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Judgment-NightOver the past few years I've been slowly digging deeper into C.L. Moore's work, which is an effort complicated by the fact that after she married Henry Kuttner in 1940 pretty much everything they published was a collaboration, usually under pseudonyms such as Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O'Donnell. The SF Encyclopedia article on Moore claims that most of the things published under the O'Donnell byline, including four of the five stories in this volume, were mostly written by Moore. If that's not confusing enough, the title novel, Judgment Night, was published in two issues of Astounding in 1943 under the byline C.L Moore, but that's not definitive proof that it's not a collaboration. However, I've read elsewhere that for the original publication of this collection in 1952 these five stories were selected by Moore herself as the best of her longer works of science fiction. So for the purposes of this review I'll treat them as her work, as dubious as that proposition might be.

Certainly Judgment Night holds up with the best of Moore's own pre-Kuttner work and with the best of their collaborations (which is amongst the very best stuff from the Campbellian Golden Age). In fact, the protagonist of the novel, Juille, compares quite closely to Moore's famous sword-and-sorcery character, Jirel of Joiry. In Jirel's first (and best) story, "The Black God's Kiss," Jirel is humiliated by a man and seeks out a way to kill him for his effrontery, only to discover after she's succeeded that her powerful hatred has been masking love -- or at least sexual desire. Similarly Juille finds herself in a love-hate relationship with the handsome Egide, and does her best to kill him after they've had sex. The difference, as many people have pointed out, is that Jirel is a largely passive character and her adventures largely psychological, where Juille acts out in the most dramatic ways possible. All the world's her stage, and she acts without thinking. That's pretty much what the story is about.

This is a standard Golden Age galactic empire set-up. It feels hoary that way, and I can't help but think it was hoary already in 1943, even though the SF Encyclopedia says that it was in the '40s that the galactic empire trope really got going. I suppose it's just that this is a story full of pulp formulae (such as the hate-love complex) that had already been well-worn in other contexts. In any event, Juille is the daughter of the Emperor of the known universe, who is the last of a line of a hundred emperors, who have ruled over an empire that succeeded a series of previous empires receding into the vastness of time. All of the empires have ruled from the planet Ericon, which was originally the home of a species now referred to as the Ancients, who have retreated to a forest where they live an isolated and godlike existence. The empire of Juille's father is under attack from a barbarian people called the H'vani. The emperor seeks a peace treaty, but Juille, who has been raised as an Amazon, wants to destroy them in a war.

Again, this is all very standard for American pulp SF of the era. What Moore brings to it is, first of all, a deft handling of the character of Juille, with her deeply conflicted feelings about sex and power, which cause her to thrash around like a fish on a hook. Juille is an arrogant princess in the mode of Scarlett O'Hara or Dejah Thoris, but melded to the arrogance and hawkish desire to kill is a confusion about sexual desire and love that her arrogance won't allow her to acknowledge. She's a character who is despicable in many ways but whom the reader is invited to feel both superior and sympathetic to because of her obvious immaturity. The story is propelled by the explosive mix of hatefulness and vulnerability in Juille, as she strives to kill everything that frustrates or threatens her.

On top of this potent character portrayal is a sophisticated mix of science fictional ideas, some of which are the standard genre furniture of the day used in effective ways, but others of which still feel surprisingly modern. Probably the most interesting of these to me was the artificial pleasure planet, Cyrille, which circles Ericon and gives the upper class a place to blow off sexual steam. Many aspects of the pleasure planet are familiar pulp ideas of dens of vice, but the striking bit is that Cyrille uses something like virtual reality to give people an unlimited variety of places to play. Moore isn't real specific about how this technology works, but what it enables is people's fantasies. The lyrical descriptions of these virtual paradises reminded me at times of the later space operas of Samuel Delany or Iain Banks. Even more remarkable is a sequence late in the novel where Juille destroys Cyrille with an alien superweapon, causing all the virtual realities to be scrambled and thrown topsy turvy in a way that completely pulls Juille apart psychologically. Moore's prose is poetic enough to give us this description, after Juille has stumbled through a long series of collapsing virtual worlds: "She had been through too many nights and mornings for the present to remain today."

Finally, there is the notably downbeat ending, which is still very potent but left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it prevented the story from descending into the romantic banality that constantly threatens Juille's evasion of her attraction to Egide. The fact that the romantic clinch in the end takes place in a context of utter catastrophe for the human race is quite bracing, to say the least. However, there's an aspect to this catastrophe, which is foreshadowed in the title, that left me feeling uncomfortable. In some ways the ultimate fate of humanity in this book is just a variation on the biblical doctrine of Original Sin, with the Ancients standing in for Jehovah. It feels deeply conservative, if not reactionary. Yet there are some odd things going on alongside the judgment visited on humanity, both in the weirdly joyful sense of mono no aware that Juille develops when she realizes that her love won't survive the apocalypse and in the science fictional zoom out that then shifts the focus away from humanity entirely. Life goes on, even if not for humans. There's something quite bracing in that, too, and the ending is somewhat reminiscent of the great O'Donnell story, "Vintage Season".

Compared to Judgment Night, the other four stories in this collection are solid but not great. "Paradise Street" is basically a Western frontier story transplanted to another planet, and the best thing about it is the action sequences. "The Code" is an odd play on the Faust legend by way of Lovecraft, and the semi-metaphysical speculation is probably more interesting as an idea than as a story, although the ending packs a bit of an eerie punch. "Promised Land" and "Heir Apparent" are vaguely linked stories about the genetic engineering of humans in order to settle the solar system, and again there are some good ideas set into okay stories with interesting details. The fact that Ganymede is the site of the earliest genetic engineering attempts made me wonder if these two stories were an influence on Blish's Seedling Stars stories, or at least something he was tipping his hat to.

Note on editions: I read the Red Jacket Press facsimile of the Gnome Press first edition of the collection, with the darkly lurid Kelly Freas cover. The novel Judgment Night has been published as a stand-alone paperback in at least a couple of different editions.

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