Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Henry Kuttner & C L Moore's "The Iron Standard" (short story): When "man-hour standard" replaced "gold standard" for currency valuation

Quote from the short story titled The Iron Standard by Henry Kuttner & C L Moore, writing under their joint pseudonym Lewis PadgettIn spite of a fantasy setting on Venus, I think this funny & somewhat frivolous story is better classified as non-genre. An imaginary island in the tradition of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" would have worked as well.

The story is about jolting a static civilization out of its slumber. Circumstances have made this jolting a survival issue for the heroes.

I kept getting the impression the author was satirizing some political aspect of his era. May be you can see the political issues if you are familiar with the US of 1940s; they didn't mean anything to me.

Story summary.

There is a group of 5 humans stranded on Venus, outside "the capital city, Vyring" of its world state. Year is "1964, three years after the first successful flight to Mars, five years since" moon landing. Moon "was uninhabited, save by active but unintelligent algae." "Martians ... had been friendly, and it was certain that the cultures of Mars and Earth would not clash." This expedition, on spaceship "Goodwill", was the first to explore Venus.

They found a very habitable world, & a thriving civilization controlled by professional guilds (locally called "tarkomars"). Since most political power is in the hands of these guilds, those who control them have been thwarting all attempts at even minor social changes.

Humans initially were warmly welcomed. They received a lot of hydroponically-grown local food as gift, & returned the welcome with earth-grown food they were carrying. The locals are so close to humans that each other's food is edible. And food available in the wild is utterly inedible - the reason locals have hydroponics in the first place. Don't ask how they evolved there!

But "Earthmen meant change." So, after an initial honeymoon, there is "a boycott of the Earthmen." Locals will not be gifting food anymore. "They had no intention of harming the Earthmen; they remained carefully friendly. But from now on, it was pay as you're served."

Humans don't have enough food left to return to earth. Local hydroponic food they have received till now spoils fast & is not suitable for long term storage; gifts they had received have already rotted away.

Humans have gold, silver, etc. But they are abundant metals there. But iron is rare, & has the value that gold enjoys on earth. "Venus was on the iron standard" - hence the title.

Explorers cannot contact earth for help. "Venus has a Heaviside layer, so we can't wireless" earth!

Local administration doesn't discriminate against humans. You can earn there & then buy food. But law requires that all workers be part of some guild; begging is legal, but even for that you need membership of Beggars' Guild! And membership requires an upfront payment in local currency!

Jorust, sort of mayer of Vyring, is sympathetic to humans, but is helpless. She only enforces laws; she doesn't make them!

Our heroes try a lot of tricks, all thwarted. One of them even builds an X-ray machine to sell to locals in return for money. "they were permitted to sell a self created device without belonging to a tarkomar". Even that is found to be illegal because it violates, in ways that only a lawyer can argue, local patents - owned & suppressed by guilds! One of these patents is on "sensitized film". When told the X-ray machine doesn't use film, another patent is produced - this one on "Machines employing vibration... Light is vibration"!!

Ultimately, our heroes figure out a way to game the system. By replacing iron or gold standard with man-hour standard! Idea is: if a man earns X amount in an hour's work, & I suddenly make some men in the economy capable of earning 2X, I have introduced an instability into the system. I can then bargain with those who don't want such instability.

So someone concocts stamina-enhancement "Power Pills". Eat one, & if you are in a labor intensive job, you can do twice the work! Only problem is - humans cannot sell the pills unless they become guild members. So they would, instead, gift them! Now, gifting is an old tradition, & even Venusians had been gifting them food when they arrived - so there is a precedent.

So we get a kind of fair at the "main plaza of Vyring". One member of the human contingent is showing stamina by digging a hole fast in the ground for long hours, other juggling balls, third stitching cloths, fourth typing/distributing pamphlets advertising the virtues of pills, ...

Soon there is a crowd. And a cop. Then they are handing out the pills; more can be had at their camping site later. There are objections from cop & a visitor from guild, but they aren't really violating law by giving free gifts.

Over the next few days, economy begins seeing changes. If two men were earning the same, & one was paid on hourly basis & other on number of units produced, second one is now suddenly earning more! Discontent among the former.

Eventually, humans will make a blackmailing deal with the a guild president. Guild will pay them a certain amount of protection money, & they will stop distributing their free gifts!

The stranded earthmen.

  1. Captain Rufus Munn
  2. Steve Thirkell
  3. Barton Underhill - "supercargo and handy man"
  4. Mike Soaring Eagle aka Redskin
  5. Bronson - the engineer


  1. All stories by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner & C L Moore).

Collected in.

  1. "The Best of Henry Kuttner".
  2. Isaac Asimov & Martin H Greenberg (Eds)' "Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 5 (1943)".

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science Fiction, December 1943. Under the joint pseudonym Lewis Padgett - of Henry Kuttner & his wife C L Moore.
Rating: B