By the early 1950s, the great husband-and-wife writing team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore had moved to the West Coast to acquire degrees at the University of Southern California, and were concentrating more on their scholastic pursuits than their (formerly prodigious) sci-fi/fantasy output. In 1953, the pair released Mutant, which would turn out to be their final, novel-length work of science fiction as a team. Mutant is what is known as a “fix-up novel,” consisting of four short stories originally published in 1945 and a final story released in 1953, cobbled together with some interlinking material. Taken as a whole, the book is another great achievement for the pair; a wonderfully well-written, thought-provoking, multigenerational piece of hard science fiction.
Mutant tells the story of the Baldies, a population of telepathic, hairless (natch) humans that has been created as a result of hard radiations following the so-called Blowup. Distrusted and feared by the nontelepathic majority, their lot is indeed a hard one, despite their obvious advantages. The authors have seemingly given much thought to the question of what it must be like to be a mind reader, and many aspects of the telepathic society (their dueling customs, relations with nontelepaths, their allotted occupations, intermarriage, etc.) are examined in some detail. Kuttner and Moore, using italicized type and bracketed paragraphs, effectively convey telepathic conversations amongst several people; one of the book’s major strengths, I feel, and this years before Alfred Bester achieved a similar feat in his 1953 masterpiece The Demolished Man.
Each of the novel’s five sections is a concise little gem, and each tells the story of one of the “Key Lives” in Baldy history. “The Piper’s Son” (which first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in February 1945) introduces us to Al Burkhalter, a Baldy who works as a semantics expert at a publishing firm and is starting to have trouble with his arrogant Baldy son. “Three Blind Mice” (Astounding, June 1945) tells the story of Dave Barton, a Baldy field biologist who uses his powers to study animals in the wild. (Ever wonder what it’s like to read the mind of a shark, a rabbit or a goldfish? This is the book for you!) Barton is here given the assignment of tracking down and killing three Baldy Paranoids, a subset of the mutant population that does not want to live peaceably with the nontelepaths, but rather to exterminate them. Barton returns (40 years older and more experienced in his fight against the Paranoids) in “The Lion and the Unicorn” (Astounding, July 1945), and here makes contact with a young Baldy who has been living with a group of nontelepathic, nomadic pioneer sorts, the Hedgehounds. This tale also deals with a Baldy scientist who is working desperately to counter the Paranoids’ secret telepathic bandwidth. In “Beggars in Velvet” (Astounding, December 1945), Burkhalter’s grandson must deal with a pogrom that the Paranoids have instigated against the Baldies in a small town in the former British Columbia; a pogrom that has the dire potential to spread worldwide. Finally, in “Humpty Dumpty” (Astounding, September 1953), we are shown the efforts of the Baldy scientists who are endeavoring to find a means of inducing telepathy mechanically and making the secret available to all humans.
In each of these tales, the Baldy minority may be seen as representative of any minority of your choice (Jews, blacks, you name it), and the desperate efforts of the Baldies against the Paranoid troublemakers and the hostile nontelepaths are shown in a very positive light by the authors… even when cold-blooded killing becomes necessary, as it often does. Thus, Mutant turns out to be not only an exciting and wonderfully well-thought-out piece of work, but a socially relevant one as well. How nice to know that Kuttner and Moore, in their final book together, once again smacked one right out of the park! Though the rest of the 1950s saw the team produce several science fiction short stories, and a very fine solo novel from Moore (1957′s Doomsday Morning), as well as a detective series from Kuttner featuring psychoanalyst Michael Gray, Mutant essentially drew the curtain down on their science fiction novel collaboration. Kuttner, sadly, succumbed to a heart attack in early 1958, when he was only 44 years old.