Friday, May 9, 2008

Northwest of Earth

Last November, after finishing Black God's Kiss, I searched for more books from C. L. Moore, especially ones being published by Planet Stories. Fortunately, Northwest of Earth was soon to be in print, featuring stories of Northwest Smith, a more planetary romance type of character than Jirel of Joiry. One of the short stories in Black God's Kiss, "The Quest of the Star Stone" was a cross-over of sorts between Jirel and Northwest, so I had some exposure to him as a character. After a delay in publication, Northwest of Earth arrived, and I was excited to find this blurb on the back: "Science Fiction's Original Outlaw!" Considering that most of the stories in the book were published between 1933 and 1936, I thought this could be true and dug into the stories.

The first story in the collection, and the first Northwest story to see publication, is "Shambleau," a fascinating reconsideration of the Medusa story. I don't feel like this is much of a spoiler for two reasons: the story begins with a stream of consciousness-like consideration of Greek mythology, and the cover of the book has a painting from "Shambleau," itself spoiling what might have otherwise been the big reveal. "Shambleau" is perhaps the strongest story in the collection, which is a delightful recollection of the best the pulp era had to offer. Most of the things I had to say about Black God's Kiss would be repeated here: lovely, perhaps florid prose; engaging scenarios; just a wonderful read, if you have that sort of leaning.

But one of the negative comments I made about the earlier book is also true in this case: the protagonist doesn't do very much in his own stories. Northwest Smith does little but survive the encounter that is the centerpiece of each story. The general pattern is falling into association with someone disreputable and perhaps a little…off…, setting off to perform a task for them, and getting sucked into a weird universe that is only tangentially related to the one Northwest is from. Given the few descriptions of that original universe, Northwest appears to come from a place that is stereotypical of the great planetary romances: Earth is a super-advanced paradise with floating buildings and helicopters used as the primary means of transportation; Venus is a swampy, muggy forest planet with weird and hidden cultures hiding in the jungles; and Mars is a desert planet with the ruins of long-dead civilizations being uncovered by human settlers. This more closely aligns with the image I have in my mind of the golden age of pulp.

But Northwest rarely acts in these settings. He might go through them to get to a destination, but then he usually finds himself transported to another place, more evocative of the work of Lovecraft for the sheer creepy weirdness of its inhabitants. Then it is Northwest's task to merely survive and escape the clutches of these weird and sometimes godlike beings as the narrator offers layered description after layered description of not only the surroundings Northwest finds himself in but also his internal conflict. So, to say these stories are science fiction actually goes against my personal definition of science fiction, since there is no science at all and these exotic locales can be interchanged with mindscapes (and sometimes they are) or lands of wonder in a fantasy setting.

In fact, Northwest rarely acts at all, sometimes escaping by his own dumb luck or oftentimes because of the intervention of some third party. Usually he moves through the stories with no more idea what is happening to him than the reader, which is fine since he is the viewpoint through which we see the stories, but there is no authorial omniscience displayed at all. We learn as Northwest does, stumbling through foggy dimensions or through smoky hallways, usually never finding out all the details of how we got to where we are. Looking back at the jacket blurb, "Science Fiction's Original Outlaw" is a bit ironic, because the character Northwest has a reputation among his peers in the stories, but we never get to see anything that could have led to this reputation. People fear him, but none of those adventures, which could at least be defined as tangentially science fiction, appear to exist. Instead it is all trapping as we follow one of the solar system's most feared outlaws again and again into situations well beyond his control.

I feel like I might be overstating my point here, but it really is a quibble and an observation on an otherwise wonderful read, again especially if you are interested in good pulp writing. All of the stories feature such strong atmospheric descriptions, the reader easily becomes lost in the words and totally immersed in the settings. Another story I found to be very strong (And actually more science fiction-y than the others, but I Think that is not a cause of my liking it) was "Lost Paradise" concerning a race of people living in the Andes who, it turns out, are evacuees from another great civilization in the solar system. Their tragedy is a strong background to the events of the story, which takes a twist at the end which may a little predictable to modern readers and movie-goers, but was probably stunning to its readers in 1936.

Actually, if I do have a complaint about the book, it's that the aforementioned crossover story, "The Quest of the Starstone" is repeated in Northwest of Earth. I understand the rationale for it, was saddened to pay for another copy of a story in another collection. But, given the minor nature of this complaint and its utter selfishness, you should be able to tell that I am grasping at straws to find something bad to say about the book.

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