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Judgment Night, CL Moore

May 29, 2013

judgmentnightJudgment Night, CL Moore (1952)
Review by admiral ironbombs

This was what the loss of civilization really meant. For the first time the full impact of the Galaxy’s great loss overwhelmed her. So long as she could see those lost worlds she might hope to win them back, but to be struck blind like this was to lose them forever. She knew a sudden agony of homesickness for all the planets she might never see again, a sudden terrible nostalgia for the lost, familiar worlds, for the fathomless seas of space between them. Ericon’s eternal greenness was hateful, strangling in its tiny limitations.

‘Judgment Night’ (1943)
The ancient Lyonese empire is looming towards disaster; the barbarian hordes of the H’vani have been razing planet after planet as they head towards the heart of the empire, Ericon. The aging emperor is preparing for peace talks to stave off the carnage, but his daughter Juille disagrees with him, urging no quarter against the barbarian hordes. After a spat, she storms off to the artificial pleasure planet Cyrille to interact with “normal people” under a disguise, where she meets the mysterious Egide; the two have a whirlwind romance, but something about Egide puts Juille on edge. Returning home, she finds her plot to kill the H’vani ambassadors has failed – and Egide himself is the nominal leader of the H’vani. Infuriated, she attempts to shoot him, only to find herself a H’vani hostage. And unknowingly, she may have set in motion unstoppable events that could doom humanity.

‘Judgment Night’ isn’t quite a full novel, in reality a serialized novella, but it’s got a lot packed into it as you can see – and that’s leaving out quite a lot of details, such as the godlike Ancients who put forth wisdom and lies to their supplicants, or the envoy from the now-conquered planet Dunnar who offers a mighty weapon to fend off the H’vani. Moore’s typical prose, lush and poetic and brimming with imagery, is at its full-blown glory. There’s quite a lot of moody ambiance and quiet introspection, just as there’s some brilliant action pieces – Juille blasting apart a planet with a lightning-gun was priceless. The story has a good balance and great flow, though it could drag at times when the focus became more internalized.

Also, it’s a real downer, a poetic examination of what could be humanity’s downfall – if you haven’t noticed, the story’s got a strong “barbarians against Rome” feel taken to the extreme, because this war could be the apocalyptic doom of all humanity. (Granted, the ending is a dose of cautious optimism, at least for our two main characters who reach tranquility as the world around them burns. But the atmosphere and general message are tense and pessimistic.) I’m curious how it slipped under the radar to get published in Astounding, since it runs counter to editor John Campbell’s belief of homo sapiens superior. As I see it, ‘Judgment Night’ is a brutal indictment of war… and by proxy, human nature, which inevitably leads humanity to the conflicts which doom itself.

I’d like to say that Juille is a strong, independent female protagonist, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate; she is independent, but also headstrong, stubborn, more the spoiled brat of an interstellar empire then a sympathetic character. She acts out of her own selfish motives which causes no end of trouble for her, and taking matters into her own hands sets up the story’s despondent climax. And, by the end, her love/hate relationship with Egide has eroded down to just love. Still, she’s an active protagonist and the driving force behind the story; a lot of Moore’s fiction – especially the Northwest Smith and Jirel tales—have the protagonist just standing around while things happen to them. Not so much with Juille, who knows what she wants and goes after it with strict tenacity. She reminds me a lot of Moore’s earlier Jirel of Joiry, only more fiercely passionate.

‘Judgment Night’ is a perfect display for Moore’s biggest stylistic themes, as evident in her Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry stories as they are here:

  • A barely-contained sensual element lurking just beneath the surface. In this case it’s the duplicitous seduction between Juille and Egide on the pleasure-planet Cyrille, which sets off a love/hate relationship that builds steam throughout the novel. Love and death go hand in hand in Judgment Night as well, an interesting allegorical pairing… very Romeo and Juliet.
  • Paranoia and duplicity. None of the characters’ motives are obvious, and twists and double-crosses are frequent. At one point, Juille’s mind runs wild as the betrayed girl imagines adversaries around every corner; at another, she’s physically put in a paranoid, tense situation, during a game of cat and mouse as the she’s hunted by the well-armed Jair, who himself is not what he seems.
  • A miasma of grim unease which oozes forth from the story. The tone and atmosphere of Judgment Night forecasts a future disaster, a feeling that something is going to happen, and that that something will be terrible. A distinct melancholia where, despite the positive, hopeful elements within the story, the atmosphere is pervaded by a pessimistic mood.

‘Judgment Night’ is the epic space opera to end all space operas. Highly entertaining, if a bit slow at times, rich in imagery and backed by a brilliant premise. One of those requirements for the reader interested in Golden Age SF, it really ought not to be missed. I was surprised to find the story wasn’t really a full novel, falling closer to short novel/novella territory. As an added bonus, the original Gnome Press version – as well as the shiny new Singularity & Co. ebook – feature four additional stories, so there’s plenty more material to read.

‘Paradise Street’ (1950)

The explorers and the drifters and the spacehands are misfits mostly, and, therefore, men of imagination. The contrast between the rigid functionalism inside a spaceship and the immeasurable glories outside is too great not to have a name. So whenever you stand in a ship’s control room and look out into the bottomless dark where the blinding planets turn and the stars swim motionless in space, you are taking a walk down Paradise Street.

Jamie Morgan blasts onto the planet Loki with a cargo full of Sehft valued at 50,000 credits, only to find the market has bottomed out thanks to new ability to synthesize the substance. Morgan, a caustic loner, is already angered; his intense hatred of the settlers that come in his wake and inhabit the planets he opens up was set off as soon as he saw the humble Ancibel Station here on Loki. Now that his valuable cargo is worthless, and desperate for the credits, he turns to the criminal underworld to unload his goods. Bad choice; Morgan is too used to dealing with isolated, open worlds and not conniving career criminals.

‘Paradise Street’ reads more like a frontier western with its parallels of pioneers against settlers. There’s a country sheriff, a ton of Western jargon, and the climax includes the stampede of local alien cattle. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the author had cranked out an unsellable western – or maybe just re-used one of their old ones – and, after bolting on some futuristic gadgetry, submitted it to Astounding on a whim.

But this is Catherine Moore, and you can tell the allusion is intentional; her lyrical prose is more down-key but her writing is still exemplary, and it rises above to subvert the “western as sci-fi” cliche. The story’s focus is on civilization versus the rugged frontier, and it’s pretty engaging; I can see why it was picked up by Astounding. A solid tale, considering. It’s one of the longer entries in the collection, and a sharp contrast to ‘Judgment Night.’

‘Promised Land’ (1950)
Mankind’s attempts to colonize the planets have become based on decades of genetic manipulation and selective breeding, with the idea to use those created to adapt as first-line colonizers. After some centuries of terraforming the planet, they will have evolved their way back to become baseline humans, while developing their planets’ ecosystems along to allow unaltered humans to live there, paving the path for human space colonization.

Some of the attempts fail miserably, like Torren, product of generations forced to live in a centrifuge to gain the musculature needed to survive on Jupiter (what, it’s written in 1950): Torren himself cannot lift his great mass at all, forced to live in a water tank suited to his gigantic bulk. Others are wild successes, like the colonizers of Ganymede who can survive to its harsh, frozen climate and oxygen-less atmosphere thanks to their functioning genetic modification.

Torren is now the ruler of Ganymede, “the only child of the centrifuge to get out and stay out;” now the bitter old man wants to move forward ahead of schedule and terraform Ganymede early, making it hospitable for baseline humans while killing off all the Ganymedans in one fell swoop. His adopted foster-son, Ben Fenton, is the only thing standing in his way: tired of his foster-father’s brutal tendencies and in love with a Ganymedan woman, Ben refuses to let the entire Ganymedan race be slaughtered.

Brilliant idea behind the story, though it is itself very straightforward space opera. Also, somewhat short. There’s an epic showdown between Torren and Ben, and a variety of intrigue working in the background, but it’s free from major action set-pieces; mature and thoughtful for standard space opera fare, with a great surprise ending. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though its brevity gives it some jerkiness, unevenness, and its ending’s lack of finality makes me wish it had been a novella or serial. Alas, it’s not; I’ll make due.

‘The Code’ (1945)
A pair of scientists muse over their recent development – a special formula, in part deciphered from the works of ancient alchemists, which can rejuvenate its imbiber, returning their youth. Their subject is the one scientist’s aging father, brought back from the brink of terminal illness. As he grows younger, they realize how he’s changing, body and mind, and watch in abject horror as the situation develops. An exceedingly slow burn, very much a thinker, that revisits the old legend of the changeling babe, with a lot of thought put into the alchemists and their philosophy.

Kind of a modernization of Faust with overtones of Lovecraftian dread, I thought the story more fitting of a 1930s issue of Weird Tales than an issue of Astounding in its heyday; interesting overall, but far too passive. Not much happens on a physical level, and it mostly consists of the two protagonists sitting around at various times, discussing the changes wrought in their subject. Still, while it’s my least favorite in the collection so far, its wealth of ideas outshines its motionless pacing.

‘Heir Apparent’ (1950)

He shook his head at the bright world in the sky. He would have to get over the habit of regarding the heavens as a chart with a glittering pinhead for each planet, and so many thousand Thresholders, ex-Earth-born, bred for the ecology of alien worlds, pinned up there upon the black velvet backdrop for study and control. It wasn’t his problem any more.

We return to the future of ‘Promised Land’ with its modified humans exploring the galaxy, but are now dealing with Edward Harding. Ed used to be a member of an Integrator Team, a band of seven special-forces-esque humans who are “integrated” via a machine to perform terraforming duties. (They also gain latent superhuman abilities due to the mutations inherent in the process.) Ed, recently booted off the force, is tracking down one of his old adversaries – Mayall, another ex-Integrator who was booted off the team by Ed. Rumor has it that Mayall’s forming his own Integrator team, on the payroll of Venusian or Ganymedan seccessionists. Ed will join, kill Mayall, or die trying.

A twisty-turny tale with plenty of suspense and intrigue, this is one of those tales where you’re never sure who is on who’s side. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection, as well as one (arguably) the most fast-paced—”Heir Apparent” leaps forward in its tangle of betrayal and subterfuge, reaching twist after twist without any sign of slowdown. And as the capstone of the collection, it’s good that the tale is so strong: in my opinion it’s one of the strongest of the shorter works on display, and a perfect way to end the collection. Be ready for numerous surprises and a complex future, which can make things enjoyably confusing.

When these works were first collected for their 1952 Gnome Press edition, they were meant as a definitive collection of CL Moore’s modern science fiction stories, working as a solo author without any of the collaborations she wrote with her husband, Henry Kuttner. I would argue that the definitive collection of Moore’s work would have to include some of those collaborations, as well as some of her earlier Weird Tales fare like ‘Shambleau’ or ‘Black God’s Kiss’.

But what this collection sets out to do, it does well: a selection of her better works from ’40s-’50s issues of Astounding. ‘Judgment Night’ is the obvious best here: it’s longer, thematically deeper, beautifully written, and is so far the best display of Moore’s writing I’ve read. The other stories are interesting, but not required; I preferred ‘Promised Land’ and ‘Heir Apparent’ though all were readable.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.

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