Posted on July 21, 2009 by Kenneth Hite
Every so often, you will see Catherine “C.L.” Moore’s hero Northwest Smith referred to as the model for Han Solo. This would only be strictly true in a world in which Josef von Sternberg directed Star Wars.
Yes, Northwest Smith is a wanted criminal and occasional smuggler; yes, Northwest Smith wears space leathers on his lean frame and a ray-gun on his hip; yes, Northwest Smith has a dangerous killing alien as a sidekick. But in the thirteen recorded Northwest Smith stories by C.L. Moore (all collected for the first time in this excellent Planet Stories omnibus), we only see the inside of one spaceship — and Smith is a passenger, not the pilot.
No, Smith may inhabit a solar system of Martian canals and Venusian swamps, but his adventures are less SF than a kind of lush, operatically colored noir. (Dario Argento instead of Sternberg?) As in noir, Smith can depend on nothing but his instincts to guide him: “a bed-rock of savage strength” is his real gift, an unbreakable will to survive as an individual that saves him time and again. He’s more Man With No Name than he is Han Solo. The world is strange, the city unfriendly (Smith spends a lot of time in various wretched hives of scum and villainy on Mars and Venus), and the girl … well, the girl is always the heart of the problem.
Moore delights in entrapping Smith with a luscious femme fatale — often, as in the vampire tale “Shambleau,” or the Circe story “Yvala,” or the perhaps self-explanatory “Werewoman,” literally so — and describing the ensuing temptations in hues of rich, iridescent Technicolor all the more vivid for being entirely verbal. This opalescent fog of language is the best thing about the stories; Moore reads like Clark Ashton Smith on Cialis. As in noir, Smith ends the tale bereft of girl, and usually bereft of answers as well.
What answers we do get are of the unnatural variety; Moore sold these stories to Weird Tales, not to Astounding Stories, after all. Smith’s solar system holds pre-human temples and the tombs of dead gods, energy beings from other dimensions and a lost race of Moon-men in the wastelands of Tibet. (Though Smith meets the Moon-man in New York City.) The dangers Smith faces are supernatural, not scientifictional, dangers; a ghost in a Venusian ruin, not a radiation leak or a meteor puncture. The reason to follow Northwest Smith is not to explore, but to experience. And only that infinitely seductive mistress of words, C.L. Moore, can offer those experiences to us.
Review by Kenneth Hite