Friday, March 27, 2009

Books: Northwest of Earth, by C. L. Moore

C.L. Moore is one of those 'seminal' SF authors, frequently listed as the 'first' female writer of SFF (unless, of course, your accounting of the genre starts with Mary Shelly and Frankenstein.) Planet Stories recently released a collection of some of her short fiction, including the oft-republished "Shambleau". I picked up the collection - frankly, as much for CJ Cherryh's name on the introduction as for Moore's writing.

It turns out that Moore's stories are Not My Sort of SFF - she specialized in 'weird tales'; that blend of magic and paranormal phenomenon that was carried forward by Anne McCaffery and others. Space flight is hardly touched upon, the scientific method hardly not at all, but there are 'other worlds' aplenty. All populated by aliens with strange mental powers and the ability to shift through the panes separating our sphere from the rest.

Aside from that, I found Moore's treatment of women characters...disquieting. It's hard to say just what was off-putting - and harder for me to say what was something particular to Moore's writing and not just overly visible in this collection of stories. (The collection was gathered around Northwest Smith, he of the rangy build and colorless, gunmetal eyes, outlaw of the spacelanes.) The women were servants of evil forces, or evil forces themselves - more frequently victims but not without tenacity, self-sacrifice, or determination. The women were neither powerless nor inconsequential to the plot. But they were not the heroes, they frequently died, and they were too often girls, not women. (Even Jirel of Joiry, whose appearance was an unexpected delight, fell into this trap of labels.)

More off-putting was a tendency of Moore to use ethnic/racial labeling in her work. Characteristics were given as those of an individual's planetary or ethnic group, not as something specific to the individual. While there was very little of what I could call racial bigotry evident, this reliance on racial characteristics as a substitute for specific traits seemed out of place.

One final critical note: with the exception of one story ("Werewoman") the collection as a whole depicted religion and faith as springing from not the Deity but instead from the influence of strange and (mostly) evil alien forces. Human reverence was shown as fear, not love, and certainly not respect. This was so pervasive that the appearance of a cross in the 'Were woman' story acted like an electric shock, so unexpected was it.

Having said all that - there were stories that I enjoyed in the collection - the above mentioned 'Werewoman'; 'Nymph of Darkness', 'Cold Grey God'; and 'Lost Paradise' (which was worth it for the images of New York alone) among them. I'm not entirely sure, however, that I'm going to search out more of C.L. Moore's writing.


Not light-and-fluffy: Michael J. Totten Mideast reporter.

More light-and-fluffy:

Casual wear for the low-profile Browncoat: I aim to misbehave tee-shirts.

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