Tag Archives: C.L. Moore

Bad girls, a future Earth, a nuclear hero and witches: books read

BAD GIRLS: Young Women, Sex and Rebellion Before the Sixties by Amanda H. Littauer is the flip side to Trials of Nina McCall, looking at the kind of sexually active women the American Plan longed to lock up somewhere. Littauer’s selection includes “victory girls” who partied with soldiers during WW II, lesbians, prostitutes, kids going steady (which teens rationalized made it OK to have sex) and women discussed in and responding to the Kinsey Report on female sexual activity. Informative, but Littauer’s style is stiff even for a university press book, and I can’t help feeling there’s something missing, though I’m not sure what.

EARTH’S LAST CITADEL by CL Moore and Henry Kuttner starts in 1943 as protagonist Alan helps a brilliant, crotchety scientist escape from the Nazis. As the Nazi agents (a former mob triggerman and an Karen, an adrenaline junkie who does spy work for the thrills) catch up with them, all four are trapped by an ET, then thaw out in the very, very distant future, after the ET’s race has xenoformed Earth to their liking, then died out. Exploring the strange title city, the quartet (fully aware that their political disagreements mean very little now) discover an Eloi like race, a malevolent telepath — oh, and one of the aliens may not have died after all …

This is exotic, imaginative and colorful, the kind of pulp stuff I love. However, while I enjoyed it, it’s kind of a mess; the plot changes direction so much I wonder if they were making it up as they went along and kept changing their minds (it was serialized, like a lot of SF stories at the time). Karen is an interesting character but she virtually vanishes, with more attention going to Alan’s Eloi love interest; nor do they do anything with the idea the scientist, while brilliant, would sooner party than work. by

Cary Bates redefined Charlton Comics’ Captain Atom (the prototype for Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen) in his 1980s series, turning him into a government agent posing as a superhero to infiltrate the metahuman community. Nobody who followed Bates did anything good with the character, and DC’s New 52 turned him into a Dr. Manhattan knockoff. Now comes THE FALL AND RISE OF CAPTAIN ATOM by Bates and Greg Weisman which allows Bates to reboot the character close to Bates 1980s version. In his last battle, Captain Atom apparently dies but actually gets thrown back to the past. When he returns (I’m simplifying a lot of plot here)  he presents himself as a new, improved legacy hero — but what about the family he left in the past? And can he really trust his military superiors? Nothing’s been done with it since, and I’m not sure how it works for anyone who doesn’t love the 1980s version, but I give it solid thumbs up.

Andre Norton’s WITCH WORLD was an insanely weird genre mash-up when I read it in the 1970s (about ten years after it appeared). Simon Tregarth begins as a veteran forced into a life of crime which is about to get him killed. A mysterious occultist offers him an escape via the Round Table’s Siege Perilous, which magically takes anyone who sits in it to the world they belong.

From that thriller opening (which I like enough I’m working on a variation of it) Simon arrives in Estcarp, a land ruled by a matriarchy of witches. Already surrounded by hostile nations, they’re now facing the threat of the sinister Kolder, who turn out to be a high-tech race as alien to the “witch world” (never called that, it’s just the world) as Simon.

It’s a good book with some interesting characters; I particularly like that Simon, while competent, isn’t a chosen one or a superman, he’s just a competent soldier. He doesn’t really do anything spectacular until the final section of the story. Given how many protagonists I see who are devastatingly bad-ass, this was refreshing.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Tim Hildebrandt, middle by Lawrence, bottom by Jack Gaughan

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CL Moore and my love of pulp

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.

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Filed under Reading, Science vs. Sorcery