Category Archives: Robert Heinlein

Blogging Northwest Smith: The Cold Gray God

150px-Weird_Tales_October_1935“The Cold Gray God” adds a slight Lovecraftian element to the Northwest Smith saga.  First published in the October 1935 issue of Weird Tales, the story opens with Smith being accosted on the street of Righa, a city in the polar regions of Mars, by a fur clad woman.  Smith thinks she’s a Venusian, but she behaves in a way a Venusian woman wouldn’t.  Fro one thing, she touches him.  I couldn’t help but think of women in Islamic countries from the way she is describes.

Although he’s somewhat repulsed by her, there’s something familiar about her, too.  At her request, Smith accompanies her back to her house.  There he discovers she’s a famous singer who simply vanished a few years earlier.  She asks him to help her retrieve a box from a man who is frequently a notorious bar.  She tells Smith he can name his own price, hinting that he can have her it that’s what he wants.  Leery, Smith still accepts her offer, asking for ten thousand dollars. Continue reading

Fifty Years on the Glory Road

Glory RoadGlory Road
Robert A. Heinlein

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Robert Heinlein’s novel Glory Road. It’s the closest thing to heroic fantasy he ever wrote, although by the end of the book it’s clear that science fantasy is a better (but not entirely accurate) label.

This wasn’t the first Heinlein I ever read. That would be Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. (I’m planning on reading the Heinlein juveniles in the order they were written and writing about them at Futures Past and Present next year.) I’d read a number of the juveniles by the time I read Glory Road.

Nor was it the first adult novel by Heinlein I read. I’d read Sixth Column in paperback, plus the omnibus A Heinlein Trio from the Science Fiction Book Club containing The Puppet Masters, Double Star, and The Door into Summer. I probably had read Universe by that time, although my memory isn’t clear on that one.

What Glory Road was, however, was the first adult Heinlein I read that actually had adult content. And by adult content, I mean sexual content. I was 14 or 15 at the time I read it. It was something of a shock, since nothing I’d read by him was that sexual in nature, or if it was, either I was too naive to pick up on it or it didn’t make enough of an impression that I remembered it. Continue reading

Blogging Northwest Smith: Shambleau

“Shambleau” is the first of the Northwest Smith adventures, and the first published story by C. L. Moore.  According to Lester del Rey, in his introduction to The Best of C. L. Moore (1975), she had been writing for 15 years before she submitted anything for publication.  I’d like to know where he got that information, but I’m not questioning it.  Since he’d known Moore personally for decades, I’m inclined to believe him.  Of course, what I’d like even more is to get my hands on some of those unpublished stories.  I suspect they’ve long since ceased to exist.

I don’t remember if “Shambleau” was the first story I read by C. L. Moore, but it certainly made the strongest impact on me.  Here’s a synopsis of what happens (spoiler alert):

A young woman is being chased by a mob down a street in a spaceport town on Mars.  The mob is closing in on her when she runs into Northwest Smith, a notorious criminal.  He intervenes on her behalf to the bafflement of the crowd.  Smith takes her back to his room, tells her she’s welcome to stay for the few days until he gives up the room and leaves.  This girl isn’t human, and Smith doesn’t recognize her race.  She’s dressed only in a shift and a turban.  Smith assumes she’s bald.  He realizes later she’s not when he sees her tuck what he thinks is a lock of hair under her turban.  He’s sure he saw the lock move on its own.  But he must be mistaken…

While Moore points out that sexual temptations don’t have much hold on Smith, he does find her attractive enough to make advances.  At least until he takes in his arms, at which point he finds her repulsive.  He doesn’t really understand why that is, only that the repulsion he feels is almost primal in nature.

Smith is in town setting up some type of criminal venture.  We’re not ever told what.  Over the next few days, Smith experiences a back and forth attraction and repulsion.  He struggles with it, but ultimately he succumbs.  Only when Smith’s partner Yarol shows up does Smith have a chance of escape, and even then it’s not easy.

Moore is playing with the concept of a gorgon, and goes so far as to state that the ancient Greeks had some knowledge of the Shambleau, which is the name of the race rather than of the girl.  She even takes her resolution from that myth.

One of the things that’s so interesting about this story is that for all its length (~30 pages), not much actually happens.  Other than the initial confrontation, which takes less than 5 pages, and Yarol’s rescue of Smith and the conversation that follows, about half of the story revolves around the Shambleau’s seduction of Smith.  Yet Moore’s prose is so rich that you hardly notice that that many pages have passed.

Caedmon Records recording of “Shambleau”

And it’s the seduction that is the heart and soul of the story.  Moore makes it very clear that Smith’s fall into the Shambelau’s clutches is a very bad thing, but she also makes it clear that it’s also an intensely pleasurable thing.  And it’s described as the Shambleau caressing and touching Smith’s soul more than his body.  It’s how she feeds, essentially a type of psychic vampire.

Moore also stresses Smith’s internal conflict, attracted by the pleasure and repulsed by the unnaturalness of it.  It’s a struggle he ultimately loses, giving in to the temptation while the whole time being repulsed by his actions.  It’s a struggle that on some level most people can probably relate to.  The desire for something that you know is wrong or harmful, the momentary pleasure of something that will ultimately destroy you.

The imagery is definitely sexual in nature.  While tame by today’s standards, I suspect this was pretty potent stuff back then.  It was certainly powerful to the teenage boy I was when I first read it.  Awash as I was in hormones, this story had a major impact on me.  It was almost like Moore was reading my mind at times as I struggled to understand and contain the natural changes I was undergoing and the accompanying urges.  And while the emotional impact when I reread the story the other night wasn’t nearly that intense, echoes were still there.

The reason “Shambleau” had such an impact on me, and why its popularity and acclaim has endured for over 75 years, is simple.  What Moore deals with here, as I mentioned in a previous paragraph, is something that most people can relate to on some level.  She’s dealing with what it means to be human, what it means to struggle with what’s right and what’s convenient.  Unlike many writers obsessed with their own self-importance, she does it by telling a compelling story, and telling it well.right up to the end.

Much has been made of Moore’s introduction of emotion and sexuality into the science fiction and fantasy fields in the 1930s.  I’m not going to rehash that here.  I have neither the time nor the patience for the literature search.  And I’m certainly not going to get into amateur psychoanalysis, a la L. Sprague de Camp with Robert E. Howard, and try to interpret Moore’s emotional and mental state.  I have too much respect for her to ever do that.

One last bit of trivia.  At one point in the story, Smith hums the tune of a song, “The Green Hills of Earth.”  Robert Heinlein has gone on record saying this was the inspiration of his classic story by that name.

Whatever Happened to Sense of Wonder?

Thursday, Daniel Abraham posted a brief essay on his blog entitled “In Defense of Exoticism” in which he examines the role exoticism plays in SFF.  He defines exoticism as “the commodification of the Other, appropriating the thoughts or clothing or music or food or religion of an unfamiliar culture for the charm of the unfamiliar.”  He goes, in a wandering sort of way, to discuss some other aspects of this thought, specifically the concept of Other.  And when I say in a wandering way, I in no way intend anything derogatory.  Abraham himself says he’s still thinking this topic through and his post would be a little rough around the edges, and I respect that.

But this essay got me thinking.  What’s wrong with the charm of the unfamiliar?  And where are we to find it, if not in other cultures, epochs, music, etc.  Now I realize that the key verb in Abraham’s sentence is “commodification” and that is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.  That’s not a debate I want to get into at this point.  Instead, my thoughts went down a different avenue.


I mentioned in my report on ConDFW a panel discussion about whether magic systems should be organized in some sort of way that resembled science.  My comment from the audience was that maybe more people of reading fantasy than science fiction these days, and I can well remember when that wasn’t the case at all, because fantasy was providing that sense of wonder that science fiction once did.

There are a number of reasons why science fiction has been supplanted by fantasy, and a number of them come down to sense of wonder.  Shelf space in the science fiction section of many books stores is being taken over by media tie-ins, many of them generic.  Our citizens are increasing familiarity with scientific and technological achievements while their ignorance of scientific principles is (if anything) increasing. Science, and by extension science fiction, have failed to produce the promised wonders of the future (I want my flying car, dammit). To steal a quote whose source I can’t remember, we’ve reached the future and found it not to be Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov’s future, but Phillip K. Dick’s.  Fantasy still provides that escape from the humdrum world, and that future.  It provides an Other that, even at fantasy’s darkest, gives that sense of wonder.  Horror on the other hand, gives just the opposite: a sense of fear and oppression.  And that sense is part of much of science fiction.  So much that last year, an anthology titled Shine had the theme of optimistic near futures.

Think about how many new fantasy series have been promoted in the last few years with an emphasis on the uniqueness of their magical systems.  The magical system in any fantasy, including urban fantasy, is an extension of the author’s world building, and world building is one of the main things by which an author will rise or fall, be the world a fantasy world, a futuristic science fictional world, or a detailed historical era.  It’s not the only thing that can make or break an author’s work, but in any setting that’s not contemporary, mainstream society, the world building can be as important as the characterization or plot.

Abraham says there’s something in his psychology that’s deeply attracted to the idea of an Other.  He implies that this a basic human trait.  I think it is.  Call it exoticism, call it sense of wonder, call it a search for transcendence, call it what you like.  There is something in all of us that wants, even needs, to experience the new, the exotic.  That will be different things to different people.

As an example, when we were in Kazakhstan adopting out son, we took at trip one afternoon and evening to the city of Turkestan.  I’ve written a little about it. One of our lawyers seemed disappointed when we didn’t find the trip to be exotic.  We saw lots of flat plains with men on horses herding cattle.  I’ve lived most of my life in Texas.  There was nothing to me about seeing those things that I found exotic; instead, they were comfortingly familiar in land where even the food on my plate was exotic.  The only difference was the cows in Kazakhstan looked both ways before they crossed the highway.  (I’m not making that last bit up.  They really did wait by the side of the highway to cross.  Cows in Texas would have wandered out in front of on-coming vehicles without a thought.  I’m not sure why that was the case, but it was.)  Now someone who had lived all of his or her life in New York City would have probably found such sights very exotic.

Science fiction used to deliver that exotic sense of wonder, where humans ventured into the universe, with or without leaving the planet, and found all sorts of wonders waiting for them.  Of course, these days science has lost some of its luster and exploration is no longer a priority.  Case in point:  the United States in in the process of ending its manned space program.  And if you believe the government’s assurances that it’s only until the next generation of launch vehicle can be designed and built, then I have a bridge I can get you a good deal on.  Thankfully, the private sector seems to be picking up the ball and running with it, at least somewhat.

But I digress.  Fantasy is filling the role that science fiction, science, the space program, and human exploration in general once did on a larger scale.  Magic never loses its sense of wonder or exoticism because it can never be explained.  That’s why I think fantasy is now more popular than science fiction.