5. Henry Kuttner – Fury (1947)

Now we move closer to Burroughs. With sci-fi, Burroughs seemed quite content to lift material without much editing. So, in comparison with literary writers, for whom the hard work of tracing influence comes through comparisons of style and form, Burroughs’ sci-fi inspirations can be found right there in direct quotation.

Henry Kuttner’s Fury is listed numerous times by Burroughs as being a major influence. I can believe it. Hedonism, addiction, immortality, exotic locales, frontiersmen and apocalypses; Fury has all of them.

It’s the story of Sam Reed. Sam ought to be the heir to the immortal Harker clan. But his father, driven insane by the death of his wife in labour, has an underground doctor perform surgery on the baby to make him look like a mortal. He then dumps the baby on the streets.

Sam, an immortal who thinks he is mortal, is the man destined to destroy the rule of the immortals.

These rulers, made immortal by some fluke of genetic mutation after the atomic destruction of Earth, rule over “Keeps”: pleasure-cities submerged beneath the oceans of Venus.

Life in the Keeps is devoted to pleasure and decadence. Only a small few, largely written off as hapless romantics, pursue the dream of colonising the deadly forests of the planet’s surface and terraforming Venus.

Sam is one of these. The novel follows his quest to make the colonies a success.

Fury is classic pulp-era sci-fi. Kuttner writes in bursts: short sentences, short paragraphs, short sections of no more than 600 words each. Ideas come thick and fast, some important to the story and some not. The characterisation is as subtle as a brick. Sam is filled with fury, the Harkers with cunning and the general population with jealousy and gullibility.

The focus is the action. There’s no need for nuance.

Burroughs lifts two highly addictive substances from the novel. One, the “Happy Cloak”, is worn by the doctor who performs surgery on young Sam. “A biological adaptation of an organism found in the Venusian seas”; the cloak renders the wearer so blissful they simply fade away. The world means nothing to them.

We later see a land-based version of the Happy Cloak creature in the form of the “siren web”. Pioneers clearing forest come upon the web. It dazzles them with amazing colours, pulling them in and hypnotising them, granting them immense pleasure such that they don’t mind being eaten by the “grey membrane” that sits at the web’s heart.

Sam, being the quintessential sci-fi badass, is not effected by the siren web. Towards the end of the book, we see him growing his own web in his chamber, enjoying its pleasurable effects, immune to its hypnotic power.

Both Happy Cloaks and siren webs appear in The Ticket that Exploded. There’s a long section in Last Words, his final notebooks, devoted to the Happy Cloak (his interest in it clearly never diminished).

A more general lift can be found in his characterisation of Venus. Venus, in Burroughs lore, bears a great resemblance with the Amazon rainforest. Monstrous creatures, deadly spores, and omnipresent, often-carnivorous plant life all typify Venus. These are straight out of Fury.

Burroughs adds to these elements, of course. The traditional feminine association of Venus is emphasised by Burroughs, who, with his fear of women, saw the sweltering mysteries of a jungle planet to be a suitable birthplace for man-eating vagina-havers.

His long-running fascination with immortality, often filtered through the Egyptian Book of the Dead, also finds its class associations in Fury. The people at the top – be they Pharaohs, Mayan priests, or modern technocratic Control – maintain their power through a form of immortality; one unavailable to the plebes.

“Extension in time is wealth,” Kuttner writes. “Pawns have a low life-expectancy; knights and bishops and castles have more. Socially, there was a three-dimensional democracy and a temporal autocracy.”

There are numerous ways to read this. Liberal democracy’s rules are fixed in space, through constitution and law, while personal power is accrued through time. A Marxist would point to money as “condensed” time and/or labour-power. Burke might point to tradition as an agglomeration of practices formed over a much longer span of time than the individual mind, and therefore superior in wisdom.

Burroughs may well have taken it literally. But then symbols only really cohere once one gives them autonomy. One can’t write a sci-fi narrative if one is always thinking in terms of real-life reference points. Myth always slips the bonds of metaphor.

Thinking in this manner might help us to escape our first assumptions about Burroughs and sci-fi. Where it will lead, however, is yet to be discovered.