Clash by Night by C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner
Clash by Night (1943) , by the wife-husband team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, is an odd bit of a bird, feeling less like a smoothie that blends together different story types and writerly styles and more like a salad where you can easily spot the tomatoes, greens, peppers, etc. Uneven overall, but it does have its good points.
The opening gives us the setting quite directly, with an unknown narrator of the future telling us, “We are on Venus, nine hundred years ago, beneath the Sea of Shoals.” Earth has been destroyed by atomic war and in the 200 years since that catastrophe, humanity has continued on Venus, with most of the people (“civilians”) living in Keeps (underwater domes) and various mercenary bands known as the Free Companies living in Forts, the only human habitation on land. As our futuristic narrator informs us, “only one factor saved the Keeps from annihilating one another — the gentleman’s agreement that left war to the warrior and allowed the undersea cities to develop their science and social cultures.” It is, therefore, due to the Companies, now “long since vanished,” that “the islands and continents of Venus have been tamed and there is no war.” The narrator lauds the Companies as “Harsh, gallant, indomitable, serving the god of battles so that it might be destroyed — working toward their own obliteration … They were doomed as Tyrannosaur Rex was doomed, and they fought on as he did.” This story, that narrator informs us, built out of legend and myth, is of one particular mercenary — Captain Brian Scott — who knew, himself, that the Companies were doomed.
From that highly stylized intro, we move to Scott himself as his Company, Doone’s Free Companions, are hired by Montana Keep to face off against the Helldivers, a rival company hired by Virginia Keep to attack Montana. The leader of Montana Keep asks Scott’s commander to take on his young nephew Norman Kane, “a misfit, a romanticist.” Meanwhile, Scott hits it off with Kane’s sister Ilene, an intellectual and a self-proclaimed hedonist in whom he finds a kindred spirit:
She was doomed in her own way, as Scott was in his … In both was a muted bittersweet sadness … Both realized that in the course of progress they would eventually die out. Mankind tolerated them because they were necessary for a little while.
In short order he decides that this will be his last battle; he’ll quit the Doonists and live with Ilene in Montana Keep. The decision is, he believes, a logical one because, “Each battle we win or lose brings us closer to the end. We fight to protect the culture that eventually will wipe us out.” His ambivalence toward war, and his recognition that humanity will eventually progress past it, that his Companies are hastening their own end, is the strongest aspect of Clash by Night, save for its repetitive nature (he says pretty much the same thing a lot of times in a relatively brief story). So one narrative focus, and the best of the mix, is a character story.
Another type is an old-fashioned pulp planetary adventure story. Returning from recruiting another Company as allies, Scott and Norman Kane’s boat breaks down, forcing them to swim to shore and then hike eight miles to the Keep through the highly dangerous Venusian jungle. This section reads a bit like classic Weinbaum stories such as “Parasite Planet” or “A Martian Odyssey,” though not as well done. In fact, it’s surprisingly dull and perfunctory, with little to no sense of tension and next to no description. In (very) short order, the two face a “Mud-wolf” (which we never see since they shoot it through the soil), poisonous plants, quicksand, and an attack from “something.” That, literally, is the description — “something.”
Back at the Keep, we return to the more interesting (if a bit repetitive) character study as Scott explains to a pensioned veteran that this will be his last battle, something the old vet can’t even imagine. From there, we get the battle itself, which, similarly, to the jungle “adventure” is handled surprisingly flatly. Here’s a taste:
“Hit on Helldiver’s Orion. Hit on Sirius.”
“Hit on Mob ship Apache.”
“Four more enemy subs destroyed.”
“Doone sub X-16 fails to report.”
“Helldiver’s Polaris seems disabled.”
“Send out auxiliary flitterboats, units nine and twenty.”
Cinc Mendez came in breathing hard. Scott waved him to an auxiliary control unit seat.
“Hit on Lance. Wait a minute. Cinc Rhys a casualty, sir.”
There’s a nice little twist with Norman Kane, and a neat trick with one of their ships (though some vivid description would have improved the scene), but overall it’s about as dull a battle scene as you can compose. All that is left afterward is for Scott to make his decision about leaving the Company or not. I won’t say what he decides and will simply note it’s pretty predictable.
I’d be curious to see a draft of this story to see which author wrote which sections, or if it wasn’t so neatly divided up as all that. The opening feels like classic Moore to me, as do the segments (repetitiveness and all) where Scott is questioning his life and the Company’s long-term existence. The battle scene seems more like early Kuttner, and the middle section maybe a blend of the two, though I’d lean more toward Kuttner thanks to the more plain language. If that’s the case, I certainly would argue that Moore’s parts were strongest. But who knows how they worked together? Maybe they alternated sentences. And I’m sure they must have edited each other’s work.
In any case, as noted at the top, the story is uneven. Clash by Night is a better character study than adventure story or military action story, and is nicely inventive in its setting, more so for the social setting than the alien setting. Fun in parts, thoughtful in parts, and unfortunately dull in parts. I.E., a mixed bag.