Robots Have No Tails: Unfailingly inventive and often laugh-out-loud funny

Robots Have No Tails by Henry Kuttner science fiction book reviewsRobots Have No Tails by Henry Kuttner

Originally released in 1952 by the early sci-fi/fantasy publisher Gnome Press, the meaninglessly titled Robots Have No Tails collects the five stories that Henry Kuttner wrote featuring the drunken inventor Galloway Gallegher. (As to that title, in the book’s original introduction by Kuttner’s equally celebrated wife, C.L. Moore, she tells us that her husband was at a loss for an appropriate name for this collection, and so told the publisher, “I can’t think of one. Call it anything you like. Call it ‘Robots Have No Tails’ if you want to.”)

The stories here all originally appeared in the most celebrated sci-fi magazine of the era, John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction, and despite the fact that most of Kuttner and Moore’s output after their 1940 marriage was written in collaboration, Moore reveals that these Gallegher stories — four from 1943 and one from 1948 — were written by Kuttner alone, under one of the team’s many pen names, Lewis Padgett. Combining hard sci-fi with a large dose of slapstick, anarchic humor, these Gallegher tales have proven to be some of Kuttner’s most enduring and popular creations. In each of them, the sodden scientist invents some kind of miraculous gadget while he is swizzled, and upon sobering up, cannot for the life of him remember what the device is good for. And this leads to all kinds of outrageous situations with the customers for whom the devices were commissioned in the first place!

The collection kicks off with what is probably the least of the tales, “Time Locker” (from the Jan. ’43 ASF). In this one, Gallegher’s latest gizmo — a storage cabinet that tucks objects away a few million years in the future — is used by a crooked lawyer to cache some purloined bonds. But things get a little out of hand, in this short but decidedly loopy story, and capped by one mindblower of a finale.

In “The World Is Mine” (June ’43 ASF), Gallegher’s new time machine accidentally brings to Earth the Lybblas: small, furry, button-nosed, milk-and-cookie-scarfing creatures from Mars’s future who want to conquer the Earth! And if this isn’t enough to keep Gallegher busy, he must also contend here with a steady stream of Gallegher corpses from the future, whom the authorities promptly charge him with murdering! This is easily the zaniest story of the bunch; crazy and witty as can be, it also introduces us to Gallegher’s Grandpa, a hilarious old coot who is almost as big a tippler as Gallegher himself.

“The Proud Robot” (Oct. ’43 ASF) introduces the character of Joe for the first time: a narcissistic, obnoxious mechanical “man” who spends most of “his” time admiring itself before a mirror and being generally unhelpful. In this tale, Gallegher is hired by a movie studio whose main source of income —in essence, cable television — is being threatened by the “bootleg” movie palaces of its competitor. Probably the most oft-anthologized of all the Gallegher stories, this hilarious tale presciently foresees the movie vs. television rivalry of a good decade hence.

In what is perhaps the most complexly plotted story of the five, “Gallegher Plus” (Nov. ’43 ASF), Gallegher learns, after a particularly intensive bender, that he has apparently created a dirt-guzzling contraption that also sings “St. James Infirmary”! But why he created this contraption, and what it’s good for, and for which of his three increasingly irate current customers, the hungover Gallegher has no clue. This tale features some tense moments for the alcoholic genius and a narrow escape from a gang of nasty thugs… as well as an alphabetical drinking contest! Remember that old episode of “The Prisoner,” the one called “The Girl Who Was Death,” in which Number 6, to purge himself after drinking poison, orders a brandy, followed by “Whiskey. Vodka. Drambuie. Tia Maria. Quatro. Grand Marnier”? Well, that’s nothing compared to what Gallegher does here, trying to keep up with a crooked alderman who is boozing alphabetically: absinthe, brandy, Cointreau, daiquiri, etc., all the way to the letter “Y.” Who else but Gallegher could possibly keep up?

The collection ends with a tale called “Ex Machina” (April ’48 “ASF”), in which Gallegher, Grandpa and Joe all return one more time for another way-out adventure. In this one, Gallegher sobers up again, only to find an invisible speed drinker in his house, as well as a metallic gizmo with blue eyes staring at him. (This orbed object may bring to mind the blue-eyed doorknob from Kuttner and Moore’s extremely psychedelic novella “The Fairy Chessmen,” from 1946.) Here, Gallegher is commissioned by a safari expedition company to come up with a way of minimizing the inherent danger to its customers. The story finds Joe discovering philosophy for the first time, has Gallegher once again accused of murder by the dim-witted authorities, and provides another wacky explanation for all the preceding mishegas.

Unfailingly inventive and often laugh-out-loud funny, the Gallegher stories might be considered some kind of perfect entertainment. Kuttner seemed to improve every year that he wrote (starting with 1936′s “The Graveyard Rats”), and his work here, hastily written as it was, remains most impressive. He flubs on occasion — such as when he tells us that the uncertainty principle was Planck’s, rather than Heisenberg’s, and when he suggests in one tale that Gallegher is living in the early 21st century, and in another mentions that musician Larry Adler lived “hundreds of years ago,” making it more like the 22nd century — but most readers will be having too much of a good time to notice. And really, how can any book with a line like “Grandpa, a wizened little man with a brown face like a bad-tempered nutcracker” be anything BUT amusing? Fans of Golden Age sci-fi and vintage screwball comedies will most likely read these stories hungrily and with great enjoyment… just like Joe with one of his philosophy books…

Hounded by creditors and heckled by an uncooperative robot, binge-drinking inventor Galloway Gallegher must solve the mystery of his own machines before his dodgy financing and reckless lifestyle catch up with him! This complete collection of Kuttner’s five classic “Gallegher” stories presents the author at the height of his imaginative genius.

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SANDY FERBER 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 is 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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5 comments

  1. I’d never heard of these. Thanks for the tip!

  2. This sounds like something I’d really love! Thanks, Sandy!

  3. Sandy Ferber /

    Marion and Kat, these stories are PURE entertainment. I have a feeling that you will enjoy them!

  4. Thanks for the great review Sandy! I’m a major fan of Henry Kuttner but I’ve never read these. I have the book on the to be read shelf, and I’ll have to move it up. Have you ever read Kuttner’s stories about the Hogbens? A family of mutants in the mountains? Think Beverly Hillbillies meets the Addams family. Those are hilarious as well.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Hi, Steve, and thanx for the kind words. The only Hogbens stories I have ever read are the ones to be found in the classic Ballantine volume “The Best of Henry Kuttner”; I would certainly buy a volume of these tales, if it were ever to come out. Anyway, I have reviews for many more Kuttner and Moore books in the pipeline; hopefully, you will be seeing them here soon….

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