Henry Kuttner's clever writing had a huge impact on science fiction, and there's never been a better chance to discover his work. A ton of his work has just been reissued by Diversion Books, and we've got an exclusive excerpt from his book The Time Trap, which was just nominated for a Retro Hugo.
Ray Bradbury called Kuttner a "neglected master" of science fiction. His work appeared in places like Marvel Science Stories and Weird Tales, and has been an influence on generations of writers after him. In The Time Trap, "Kent Mason is an archaeologist hopelessly lost in the desert. When he stumbles into the ruins of the ancient city of Al Bekr, he unknowingly steps into a time portal and finds himself flung into into the greatest adventure of his life."
Check out an exclusive excerpt below:
Marvel Science Stories, November 1938
ENT MASON stumbled to the top of the ridge, staring about him with sun-swollen eyes. His cracked lips twisted wryly as he viewed the endless wilderness of rock, the death-trap of the Arabian desert, dimmed now by driving gusts of icy rain. In the valley below him two pinnacles of rock towered, and as Mason stared at them a curious expression crept over his sunburned face. He recognized those great obelisks, and, recognizing them, knew that his search and his life would end almost simultaneously. For before him lay the fabulous twin towers of the lost city of Al Bekr, ancient metropolis of lost wisdom, City of Science!
Two months ago an expedition had set out from the port of Merbat to search for Al Bekr, and for two months had been vainly pushing through the arid wastes that the Arabs call the Rubli el Khali. Old Doctor Cordell, the leader of the expedition, had pinned his hopes on legends, obscure hints on archaic shards—but mostly upon a tablet which had been recently uncovered on the site of primeval Ur, the import of which was that a remarkable state of civilization had been attained in the "Forbidden City."
According to the inscription, Al Bekr had been merely a little-visited town in the Great Desert, until suddenly, inexplicably, fantastically advanced arts and sciences began to flourish there. But this perfection of science died almost as swiftly as it had been born, for a reason that was either not known or not set down; and the great days of Al Bekr were over forever. It was, in fact, a compressed version of the Atlantean legend—an advanced, scientific culture destroyed by some mysterious doom.
Mason, the archeologist of the party, was also the youngest. Now, through the irony of fate, he had accomplished, unguided and lost, what his colleagues had despaired of doing. Doctor Cordell had decided to give up the search and return to Merbat, and when Mason, determined to investigate a little-known mountain range near by, had insisted on one last try, Cordell had refused to permit it.
That morning Mason slipped away from camp, taking a speedy camel, thinking he could reach the mountains and rejoin the slow-traveling party in a day or two at the most. But his plans had miscarried. The camel had fallen, breaking its leg. The compass had been smashed, and for three days Mason had been lost in this desolate, sun-baked inferno. The water had not lasted long. He had shot a vulture and forced himself to eat the tough, stringy meat; then, during his nearly delirious wanderings, Mason had lost his revolver. Now, hollow-eyed and exhausted, he saw beneath him Al Bekr, City of Science!
The centuries had left little of the fabled metropolis. Two giant pinnacles protruding from the drifted sand, a riven block half buried here and there. That was all. Grim and desolate in the drenching rain, the valley lay lifeless and silent below. Yet there would be shelter there, and the storm was momentarily growing fiercer. There are few storms in the Rubli el Khali, but they are cataclysmic in their fury. Lightning forked above Mason.
He made his way down the slope, staggering in his weakness. The tumbled fragments of masonry seemed to increase in size as he drew nearer. The city in its heyday must have been an awe-inspiring sight.
Thunder snarled behind the hills. The two obelisks were not far apart, and provided some shelter. Mason collapsed against one of them. He breathed a great sigh of relief, let his aching muscles relax. Then, suddenly, his lean face was alight with interest. The surface of the monolith against which he leaned was not stone. Rough, worn, pitted with the teeth of the ages, it was nevertheless unmistakably metal!
But what race of people could have reared these tremendous spires, nearly forty feet high? The thing was impossible. Mason examined the texture of the metal, frowning. He did not recognize it. Hard and rough-grained, with a peculiar greenish tinge, it was apparently some unfamiliar alloy.
Ominously thunder growled overhead. Then without warning lightning struck. Like an incandescent white-hot sword it raced down the skies, enveloping the twin spires in blinding brilliance. Mason felt himself lifted, flung aside. He had a momentary glimpse of a sheet of roaring, flashing flame playing between the two pinnacles. There was a moment of unendurable tension, as though the air was becoming surcharged with electricity. Then there was wrenching agony that tore at the fibre of Mason's being, agony such that he shrieked aloud and knew that no sound came from his paralyzed lips. He felt a surge of incredibly swift movement. Blackness took him, blackness, and vertigo, and then quickly the shadow fled back and vanished. Blazing light flared into his eyes.
The desolate valley of Al Bekr—was gone! Gone the drenching rain, the growling of thunder overhead, the wet sand beneath his body! He lay on his back, staring up with amazed eyes at a tremendously high roof, lit with strange green brilliance. And towering up toward that high-arched ceiling were—the monoliths!
The twin towers—but changed! Gone were the scars and pits of centuries of erosion. Their surfaces were smooth, glistening with greenish sheen, and beyond them marched row upon row of fantastic machines, shining and brilliant in the strange light. Mason had never seen such machinery, could only guess at the purposes of oddly shaped pistons, wheels, tubes. The room was wide, circular, paved and walled with white stone. In the walls at intervals were set bars of some greenish substance that glowed with cold flame.
Mason put out a hand, touched the smooth surface of the green monolith beside him. The touch was reassuring. He wasn't mad, he told himself desperately. The lightning stroke must have unleashed some undreamed of power in the mysterious towers, wrought some astounding change which as yet he could not understand. He got slowly to his feet, half expecting the incredible scene to shift and change to the rain-drenched desert valley.
Behind him a voice barked a deep-toned question.
Mason turned quickly. A man stood near, a swarthy, stock figure in loin-cloth and sandals; startlingly pale blue eyes set in a harsh, weather-beaten face of seamed tan leather glared at him. A great beak of a nose jutted over the thin-lipped mouth. Again the man snarled his question.
Madness! For he spoke the ancient, forgotten Semite tongue, the purest form of the root-language of Arabic, that had not been used save among scholars for almost four thousand years! Some faint inkling of the truth sent the blood dropping from Mason's head. He braced himself, searched his memory gropingly. He knew the root-language….
"I come—from a distant land," Mason said slowly, tentatively, eyeing the great scimitar the warrior carried.
"None may enter this city," the other responded, feline eyes gleaming. "The Master permits none to enter Al Bekr. Or to leave!"
Al Bekr! Mason cast a swift glance around. Was time, after all, not the changeless thing science had thought it? Had he been flung back into an incredibly distant past by some strange power in the lightening-riven monoliths? Yet these machines, the very masonry beneath his feet, bespoke not the past but the powers of a distant future.
Mason eyed the warrior, felt a tug of recognition pull at his mind. He said, "Al Bekr is not your home."
The man grunted. "It takes no magic to know that. I am a Sumerian.
Mason's jaw dropped. A Sumerian! That mysterious, archaic people whose civilization had existed in the Euphrates-Tigris valleys long before the Semites had come conquering. The warrior, suddenly suspicious, moved forward, his movements catlike, the gleaming scimitar menacing. Swiftly Mason said, "I mean no harm. By El-lil—I swear it!"
The Sumerian's eyes widened. He stared. "El-lil? You swear by—"
Mason nodded. He knew the reverence in which the Sumerians had held the name of their chief god. "I've no wish to be your enemy," he said. A surge of weakness struck him, the culminations of three days and nights in the terrible Rubh el Khali. Mason felt his muscles relaxing, tried vainly to keep his balance while a veil of blackness rushed up to overwhelm him.
The Sumerian sprang forward, put a great arm about Mason's shoulders, supporting him. The warrior thrust his scimitar back into its scabbard, caught Mason in his arms as though the archeologist were a child, lifted him.
The Sumerian bellowed an oath. "Now by Baal and all the other milk-and-water gods of the north," he concluded, "I fight no man who swears by El-lil!"
Dimly Mason was conscious of being swung across a brawny shoulder, carried through interminable green-lit corridors. He was too weak to resist. At last he was deposited lightly on a mound of furs. He felt liquid trickling between his lips, clutched at a flask the warrior held and lifted it. Water … no, not water, though the liquor was tasteless and very cold. Energy seemed to trickle through every fibre of Mason's parched body with the fluid. He drained the flask, put it aside.
His weakness had gone. He sat up, staring about the room—bare, stone-walled, carpeted with furs. The Sumerian put down the flask with a ruefully thirsty glance. "Now who are you?" he growled. "Nobody in this cursed land knows of El-lil. And you are no man of Sumer."
Mason chose his words carefully. "I come from a distant land," he said. "A land far to the west, where El-lil's fame has traveled. How I came here—I don't know."
"The Master would know. How are you named?"
"Ma-zhon." He rolled the syllables upon his tongue, giving them a curiously guttural sound. "And I—well, call me Erech. I was born in the city of Erech, and sometimes it isn't wise for men to give their own names. If I ever leave this city, it would not be well for men to know that I once served Greddar Klon." The Sumerian's harsh face darkened, and he sent a suspicious glance toward Mason. "You know the Master?"
Before Mason could answer a thudding sounded beyond the door. He was startled at the expression that flashed over Erech's face, in which fear and resentment were strangely mingled. The door opened.
Framed in the portal stood—a metal man! Seven feet tall, barrel-bodied, with three jointed legs of silvery metal ending in flat, broad metal plates, the thing stood there—watching! Rubbery, tentacular arms dangled loosely; the head was a metal sphere, incongruously small atop that bulky body, featureless save for a multiple-faceted eye. The robot stared.
The Sumerian did not move. Mason saw the sinews of his right hand crawl beneath the skin. Imperceptibly the hand edged toward the hilt of the scimitar.
The robot spoke, in a flat, toneless voice. "The Master summons you. Come at once."
It turned, retreated. The door shut silently. With a muttered oath Erech relaxed on the furs.
"What—what was that?" Mason asked, feeling a nameless terror stirring within him. The metal creature had seemed alive!
"One of the Master's servants," said the Sumerian, getting to his feet. "One of those he created. Powerful is the Master!" Irony tinged his tone.
"Well, I must go," he went on. "You wait here. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Didn't that robot see me?" Mason asked uneasily. Erech shrugged.
"El-lil knows! Sometimes they see nothing—sometimes everything. I'll be back soon enough, and we'll find a hiding-place for you. There's no time now."
He hurried out, and Mason stared at the closed door, trying to integrate his thoughts. Unconsciously for the last quarter-hour he had been trying to convince himself that this was a dream, a hallucination born of delirium. But he knew this was not so. The reality of this strange city was clear enough, and Mason was young enough to realize how elastic are the boundaries of known science. Time was not fixed, unchangeable. In theory it would be possible to travel into the future or the past. And if in theory—why not in fact?
Strange, yes, and incredible and terrifying—but not impossible. Furtively Mason ran his hand over the smooth surface of the metal wall behind him, smoothed the furs on which he sat. He felt a desperate longing for a cigarette.
There were so many things unexplained! This fantastic city, ruled by a mysterious Master of whom the Sumerian was seemingly terrified. That tied in with the known legends, but it explained woefully little. And it did not tell Mason what he most wanted to know: whether he was among enemies or friends.
A noise in the corridor brought Mason alertly to his feet. Some vague impulse made him open the door, peering out. A robot was advancing along the passage, still almost thirty feet away, and Mason quickly closed the door again, flattening himself against the wall beside it. The creature might pass by, but there was no assurance of that.
The footsteps stopped. The door opened under the pressure of a metallic tentacle. Flattened against the wall Mason saw, from the corner of his eye, the monstrous looming form of the robot moving forward. It had not seen him.
The creature crossed the threshold and abruptly halted, as though realizing Mason's proximity. But the man had already sprung forward, thrusting at the robot with his shoulder, attempting to squeeze past into the corridor. He had not realized the frightful power of the thing.
Even caught off balance, the robot was immensely strong. It wheeled, and the arm-tentacles gripped Mason, pulled him back. He tried vainly to fight free.
The creature held him effortlessly, and one coiling limb slid out to close the door. That done, the robot stumped forward into the room, dragging Mason with it, ignoring the man's struggles. The faceted eye glared passionlessly down.
Then Mason caught sight of the empty flask he had drained, that had been flung aside carelessly by the Sumerian. It was lying within easy reach and with a quick lunge he snatched it up, his fingers tightening about the neck. The robot's eye was not high to reach—and Mason's arm curved in a swift arc, sent the bottle smashing viciously forward.
Glass showered his face painfully. He put all his strength in a frantic attempt to wriggle free, managed to tear the last tentacle from its anchorage about his waist. The robot blundered forward, smashing against the wall. Its eye was shattered, Mason saw; it was blind.
Swiftly he gained the door, crept out quietly into the corridor. Behind him came a thunderous crashing as the robot pounded about the room, reducing it to pulped wreckage. Mason glanced around. The passage was empty. He could not wait here for Erech; if one robot had been sent, there would be others. Choosing a direction at random, Mason moved cautiously to the left. The corridor was broken at intervals by doors, but he did not try them, fearing to alarm some inhabitant of the city.
But he was given no choice. The distant pounding of feet came mechanically, running toward him, and Mason guessed that additional robots were arriving. A turn in the passage hid them from his sight. He hesitated. Perhaps the ruler of Al Bekr—whoever directed the metal men—was not an enemy. The robot had not actually attacked him—it had merely tried to subdue and capture. If he submitted peacefully—
But as the hurrying feet came closer a wave of cold horror chilled Mason, and on impulse he opened the nearest door and slipped through, closing the panel behind him. His eyes examined the room as he heard the robots race past. And, almost, Mason cried out in amazement, as, for the first time, he saw the woman who was called Nirvor—the Silver Priestess!
Excerpted from The Time Trap by Henry Kuttner. Copyright 1938 by Henry Kuttner. Excerpted by permission of Diversion Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.