The Sensual Science Fiction of C.L. Moore

My luckiest find at my local library’s discarded book sale bears one of the most embarrassing science fiction covers I’ve ever seen – a remarkably high bar to reach. This cover features a blond hero in a failed Halloween costume that includes tights, cape, and blue leotard, staring past a naked medusa who is attempting, without much success, to strike an erotic pose while fondling a very phallic snake. For a mere quarter, I picked up this ridiculous piece of art, but along with it I scored some of the very finest stories ever to come out of the Golden Age pulp magazines of the 1930’s and 40’s: The Best of C.L. Moore. In a genre featuring techno-fantasies of omnipotent super-scientists rationally masterminding the world, to the delight of fawning female props, Catherine L. Moore managed to thrill fans with sensuous, complex, character-focused stories about desire, love, and women. The Best of C.L. Moore features ten stories that are essential reading for any fan of Golden Age science fiction.

Common science fiction wisdom has it that the genre became more focused on psychology, sex, and literary sophistication in the 1950’s with the rise of magazines like Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which departed from the stern genre requirements of John Campbell, the impresario of science fiction’s Golden Age who reigned from his perch as editor of Astounding Science Fiction. This common wisdom fails to account for Catherine Moore, whose beautifully written, sensuous stories are centered on characters’ conflicted mental states as they experience desire and seduction. And incidentally, Moore got many of her best stories published in Astounding. In her work of the 1930’s and 40’s, Moore functioned as a bridge between the moody, cosmic horror of Weird Tales writers like H.P. Lovecraft, and the increasingly popular, action-driven genre of Campbellian science fiction.

The characteristic traits of Moore’s fiction are present in her very first published story, “Shambleau”, which appeared in Weird Tales in 1933. “Shambleau” is a fusion of Burroughsian, swashbuckling planetary romance and Lovecraftian horror, with an erotic core that is pure Moore. The hero of the story is Northwest Smith, a typical sci-fi action character, and a roguish opportunist of the type whose best known example is Han Solo. Smith is looking for opportunity on the Martian frontier, when he comes to the rescue what appears to be a girl, “sweetly made and in danger” from a lynch mob. She turns out not to be a girl, but a Shambleau, a hairless alien creature with feline eyes, retractable claws and a “sweet brown body,” who mysteriously always wears a turban. “Shambleau” is a riff on the Medusa story that plays with the conflicted feelings towards women and sex that were undoubtedly experienced by many of the adolescent readers of Weird Tales. Northwest Smith is decked out in the trappings of a manly hero, and yet after his chivalrous rescue of the damsel in distress Smith is drawn into an erotic trap that offers mind-blowing ecstasy at the price of degradation and destruction. Shambleau embodies what a woman is to a nerdy, awkward, pulp-reading fourteen-year-old boy: desirable and dangerous, offering sex that is both enticing and disgusting, as Northwest Smith discovers when he surrenders to the monstrous embrace of the Shambleau:

“In nightmares until he died he remembered that moment when the living tresses of Shambleau first enfolded him in their embrace. A nauseous, smothering odor as the wetness shut around him – thick, pulsing worms clasping every inch of his body, sliding, writhing, their wetness and warmth striking through his garments as if he stood naked to their embrace.”

In the end, our less-than-heroic hero Smith is rescued by one of his Venusian pals, and despite the close call, Smith knows that, should he ever face another Shambleau, he will likely succumb again.

Most of the stories in The Best of C.L. Moore feature a woman who is both seductive and mysteriously alien, often dangerous, usually appearing to be in distress, but in fact never helpless. Moore presents these women to us through the eyes and mental states of the principal male characters, who are usually typical science fiction heroes on the surface, but whose dark, sexual cores are awakened by women who are simultaneously desirable and thoroughly alien. By portraying women as alien beings, Moore manages to co-opt the trademark elements of science fiction to explore erotic desire and even love in a venue that at the time was notoriously hostile to anything that smacked of romance. In “Black Thirst”, we again follow Northwest Smith as he explores a harem of alien women bred for millennia to achieve the madness-inducing ultimate in female beauty. Jirel of Joiry, in “Black God’s Kiss,” is a female warrior who traverses a nightmare landscape worthy of Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle visions, in order to achieve revenge on an enemy warrior who physically violated her. Love defeats all barriers in “The Bright Illusion”, in which an adventurer falls fatally in love on a distant planet with a being whose female image is only an illusion generated to enable the hero encounter the alien world without losing his mind. In “Tryst in Time”, a time traveler discovers his blue-eyed true love, and pursues various endangered instantiations of her across the eons. In “Fruit of Knowledge,” the demon Lilith seduces Adam in the Garden of Eden, but she is later displaced by the more submissive and helpless Eve. In these stories, desire is a motive force that often undoes the characters’ heroic pretensions, and it is a force so powerful that it can lead men ecstatically to self-destruction.

Perhaps one reason that Moore was so influential, particularly among those writers who changed the nature of science fiction in the 1950’s, was that she had a rare talent for sustained character development. Her contemporaries in the 30’s and 40’s, particularly Asimov, van Vogt, and Heinlein, sustained their stories with action and rational puzzles, whereas Moore, clearly influenced by Lovecraft, could compellingly focus on the gradual transformation of her characters’ mental states as plots moved towards their climax. This is evident in “No Woman Born” (1944), a story which is clearly one of the finest ever published in Astounding Science Fiction during its peak years in the 30’s and 40’s. This story again features a woman as something alien. Deirdre was a beloved and famous dancer nearly killed in a theatre fire, but her brain was salvaged and transplanted into a robot body. This body is not a synthetic recreation of a human body; it is merely suggestive of one. Deirdre now has no face (and thus no facial expressions), no hair, and no skin, but the robot is nevertheless skillfully shaped to evoke Deirdre’s former grace and beauty. The story turns on the question, who is Deirdre now?

To the scientist who built the body, Deirdre is his creation, “an abstraction”, like Frankenstein’s monster, the realization of his idea. Deirdre’s former manager, through whom the story is told, tries to see in this cyborg the beautiful woman he knew before. But Deirdre is neither abstraction nor human; she is something completely new, an isolated human brain coupled to the super-human potential of her new body. Deirdre eventually refuses to limit herself to the images that others project on her. As in her earlier stories, Moore presents the alien woman through the eyes of others; we don’t know what happens in her mind, locked in horrible isolation within its metal vault. The reader is left wondering until the end what Deirdre is feeling, when she is finally revealed to be fully human and willing to confront the unexplored possibilities of her new life.

The Best of C.L. Moore is one of the very best collections of Golden Age science fiction stories in my collection. It demonstrates that science fiction’s enormous potential for expression was well-realized even during its mawkish age, and that the later, more psychological developments in the genre had very solid roots in earlier work. And like all great science fiction, these stories are a hell of a lot of fun to read.

Find more Finch & Pea science fiction here.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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