Judgment Night, CL Moore (1952)
Review by Ian Sales
Catherine Lucille Moore is no longer as well known as she once was – a collection of her short fiction in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series notwithstanding – and at the height of her popularity in the 1930s and 1940s she displayed equal facility in both fantasy and science fiction, as is evident in her Jirel of Joiry fantasies and her Northwest Smith sf series. She was a frequent contributor to Weird Tales – in fact, her best-known story, ‘Shambleau’, appeared in that magazine, was her first sale, and was accepted the moment she submitted it: “My own perfectly clear memory tells me that I sent it first to WT because that was the only magazine of the type I knew well, and that an answering acceptance and check… arrived almost by return mail.” Judgment Night was her first novel-length science fiction, originally appearing serialised in Astounding Science Fiction in 1943 but not appearing in book form until 1952. (Previous sf novels had been co-written with husband Henry Kuttner, and appeared under the name Lewis Padgett.)
Princess Juille is the daughter of the Emperor of the Galaxy Lyonese. She is an amazon, a warrior-princess, war-like and hot-headed. But now the savage H’vani are threatening the empire and their horde will soon be at Ericon, the imperial capital world. Juille wants to attack them, but her father would sooner negotiate a peace – a war between the imperial forces and the H’vani would destroy the galaxy. However, before attending an important council of war, Juille decides to visit Cyrille, an artificial moon of Ericon known for its pleasure facilities. She will go incognito, and “see what it it’s like to be an ordinary woman meeting ordinary people” (p 15). And so she does, although not without cost to her identity:
She was no longer the sexless princeling of Lyonese … It was humiliating to admit by that very step that the despised femininity she had repudiated all her life should be important enough to capture now. (p 18)
Also present on Cyrille is Egide, a handsome prince who has a secret. He knows who Juille is, and he’s there to kill her. He believes his people – the H’vani, of course – will defeat the empire if Juille is dead. But he falls in love with her, and she with him. Much to the disgust of Egide’s companion, the warrior Jair.
The emperor, meanwhile, has been offered a weapon which will ensure victory, although its workings and effects are unknown. The alien who designed the weapon offers another to Juille, but this one he explains how to use: if she directs it at a person, it will remain locked on that person no matter where they are, but they will not die until she presses a second button. Juille, who has learnt that Egide is leader of the H’vani, of course uses it on him – even though the two are lovers. But when Egide withdraws from leadership of the H’vani, Jair takes over and the invasion of Ericon goes ahead as planned.
Judgment Night is pure space opera of the sort that doesn’t allow scientific rigour or plausibility to stand in its way. In that respect, it might as well be fantasy – indeed, the weapon given to Juille by the alien designer is to all intents and purposes magical. What technology is mentioned is explicitly identified as technology, and there’s no mention of whatever scientific principles or theories might underpin it. We are told Juille’s father rules a galaxy, but it is only a word – it might as well be a kingdom. And the H’vani, although repeatedly described throughout the novel as a separate race, are as human as the inhabitants of Ericon (yet, there are aliens in the story). It lends the novel a different affect to that of, say, Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories, even though each is as fantastical as the other.
Moore’s prose does not have the muscularity of contemporary woman sf writer Leigh Brackett’s, though like Brackett’s science fictions Moore’s rely on settings boasting deep time and semi-mythical histories. And also like Brackett, Moore’s plots, when you strip away all the sf trappings, are pretty basic. Neither of these factors are necessarily weaknesses. Indeed, both Moore’s and Brackett’s science fiction often work because of the trappings. And some of science-fictional elements are very interesting – in Judgment Night, for example, Ericon is home to a race of enigmatic Ancients who are pretty much living gods. They dwell in a forest over which no aircraft or spacecraft can fly (any that do are destroyed by the Ancients, thus demonstrating that they are quite categorically real). People can visit the Ancients, and some of them receive gnomic advice in return – both Egide and Juille consult them and, of course, the mystic oracles they receive are proven true by the end of the novel.
Moore’s Jirel of Joiry was a popular character and, like Juille, she was female, so plainly readers of the pulp sf magazines were not totally averse to reading stories with female protagonists. Admittedly, Juille is very much tomboyish during the opening chapter of Judgment Night, but then she swings to the complete opposite during her stay on Cyrille. Initially, this felt like cliché, or an inability to maintain a female protagonist without having to fall back on traditional gender roles; but on reflection, I think Juille shows the breadth of characterisations available to women in science fictions. In her introduction to The New Women of Wonder (1978), editor Pamela Sargent asks “why the overwhelming majority of science fiction books limit female characters to traditional roles”, but while Juille revels briefly in her new-found femininity, and falls in love with the antagonist, Egide, she never loses her agency. Moore is not only having her cake and eating it, she is getting away with it too. And that, to me, makes Juille a far more interesting character than she originally appeared to be.
Juille’s development as the story progresses only strengthens this aspect of her character. She starts the novel as a petulant hawk, but despite her relationship with Egide, she never abrogates her responsibilities or ideals. She loves him, but remains committed to destroying the H’vani. Moore manages this clever balancing act throughout Judgment Night and it works well. It’s perhaps the novel’s chief saving grace – the setting may be a somewhat identi-kit space opera, and the plot hardly original, but Juille as a protagonist lifts Judgment Night above what it all too easily might have been.