Going To Mars: Word By Word – Northwest Smith

Illustration of Northwest Smith by Robert Burrows

by Robert Burrows © 2012

This is my second GTMWBW* post.  Come along on this trip to Mars via the words of C.L Moore in her Northwest Smith stories.

The Northwest Smith stories belong firmly in the pulp era of science fiction and fantasy which began in the 1930s. The term ‘pulp’ came from the paper and format these magazines were published in. They were printed on cheap paper with ragged edges at a total size of approximately seven inches wide by ten-and-a-half inches tall. And they were filled with adventure stories featuring buxom damsels, bug-eyed monsters, and dashing heroes set on other planets that had only minor differences from Earth.

Catherine Louise Moore (January 24, 1911 – April 4, 1987) was a prolific writer probably best known to many SF and fantasy readers for writing stories and novels in collaboration with her husband Henry Kuttner. Moore used her initials because the science fiction market in the 1930’s didn’t have much room for female authors. More also used other pseudonyms both as a solo author and in collaboration with Kutner. Learn more about Catherine here

Moore achieved fame in 1933 with her first story, Shambleau, a vampiric femme fatale story set on Mars. She continued relating the adventure stories of Northwest Smith, the legendary hero of the spaceways, in Black Thirst © 1934; The Tree of Life © 1936, Scarlet Dream © 1934, Dust of the Gods © 1934, Lost Paradise © 1936, Julhi © 1935, The Cold Gray God © 1935, Yvala ©1936, and a very short postscript-type of story Song in a Minor Key ©1957. I read them in the collection Northwest Smith published in 1981.

Not all the stories in this collection are set on Mars. Two were set on Earth and two on Venus. But if the pulp era stories of science fiction and fantasy were supposed to invoke a sense of wonder, I would have to say Moore definitely achieved that.

Despite the 1930’s romantacism and general mentality, I found much to enjoy in these stories. Sf-encyclopedia.com describes Moore’s style as possessing a “lyrical fluency, emotional intensity, and the power to evoke a sense of wonder in the past-haunted interstellar venues.” I have to agree. The language usage is rich and multi-layered. An English teacher would have field day with the classical references and the themes of Moore’s work. The Shambleau, a Gorgon or Medusa-like being, says dark and light are the same to her. Not so in Moore’s books. Light and dark, white and black, represent good or evil, sometimes in unexpected ways. Even the series protagonist, Northwest Smith, is not all one or the other.

Northwest Smith is a wary man with a past. His ruthless, steel pale eyes stare out of a face scored with marks from knife, and talon, and rayburn. An adventurer-for-hire in spacer’s leathers, he is wise in the dangers of the spaceways and travels from adventure to adventure. He kills when necessary and without remorse. And yes, true to pulp story traditions, nearly every adventure has at least one beautiful woman and an evil monster. His sidekick is Yarol, the Venusian, who calls him NW.

The Mars in the Northwest Smith stories is red and dusty. Like Barsoom, there is a low, red vegetation and there are canals. These Martian canals only have water during the spring thaw of the polar caps. Also like the Mars in Burroughs’ tales, this Mars has a long history. Once Mars had been green. Now it’s dry and dotted with thousand-year-old half-collapsed temples and ruins of ancient civilizations.

There is no reference to Martian gravity nor to the atmosphere in these stories. The Mars of the Northwest Smith looks and behaves much like the American southwest. Except for it’s people.

Instead of two races ala Barsoom, there are innumerable races on Moore’s Mars. There are Martian drylanders, canal Martians, Venusian swamplanders, “and strange, nameless denziens of unnamed planets.” Additionally, there are gods and goddesses, and beings of light and black, unnamed things. Moore’s universe appears to be a crowded place.

The reader follows Northwest from the stalls and stands of the Lakkmanda Markets, the greatest marketplace in the universe, to places where ancient wells are gateways to another dimension, and caves hold secret asteroids. He walks warily through endless hallways, dark caves and underground rooms where he battles soul-sucking monsters. The monsters sometimes have a physical form, sometimes a kind of quasi-physical being appearing man-shaped, and sometimes tendrils of darkness, as insubstantial as fog or light.

So again, it’s not the physical planet that enthralls us in the stories of Northwest Smith. Rather the fascination lies with the adventures, the battles between good and evil, and the fascination with the people who are not, but maybe could be.

Alas, in the real world, the rover Curiousity has not found a Martian. But it found evidence of water, lots of water! image of Mars' water worn rockPerhaps Burroughs and Moore weren’t so far off after all.

Who knows? Maybe the rover will find evidence of Martians before our next trip to Mars on November 5th via Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis.

*GTMWBW = Going to Mars: Word by Word

I am so glad you’ve come along with me in this adventure, Going to Mars: Word by Word. Please, won’t you take a moment to share with me? Have you read any of the Northwest Smith stories? If not, what is your favorite book set on Mars?