Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Song in a Minor Key" (C. L. Moore, 1957), followed by Commentary

"Song in a Minor Key"

(c) 1957 by C. L. Moore

Beneath him the clovered hill-slope was warm in the sun. Northwest Smith moved his shoulders against the earth and closed his eyes, breathing so deeply that the gun holstered upon his chest drew tight against its strap as he drank the fragrance of Earth and clover warm in the sun. Here in the hollow of the hills, willow-shaded, pillowed upon clover and the lap of Earth, he let his breath run out in a long sigh and drew one palm across the grass in a caress like a lover's.

He had been promising himself this moment for how long—how many months and years on alien worlds? He would not think of it now. He would not remember the dark spaceways or the red slag of Martian drylands or the pearl-gray days on Venus when he had dreamed of the Earth that had outlawed him. So he lay, with his eyes closed and the sunlight drenching him through, no sound in his ears but the passage of a breeze through the grass and a creaking of some insect nearby—the violent, blood-smelling years behind him might never have been. Except for the gun pressed into his ribs between his chest and the clovered earth, he might be a boy again, years upon years ago, long before he had broken his first law or killed his first man.

No one else alive now knew who that boy had been. Not even the all knowing Patrol. Not even Venusian Yarol, who had been his closest friend for so many riotous years. No one would ever know—now. Not his name (which had not always been Smith) or his native land or the home that had bred him, or the first violent deed that had sent him down the devious paths which led here—here to the clover hollow in the hills of an Earth that had forbidden him ever to set foot again upon her soil.

He unclasped the hands behind his head and rolled over to lay a scarred cheek on his arm, smiling to himself. Well, here was Earth beneath him. No longer a green star high in alien skies, but warm soil, new clover so near his face he could see all the little stems and trefoil leaves, moist earth granular at their roots. An ant ran by with waving antennae close beside his cheek. He closed his eyes and drew another deep breath. Better not even look; better to lie here like an animal, absorbing the sun and the feel of Earth blindly, wordlessly.

Now he was not Northwest Smith, scarred outlaw of the spaceways. Now he was a boy again with all his life before him. There would be a white-columned house just over the hill, with shaded porches and white curtains blowing in the breeze and the sound of sweet, familiar voices indoors. There would be a girl with hair like poured honey hesitating just inside the door, lifting her eyes to him. Tears in the eyes. He lay very still, remembering.

Curious how vividly it all came back, though the house had been ashes for nearly twenty years, and the girl—the girl ...

He rolled over violently, opening his eyes. No use remembering her. There had been that fatal flaw in him from the very first, he knew now. If he were the boy again knowing all he knew today, still the flaw would be there and sooner or later the same thing must have happened that had happened twenty years ago. He had been born for a wilder age, when men took what they wanted and held what they could without respect for law. Obedience was not in him, and so—

As vividly as on that day it happened he felt the same old surge of anger and despair twenty years old now, felt the ray-gun bucking hard against his unaccustomed fist, heard the hiss of its deadly charge ravening into a face he hated. He could not be sorry, even now, for that first man he had killed. But in the smoke of that killing had gone up the columned house and the future he might have had, the boy himself—lost as Atlantis now—and the girl with the honey-colored hair and much, much else besides. It had to happen, he knew. He being the boy he was, it had to happen. Even if he could go back and start all over, the tale would be the same.

And it was all long past now, anyhow; and nobody remembered any more at all, except himself. A man would be a fool to lie here thinking about it any longer.

Smith grunted and sat up, shrugging the gun into place against his ribs.


"Comments on 'Song in a Minor Key'"

(c) 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

Hopefully Northwest Smith needs no introduction:  he debuted in C. L. Moore's classic "Shambleau" (1933) and figures in about a dozen other stories.  He's one of the archetypal space wanderer characters, ancestral in concept to heroes such as Han Solo (to name his most famous memetic spawn).  Moore's character influenced many subsequent science fiction writers, especially Andre Norton.

This is in one respect an unusual Northwest Smith story, in that it's really just a vignette which gives some hints about his backstory.  We see Smith reflecting on his past and -- briefly -- regretting the act of violence which forced him to flee his old life and sweetheart and become an interplanetary outlaw.  He wonders if he could have chosen differently, given his nature.  Then, very much in character, he realizes that it is far too late for him to do anything about it, and that he must return to living his life the way it is, rather than the way it might have been.

That's a bare-boned description of the plot, but as written by the incomparable C. L. Moore it's so much greater than that.  Somehow, she managed to encapsulate in a few hundred words the essence of regret.  Evoking emotions so powerfully with such a swift sketch is the mark of a truly great stylist, and one with something important to say.  Compare with the doorstopper books and series which aren't really about anything, no matter how many hundred thousand words they take to fail to say anything.

What gives the vignette such power is that it touches to the heart of why C. L. Moore (and her fans) found Northwest Smith such an attractive character.  Namely that Smith is a strong and dangerous, but essentially good man with inner wounds, wounds which (implicitly) the right woman might be able to heal.  This is a common female fantasy, and one which in real life often leads to a woman falling for a very self-destructive (and, what's worse, other-destructive) person, under the delusion that he's "good deep down." 

What's interesting is that, while this obviously appealed to Moore's female fans (like Andre Norton), it also appealed to her male fans.  The female fans wanted to love him:  the male fans, of course, wanted to be him.  Who wouldn't want to be strong and smart and indomitable of spirit, even if the package came with a "Wanted" poster and the need to flee from one's past?

In Smith's case we know that he really is "good deep down," because (from other stories) we've seen his motivations:  he's often ruthful and sometimes wrathful, but not really evil, and he's often willing to fight to protect the (what he imagines to be) innocent (which is exactly how he gets into trouble when he meets the Shambleau).  So the fantasy is perhaps justified in his case, and thus all the more powerful.

We see in this story that Smith was far from innocent in his own ruin.  He obviously had wealth, education and social status:  he threw them away when he killed a man, possibly in a fight over his sweetheart.  Smith himself blames this on a lack of self-restraint and social restraint:  he is (as is obvious from his earlier stories) a "natural killer," someone who would be a sociopath if not restrained by his own moral code.  In this respect he's rather like (Ian Fleming's version of) James Bond, save that Smith's moral code is sterner than Bond's. 

Despite his general chivalry and strong sense of honor, he would not be a safe person with whom to be involved, either as a lover or a friend:  trouble seems to follow him (as Yarol has found more than once).  On the other hand, if one were already in trouble, he is a friend who could be counted upon to do his utmost to save one.  And because of his personal code, he's not a random killer:  he'd need a pretty good reason to attack you.  He's dangerous, but admirable, and if one knew him, one might want to be his friend.

Interestingly, C. L. Moore seems to have realized the way in which the fantasy was a bit self-destructive (as is the character himself:  he's to some extent seeking his own death when he flings himself into obviously-dangerous situations, but his inner vitality and will are too strong to let him die).  It may be relevant to this that she wrote the Northwest Smith stories before she married Henry Kuttner, and that previous to marriage they had a long-distance relationship.  Once she experienced what was really involved in being with a man, not just romantically but facing day-to-day challenges as partners in life, the romance of Byronic heroes faded for her.

Northwest Smith can be criticized, but never dismissed.  Like John Carter or Eric John Stark, he's an archetypal science-fiction hero, and one whose echoes will live on as long as does the genre.  Possibly, into the time when spacemen with a dark past really do ply the lanes between the planets.



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