Friday, February 1, 2008

Henry Kuttner & C L Moore's "The Twonky" (short story, science fiction): A cocktail of humor & horror

Short story titled The Twonky by Henry Kuttner & C L Moore, original published under their joint pseudonym Lewis Padgett.This one made me smile most of the way through, though I've seen its plot idea in at least 3 other stories - Kuttner/Moore's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves", Russell/Hugi's "Mechanical Mice", & C M Kornbluth's "The Little Black Bag": a very minor toy of an advanced civilization ends up in human space, causing major upheaval.

Story summary. Act 1.

Mickey Lloyd of Mideastern Radio (a maker of consumer audio equipment) is having attrition problems - lot of employee turnover. "So when the big-headed little man in overalls wandered vaguely out of a storeroom", Lloyd put him to work on assembly floor.

The "little man" "Joe" is a bit dazed. He looks around - "Men in overalls were doing things. Simple, obvious things... Perhaps this was a kindergarten"! Of course he could do it; he was a trained "twonky" maker. "He began to build a Twonky... when he couldn't locate any tungsten, he hastily built a small gadget and made it"! He finished it, & gave it the external appearance of typical "console radio-phonograph combination" being assembled there. And being tired, he went to sleep in the shop.

When he wakes up, the mists have cleared. Realized he "ran into a temporal snag!... went over to a corner, felt around in the air, nodded with satisfaction and seated himself on nothing, three feet above the floor. Then Joe vanished."

OK - so this is how the "twonky" ended up in human space. It looks like a typical "console radio-phonograph combination", & is mixed up among other similar units.

Act 2.

Second part of the story is of Kerry Westerfield, a teacher at a university. He lives somewhere with his wife Martha. And has just brought the new console - of course, the disguised twonky. He will soon discover the surprises.

He is about to try the new console. He 'opened the doors ... A beam of bluish light shot out and hit him in the eyes. From the depths of the console a faint, thoughtful clicking proceeded. Abruptly it stopped... The radio said, ... "Psychology pattern checked and recorded."' Kerry thought he had tuned some funny radio station, & forgot about it.

Thinks of picking up a cigarette. Lights, but first match stick went out. Is about to light another "when a faint noise caught his attention. The radio was walking across the room toward him. A whiplike tendril flicked out from somewhere, picked up a match, scratched it beneath the table top - as Kerry had done - and held the flame to the man's cigarette... When he could see again, the radio was back in its accustomed place."

This walk of radio had pulled out the electric cord from wall socket; so he replaces it. He will soon find it's not necessary. The machine has some built in power source.

Martha is to go out for a few days. Kerry drops her off, not knowing what ordeal he has in store.

Over the next few days of living alone, he will discover that radio walks over to kitchen to do his dishes, doesn't let him read certain books (physically snatches books it considers naughty from him), won't let him have more than one cup of coffee, will play some music but not other, ...!!! Looks like the twonky is some kind of a nursemaid & a censor. It can also manipulate his mind - e.g., to temporarily kill curiosity or initiative!

As a reader, we need to remember twonky is kindergarten stuff - it's treating the subject as a child. Except for the gruesome ending.

Kerry consults a friend & psychology teacher Mike Fitzgerald. Over the next few days, they will try all kinds of things & keep getting more & more puzzled.

Eventually Martha is back. Kerry's initiative has been killed to the extent that he's behaving like a zombie. Martha calls Mike over. Learns the whole story. Mike has plans of wrecking the dangerous gadget. But gadget is far smarter - telepathically makes him forget the whole episode!

Martha goes bonkers. Picks up a "hatchet" to destroy the radio. 'a beam of light shot out, and Martha vanished. A little dust floated up in the afternoon sunlight... "Destruction of life form threatening attack," the radio said'!

By now Kerry is sober & has seen her death. Tries the same stunt. Gets killed the same way. And the machines says "Subject basically unsuitable... Elimination has been necessary... Preparation for next subject completed"!

Act 3.

We see a new couple have brought the Westerfields place. And the estate agent seems to have some curiosity examining the radio...


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

Collected in.

  1. "The Best of Henry Kuttner".
  2. Raymond J Healy & J Francis McComas (Eds)' "Adventures in Time and Space".

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science Fiction, September 1942. Under the joint pseudonym of the two authors - "Lewis Padgett".
Rating: A
This story was turned into a 1953 movie of the same title.


Anonymous said...

The story is also collected in Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 4, 1942, which is where I read it.

Also one minor point, I don't think there's any indication in the story that the Twonky is a minor toy in the advanced civilization. You may have made the mistake based on the name of the device and a line about making it being "child's play" for the workman, since he'd been specially trained to make them. But given the nature of the device, it couldn't possibly be a toy in its native land. It's pretty much certainly what Fitzgerald says it is.

Tinkoo said...

May be. It's been a long time since I read it; I don't recall many details except that it made me laugh.