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The Best of C.L. Moore

Best of CL MooreI pulled The Best of C.L. Moore off the shelves to reread "Vintage Season" on the way to Westercon, where John Hertz was going to discuss it as part of his Science Fiction Classics series. I didn't make it to the panel, but the thing I was going to point out is that "Vintage Season" reminded me a lot of the Iain Banks Culture novels I've been reading lately. Not only is about decadent far future humans looking for something to divert themselves from boredom (and trying to abide by the Prime Directive while so doing), but it ends with a note of downbeat savagery that's breath-taking in effect. I talked to John about it in conversation in the bar, and he pointed out how skillfully the story is constructed to not draw conclusions for us. Is the composer Cenbe a moral monster using other people's suffering to create art? The story withholds judgment, inviting us to make our own. We also enthused about the remarkable scene where one of the far future women, who does not fit the contemporary standard of beauty, wordlessly causes perceptions of her and a contemporary woman who *is* considered beautiful to be switched. The whole thing, which is a power play of sorts, is done through body language.

Since I had the book with me and enjoyed revisiting "Vintage Season" so much, I started reading the other stories in the volume too. I had read three others before, and I skipped two of them this time: "Shambleau" and "Black God's Kiss", both of them classics from her Weird Tales days. I re-read the other Northwest Smith story, "Black Thirst", and it introduced the theme of beauty that seemed to fascinate Moore. In "Black Thirst" Smith enters a Venusian brothel that's reserved for an upper class clientele, and there he discovers a race of ancient aliens that feeds on beauty. But Smith's encounters with an increasingly beautiful array of women is a fascinating exercise in describing the effect of beauty on the human psyche. The beauty becomes so extreme that Smith is driven nearly insane. Beauty is a derangement.

In "The Bright Illusion" a human is sent to a planet that is so alien to the human psyche that it has to be presented to him in a virtual translation into human terms so that he can understand it. He meets an alien that is translated into the form a human female (although this alien race has three genders, none of which really maps to female), and she is so beautiful (and full of love for him, who she believes to be an avatar of her deity) that he falls in love with her. He knows that the beauty he perceives is not real, but the question becomes whether his feelings for her are based on something other than sense perceptions. Thus the story becomes a meditation on whether love is sensual or idealistic. It's a very romantic story, even extremely so, and the ending is quite a jolt.

"Fruit of Knowledge" is a fascinating retelling of the Lilith story. The treatment of the Garden of Eden and descriptions of cherubs and seraphim are startlingly colloquial, with Christian mythology treated like a standard genre fantasy setting or perhaps a modern rendition of a Greek myth. It reminded me a bit of Milton in that way. What's most striking here is how Moore connects sensuality with corporeality, and how she connects love with sensuality. That seems to be the thread that runs through the beauty theme: how beauty compels love on a sensual level. This story is also striking for the descriptions of male beauty (specifically Lilith's radiant descriptions of godlike Adam); usually Moore is focused on female beauty.

Surprisingly I hadn't read "No Woman Born" before. It's one of Moore's most famous stories, along with "Shambleau" and "Vintage Season" (which was actually co-written with Henry Kuttner). Like "Vintage Season", "No Woman Born" feels very modern. It's the story of a woman whose body was destroyed in a fire and whose brain is put into a robot. Moore has thought very deeply about the body and how it defines who we are as humans and as individuals. Here observations on how Deirdre uses her new body to both preserve and transcend her old sense of self (she was an actress and dancer renowned for her beauty) are amazingly sharp. This ends up being a take on transhumanism, and while the technological speculation is now old school, I'm not sure anybody has done a better job to this day in thinking through the issues of the relationship between corporeality and identity.

A few years back I read all the Northwest Smith stories and became convinced that Moore was a major writer. Reading this collection has done nothing to dissuade me from this belief. Her career became entwined with that of her husband, Henry Kuttner, and that has obscured her glory to some extent. I need to pick up Judgment Night, which Wikipedia says "contains the stories that Moore selected as the best of her longer work."

ETA: Here's an oddity. Moore quotes the poem "Deirdre" by James Stephens in "No Woman Born":

The time comes when our hearts sink utterly,
When we remember Deirdre and her tale,
And that her lips are dust…
There has been again no woman born
Who was so beautiful; not one so beautiful
Of all the women born–-

However, according to the version of poem I found online, the relevant lines are actually this:

But there has never been a woman born
Who was so beautiful, not one so beautiful
Of all the women born.

Not sure what to make of the difference. Did Moore misquote it? Are there multiple versions of the poem? As someone else pointed out in commentary on Moore's story, "no woman born" is also a quote from Macbeth: “…And thou opposed, being of no woman born / Yet I will try the last.” Did Moore conflate the two quotes? Very strange.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 23rd, 2013 06:32 pm (UTC)
There is on the web an article from the Irish Echo called "Eros in Erin: Ireland’s ten greatest love poems" by Jack Holland [PDF], which quotes Stephens using the "no woman born" version, without making any mention of Moore. So perhaps there are multiple versions.

ETA I see the link gets a 404, but Google does have it cached for those who search.

Edited at 2013-07-23 06:35 pm (UTC)
Jul. 23rd, 2013 07:48 pm (UTC)
Very interesting. Thanks! It works both ways rhythmically, but the meaning is slightly different, hinging on "again" vs. "never."
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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