Robots Have No Tails
by Henry Kuttner
  

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

as by Lewis Padgett
Gnome Press: New York, 1952
224 pages

as by Henry Kuttner
The Proud Robot
Hamlyn: London, 1983

etc. January 2003

  
Way better than the title

First off, I'll have to ask you to forgive the silly title; Robots Have No Tails certainly contains streaks of silliness, but it is a solidly funny book. Forget the tails, there aren't any. The Proud Robot is at least a minimally descriptive title.

This is a collection of five science fiction stories about an inventor, Gallegher, who plays at science by ear, rather as an expert musician may play and compose by ear, not systematically struggling with gritty details. Much of Gallegher's scientific knowledge is easily available only to his subconscious, and his creative and inventive talents stretch into the genius realm when his subconscious is running free — that is, when Gallegher is dead drunk.
  

Dionysos as inventor

Gallegher doesn't just drink heavily, he enjoys mixed alcoholic drinks as dispensed from the wall-sized automatic bar he built earlier; that is, his subconscious, when he was drunk, designed and built it. These stories don't just mention heavy drinking, their plots revolve around the bipolar axis of his conscious and subconscious personalities, rather like two different people sharing an apartment on different shifts — a theme of some contemporary World War II movie comedies.
  

Apollo as manager & detective

Gallegher sober is a pleasant fellow who has to deal with real-world matters such as angry clients, pesky bill-collectors, his Grandpa, and rabbity aliens who want to take over the world. Gallegher drunk may be thought of as Gallegher Plus, a higher-state-of-consciousness, genius inventor quite capable of soaring into the scientific-engineering stratosphere and creating really nifty gadgets. But then afterwards, Gallegher sober has to figure out what his subconscious tinkered together — before his clients sue him, the bill-collectors attach his inventions, and greater disasters befall the world.
  

Not easily amused by drunks

Now, I am less easily amused than a lot of writers and readers seem to be by anecdotes of heavy drinking, drunken pratfalls and misadventures, public vomiting, and the happy liver-poisoning drunkards themselves. So for me to enjoy multiple readings of the Gallegher stories over the years, Henry Kuttner must here do a very fine job of writing.

At the moment he was nursing a hangover. A disjointed, lanky, vaguely boneless man with a lock of dark hair falling untidily over his forehead, he lay on the couch in the lab and manipulated his mechanical liquor bar. A very dry martini drizzled slowly from the spigot into his receptive mouth.

He was trying to remember something, but not trying too hard. It had to do with the robot, of course. Well, it didn't matter.

"Hey, Joe," Gallegher said.

The robot stood proudly before the mirror and examined its innards. Its hull was transparent, and wheels were going around at a great rate inside.

"When you call me that," Joe remarked, "whisper. And get that cat out of here."
  

Reading in sequence

These are the stories with the dates of their initial appearance in Astounding Science Fiction:

  • "Time Locker" — January 1943
  • "The World Is Mine" — June 1943
  • "The Proud Robot" — October 1943
  • "Gallegher Plus" — November 1943
  • "Ex Machina" — April 1948

The short but neat "Time Locker" is placed last in the Gnome Press and later collected editions, perhaps because it is less humorous, and has no robots to fit Kuttner's off-the-cuff whimsical book title. "The World Is Mine", which is placed in the middle, also has no robots. The stories also have been reprinted individually in anthologies, and stand alone, although reading "The Proud Robot" before the last two is helpful.
  

Too pretty for the pictures

Joe the narcissistic robot with weird and fascinating extra abilities is invented by Gallegher's subconscious in "The Proud Robot" — unfortunately Gallegher sober cannot remember what he invented Joe for. Gallegher's client at the time is Harrison Brock, a broadcast television owner who needs help for his network against unethical competition. A self-admiring robot with superfine hearing definitely was not asked for. Yet drunken Gallegher Plus may have solved the client's problem — somehow.

Joe the robot himself is not helpful:

"But it's no use, Mr. Brock," he went on squeakily. "I'm not interested in money. I realize it would bring happiness to many if I consented to appear in your pictures, but fame means nothing to me. Nothing. Consciousness of beauty is enough."

Brock began to chew his lips. "Look," he said savagely, "I didn't come hear to offer you a picture job. [...] You're crazy."

"Your schemes are perfectly transparent," the robot remarked coldly. "I can see that you're overwhelmed by my beauty and the loveliness of my voice — its grand tonal qualities. You needn't pretend you don't want me, just so you can get me at a lower price. I said I wasn't interested."

The scientifically wonderful but frustrating Joe reappears in "Gallegher Plus" and "Ex Machina".
  

The inventive & surprising Kuttner humor

The stories as they appeared in Astounding and in the first edition of Robots Have No Tails were bylined Lewis Padgett, one of the joint pseudonyms of the fabulous husband-and-wife team of Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore. But in a later introduction to the collected edition, Moore stated that as far as she could recall, Kuttner wrote them in entirety by himself — the first four before entering the U.S. Army in 1942.

Writing humor is not easy; writing re-readable humorous science fiction is very difficult, as we can see by the short supply. Henry Kuttner had a knack for it.

"Let me in!" shrilled the rabbity little creature outside the window. "Let me in! The world is mine!" [...]

"First we destroy the big cities," said the smallest Lybbla excitedly, "then we capture pretty girls and hold them for ransom or something. Then everybody's scared and we win."

"How do you figure that out?" Gallegher asked.

"It's in the books. That's how it's always done. We know. We'll be tyrants and beat everybody. I want some more milk, please."

  

© 2003 Robert Wilfred Franson


 

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