REVIEW: Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith by C. L. Moore

REVIEW SUMMARY: A delightful blend of classic science fiction, wonderful settings and some of the most memorable monsters you’ve never encountered.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The complete tales of a classic science fiction “anti-hero” are collected under covers for the first time.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: All of the Northwest Smith tales are together for the first time.

CONS: Everybody has an off day. I could have lived without a couple of the stories.

BOTTOM LINE: Worth it as a peek into the early days of science fiction, a sampling of works by a fine author, or the archetype of some of today’s biggest screen stars.

“Shambleau! Ha…Shambleau!” The wild hysteria of the mob rocketed from wall to wall of Lakkdarol’s narrow streets and the storming of heavy boots over the slag-red pavement made an ominous undernote to that swelling bay, “Shambleau! Shambleau!”

Come with me back to the Golden Age of Science Fiction! Or maybe, Before the Golden Age! Back when men were men and solved problems with their fists and wore spacer leathers. And women were women and wore not much at all in the deep dark of space. Where you could walk on the worlds of the Solar System, mixing with the dregs of society of Mars, Venus, Earth…

Catherine Lucille Moore was one of the Golden Age’s best known, and with her husband Henry Kuttner, most prodigious writers. They wrote separately, polished each others work, collaborated under a number of pseudonyms (making life difficult for those who try to figure out which author worked on what!).

Moore’s most famous stories center around two famous characters, Northwest Smith, a hardened, battered spaceman that could be Han Solo’s grandfather, and Jirel of Joiry, a sword-wielding woman warrior that could have given Conan a run for his money if they ever crossed paths.

Northwest Smith heard it coming and stepped into the nearest doorway, laying a wary hand on his heat-gun’s grip, and his colorless eyes narrowed. Strange sounds were common enough in the streets of Earth’s latest colony on Mars–a raw, red little town where anything might happen, and very often did. But Northwest Smith, whose name is known and respected in every dive and wild outpost on a dozen wild planets, was a cautious man, despite his reputation. He set his back against the wall and gripped his pistol, and heard the rising shout come nearer and nearer.

Northwest Smith wanders the planets of our Solar System, mainly Mars and Venus, in these tales. The stories are filled with exotic women, strange monsters, ruined cities. Moore takes an occasional page from Westerns, from the adventures of the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, and from the horror tales of fellow-Weird Tales authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Imagine, for example, a vampire that drinks your soul…or your pleasure…or your beauty. Imagine a ruined city that coexists with its former self, or a shawl that leads you into another dimension. The tales of Northwest Smith are filled with a lot of Golden Age pulp conventions, but Moore manages to bring in atmosphere (these tales drip with atmosphere), make her villains interesting and soak the stories with very creepy horror that the best of today’s blood-soaked filmmakers can only hint at.

We know that Mars and Venus, as well as the other locales, do not exist as described. Does that make these tales obsolete? No, far from it. There is a kind of charm in the descriptions. And the stories and characters are timeless and transcend any information sent back by our probes.

Then into his range of vision flashed a red running figure, dodging like a hunted hare from shelter to shelter in the narrow street. It was a girl–a berry-brown girl in a single tattered garment whose scarlet burnt the eyes with its brilliance. She ran wearily, and he could hear her gasping breath from where he stood. As she came into view he saw her hesitate and lean one hand against the wall for support, and glance wildly around for shelter. She must not have seen him in the depths of the doorway, for as the bay of the mob grew louder and the pounding of feet sounded almost at the corner she gave a despairing little moan and dodged into the recess at his very side.

As battered and bruised as he is, what really interests me about these tales is how much time we spend inside Smith. He has ethics…they might not be ours, but he has ethics. Many of the battles he faces are not physical, but mental, where Smith must regain his will, wrest free of a trap. He has his faults and weaknesses…more than one tale happens because of his weakness or falling for a temptation.

When she saw him standing there, tall and leather-brown, hand on his heat-gun, she sobbed once, inarticulately, and collapsed at his feet, a huddle of burning scarlet and bare, brown limbs.

The best tales are “Shambleau”, “Black Thirst”, “Scarlet Dream”, “Julhi”, “Lost Paradise” and “The Tree of Life”. The weakest are the collaborations, especially “Quest of the Starstone” (where Northwest Smith meets up with Jirel of Joiry; it rarely pays to have your greatest characters mingle).

Made up of:

  • Introduction: Teaching the World to Dream (by C.J. Cherryh)
  • “Shambleau”
  • “Black Thirst”
  • “Scarlet Dream”
  • “Dust of Gods”
  • “Julhi”
  • “Nymph of Darkness” (with Forrest J. Ackerman)
  • “The Cold Gray God”
  • “Yvala”
  • “Lost Paradise”
  • “The Tree of Life”
  • “Quest of the Starstone” (with Henry Kuttner)
  • “Werewoman”
  • “Song in a Minor Key”

[Editor’s Note: Fred read this as part of his 2008 Year in Shorts reading project.]

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Northwest of Earth: The Complete Northwest Smith by C. L. Moore”

  1. Hurrah for the return of C.L. Moore! Science Fiction is all the poorer if we forget our roots.

    I have always had a fond spot in my heart for Northwest Smith. (And no, this is not just because sciffy heroes must have odd first names paired with normal last names, ‘Flash Gordon’, ‘Buck’ Rogers and ‘Indiana’ Jones.) If he seems like a cliche, it is because everyone and his dog copied C.L. Moore.

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