Well of the Worlds by Henry Kuttner
Startling Stories, March 1953
Samuel Mines, ed.
It was a corridor between two worlds…between Earth, and the strange floating islands of the godlike Isier!
So I finally got around to reading the Henry Kuttner novel enshrined in the pages of this magazine issue, and let me tell you, regardless of quality it straight up stinks to read a whole novel in a magazine issue! Those ragged pulp pages are hard enough to turn, plus there’s the terror at ripping one of these precious pages, and furthermore I end up having no idea how much longer I have in the book because the rest of the magazine is other stuff. And further-furthermore, the blasted thing is arranged in columns! Reading a novel at two columns per page is unusual for me, even though I reckon it was the standard before the age of paperbacks.
This has been my review of the medium of magazines.
My review of the book itself is a bit more complicated than that. The short version is that this book was pretty good. The long version is…much longer.
I’ll start by saying that Henry Kuttner was obviously imaginative as hell. Y’all, this book had so much going on, so many ideas. Something I’ve very curious about is which of these ideas was the genesis of the book, and which of them developed as he was writing it. Or did he have some kind of a storehouse of ideas from which to draw, a big notebook or deck of cards he made so that when he hit a snag he could just pull from it and go “Ah, yes, what if people were like uranium? Classic.”
That’s an actual part of this book. I didn’t make it up. I’m not nearly creative enough to make up the kinds of things that this book uses just willy nilly.
It’s now apparent to me that the artwork on the cover of the mag issue was supposed to represent this novel, which is hardly surprising but it’s nice to have it confirmed. That said, the ladies in this book (there were three! I think this book passes the Bechdel test) did not wear such scant clothing as is represented here on the cover, or in the interior artwork by Virgil Finlay. I think at least two of the women (the evil ones) were covered from head to toe, in fact.
But the rest of it’s true. That mask that shoots lasers? Yep! It’s also a translation device. The lizard people! They’re called Sseli. If there’s anything I know about writing, it’s that if you’re going to have some kind of lizard or snake people, you damn well better make their name have at least one double S in it.
So our guy in this book is a rather uninteresting fellow named Clifford Sawyer. He’s pretty young and strong and that kind of guy you’d probably want to take on a long hike with you as long as you didn’t mind not talking about much. He’s a blank slate kind of protagonist.
At the beginning of the book he’s approached by a beautiful young lady with a curious accent named Klai Ford. Not Kali. It took me several pages to realize that. Klai has got a problem. It seems that her uranium mine at the North Pole has got ghosts in it.
Why is there a uranium mine at the North Pole? And why is it apparently a rich one? Man, the post-war atomic era sure did have some funny ideas.
The ghosts, according to Klai, look like stalks of wheat. But moreover there are other things down there. There’s a woman that comes out of a wall and talks to a guy named William Alper, a mean old man who co-owns the mine with Klai for reasons I don’t remember. She’s convinced that Alper is trying to close the mine, and now she has evidence. She planted a camera down there and recorded him talking to this weird mine lady, and Sawyer can’t help but agree that something must be going on.
It turns out that Alper knew all along that he was being suspected, and also he’s been bidden by this strange woman to kill Klai, and he bugged the room, so as soon as Klai leaves he shows up and knocks Sawyer out and implants a thing on his head.
This is the first of the very imaginative and wildly complex things introduced in the book. The thing on Sawyer’s head is essentially there so that Alper can make him hurt or even die if he needs to. The way it works is that it, uh, amplifies the sounds that are already inside Sawyer’s head? Like, the sound of blood moving around and all that stuff. Why? Why does that need to be that way? I’m not sure, but it does some into play. It also serves as a transmitter, so that Alper can always be aware of what Sawyer is saying to somebody.
One of the things about this magazine is that the interior artwork did depict scenes from the book, but they were put in places way ahead of what they were depicting, so they were both kinda spoilery and also just perplexing.
The opening page depicts something that happens pretty much at the end of the book, for instance. And also I’m pretty sure Klai was wearing more than that when it happened.
Alper is an old man, I think I mentioned that, but he’s also deathly afraid of dying, and the weird woman in the mine, who turns out to be named Nethe, has some way of transferring energy to him to keep him alive and vigorous. That’s a whole thing.
There are a lot of whole things going on and it’s kind of hard to keep them chronological in my mind.
Klai and Sawyer and Alper all go down into the mine, where they meet Nethe and there’s a whole lot of back and forth stuff where Alper is all snivels and cringe, but he also can’t let Klai just die because it would cause him all sorts of vague “problems.” One thing leads to another and there’s a struggler and Alper comes away with the magic item that Nethe uses for stuff, which she calls the Firebird. He ends up opening a portal into another world and everybody falls through it.
One thing this book has been doing up to this point is using terminology from this other world and never explaining it, which is pretty neat. Mostly it’s this Nethe lady referring to everybody as “Khom” with a lot of contempt, but at one point Klai calls Nethe an “Isier” and that’s a question too. Once we get to the other world, we get a few exposition dumps that tell us what all this means.
But also we get this art.
Correct in some basics, mainly in that the Firebird is shaped like that and it turns out that there are floating islands in this world, but I don’t remember Sawyer having a cape, and also look at that cleavage, wowza.
Actually, I think that illustration happened before we knew about either Nethe or the Firebird, so there you go.
This is a book about big ideas more than it is about plot, I think, so I’m not even going to continue trying to keep everything in the chronological order that we learn it. I don’t think I’d be capable if I tried.
- This world is in fact two worlds, one far far below and another encircling it like a shell. The outer shell world is where most of the action takes place. The worlds are jointly called Khom’ad.
- The titular Well of the Worlds is a device by which energy can be siphoned off of other worlds while Khom’ad drifts through the universe throughout many dimensions humans are not aware of.
- Nethe, in one expository sequence, tells us the origin of the Isier: “I can only explain it by a thing I learned on your world—the creation of isotopes is very like what the Well did for us. We became isotopes of our earlier selves. And the isotopes were gods, except for one thing—we need energy.”
- Khom’ad latched onto Earth’s north pole because of all the uranium.
- The Firebird that Nethe and Alper both covet so badly is a part of the Well, basically serving as a breaker panel if I recall correctly. But it is also capable of transmitting energy, like a very good conductor, which is why they both want to seize it for personal power and/or life extension.
The middle part of the book is largely the various parties each jockeying for the Firebird, which Sawyer holds most of the time. He spends a lot of that time convincing the other parties that the Firebird is somewhere else, like he hid it or dropped it or whatever. I should also mention that Klai is not one of these interested parties. She disappears for a large part of the middle of the book, after we learn that the reason she is so important is that she is supposed to be sacrificed.
The Firebird was stolen from the Well by Nethe, who wants to use it to defeat somebody called The Goddess and take her place. Klai’s sacrifice is tied into this.
Klai ends up in the safekeeping of a relative of hers, a grandfather I think, who ends up being the leader of a ragtag band of Khom (normal people) who want to overthrow the Isier.
And also it turns out that there are another kind of people, the Sseli, who live down on the lower world, and they are evil and want to destroy both the Isier and the Khom.
Did I mention that all of the Isier wear masks? I don’t know if everybody’s is capable of shooting lasers like the one on the cover but at least some of them are. Moreover they’re capable of translation, because
The Isier, among themselves, have some amazing arts and sciences, so abstract it got to be a problem for a musician, say, to communicate his ideas to a chemist or a physicist. Remember, they’ve lived for a thousand years, and they’ve pursued their arts to tremendous heights. They developed this way of exchanging ideas without the need for learning one another’s abstract terms.pg 64
To be completely honest, I thought that was a pretty neat bit of sociological speculation!
All of these concepts and ideas get introduced somehow throughout the book, leading us into the thrilling climax where it all comes together. Klai gets captured but the guys all go to rescue her, freeing her from a hexagonal prison that also hypnotizes the people inside. This is the thing introduced by the artwork on the first page. Sawyer takes her place, Firebird in tow.
Everything gets wacky at this point.
Sawyer’s prison floats off and joins a bunch of other ones in a big swirly dance inside some kind of a glass-looking temple. Also there are The Goddess and Nethe, who are battling for the position of Goddess. They keep shooting green lasers out of their masks at each other, but it uses up their energy, which is what the sacrifices are for. The Well is somehow involved in all this, and Sawyer compares it all to an atom with its nucleus and shells of electrons. The people in the flying hexagon prisons are like the electrons, and they get flung into the nucleus of the atom in what I guess is supposed to be something analogous to nuclear fission?
This book is big on nuclear fission.
The Well currently doesn’t work right because the Firebird isn’t in it, which is why people need to get sacrificed to give energy to the Isier. Also getting the Firebird back into it is necessary for Sawyer to get back to Earth.
The whole topsy-turvy spinny-winny situation continues to hypnotize our hero, who tells Alper to turn on the pain machine to keep him from slipping away entirely. The whole thing works. The Khom commandos (Khommandos?!?) show up and blow a hole in the temple, letting the Sseli in, and there’s a big fight, interrupting the duel.
That is, I guess, what gives Sawyer the chance to escape his prison, which he does. He holds up the Firebird, getting Nethe’s attention, and she comes running for it. The Goddess is able to hit her with eye lasers, but she keeps coming (the Isier are basically immortal, as are the Sseli, but the eye lasers are supposed to be something that can kill them). Sawyer flings the Firebird over the edge and into empty space (?!?) and Nethe follows, sealing everybody’s fate.
Out of the well come those ghosts from the beginning of the book, that look like stalks of wheat. They’re actually more like little flames. There’s a big reveal at this point, going back to how the Isier turned themselves into isotopes of themselves, and while I guess we were supposed to think that they were originally Khom, it turns out that they’re originally more like the Sseli. But furthermore there’s yet another transformation that nobody talked about yet, and that was the fire ghost things.
The whole thing is laid out in terms of the transformation of Uranium 238 into Neptunium and then Plutonium, and then fission doing whatever it does to make Uranium 235.
However it’s all supposed to tie together, the three forms of people all come together and explode. Problem solved.
Except Sawyer still has the pain thing in his head, and Alper is still alive. Alper comes at him with his remote control, trying to kill Sawyer, but it turns out that they’re both wearing those translation mask things, and the pain ends up getting transmitted back to Alper even harder, so he dies.
Sawyer decides it’ll probably be okay if he sticks around on Khom’ad, and has a look at the beautiful Klai just before the book ends.
Was that hard to follow? I’m not surprised. Something strange is that it all made pretty good sense while I was reading it, but looking back now it all kind of runs together and I’m sure there were several things I forgot to mention that might make other things easier, but I just don’t even know at this point.
I want to say I liked this book, and I think I’ll run with that, but it’s certainly not because of the plot. The plot was pretty bleh, in all honesty. The big reveal that the Isier and the Sseli were somehow related was hardly a surprise. In fact it was telegraphed really hard when at one point Sawyer noticed that Nethe’s eyes were “serpentine” or something like that.
But golly gee this book had so many creative ideas running around! Too creative by half, I’m starting to think. They were all goofy pulpy ideas but I certainly don’t mind that. They were at least clever, and they did tie into each other instead of existing entirely in isolation. I have to give Kuttner a lot of credit for being able to pull that off as well as he did, even if I did a bad job of making it seem like that when I summed it all up.
This book has been re-released as a paperback and even has an eBook version available these days for what looks like pretty cheap (on Amazon, at least). It might be worth checking this out yourself if you think it would interest you beyond the flimsy job of summarizing it that I did. I do think that there’s some good stuff in this book.
It’s certainly not deep or telling us something important about ourselves, it’s just some clever pulp adventuring, and that’s not a bad thing. I tried hard to insert some critiques of capitalism into the reading but I just couldn’t manage to. That’s saying a lot! I can usually find at least four critiques of capitalism in a book before breakfast.
So that’s this issue of Startling Stories magazine. I should mention that I’ve made a mistake in some of the earlier reviews: I kept going back and forth on what year this issue came out. It’s definitely 1952 and don’t let me tell you otherwise.
I have a few other magazines of various titles floating around that my friend gave me, and I do intend to take a look at them at some point, although I think I’ll give it a minute before I do that. Can’t do them all at once, can I? Well, maybe I can. Not much of a reason not to?
Anyway, I’ll leave you with a piece of this letter to the editor: