Retro Review: “When the Bough Breaks” by Lewis Padgett a.k.a. Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore

Astounding Science Fiction November 1944

Not Alexander, but the Killdozer from Theodore Sturgeon’s eponymous story

“When the Bough Breaks” is a novelette by Lewis Padgett, one of the many pen names of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, which was first published in the November 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point! We also need a trigger warning for harm done to a child here.

“When the Bough Breaks” is the story of the Calderon family: physicist Joe, his wife Myra and their eighteen-months-old son Alexander. The Calderons are amazed to have found a good apartment close to the university where Joe works and for a reasonable rent, too. Apparently, the housing market was already tight in 1944, even though the US housing stock was not being diminished by World War II bombings, unlike in Europe.

A neighbour informs the Calderons that no one lasts long in apartment 4-D. It’s not exactly haunted, but there are unusual visitors, strange little men who keep asking for a man no one knows. And indeed, the Calderons have barely moved in, when the doorbell rings and four little men with huge heads and wizened faces stand outside.

“Are you Joseph Calderon?” they ask Joe. When Joe says yes, the little inform him that they are the descendants of his son Alexander, that Alexander is a superbaby and that the little men are there to educate him.

Joe doesn’t even have time to react, before the little men storm the apartment and gather around baby Alexander. They claim that they come from the year 2450 and that Alexander himself has sent them back in time to educate him. Oh yes, and Alexander is an immortal superhuman.

The Calderons do what everybody would have done in that situation, they throw the little men out. Or at least they try, for the little men paralyse them with some kind of futuristic technology. Then the little men give Alexander some educational toys from the future. Alexander isn’t particularly keen on the toys, but the little men are extremely patient. Once they’re satisfied that Alexander has learned enough, they leave.

The Calderons are understandably panicked – after all, Alexander is just a baby, a perfectly normal baby and not homo superior. So, to avoid a further visitation by the little men, they go to the nearest theatre to watch a movie, taking Alexander along. But in the middle of the film, Alexander vanishes. The terrified Calderons head home, where they find Alexander happily playing with the little men and one of their educational toys.

The little men try to stun the Calderons again, but Joe says there is no need, they will cooperate. And the little men don’t want to hurt Joe and Myra either, because they know how important a stable home environment is to Alexander’s development.

So Joe and Myra watch as the little men play with Alexander, while Bordent, the leader of the little men, explains that Alexander is the first homo superior, mutated because both his parents worked with radioactive material and were exposed to radiation. Bordent also explains that Alexander’s abilities were not recognised until he was thirty. So the future Alexander sent Bordent and his companions into the past to find his infant self and give him an education suitable for a superhuman.

Bordent also explains that because Alexander is a superhuman, he will mature more slowly than regular human children. Until he is twenty, Alexander will physically remain at the state of an eight-year-old. Mentally, he will be higher developed than his parents, but irrational like a small child.

From that day on, the Calderons resign themselves to the daily visitation of the little men. They also note mental and physical changes in Alexander. After four days, he begins to talk and after a week, Alexander is able to hold conversations, though his speech is sometimes slurred, his baby muscles and teeth not yet ready for talking. Also like any baby, Alexander displays irritating behaviour, made even more irritating by the fact that he can talk. And so he demands milk and assembles the educational toys from the future into strange structures. But when Joe asks what Alexander is building, Alexander just says “No” over and over again. Alexander also decides to practice vomiting and crying and generally turns into a tiny dictator. At one point, he even tells Joe (whom he refuses to call “father”) that he and Myra are primitive biological necessities.

Alexander becomes steadily more difficult to handle. He learns to teleport, communicate telepathically and dispense electric shocks and promptly decides to try out those new skills on his parents. He also stops sleeping – it’s an artificial habit anyway, Bordent explains. By now, we and the Calderons are beginning to suspect that Alexander has a great and glorious future as a comic book supervillain ahead of him. However, Bordent assures Joe and Myra that Alexander is only playing and that he didn’t mean to hurt his parents. And no, spanking Alexander is not the answer.

While on the subject of spanking, the portrayal of parenthood and child rearing in this story are seriously dated. Not only does Joe consider spanking his admittedly tyrannical kid, no, Joe and Myra also drink larger quantities of hard alcohol around their baby (and Joe considers giving Alexander some alcohol at one point, when Alexander demands “a drink”, before Joe realises that he means milk), they smoke around their baby and take him the cinema at one point to see a movie that very likely is not appropriate for young children. To be fair, none of these things were uncommon for parents of young children well into the 1970s and beyond, but viewed from a 2020 POV they are jarring. Though it’s also interesting that Alexander berates his parents for smoking around him, because it’s bad for his lungs, which is probably the most prescient thing in the whole story.

After a few months of living with an ever more dictatorial superbaby, Joe and Myra are at their wits’ end. Human may have a nigh endless supply of parental love and tolerance, but even that has its limits and Joe and Myra have just about reached them.

Myra quietly wonders whether they’re really the first parents to deal with a homo superior baby. She finally decides that no, they’re probably not the first. However, Alexander is the first homo superior, so something must have happened to the others. And Joe and Myra as well as the reader can imagine only too clearly what it was.

The bough finally break one night, when Alexander breaks open a cupboard and retrieves an object, a blue egg, that the little men had locked away, because it might be dangerous to Alexander. Joe and Myra know the object is dangerous and that they should intervene, but somehow they cannot bring themselves to do it. Besides, Alexander probably wouldn’t let them intervene anyway.

And so it happens what has to happen. Alexanders blows himself up and all that remains are his smouldering baby shoes. Joe and Myra realise that Alexander is gone and that since Alexander never grew up into the first homo superior, Bordent and his companions never travelled back in time either and the whole thing ever happened. Joe and Myra are more relieved than anything, while Myra pities the parents of whoever the first homo superior to reach adulthood may be. We suspect that parents of Charles Xavier, Erich Lehnsherr a.k.a. Magneto and Magnifico a.k.a. The Mule might sympathise.

Line to Tomorrow by Lewis Padgett

On the other hand, the baby on the cover of this Lewis Padgett collection may well be Alexander.

“When the Bough Breaks” is a deeply disturbing story – after all, it is basically a story about parents who kill their kid through neglect. What makes the story even more disturbing by the fact that it’s largely a humorous story closer in tone to Henry Kuttner’s Gallegher stories about an inept inventor than to Kuttner and Moore’s more serious and sombre works such as their other 1944 science fiction novella “The Children’s Hour” or C.L. Moore’s solo works of the period like “No Woman Born” or Judgment Night. The cartoony interior art by A. Williams further reinforces the feeling that “When the Bough Breaks” was intended as a humorous story.

Children, marriage and family life are not a common theme in golden age (or for that matter contemporary) science fiction, though these themes show up quite frequently in the works of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, e.g. in “Mimsy Were the Borogroves”, the 1944 Retro Hugo winner for best novelette. The fact that Kuttner and Moore were a married couple that mostly wrote together certainly has something to do with the marriage and family focus in many of their works. In many ways, Kuttner/Moore stories from the 1940s such as “Mimsy Were the Borogroves”, “The Twonky” or “When the Bough Breaks” already look ahead at what Joanna Russ called Galactic Suburbia science fiction, silver age science fiction with domestic themes often written by women writers. Because thematically and stylistically “When the Bough Breaks” is very reminiscent of the Galactic Suburbia stories of the 1950s and early 1960s, even though the Calderons live in a city apartment rather than a suburb.

There are further parallels between “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” and “When the Bough Breaks”. In both stories, someone from the far future interferes with the development of children in the present. And in both stories, educational toys from the future cause psychological and physiological changes in children that their parents cannot understand. “When the Bough Breaks” is a much darker story than “Mimsy Were the Borogroves”, though. And “Mimsy” is not exactly a happy story. However in “Mimsy Were the Borogroves”, the narrative is on the side of the children. In “When the Bough Breaks”, the narrative is squarely on the side of the parents who wind up killing their child in the end.

We know a lot about Kuttner and Moore’s writing process, but comparatively little about their marriage and family life, when they were not writing. However, in a letter dated May 1943, John W. Campbell mentioned that C.L. Moore had missed deadlines because of a difficult pregnancy, which means that Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore were parents of a baby at the time this story was written. I now wonder whether there isn’t a kernel of truth to this story and whether “When the Bough Breaks” was at least partly inspired by Kuttner and Moore’s experiences with a fussy and difficult baby.

ETA: According to Paul Fraser and Rebecca Lohr, C.L. Moore had a miscarriage, which sheds a different light on the story.

It’s also telling that the behaviour and feelings of the Calderons, though caused by the fact that their child is a superbaby, very much mirrors the symptoms of postpartum depression, a condition that was known long before the 1940s, even if it wasn’t yet referred to by that name. At once point, Kuttner and Moore also use the term “autistic” to describe Alexander’s behaviour in what may be one of the first uses of that term in fiction. As I mentioned in my review of Allison V. Harding’s “Guard in the Dark”, Leo Kanner‘s and Hans Asberger‘s pioneering research into autism spectrum disorder happened in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It’s highly likely Kuttner and Moore (and Harding) were familiar with Kanner’s paper, which was first published in 1943. It’s also telling that the visitation by Bordent and the little men begins when Alexander is eighteen months old, i.e. at the age where symptoms of autism spectrum disorder first manifest.

Another term that is used in connection with Alexander is “homo superior”, a term which was coined by Olaf Stapledon in the 1935 science fiction novel Odd John, though nowadays it is mainly associated with the X-Men comics. It is well known that the silver age Marvel Comics in general and the X-Men in particular were inspired by golden age science fiction and that the literary predecessors of the X-Men may be found in Stapledon’s Odd John, A.E. van Vogt’s Slan, Isaac Asimov’s The Mule and particularly Wilmar H. Shiras’ Children of the Atom. As a fan of both, I have been aware of the connections between the X-Men comics and golden age science fiction for a long time now. However, I found the X-Men at around the same time I encountered The Mule and long before I tracked down Slan or Odd John let alone Children of the Atom. My image of mutants was that of a feared and hated minority – The Mule notwithstanding. And though The Mule is undoubtedly a villain (but then so is Magneto), I was disturbed by the anti-mutant slant of the story. It took me a long time to realise that The Mule was the rule rather than the exception and that homo superior in golden age science fiction were more likely to be supervillains rather than misunderstood heroes and that these were the very stories and tropes that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and later Chris Claremont were reacting to with the X-Men.

Alexander from “When the Bough Breaks” is another example of a negatively portrayed homo superior from golden age science fiction, though he never gets to grow up into a fully-fledged supervillain. And since Alexander unwittingly brings about his own demise by sending Bordent and his companions back into the past, “When the Bough Breaks” is also a very early example of the “grandfather paradox”, which was actually coined in the very same year by French writer René Barjavel in his science fiction novel Le Voyageur Imprudent a.k.a. Future Times Three.

“When the Bough Breaks” is certainly an interesting story. It is also well written, but then we know that Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore could write. And unlike some other stories I reviewed for this project, it has been reprinted several times over the decades and is therefore hardly an obscure story.

However, I really can’t get beyond that fact that “When the Bough Breaks” is essentially a story about infanticide. Worse, the infanticide is not punished, Joe and Myra don’t even feel remorse. And yes, Alexander was well on his way to becoming a total disaster, but Joe and Myra could have done something before he became a fully-fledged baby dictator such as throwing out Bordent and his companions, for example. But instead, they kill their own child through neglect, because he was too difficult to handle.

A highly disturbing story that IMO doesn’t belong on the Retro Hugo ballot, simply because of the highly problematic subject matter and the way it is handled.

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