fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsChessboard Planet and Other Stories by Henry Kuttner and C.L. MooreChessboard Planet and Other Stories by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore

Chessboard Planet and Other Stories is a collection by science fiction’s foremost husband-and-wife writing team, Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. The collection is comprised of a novella, two longish short stories, and a short piece.

The novella, “Chessboard Planet,” originally appeared under the title “The Fairy Chessmen” in the January and February 1946 issues of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction and, in my opinion, is an unjustly forgotten masterpiece. In it, the United States and the European union known as the Falangists have been at war for decades, and as the story opens, the U.S. is in big trouble. It seems that the enemy has come up with a scientific equation that can completely preempt reality; a formula made up of variable constants, the solving of which is driving our best scientific minds insane. A team of men at U.S. Psychometrics is given the task of unraveling this scientific riddle whilst resisting the reality-bending effects that the enemy is bombarding them with. They must also contend with a battle-hardened supersoldier from the future, a band of mutants possessing ETP (extra-temporal perception), a physicist whose merest thought can erase reality, AND the appearance of 74 mysterious alien domes. The book becomes fairly way out and hallucinatory at times, as equations and counterequations for abrogating reality are bounced back and forth by the two sides. (I almost wish I’d read this novella 30 years ago in college, while under the influence of some psychotropic substance!) The book is quite a departure from Kuttner and Moore’s previous novella, “Earth’s Last Citadel” (1943), both in terms of style and content. That previous work is a pulpy, well-written sci-fi/fantasy of the far future, whereas this is almost a hybrid of hard science fiction and 1960s New Wave. Indeed, the book almost anticipates the works of P.K. Dick and his recurring theme of the tenuousness of reality. “Chessboard Planet” just brims over with imaginative ideas, mind-blowing speculation, unique settings and unexpected plot twists on just about every page. It is an extremely sophisticated piece of work that must have been all the more impressive to readers back in 1946. As I said, a neglected masterpiece.

To round out the collection, the (British) Hamlyn edition that I just completed contains three other pieces:

In “Camouflage,” which first appeared in Astounding Science-Fiction in September 1945, a group of criminals hijacks a spaceship that is under the control of a Transplant: a human brain in a box that operates all mechanical functions aboard. The resulting game of cat and mouse between the human/machine and the bad guys is both tense and exciting, although the story’s underlying theme — can a human remain human in a mechanical body? — is one that Moore had visited to even greater effect in her classic 1944 short story “No Woman Born.”

In “Android,” which first saw the light of day in the June 1951 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a man comes to the conclusion that the majority of “people” on Earth are androids. Too bad he has more trouble convincing others of this theory than Kevin McCarthy had with his “pod people” story in the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers! Like that seminal film, “Android” is a wonderful piece of sci-fi paranoia, with an ending that is at once downbeat and curiously uplifting.

To complete this collection, there is the oft-anthologized short piece “Or Else!”, which was first published in the September 1953 issue of Amazing Stories. In this one, a Klaatu-like alien attempts to bring peace to a pair of feuding Mexican farmers. But, as it turns out, the simple Earth peasants seem to possess more in the way of practical wisdom than the technologically superior but simplistically naive star dweller, in this pithy little tale.

To sum up, Chessboard Planet and Other Stories is a wonderful collection from Kuttner and Moore, worth owning for the titular story alone. I mo(o)re than highly recommend it to all readers.


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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