Short Story Review: “The Big Night” by Henry Kuttner

(Cover by Earle Bergey. Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1947.)

Who Goes There?

Last month I reviewed C. L. Moore’s “The Black God’s Kiss” (review here), which was a reread and a reminder that sometimes rereads are important. As I delve deeper into the works of Moore and her first husband, Henry Kuttner, the more I think that there ought to be a major resurgance in interest with regards to these two. In the ’40s Kuttner and Moore were the writing duo in science fiction, being so seamless in their collaborations that they struggled to tell who wrote what—a layer of ambiguity that has plagued genre historians ever since. With some stories it’s safe enough to say who did what, but sometimes it comes down to “educated” guesses: a rule of thumb is that if a story post-1940 is credited to Moore alone then it probably is just her, but Kuttner sadly does not receive the same treatment for stuff published under his byline without Moore. The two as a pair contributed frequently to Astounding Science Fiction, but each would also submit to other outlets solo, and Kuttner especially appeared without Moore’s next to his quite often in Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories. It might be that because Kuttner did not have as high a reputation as Moore that he was more inclined to appear in second-rate magazines.

It’s true that Kuttner was a less refined writer than his wife; his technique was more steeped in the tradition of pulp craftsmanship, being more adept at producing “raw” story over memorable lines of prose. As such, Kuttner is harder to judge on a line-by-line basis, but rather should be judged by the total effect his work has, which at its best certainly rivals Moore’s. Kuttner was also one of the great humorists of classic SFF, being one of John W. Campbell’s court jesters in the peak days of Astounding and Unknown, but the downside is that his knack for comedy can cast a veil over his talent for social commentary and, yes, a bit of philosophy. Today’s story, “The Big Night,” is relatively serious for Kuttner (though it’s still knee-deep in pulp prose), which might be why he had it initially published under the pseudonym Hudson Hastings.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the June 1947 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, which is on the Archive. The good news is that if you want a more readable digital copy you’re in luck, because for some reason this story fell out of copyright and it’s available, perfectly legally, on Project Gutenberg. As for paper reprints you only have a few options, but the ones I recommend are pretty good. First, and as will usually be a source for Kuttner/Moore reviews, there’s Two-Handed Engine, a massive tome that collects “essential” stories from Kuttner and Moore, both solo and in collaboration, and you can get a used copy for a reasonable price. There’s also the Ballantine paperback volume The Best of Henry Kuttner, which admittedly relies too much on stories that were most likely written in collaboration with Moore (Moore does not get the same treatment for her Ballantine Best Of volume). Suprisingly “The Big Night” has not been anthologized anywhere, not even for like a stray collection of pulp-era space opera stories. Oh well.

Enhancing Image

Normally when we’re introducing to spaceships, especially in pulp-era SF, there’s an attempt on the author’s part to capture a sense of wonder with the ship’s bulk and speed, but Kuttner doesn’t do that; instead we’re introduced to La Cucaracha (yes, that’s its name) with language that would be considered unflattering, her “fat body” scarred with a molten streak across her middle and with spot-welds standing in for liver spots. La Cucaracha is an old ship and she’s on her last leg, and to make matters worse her skipper, Sam Danvers, is drunk again. Danvers mostly plays second fiddle to the story’s real protagonist, Logger Hilton, the first mate.

(An aside before we continue is that I wouldn’t go into this expecting female representation at all, as there’s not a single named female character and La Cucaracha‘s crew is all-male.)

Hilton is called to talk with Danvers, or rather to talk him out of his stupor, as Danvers is indeed quite drunk and, like his ship, is very old. “He was a big man, or rather he had been once, but now the flesh had shrunk and he was beginning to stoop a little.” We aren’t told ages, but judging from some comparisons I’d say Hilton is in his forties while Danvers is in his seventies, so you know we’re not dealing with spring chickens. When we meet Danvers he’s “making a speech to an imaginary Interplanetary Trade Commission.” The ITC, as I’ll call it from now on, had recently done a routine inspection of the ship and found she’s “unsafe,” which isn’t surprising given she’s riddled with scars and she may break apart any moment. On the one hand Danvers is fundamentally a sympathetic character, and from his perspective the ITC (i.e., government regulation) is the villain, but both Danvers and Hilton know that La Cucaracha is not long for this world.

You see, La Cucaracha is a hyper-ship, which is to stay a ship that can cross hyperspace and easily venture into what’s called the Big Night—the space beyond our solar system. To get around the speed-of-light barrier in space travel authors will opt for some kind of shortcut, and jumping into hyperspace—a dimension totally removed from ours—is this story’s shortcut of choice. Interstellar travel was, up till recently, done with hyper-ships, but something has been threatening to make these great ships obsolete: long-distance teleportation. More useful for transporting cargo than people, but still teleportation presents a cheap and relatively safe alternative to hyper-ships. The implication, which Kutter might agree with, is that the introduction of “matter-transmitting” will be a net positive for interstellar relations and commerce (important because, as we’ll see, there are a few intelligent alien species to contend with), but still hyper-ships being outmoded will put thousands of men out of work.

So about those aliens. We’re introduced to several characters on the ship, not all of whome are human. There’s Hilton and Danvers; there’s Wiggins, the second mate; there’s Saxon, a fresh “recruit” who is not exactly there of his own volition; but most intriguingly for me there’s Ts’ss, a Selenite, Kuttner’s most original creation here. The Selenites are a tentacled raxce akin to octopi, and in disposition they’re rather stoic, a very old and wise race, even bearing a resemblance to Vulcans. Ts’ss is the Spock equivalent, which… look, I’ve held off on this long enough: I can’t help but make comparisons to Star Trek with this one, they’re too obvious. Even hyperspace reminds me of a ship warping, although the blinking-in-and-out-of-existence part is more stark here; you can’t see SHIT in hyperspace, you have to calculate where you’ll end up. “You had to work blind here, with instruments. And if you got on the wrong level, it was just too bad—for you!” Anyway, in a story where characters each have a single defining trait (we can’t afford more than one), Ts’ss is the closest we get to someone multi-layered, though ultimately he is still merely a support player.

At a little over 10,000 words this is a novelette, but “The Big Night” has perhaps one too many characters/subplots. There’s a subplot with the ship meeting up with a trader on a distant planet, which naturally doesn’t work out because the trading post there is set to have teleporters installed; there’s a subplot with Saxon, the new recruit, which doesn’t do much aside from provide a sort of deus ex machina for the climax; there’s a weird little detour involving another alien race that I’ll get into deeper in the spoilers section that could’ve been cut. Generally this story suffers from being overstuffed considering the simplicity (albeit effective simplicity) of its tone and thesis. Kuttner also does the thing where alien races are boiled down to traits that basically all members of that race share, but for a short story this is more forgivable than if it was a whole novel.

Kuttner was always the pessimist, but that sense of doom was usually counterbalanced by a healthy dose of humor; not so with “The Big Night.” While I just shat on this story for its pacing, I’m impressed that something from the late ’40s can be this fatalistic about the future of space travel. By most metrics the crew of La Cucaracha would probably be tried in court for smuggling and kidnapping; a fraction of the crew, including Saxon, the new guy, were shanghaied, a fact that Hilton and Danvers find bitter but ultimately a necessary evil to keep the ship going. There just aren’t enough people signing up for hyper-ships these days, and even Hilton plans to put his engineering degree to good use once this last trip is finished. The end of an age coming and nobody can stop it.

There Be Spoilers Here

The second alien race we come across are the Canopians, who are considered to be morons as far as sentient races go, albeit with one attribute that makes them indespensible space-farers: they have a real knack for navigation. While at the trading outpost Hilton gets roofied by Danvers, in a way, Hilton is well aware, not dissimilar from how the ship shanghais people, but this time it’s to get Hilton back on the ship without him putting up a fight—over the fact that Danvers recruited a Canopian. Hilton just wants to go home and be done with this whole business, but Danvers isn’t done yet. The Canopian’s skill with navigating and Saxon’s background as a teleporter engineer (a little fact that Hilton is hesitant to tell Danvers) rescue La Cucaracha from almost certain destruction during its return trip. The back end of “The Big Night” is a little too convoluted for me, and if I didn’t run it through Google Docs (Is there a more efficient way to get a word count for something?) I would’ve assumed it was a longer novelette.

By the end we’ve reached the point where the ship has some more time bought for itself, but how long is the question. Now doubt some of the crew will jump ship on the next step; there may even be threats of mutiny, which anyway is always a concern with ships. It’s here that we get my favorite bit of dialogue, which naturally comes from Ts’ss, and it really sums up Kuttner’s point in a way that borders on poetic:

“The reason I keep shipping on La Cucaracha is because I can be busy and efficient aboard, and planets aren’t for Selenites any more. We’ve lost our own world. It died long ago. But I still remember the old traditions of our Empire. If a tradition ever becomes great, it’s because of the men who dedicate themselves to it. That’s why anything ever became great. And it’s why hyper-ships came to mean something, Mr. Hilton. There were men who lived and breathed hyper-ships. Men who worshipped hyper-ships, as a man worships a god. Gods fall, but a few men will still worship at the old altars. They can’t change. If they were capable of changing, they wouldn’t have been the type of men to make their gods great.”

Ts’ss supposes that yes, teleportation is replacing the hyper-ships, but then eventually something else will come along and replace teleportation. No doubt the riders of horse carriages felt a similar sense of doom when the automobile started becoming commercially viable, or when silent movie actors had to face spoken dialogue. Some do not make the transition, and that’s a perfectly natural byproduct of change, if unfortunate. Danvers would rather die than give up his ship, and given his age that’s likely to happen whether anyone would want that or not. Some people will never give up the old ways. Kuttner doesn’t seem to be rooting for tradition here (he hardly strikes me as a conservative), but he may be saying that there’s virtue in stubbornness, if that stubbornness serves something great.

A Step Farther Out

I said at the beginning that Kuttner’s writing ought to be taken in totality, and that very much applies to “The Big Night,” a story that could’ve been a thousand words shorter but which remains, at its core, a bittersweet passing the torch in the distant future. Usually in SF we see spaceships and teleportation working in tandem, and realistically, if the two were to ever happen, they probably would not conflict so much—but still Kuttner considers, more than some other authors, the possible repurcussions of teleportation. I’m reminded specifically of the early section of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and also Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where there’s a palpable sense of an era coming to an end, and also Kirk and Danvers not being that dissimilar: both love their ships too much to pack it in just yet. Most of Kuttner’s work that I’ve read up till now has been set on Earth and in the near future or even the “present” day, but “The Big Night” makes me wonder what other space-faring SF he wrote…

See you next time.


4 responses to “Short Story Review: “The Big Night” by Henry Kuttner”

  1. Finally, a Kuttner story I haven’t read. Thanks for introducing it. I’ll have to reread my CL Moore. Like them both, but have to admit I’ve always preferred Kuttner. I wish you had left that lack of social commentary comment out of your post. There’s too much of that in fiction these days and inclusion. I’m fed up to the back teeth. Particularly fed up with people who deem themselves sensitivity readers tinkering with Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Dr Seuss. I sense these insensitive, talentless vandals are just rolling up their sleeves.


      • I don’t tell people what to read or to analyse, I tell people to stop telling writers who to include or exclude, how to write and what to say or not to say. It sucks the joy out of the creative process.

        It’s bad enough putting contemporary work under the knife, trawling through the past and looking to rework it, is worse. Those authors aren’t in a position to put a stop to it. It’s retrospective censorship. It’s appalling.


      • You did indeed. I’ll quote you: “I wish you had left that lack of social commentary comment out of your post. There’s too much of that in fiction these days and inclusion. ” And then you went on your screed…


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