Rereading THE BEST OF C.L. MOORE reminded me how good a writer she is. And like Leigh Brackett’s Sword of Rhiannon, it also reminded me how much I love a certain kind of pulp SF.
The book collects an excellent list of stories including her first story Shambleau, (I wish I’d been that good when I started) starring space adventurer Northwest Smith, and the sequel Black Thirst; the first Jirel of Joiry story, Black God’s Kiss; and several stand-alones including the very good love story Bright Illusion, the frustrating alternate futures yarn Greater Than Gods, her classic Vintage Season (way better than I remembered it) and my least favorite, No Woman Born. This story of a famous actor/singer/dancer transplanted into a metal body has some great ideas about what makes us human but they’re dealt with mostly in drawing-room SF style, with the characters sitting around and talking about them. And the emphasis on Deidre as some freak who can’t possibly feel human any more feels uncomfortably close to disability cliches.
Greater Than Gods has a great concept: a scientist deciding between marriage to another scientist and a socialite receives simultaneous cross-time messages from his descendants in both timelines. One is a sweet, wonderful young woman in a timeline where humanity has gone full Eloi; another is an idealistic young man in a militaristic totalitarian state. And it’s the scientist’s choice of partner that will bring one or the other future into existence … so out of the blue, he proposes to his assistant, guaranteeing a middle path. That made no sense on first reading, nor now.
But then we get Black God’s Kiss which sends Jirel, ruler of the province of Joiry, into Hell to get revenge on the man who conquered her kingdom. Moore’s Hell is both weird and creepy, like one scene where a herd of blind horses rushes by Jirel and one of them suddenly rears up and screams out a woman’s name, then rushes on. That stuck in my head for years (the ending of the story, though, is, as they say, problematic).
Black Thirst is the one that captures what appeals to me about some of the old stories (and I emphasize it’s a matter of appeal, not a claim they’re somehow better than modern stuff). On Venus, a woman named Vaudir leads Smith into the fortress of the Minga, a race of stunningly beautiful courtesans bred for centuries under the fortress’ hereditary leader, the Alendar. Vaudir wants Smith to kill her master, but that, of course, is tougher than it sounds. He’s (there’s never been more than one Alendar) the human form of some prehuman ooze creatures dwelling below the fortress. The Alendar captures them and his telepathic attack reveals his ancient racial secrets to Vaudir, leaving her traumatized. He reveals that beauty is a kind of energy, and his people feed on it, hence breeding the Minga (why they sell some of them isn’t explained, but I don’t think that’s a huge issue). Taking Smith and Vaudir deeper into the fortress he shows Smith women whose beauty is so heightened it’s almost beyond human comprehension.
While I generally prefer my magic to be magic, not science, this kind of thing is an exception. It’s fantasy in all but name, and the concepts no longer feel very scientific (I don’t know if they ever did): prehuman races, psychic abilities (another story refers to the energy of our brains leaving impressions on our homes), the beauty force — for me it hits the sweet spot between science and sorcery. It stirs me more than when people use contemporary tech as magic (“I turned that man into a frog by using nanotech to rebuild his body at the molecular level!”).
I’ll be reading more Moore and Brackett this year. Hopefully I’ll enjoy it all just as much.
#SFWApro. Cover by Hildebrandt brothers, all rights remain with current holder.