I was reading The Great SF Stories 18 (1956) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg when I got diverted by the group reading of The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I had left off at the beginning of “Rite of Passage” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. The story originally appeared in the May 1956 issue of F&SF and might be Kuttner’s last SF magazine publication before he died in 1958. It was the last story that Asimov and Greenberg ran in their Great SF series by the husband and wife team.
I’ve been reading The Great SF Stories 1-25 (1939-1963) in order since 2018 and want to get back to that series and finish it. This really is a great anthology series but they’re out of print. That’s a shame. You can find them on ABEbooks and eBay but they are going up in price every year. There are pdf copies on the net if you look around. I wish DAW would reprint them and get someone to continue the series. Robert Silverberg did do #26 (1964) with Greenberg for NESFA Press which connects nicely into Wollheim/Carr’s World’s Best Science Fiction anthology series that began in 1965. However, I like how Asimov and Greenberg were reevaluating SF stories for each year decades after the fact.
I can’t say I agree with all their choices. “Rite of Passage” is a well-written tale full of ideas but little emotion, something I’ve been talking about lately. Lloyd Cole is the Black President for the Communications Corporation. Kuttner and Moore have imagined a future where people believe in magic, and Cole is the president of black magic. Corporations also have white presidents.
Here’s the kicker, magic isn’t real, but everyone believes in it. Cole’s job is to cast evil spells under contract for his clients. “Rite of Passage” is about how Cole wants to get revenge on a man who stole his wife by appearing to kill him for a client, thus providing a cover-up for his own intentions.
“Rite of Passage” is rather long, a novelette that feels like a novella. Most of the content is world-building Kuttner and Moore use to flesh out the background of the story. I only enjoyed two pages of the story, which I believe is the inspiration that Kuttner and Moore used for writing the story:
Evidently, the stress of 20th-century life made people lose their critical thinking abilities embracing magic, with corporations exploiting that vulnerability. This is a neat idea. It’s even somewhat prophetic, but political parties are exploiting peoples’ irrationalities. This neat idea is not enough to give this story a heart. Lloyd Cole is not a nice guy, so we’re not sympathetic for his devious efforts to get his wife back. It’s somewhat ironic that others use magic against Cole, and he succumbs even though he knows magic is not real.
“Rite of Passage” is a case where the story is dominated by ideas, appealing only to our intellect. I’m sure some readers will find it amusing and even entertaining. Obviously, Asimov and Greenberg did, but I didn’t. If I had felt for Lloyd’s love for Lila, I might have cared more. Lila drives Lloyd’s revenge, but she’s only an idea, not a real character. It’s a shame that “Rite of Passage” didn’t have the depths of emotions shown in “Vintage Season.” They both seem to have the same amount of world-building.
The classic science fiction story from 1956 that Asimov and Greenberg did include having powerful emotions is “The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight. It’s doubly impressive because the protagonist is truly unlikable. Yet Knight eventually gets us to sympathize with him.
Probably the most remembered SF story today from 1956 is “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov. It’s another intellectual story, but it has a tremendous sense of wonder, the favorite emotion of science fiction readers.
James W. Harris, 11/27/21
3 thoughts on ““Rite of Passage” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore”
James, I finished all 25 volumes about 2 years ago. A great series, as you know, even if like you I’ve puzzled over some of the choices.
I really should write up a post on this reading odyssey–inspired by you of course. I have vague plans to re-visit the stories I loved the most. For instance, F. L. Wallace’s “Delay in Transit”.
I barely remember the Moore/Kuttner story. Whereas Damon Knight’s “The County of the Kind” is not only one of his best, but one of *the* best SF shorts full stop. A wonderfully rich work considering its brevity.
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I’d love to read your take on the series. What is your age and background? I think that influences how you relate to all those old stories.
I’ll turn 54 next month. Born in late 1967. Though I am the youngest of a large family—9 children. I have two siblings that are older than you, and one around your age, and then a few more between that one and me! So, with that amount of pressure from above I feel in some ways an honorary boomer, tho I still think of myself as very much “gen x” for what’s its worth. For instance, I recall vividly the sense that the promise of the space age was well and truly over or coming to an end when growing up in the 1970s and 80s (I partially address this here: https://thesinisterscience.com/2021/11/14/who-am-i/). Through the good fortune of having science fiction reading older siblings I was introduced to the big three of Clarke, Heinlein and Asimov at a young age—though it was Clarke and Heinlein in particular that I became obsessed with between the ages of 10 and 14. I might add I have little to no time for Heinlein’s reactionary politics these days, even if a book like “Time For The Stars” can still trigger wonderful childish thoughts of an expansive sort.