This is the third of three books by the Kuttner/Moore team that Gnome Press have in their stable, and like the one other copy I have – Robots Have No Tails… – this is a collection though presented (albeit rather thinly) in novel form.
Each chapter is a short story in the ‘Baldy’ series. There is a brief intro to each that provides a linking device by which these tales are tied together. A Baldy crashes his ‘copter in some remote mountains and accesses shared memories recollecting important events in Baldy history while he waits against hope for rescue. I found this glue rather unnecessary and again, for me, it was a distraction and detraction from tales that were on the whole pretty good as stand-alone pieces – I could have quite readily inferred the progression satisfactorily myself.
Baldies are a post-apocalyptic (or post ‘Big Mistake’ as it’s called) human mutation that have telepathic powers. In actual fact, ‘mutant’ is a bit of a misnomer. The term is traditionally used to describe a one-off genetic aberration such as those sported by the various X-Men, by Johnny Alpha and his Strontium Dog colleagues or to a lesser extent the abilities of the Children of he Atom. Baldies are really a different species arising from a mutation – not ‘mutants’ per se, but a brand new species of the homo genus. This Big Mistake caused an identical genetic modification in some people so a small percentage of post-Mistake offspring exhibit dominant Baldy traits – Baldies become a permanent and growing percentage of the population.
So, I hear you ask, why were they called ‘Baldies’? Well, they are bald as you can see from Ric Binkley’s cover art, but further, have a complete lack of bodily hair. Because of this, they were able to be readily identified and most resorted to the habit of wearing hairpieces to camouflage themselves from society at large. A prudent move as Baldies often engender a certain amount of fear in most normal people due to their mind-reading abilities and as a result suffer from some discrimination. But outside of the extremist ‘Paranoid’ Baldy faction, they are generally understanding of many humans’ attitude towards them in their obviously dominant position, and seek to bring a reconciliation that will be satisfactory in the long term.
Just on the note of conflict, I just want to mention a cultural idiosyncrasy of the times – the duel. All men carry a dagger so they can engage in duels if challenged. What is it about this form of conflict resolution that so appealed to SF writers back then? It seems a bit odd and rather antiquated from the viewpoint of today, The great RAH used this device in his early work Beyond This Horizon (with firearms though, not blades). But as I so often encourage, you have to read these books with a certain amount of tolerance and with one mental foot in the 1940s or 50s. These things (the duels) go to the death, so they aren’t taken lightly and to engage with a Baldy is tantamount to suicide as they can read your mind as to what moves you’re about to pull.
As I mentioned earlier, the stories depict several key scenarios in Baldy history – they are snapshots of events leading to the inevitable confrontation between them and regular humans. This culminates in a solitary Baldy having to make the final decision as to whether to extinguish the threat to Baldy existence or let fate determine how the relationship between the two species develops.
Aside from those unnecessary linking intrusions I really enjoyed the tales. In contrast to mutant fare we have been getting in the modern sci-fi era – isolated and/or disparate mutations affecting individuals in radically different and bizarre ways – I liked the treatment here. A single mutation consistent and breeding human mutation evolution that has the potential to subsume the inferior (or at least non-telepathic) regular human version. In some ways this brings to mind John Wyndham’s story The Midwich Cuckoos, but the Baldies aren’t evil as the children in that story apparently are.
What Henry Kuttner (all subsequent editions are credited to him, see the book’s ISFDB page – I suspected as much from the style of the prose) does well here is conveying the sense of community that Baldies experience. They have a telepathic link that’s kind of analagous to the Internet – each individual is kind of server. They can all choose to partake of the resource, or ‘log out’ and resist intruding on, or intrusion from others. It’s quite skillfully handled given that it’s a tough thing to try to impart what is actually happening in the mind. Let me give you an example:
They looked at each other in silence. Their minds touched and sprang apart and then touched again, tentatively, with light thoughts that leaped from point to point as gingerly as if the ideas were ice-floes that might sink beneath the full weight of conscious focus.
I thought I loved you . . . perhaps I did . . . yes, I too . . . but now there can’t be . . . (sudden, rebellious denial) . . . no, it’s not true, there can’t ever be rightness between us . . . not as if we were ordinary people . . . we’d always remember that picture, how I looked (abrupt sheering off from the memory) . . . (agonized repudiation of it) . . . no couldn’t help that . . . always between us . . . rooted too deeply . . . and anyhow, Cas – (sudden closing off of both minds at once, before even the thought-image had time to form.)
Alexa stood up. “I’m going to town,” she said.
That’s a bit lengthy, but it gives you a great example of how he’s handled it. Pretty slick if you ask me. Short passages of mind communication are scattered throughout the book and really help us become part of the Baldy experience – not just a third-party to it.
To wrap this up, Mutant is an enjoyable read that presents some interesting dilemmas and makes us think about how we might handle being in such a position as they. However, you don’t need to be a telepath to work out what’s happening over the course of the stories, so if you read this collection, keep in mind they are tales separated in time and just skip the linking interludes. You will enjoy it a bit more.