Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore’s final science fiction novel, Mutant, was released in 1953. There would be sporadic short stories from the famous husband-and-wife writing team throughout the ’50s, as well as a mystery series from Kuttner featuring psychoanalyst/detective Dr. Michael Gray, not to mention a superior sci-fi novel from Moore herself, Doomsday Morning, in 1957, but Mutant was, essentially, the last word, sci-fiwise, from the team. But Mutant is what’s known as a “fix-up” novel, comprised of five short stories (in this case, mainly dating back to 1945) cobbled together to make a whole, so I suppose that we must call the team’s The Well of the Worlds their last true sci-fi novel as a writing couple. Well was first issued as the feature cover story of Startling Stories in March 1952, and in book form the following year. (Those fortunate enough to lay hands on the cute little 1965 Ace paperback that I recently read should prepare themselves, incidentally, for a LOT of typos!) It is as way out and imaginative a piece of speculative fiction as anything the pair ever wrote, including their mind-blowing The Fairy Chessmen (1946) and The Time Axis (1949). At this point in their careers, Kuttner and Moore were attending classes at the University of Southern California, and easing back a bit from their prodigious output of the ’40s. The reader of The Well of the Worlds, however, would never imagine that writing sci-fi was secondary to the couple at this point in their lives. It is another superb meld of fantasy and science fiction, with a typically pyrotechnic conclusion.
The plot of the book is so way out, in fact, that I almost despair of describing it. Let’s just say that it concerns Cliff Sawyer, an agent for the Canadian Royal Atomic Energy Commission, who investigates some very strange goings-on at a uranium mine near the North Pole. He, a mysterious woman named Klai, and a power-obsessed madman named Alper are somehow whisked to the other-dimensional world of Khom’ad, where three life-forms seem to be in a state of imminent warfare. There are the Isier, the demigodlike lords of the planet; the Sselli, a snakelike people; and the Firebirds, strange, winged energy creatures whose sudden appearance at the polar uranium mine seemed to touch off the whole mess. Not to mention the poor Khom, the humanlike underdogs of the planet. As if these elements weren’t enough, Kuttner & Moore show us that Khom’ad is a hollow world, with floating, pancakelike island worlds floating under its surface! And as if THAT weren’t enough, they have Alper slap a sort of torture-inducing transceiver on Sawyer’s skull that can instantly step up the vibrations of the human body to murderous volume and intensity. Still not enough, reader? Howzabout a finale with battling goddesses, a threeway between the Isier, Sselli and Firebirds, and a close-up look at the titular Well, a sort of microcosmic cyclotron that makes possible an interdimensional energy transference between Khom’ad and Earth?
I don’t know where or how authors are able to come up with books like this (I doubt that drugs, liquor or too much chili con carne before bedtime had anything to do with it!), but the net result is one of ceaseless wonder and bedazzlement for the reader. And I haven’t even mentioned the Ice Tunnel between the dimensions, or the telepathic masks, or the wall-dissolving robes, but you get the idea, I trust. The book is mind expanding in the best sense of the term, and still another wonderfully written, tightly plotted novel from this amazing team. The Well of the Worlds may have been Kuttner & Moore’s last true science fiction novel, but at least they went out with a doozy! All’s well that ends well, I guess you’d say!