plays his paranoia for laughs. This story begins with what appears to be an incorrigible drunk – Lyman – relaying a typical mix of tall tails and cracked ideas to a sardonic fellow drinker. Kuttner lays the bar fly atmosphere on pretty thick, and it feels a little corny in places. It’s a bit like the whole pink elephants routine popular in cartoons of a similar era. I surely don’t have to explain to a worldly lot like my readers that this isn’t how booze works.

But on the other hand, if you really did find out that Martians were everywhere screwing everything up and had no way of proving it to anyone, maybe drink would be the right response.

Anyway, the Martians have all the usual sly tricks at their disposal. They own everything, control people using hypnosis, dress in human skins, and can also turn invisible in case they want to use the third eye in the middle of their foreheads. It goes without saying that they’re behind everything bad in the world, everything that’s inconvenient and ugly.

Take houses for example. Uncomfrotable things. Ugly, inconvenient, dirty, everything wrong with them. But when men like Frank Lloyd Wright slip out from under the Martian’s thumb long enough to suggest something better, look how the people react. They hate the thought. That’s their Martians giving them orders.

Kuttner’s gets to have it both ways. He gets to mock the cranky Shaver world view, but then borrows a nip of the thing to give the story a nice flip at the end through a particularly deft bit of manipulation of the point of view. It makes for a cute story, but ending doesn’t really pack much of a punch and the mentally ill, let’s be honest, easy targets.

Themes: Paranoia, xenophobia, drunks, paradigm shift, Forteanism.

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