Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Northwest of Earth (Planet Stories # 6)

Northwest of Earth is a collection of short stories that loses by repetition. C.L. Moore published several stories in the 1930s featuring Northwest Smith and taken individually, they are quite good. The stories are infused with an unearthly, almost Lovecraftian sense of danger and decay, with writing that is evocative and atmospheric. Set in a future where other planets in the solar system have long been colonized, Northwest Smith is a grim, almost monosyllabic gun-for-hire. Although ostensibly science fiction, very little time or attention is given to the traditional trappings of the genre such as advanced technology, spacecraft, alien cultures, etc. Instead, myth, folklore, and old gods are the theme of most of these stories, which (with a couple of details changed) could easily be published as sword-and-sorcery. Moore's not even particularly interested in the type of gun Northwest carries--it's referred to variously as a "heat-gun", a "ray-gun", a "flame-gun", a "force-gun", and a "power-gun". Nor are the stories plot- or action- heavy. Exposition and imagery are the name of the game here, but Moore is a skilled enough writer that the stories hold the reader's interest: for the first time or two. Then, unfortunately, a pattern appears: Northwest Smith stumbles upon a strange, captivating woman who is alluring but dangerous; he almost falls preys to some sort of hypnotic alien threat, but his sheer force of will allows him to escape; he destroys the threat with his heat-gun and wistfully walks away. Not every story is like that in the collection, but the vast majority do follow the pattern. As originally published, months apart in magazines, this defect of repetition wouldn't be as noticeable. But collected all in one place, the stories quickly become tiresome.

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