Fiction Reviews

Northwest of Earth

(1954 / 2019) C. L. Moore, Gollancz, £8.99 / Can$17.99 / US$14.99, pbk, 345pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22254-0


This is a reprint of Moore's original 1954 book.  It is a collection of thirteen stories featuring Northwest Smith, an Earthman of dubious business practices but many adventures.  The original dates of publication are not given but ‘Shambleau’ (which opens this collection) was Catherine Lucille Moore’s first published story, for Weird Tales in the early ‘30s.  One assumes that these stories were written as and when between then and the early ‘50s.

Northwest Smith is a spaceman, a smuggler, a gunrunner, and general hand for hire if something dubious or downright illegal needs doing. The stories are set in a far future and mostly take place on one of the three planets: Earth, Venus, and Mars; usually one of the latter as the Patrol have put a high price on his head should he return to Earth. Whilst the inhabitants of all three planets freely mix on all three of them, there are also peoples from other planets and moons (possibly some from beyond the Solar System it is hinted); some are half-human or human-like, others definitely not. Often Smith is accompanied by his friend and fellow rogue Yarol, a Venusian.

These are not tales of his space voyages or illegal trades and activities; indeed, such are only obliquely referred to and we only have the author’s word that he is a rogue, feared by all that have heard of him and wanted by law enforcement everywhere. He is not out-and-out bad but he long ago stepped outside the law and has operated there ever since. These are the strange adventures that befall him when he is ‘minding his own business’ or earning a little illegal money on the side. They involve strange, alien creatures, often of a vampiric nature in some way, magical happenings, other worlds, and ancient cities of civilisations long forgotten. These stories are not Science Fiction as we think of it these days, they are classic examples of what we used to call Science Fantasy (before Sword and Sorcery came along).

We open with ‘Shambleau’ in which Smith saves a young half-woman from an angry crowd and gives her shelter.  He has never hear of a Shambleau but soon learns his error; her type were the basis of the legendary Medusa and she ‘seduces’ him, feeding off his life force.

In ‘Black Thirst’ Smith is approached by Vaudir, a Minga girl who requires his help as she has angered Alendar, the secretive head of the Minga castle.  Having been smuggled into the castle, he finds himself in the deepest of caverns and learns that Alendar, an ancient creature, has bred the most incredibly beautiful women and feasts on their beauty.

‘Scarlet Dream’ tells of a silk shawl that Smith buys in a market.  Little does he suspect lying under it at night that in his dreams he will be transported to another world, one where life is simple and pleasant.  If the shawl has its way, it will suck out all his energies and he will not wake up.

Smith and Yarol are employed in ‘Dust Of Gods’ to visit the ruins of a long-long-forgotten city. The bodies of the gods turned to dust countless millions of years ago and their task is to find and collect the dust that was once Black Pharol.

In ‘Julhi’ Smith wakes to find himself in the ruins of Vonng.  There he finds Apri, a very scared young lady and servant of Julhi.  Long ago magicians overlaid Vonng with a city on another plane, the home of Julhi.  Transported there, Smith finds that the creature intends to feed on his sensations and his blood as a precursor to bringing their worlds closer and feeding on humanity.

Co-written with Forrest J. Ackerman, ‘Nymph Of Darkness’ tells of Smith’s encounter with Nyusa, the invisible daughter of a god worshiped by the human-like Nov.

‘The Cold Gray God’ sees Smith heading for a drink in the ‘Spaceman’s Rest’ when he is intercepted by the famous singer Judai.  He does not realise it but she has been possessed by the servant of an ancient god intent on returning to their world. Stealing an item for her, he discovers it activates the ancient symbols painted on the walls of all Martian houses and opens a gateway that the god can use.

Smith and Yarol find themselves employed to visit a Jovian moon in ‘Yvala’.  Their task is to bring back a hoard of the beautiful women rumoured to dwell there.  What they find is the creature Yvala, who can appear utterly captivating to anyone of any race. Its aim is simple, to feed off their life force.

Returning for an occasional visit to Earth in ‘Lost Paradise’, Smith and Yarol help a Seles, a member of a human-like race who live somewhere in a remote part of Asia.  In return for their help, they demand to know the Secret that the Seles carry; it proves to be the reason why their gods were no longer able to keep the Moon the verdant paradise it had once been.

In ‘The Tree of Life’ Smith finds himself hiding from the Patrol in the ruins of Illar.  Seeking escape, he follows a girl through a portal to another world but she proves to be the priestess of Thag, a creature that intends to devour him.

Co-written with her husband Henry Kuttner, ‘Quest of the Starstone’ opens in the year 1500, in France, as Jirel of the castle of Joiry steals the Starstone from the warlock Franga.  He escapes through a magical doorway to some other place and, travelling through time, employs Smith to return with him and retake the Starstone.

‘Werewoman’ sees Smith escaping a fight by hiding out in the salt wastelands. He finds himself hunted by wolves but then, somehow, his spirit is liberated and he runs with them, finding they are, or were, really women.  Their running takes them through the wastelands but also in and out of the sometimes solid, sometimes not, shades of the remains of a cursed, ancient city.

Finally, ‘Song In A Minor Key’ features a very brief recollection from his youth.

It was interesting, indeed somewhat nostalgic, reading stories from so long ago.  As a student I used to lap up such tales as they made a very welcome break from, and a needed contrast to, the realities of my studies.  I was pleased to find that I still enjoyed them though I was aware of the differences compared to more modern writing and story telling.

As these stories were written now and then, presumably bashed out on a typewriter with none of the conveniences of text search and the like, I consequently noticed a few inconsistencies that got past both author and editor.  For example Smith’s favourite weapon, always to hand, is variously called a ray-gun (yes, an actual ray-gun!), a heat-gun, a flame-gun, a power-gun, and a blast-gun; sometimes it is always in its accustomed place against his thigh, sometimes it is always in its accustomed place across his chest. Smith’s eyes are described as ‘no-color’, later as the ‘color of steel’, and finally as the ‘no-color of steel’.  The author also lost track of other minor details, caught up as she was in the writing, such as when Smith lands his plane but parks his ship. Similarly, in the ‘Starstone’ story the girl Jirel often gets misnamed as Joiry (the name of her castle).  But these are minor details. It is easy to understand how the errors crept in originally and this is a reprint, not an updated and ‘corrected’ copy.

I was quietly amused by the author’s picturing of a spaceman.  She had not thought too deeply about the necessary technologies and the white/silver suits of NASA and the Air Force were still well in the future when Northwest Smith first graced the pages and so he, like all other spacemen, could easily be identified on any planet by his spaceman’s leathers and his space boots.  Indeed, spacemen are sometimes described as space sailors; this would perhaps explain why Smith has, typically of his sort, been deeply tanned by his time in space.  I sometimes wondered about his ‘strong, bare arms’ whilst wearing his spaceman’s leathers - were they bare when in space as well?  I also noticed what was perhaps (and I only say perhaps) a typical or conventional view of beauty for the time.  The women he encounters on all the planets and other worlds are always described as being beautiful beyond belief, full of loveliness (the author’s chosen word), and having skin that is pure white (either ‘as white as milk’ or ‘as white as snow’).  Today such images might offend those of certain sensibilities but - please - remember when this was written and respect the attitudes of those times (whether they agree with your modern sensibilities or not).  After all, this is fiction and should be treated as such; furthermore, and very importantly, it is fiction as written sixty to eighty years ago.

But what of the stories themselves?  Well, I enjoyed them all.  They were all quite simple in their plots and mostly featured fantastical alien life forms and often envisioned other and ancient civilisations from many millions of years before humanity arrived on the scene.  The author had a great ability to describe the scenes and the action within the stories and spin it out for page after page as we followed Smith’s battles as he was whirled through the universe in various non-corporeal ways at the mercy of an alien life form or ancient god.  We would suffer with him as he titanically fought against their amazing powers and resisted all they tried to do to him as they sucked the very life energy out of him.  The pages turned well! I could understand how he drank so much segir-whisky - I would too after all he went through.

All told, this is a most enjoyable piece of good old Science Fantasy; light but fun.

Peter Tyers


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