CL Moore’s Doomsday Morning – she’s best known for her revolutionary 1930s works including ‘Shambleau’ (1934) and the Jirel of Joiry sequence – is perhaps her most ruminative and traditional SF novel (she tended to write more fantastical SF and fantasy). Unfortunately, she quit writing around the time of the death of her husband and frequent collaborator Henry Kuttner (they often published under the pseudonym Lewis Padgett). And her second husband forbid her to write altogether…
Moore creates a finely wrought dystopic vision where an oppressive future government utilizes communication networks to spread its tentacles across the United States. Against this backdrop intriguing characters come to life. Her descriptions of the political backdrop remain minimalistic which is surprising for SF of the 1950s which often resorts to lengthy descriptive lectures. Instead, the true extent of the government’s influence on everyone’s lives is only slowly uncovered via our main character’s experiences. The first person narrative is perfectly deployed to slowly immerse us in the world. Doomsday Morning is not populated by your normal heroes, and Moore is careful to point out that not all rebels are heroic.
Comus (derived from COMmunications US) rules America but details about how exactly it functions and how it was created are kept at a minimum. Clearly a reference to Communism (Moore is writing in the post-Mccarthyism era), Comus is controlled by the dictator Raleigh who is slowly dying. Vague references are interspersed throughout that allude to a devastating Five Days’ War that resulted in Raleigh creating Comus. Comus maintains power by an adept use of the media – propagandistic plays, movies transformed into plays, control of the actual communication networks. Also, the use of “pyscho-polling” and automated police Prowlers keep the state aware of the moods and seditious inclinations of their populace. A large percentage of the workforce that keeps everyone fed and happy are indentured Croppers. They sign lengthy contracts and receive food, alcohol, housing, and transportation between worksites all of which is deducted from their pay. However, by the time their contracts are up they are deeply in debt and have to sign new contracts.
Howard Rohan, the main character, is a onetime actor and theater director who led a successful theater troop. However after the death of his wife Miranda, who acted his plays and movie adaptations of his plays, Rohan fell on hard times and joined the Croppers. A wonderful sequence opens the novel – a drunk and depressed Rohan gazing across the plane where he sees a movie screen with a scene of his wife and himself:
“I watched the young Rohan of four years ago come up behind his wife and rest his hands on her waist, one on each side, like a belt. She laid her head back on his shoulder. It was like watching two gods make love, beautiful, gigantic, more vivid than life, and a long way off in space and time.” (p 8)
Soon Rohan is summoned by Ted Nye, who rules Comus from behind the scenes, with a proposition. Rohan is to restart his career and head to California which has separated from Comus and perform a play. The play itself seems innocent and even non-propagandistic. The troop he selects, The Swann Players are second rate and there’s a Comus spy in in the mix. As Rohan slowly emerges from his self-induced haze of despair and alcoholism he seems to be guided by a series of cryptic messages (how exactly he received them is one of the main mysteries) about what is actually happening in California. Rohan’s self-transformation is generally believable. Also, Rohan’s egotism matches the type of character he is meant to represent. Initially he is solely motivated for selfish reasons, but soon, he is forced to pick a side when Comus’ reason for funding the play is revealed.
What is remarkable about the work is the thematic core that explores the intersection of performance, the powers of media, and state control. The most transfixing portions of the novel describe the play that is almost a character within the narrative. The novel revolves the forces that ordered the play to be performed, the story the play itself relates, the characters within the play, and the actors performing the play’s characters. Beautiful touches abound. For example Comus, the “benevolent” dictatorship that rules America, translates existing plays into movies to control the masses. Also, our hero often cannot distinguish between the reality of Miranda whom Rohan once loved and the ideal constructed via her screen presence – even her name, Miranda, ie, “the one who ought to be gazed at” reflects Rohan’s struggle.
CL Moore’s Doomsday Morning is one of the more intriguing dystopic visions from the 1950s. Highly recommended all fans of classic SF. However, the slow pace and lack of immersive action (until the end) might not satisfy all readers.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.