Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith, CL Moore

nwelgNorthwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith, CL Moore (1933-1940)
Review by Paul Kincaid

When we first meet Northwest Smith, he is leaning in a doorway in a dusty frontier town. He is tall and lean and sunburned and dressed in old leather. A pistol is strapped low on his hip. He is, in other words, a cowboy. The fact that the brawling frontier town is on Mars and the pistol in his holster fires a heat ray does not alter the fact that he is a classic drifter, a man without ties who will ride into any lawless town looking for adventure and ride out again afterwards without a backward glance. We are told repeatedly that he is an Earthman, though it is only in the later stories that we actually see him on Earth; for all his sentimental attachment, Earth is a place to come from, not a place to be. He is subtly marked as an alien by his eyes, which are colourless. It is only a small step to see the colourless eyes of Northwest Smith turning into the albinoism of another wanderer from exotic adventure to exotic adventure, Michael Moorcock’s Elric.

In this, our very first glimpse of Northwest Smith on the very first page of CL Moore’s first published story, ‘Shambleau’ (1933), it is worth noting that he is in a doorway. Doors and doorways feature heavily in the 13 Northwest Smith stories that Moore wrote. Smith is forever passing through doorways into other planes and strange realms, or stepping through a door to meet an elder god or a vampiric woman.

Smith is an outlaw of the spaceways who breaks the law only in extremis (his association with the slavers in ‘Yvala’ (1936)), and is seen in a spaceship only once (again in ‘Yvala’). His natural habitat is the cheap bars, grungy hotels and dangerous alleyways of port towns on Mars and Venus. But this futuristic backwoods is only the stepping-off point for wild journeys of the imagination into exotic and erotic realms that always somehow open out from our base reality. From such dark and dusty starting points, the stories explode into colour; everything in these other realms is in scarlet or blue, purple or gold. Always bold primary colours, there are no tints, shades or pastels to be seen, for these are bold primary adventures.

Mars, as we encounter it here, is the planet as it was once imagined to be, a place of canals and deserts, while Venus is a world of seas and dense cloud cover. Earth, when we do briefly glimpse it, is that favourite future of crowded cities, soaring towers and high-level walkways, though it is more often presented as a sentimental memory of green hills. But we barely explore any of these primitive science-fictional settings, for the stories that begin here are certainly not science fiction. All but three of the stories gathered in this collection, subtitled The Complete Northwest Smith, first saw the light of day in Weird Tales (of the others, ‘Nymph of Darkness’ (1935), a collaboration with Forrest J Ackerman, was in Fantasy Magazine, while the brief and belated ‘Song in a Minor Key’ (1957) came from Fantastic Universe), and they conform to the creeping supernatural horror most closely associated with that magazine. Thus ‘Shambleau’ recounts a meeting with the medusa, ‘Black Thirst’ (1934) along with several others involves a form of vampirism, ‘Scarlet Dream’ (1934) takes Smith into a nightmarish land of dream, ‘Yvala’ brings him up against Circe, and so forth. The most commonly used adjective, cropping up a half dozen times or more in some of the stories, is “nameless”.

Sometimes, these confrontations with nameless horror are presented in a very straightforward way. ‘Dust of Gods’ (1934) is perhaps the most science-fictional tale in the collection. Smith and his occasional companion, Yarol the Venusian, are hired to undertake an expedition to the polar mountains of Mars. There they meet what seems to be a ghost and discover a lost city, beneath which they open up a vast chamber that is really a hollowed-out asteroid containing the dust of a god who once ruled the planet that used to orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Within this chamber they find light that ebbs and flows like water, one of the most breathtakingly science-fictional moments in this entire collection. In this case the elder god is dead and so hardly a supernatural player in the drama, which means that other than the ghostly guardian of the lost city there is little weird to be found in this tale.

More often, however, the story is not so straightforward in either structure or content, and the supernatural is the be-all and end-all of the tale, although a shot from the ray gun is often all it takes to bring about a satisfactory conclusion.

The stories, in the main, follow variations on a pattern. At the beginning (or close to the beginning in the case of ‘Scarlet Dream’ and ‘The Tree of Life’ (1936)), Northwest Smith rescues a beautiful girl who then acts as the agent through whom he encounters the nameless. Sometimes the girl herself is (or houses) the horror with whom he must contend (‘Shambleau’, ‘The Cold Grey God’ (1935), ‘Yvala’), though more usually she leads him to this horror, which may well take the form of an even more beautiful woman (‘Julhi’ (1935), ‘The Tree of Life’). The beauty of women is emphasised throughout these stories, which lay great stress on the sensuality of long hair and clinging skirts slit to the thigh; twice, in ‘Yvala’ and ‘The Tree of Life’, the woman is naked except for her incredibly long hair which is wrapped around her like a cloak. In all the stories beautiful women are manipulative, using their beauty as a form of power; though there is also an uneasy linking of beauty with slavery in both ‘Black Thirst’ and ‘Yvala’. Sex, never explicit, is often an implied part of these encounters (‘Shambleau’, ‘Scarlet Dream’), but be that as it may the visions, the sensory overload, the separation from self that Smith will invariably experience as he enters or is entered by the nameless being, has a distinctly orgasmic quality (‘Julhi’). Typical is the late story ‘Werewoman’ (1938), for instance, where “something quivered in answer within him, agonizingly… and then he leaped within himself in a sudden, ecstatic rush” (p 356) until “each time he reached the point… a shudder went over him and blankness clouded his mind” (p 366). The old identification of sexual climax with the “little death” is here expanded into the image underpinning the whole sequence. And at the end, the girl must die; either slaughtered by Smith or his male allies (‘Shambleau’, ‘Julhi’, ‘Werewoman’) or by sacrificing herself (‘Black Thirst’, ‘Scarlet Dream’) so that Smith might escape the entrapment of sexuality and move on to the next adventure released from the possibility of any emotional ties.

Sex, itself a “nameless” subject in the popular literature of the relatively straitlaced 1930s, was a fairly common subtext of those encounters with the mysterious that were related in the typical weird tale, and a suggestion of the erotic must have been a selling point in colourful popular magazines. But the sexual aspect of Moore’s Northwest Smith stories is hardly a subtext, the imagery is too potent, too central, too omnipresent for that. These are stories in which sex is death, beauty is a commodity independent of the person, and women are a danger and must be killed. Exceptionally, the Circe-figure remains alive at the end of ‘Yvala’, but that is because she is too powerful for Smith to defeat and he must be satisfied only with escaping. The unnamed girl in ‘Scarlet Dream’ is Smith’s guide and guardian in the world of dream, providing companionship, sex, food and trying to make him happy; yet in the end she must die, terribly and of her own volition, in order to allow Smith’s escape.

The sexual stories we are being told here are strange and disturbing, especially as they come from the most important female genre writer in the first half of the twentieth century. Catherine Moore stormed the all-male bastion of the pulp magazines; went on, alone and in collaboration with her husband Henry Kuttner, to write some of the finest examples of mid-century fantasy and science fiction; and created the great feminist heroine, Jirel of Joiry (who re-appears here in ‘Quest of the Starstone’ (1937), co-written with Kuttner, which carries far less sexual innuendo than any other story in the book). Yet here, repeatedly, she writes of women as sexualised beings whose very sexuality makes them the embodiment of evil or its agent, and as such deserving of and indeed desirous of death. Was she trying to outdo in machismo her male confreres (significantly, when Kuttner first wrote a fan letter to the new writer CL Moore he thought he was writing to a man)? Or was this how she imagined the male mindset of a character like Northwest Smith, to be offset by the strength and independence of Jirel, whose stock in trade was that she could outfight any man? Whatever the truth of the matter, and regardless of the relative subtlety of their telling (Moore was one of the more accomplished writers to emerge from the pulp magazines of the 1930s), sex as a death struggle that can only lead to the rightful destruction of the woman is the abiding image left by these stories.

For all that, the Northwest Smith stories have a raw power that makes them enduringly readable. They represent the peak of 1930s pulp fiction, and if their plot lines and two-fisted hero seem out of place compared to today’s fiction, that also makes them fascinatingly different.

This review originally appeared on SF Site.

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Beyond the Gates, Catherine Wells

beyondBeyond the Gates, Catherine Wells (1999)
Review by Paul Kincaid

There is a rumour to the effect that science fiction is a fresh, forward-looking, innovative literature. This is, of course, all false. Science fiction is old and weary, forever picking over its own bones, preferring some petty variation on what has gone before to anything approaching novelty. Beyond the Gates by Catherine Wells is an object lesson in how to wring as much variation as possible on a tired theme without once daring to be new. Wells’s previous novel, Mother Grimm, was a finalist for the Philip K Dick Award; for the sake of the award one can only hope that her talent has taken a nose-dive in the interim, or else the judges faced an extraordinarily lean year. Certainly there is nothing in this new book that might excite the interest of a judge.

Which is not to say that this is a dramatically bad book. It is highly competent, smoothly written, hits all the right buttons in more or less the right order; if there is a formula for a novel that will be pleasantly entertaining to the many and not too upsetting to the few, then Catherine Wells has found that formula. If her prose singularly fails to reach any of the poetic heights that her chosen manner of storytelling would seem to demand, then at least it contains no outright horrors. The trouble is, the whole thing is too smooth, there is nothing to snag in the memory, five minutes after closing the book you would be hard put to name anything which distinguishes it from a thousand other novels ploughing more or less the same furrow.

This is the old, old story of science versus religion; and as practically always happens in science fiction the odds are stacked in favour of science. Science, after all, provides the drama, the motivation, the charming central character; all religion does is serve as the force of repression and provide the baddies who are trying to hold the good buys back. Ah, but that doesn’t begin to do justice to the planet-building-by-numbers that Wells is practising here. Let’s see: you have an entire planet given over to one religion; and since the planet is largely a desert world, the religion is inevitably a clone of Islam. Since this is Islam in all but name, then there must be unthinking obedience to strict rules of religious observance, and of course an oblique way of phrasing everything, that Americans seem to think is de rigeur when presenting a Moslem-like religion. Since you have unthinking obedience to strict rules, then the people who enforce those rules, the mullahs (they’re not quite called that but that’s what they are), must be corrupt and are keeping a big secret from the world. Since the religious masters are corrupt, then it is the absolute duty of science to be heroic and defy convention and chase knowledge come what may. And since this is another story of how good science inevitably defeats bad religion, the results of that pursuit of knowledge are of course unfailingly positive: science would never introduce anything dangerous that might upset a peaceful and prosperous world, no siree.

In this instance, science is represented by Marta, a graduate student who discovers a dead dinosaur on one of her field trips. The only trouble is, there isn’t supposed to be anything like a dinosaur in this planet’s native fauna. So she organises another expedition, this time bringing in a scientist from off-world, who turns out to be cowardly, impetuous and more concerned with personal glory than the service of science. Unfortunately, Marta’s sponsor has a rival, who organises a rival expedition with a rival off-world scientist. This scientist turns out to be not only the galaxy’s greatest expert in his field, but also a super-competent soldier, the sort of muscle-bound figure who could win a war singlehanded and not break into a sweat (science fiction writers sometimes seem to have a very peculiar notion of what scientists are like). Of course, Marta manages to outwit the super-soldier, but this is only the start for their discoveries lead them to the forbidden continent (there always has to be a forbidden continent), which the not-quite-mullahs have always claimed is barren. What secret are they hiding? Will the self-serving scientist reveal his true colours and put everyone else at risk as a result? Will Marta and the super-soldier join forces and make the great discovery that changes the world forever?

What do you think?

This review originally appeared in New York Review of Science Fiction 140, April 2000.

Carmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller

carmendogCarmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller (1988)
Review by Paul Kincaid

In 1922 the young David Garnett published his first novel, a brief fable called Lady into Fox. It tells the story of Silvia Tebrick, who one day suddenly turns into a vixen, and of her husband, Richard Tebrick, who tries to protect his newly wild spouse until she is eventually killed by the hunt. This was far from being the first work to feature humans transformed into animals. Think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses or, indeed, Franz Kafka’s novella, ‘The Metamorphosis’, which had appeared, in German, as recently as 1915. But Garnett’s novel was perhaps the first in which we are required to pay attention to the gender of the transformee. Though our attention is more on Richard than Silvia, we might read her increasing wildness as reflecting the increasing independence espoused by the suffragist movement, and the climax suggesting how society, represented by the hunt, crushes women. However we read Garnett’s novel, though, one thing is clear, his central conceit of representing the role of woman by changing her into an animal has become almost a commonplace of later, particularly feminist, science fiction. We still see some iteration of this today in the work of writers such as Kij Johnson, but probably the most extravagant, significant and certainly funniest expression of the trope was in another first novel, Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller.

Emshwiller had been writing short stories since the 1950s, so the debut novel, published in 1988, was long delayed. Story titles like ‘Sex And/Or Mr Morrison’ (from Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions (1967)) gave notice that relations between the sexes would be a significant theme in her work. Still, nothing could have prepared us for the extraordinary satirical joie de vivre that is such a feature of Carmen Dog. Oh the satire is angry enough, but never bitter, and there is real elation in the inventive way Emshwiller plays with ideas all the way through the novel.

There are no half measures in Carmen Dog: this is not the story of one woman transformed into an animal, but all women; while, reciprocally, animals change into women. The change has already begun as the novel opens, though it is not yet as widespread as it will become. Before we are even introduced to our heroine, we learn that:

red-headed, plump Christine who had, several times, been taken for an orangutan, can now argue her way out of any zoo no matter what the educational level of the keepers. Mona, on the other hand, can almost fly (though it is unlikely that she ever really will). Her husband complains that she makes funny noises, but her children like her all the better for it. John is divorcing Lucille in order to marry Betty (quite bearish still, but evidently what John wants). Mabel has only recently been given a name at all. (p2)

That passage is actually a fair representation of Emshwiller’s style throughout the novel: brisk, allusive, kaleidoscopic, skimming across the surface of the change without going into too much unnecessary detail (do we need to know exactly what Mona is turning into, or what Mabel used to be?). The women (and animals) are named, though we will never meet any of them again; the men mostly aren’t. Men are titles, roles, “the psychologist,” “the husband.” They are stolid, unchanging, uninterested, and uninteresting; many of them seem to have little or no awareness of the extraordinary societal changes going on around them. Men are mostly the villains in this story as well, though that is not to impute a simplistic all-men-are-bad, all-women-are-good attitude to the novel. The villainy stems mostly from incomprehension: we are in a whole world of the women men don’t see.

Our heroine is Pooch, whose dogness remains as a rather endearing part of her character throughout the novel (though the name presumably says something about the unimaginativeness of the unnamed husband and wife who begin our story as her owners). The wife is turning into a vicious snapping turtle, the husband simply wants the smooth surface of his life to continue undisturbed, and Pooch, slowly becoming human, finds more domestic responsibilities falling upon her: taking care of the children, shopping, cleaning, and so on. She takes all this on out of an innate loyalty, or perhaps more precisely a desire to be loyal, that remains one of her abiding characteristics whatever else happens to her. When, eventually, she gets to see the psychologist (tellingly, all these transformations are seen only as psychological problems for the women) his perceptions are comically banal:

It is clear that Pooch has always wanted to be of service to mankind in any way that she possibly could and from the general look of her, he would guess that her retrieving instincts are strong and that she might be passionately interested in swimming. (p4)

Apply those perceptions to a dog and they tell us only about what we humans have created through breeding and training; apply them to a woman . . . But such is the magic of Emshwiller’s work.

Of course, we have no sooner met Pooch in her cosy but clearly unsatisfactory domestic situation, than she is forced to flee. What follows is a typical picaresque in which our innocent and unwary heroine faces the threats and temptations of the big bad city. These encounters allow us to witness the plight of women-creatures in this new reality, while Pooch, like picaresque heroines of old (Fanny Hill, say, or Justine), remains resolutely undepraved by the depravity she experiences. There is the city pound (equivalent of a gaol and treated as such), where she gives her collar to another dog in danger of being put down, so that it might prove it is owned and thus escape death. There is another version of a prison when she and her friends from the pound are held by the psychologist, who wants to conduct experiments on these new not-quite-people. Here Pooch learns to compose poetry (so we can see her as a civilized person, even if the psychologist cannot), and thrives in the community of her fellows (it is a commonplace in the feminist SF of the period that women are mutually supportive and act communally, while men are isolated and individualist). Given how much the dog part of her character still craves a master to whom she can be loyal, this situation would suit Pooch well were it not for the increasing use of pain in the psychologist’s experiments. Instead, she fights back, and escapes.

The next part of this picaresque sees Pooch wandering the city alone, seeing an opera and discovering a desire to sing, then falling in with a libertine who also happens to be the opera impresario. Finally, she is drawn back to the psychologist’s home in the hope of rescuing her fellows, only to discover that the psychologist’s wife is actually the leader of a secret liberation movement. In other words, the choice facing our women-creatures has gone from one between ownership or death in the pound, to one between freedom or imprisonment now that they have taken control of their own future.

It was a time when feminist SF tended to lay out its wares in bold, not to say garish, contrasts, and Emshwiller is not immune to that. But Emshwiller makes a virtue of the broad strokes, making it a part of the comedy of her novel. Big and foolish things happen, because that is precisely in the nature of such satires; but these big and foolish things are handled wittily, so that we find ourselves laughing at them and with them at the same time. We feel for Pooch as a sort of Everywoman as she makes her way through various misadventures, and we hiss at the pantomime villain men; but they are not entirely villainous, and there are good men discovered along the way, and the story has a happy ending because such stories need to have a happy ending.

Emshwiller’s novel is a curious mid-career debut, but there are first novel faults and she has become an even more sophisticated writer since then. None of that spoils the sheer exhilaration of this work. It remains one of the most striking and powerful examples of feminist SF.

This review originally appeared on Strange Horizons.

Mendoza in Hollywood, Kage Baker

mendozainhollywoodMendoza in Hollywood, Kage Baker (2000)
Review by Paul Kincaid

Once, long ago, Mark Twain presented his time traveller with a world in which everyone spoke in cod-medieval except for the Connecticut Yankee himself, whose no-nonsense language proved both engaging and salutary to the people of Arthur’s court. Since then, however, writers of time travel stories have made more effort to have their traveller blend in with local time, including speaking in a language that approximates ever more closely to what might actually have been spoken at the time. Of late, however, a curious trend has started to emerge in this type of science fiction. You see it, for instance, in novels like John Kessel’s Corrupting Dr Nice, when not only do the time travellers maintain their modern habits of speech but the people in the time they visit have started to adopt the same language. Now Kage Baker has taken it a step further in her series of novels about ‘The Company’ which has reached its third volume. Here the characters come from the past, but they have been made into immortal cyborgs by visitors from our future, and in their endless journey through time they have picked up a wealth of knowledge of cultures that have not yet happened.

This novel, for instance, is set in 1862 in the wild, drought-stricken hills that would, another half-century down the line, be Hollywood. Not one of these characters has actually seen the 20th Century, but that doesn’t alter the fact that everything they see around them is coloured by the films that will one day be made here. Nor does any of them fail to talk as if they have habituated the late 20th Century all their lives. For these cyborgs the length of their experience (at least centuries, in some cases millennia) has shaped them less than a movie or two. That we accept this as readily as we do while reading this novel says something curious about our perceptions of ourselves and of our culture, I wish I knew what it was.

While centuries of life have done little to shape these characters, it certainly helps to shape the plot. In her first outing, In The Garden Of Iden, immortal Mendoza fell in love with a mortal in Tudor England, only to lose him to the flames of religious intolerance. Now, three centuries and half a world away, she meets him again, or rather she meets another Englishman with the same appearance and the same mannerisms as her lover. This particular Englishman is a spy involved in a hare-brained plot to aid the Confederacy and so wrest California into British rule, but the ramifications of this plot could involve a strange spiritualist episode in 1920s Hollywood and the origins of ‘The Company’ itself. Stirred by the apparent rebirth of her lover, Mendoza embarks on a madcap race to help him, and to keep him alive. It is doomed to failure, of course: this is a determinist universe, the future is known and unchangeable, events move with the inevitability of tragedy but the sprightliness of farce. From the moment the Englishman appears, we are swept along by engaging characters, wacky plot, incident piled upon incident. Baker has a light touch and an ability to keep the pace just right, this is wonderfully entertaining adventure written as light comedy.

Unfortunately, the Englishman does not appear until more than two-thirds of the way through the book. Until he does, what we have is stodgy and ill-controlled. We get endless scene-setting and heavy-handed foreshadowing, but we don’t get the plot that this book so desperately needs to get it going. Instead there is a series of episodic incidents which don’t form a coherent whole and which are mostly played for laughs – Baker’s touch with comedy is much more assured when it arises from sustained action rather than being presented as a series of sketches. Throughout this part of the book Mendoza’s companions are painted with a very broad brush and with little finesse, while Mendoza herself is simply morose. She does not engage either our sympathies or our interest until her lover appears on the scene and suddenly injects a spark of life into her. It reads, for all the world, as if Baker was simply intent upon continuing her series but had no real story to tell until she happened upon the English conspiracy plot. And, of course, coming so late in the book it is necessarily truncated, making this a curiously ill-formed novel. Given how well the whole thing takes off during the final section, that is a real pity.

This review originally appeared in New York Review of Science Fiction 144, August 2000