Sf and Gender Module Week 2: Stanley G. Weinbaum & C. L. Moore

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

Stanley G. Weinbaum "A Martian Odyssey" & C. L. Moore, "Shambleau"

Stanley G. Weinbaum (1902 - 1935)
"A Martian Odyssey" was published in Wonder Stories in 1934. Immediately hailed as a groundbreaking story in the idea of the alien: Weinbaum's "Martians" were neither potential invaders nor a decadent "Elder Race" but something genuinely Other. Communication had to be worked for, but could be achieved.

Communication is a general theme in the story.

Tweel's use of different words for the same thing:
"part of the time he was 'Tweel', and part of the time he was 'P-p-p-proot', and part of the time he was sixteen other noises. ...... Nothing was the same for two successive minutes, and if that's a language, I'm an alchemist!"

Gradual understanding of what he is trying to say, but it comes through mathematics, and symbolic logic rather than language.

The earth humans are three different notionalities. Heavy-handed humour of the misunderstandings when the Frenchman and the German translate the American's slang into analogues from their language: "Spill/spiel", "shenanigans" / "je ne sais quoi" -- and how they are almost right. The relationship between the human characters is developed through language, especially wisecracks, arguments and jokey insults:
"Perhaps," suggested Harrison, "It looked at that nose of yours and thought you were its brother."

Brian Stableford (see below) says "A Martian Odyssey" is -- on the surface, at least -- a thoroughly masculine story." Why?

A male-bonding mini-society? Is there a skirting around emotion? Is there a gender missing in the story? Where is the female? "Fancy Hall" the entertainer plucked from Jarvis's mind by the predatory dream-beast. Note Jarvis's denial ("I know her pretty well -- just friends, get me?") but his language when he explains what has happened:
"The Dream-beast uses its victim's longing and desires to trap its prey. The bird at nesting season would see its mate ....."

The pronoun given to Tweel -- why "he"? The one Martian organism we see reproducing, the silicon beast, seems to be asexual: "They're his spores, or eggs, or seeds." But Jarvis is clear. "Thanks, Tweel. You're a man!" (The term is repeated.)

Do gender roles seem to slip in whether there are members of that gender or not?

Consider the exchange:
"And yet -- we liked each other!"
"Looney, that's all," remarked Harrison. "That's why you two were so fond of each other."
"Well, I like you." Remarked Jarvis wickedly. "Anyway," he resumed, "don't get the idea that there was anything screwy about Tweel."

What kind of denial is this? Does "screwy" carry the connotation "queer"? (n. b. Brian Attebery's analysis of homoerotic undercurrents in The New Adam in which the main character, Edmond, is accused of being "queer". (Brian Attebery, Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, pp. 73-78)

Is this a story "about" sex and gender? On one level (or more), no: it's clearly centred upon communication and is an essentially humorous revamping of the stereotype of the Martian (Paul A. Cater, The Creation of Tomorrow calls Tweel "a wacky Walt Disney ostrich-character" (p. 73): see the original illustration of Tweel. But it's also about the lack of, or partial communication. Anything female is fragmented. All Fancy Long does is smile and wave. Tweel is a male "buddy" rather than a female, or even asexual, companion. And the bizarre aliens who claim to be "friends" but are also aggressive and operate according to a logic even stranger than Tweel's ("beyond the logic of two and two is four"): what are they? The male pronoun is used for them, too, but they scurry around putting things in pushcarts and bringing them back home. Prams? Shopping?

Weinbaum died of lung cancer -- note the downbeat way the apparent cure for cancer is treated at the end of the story.

Brian Stableford, "Creators of Science Fiction -- 1: Stanley G. Weinbaum" in Interzone 90 (December 1994), pp. 51-53.
Jim Young, "Before the Dawn: Weinbaum, Campbell and the Invention of Modern Science Fiction" in New York Review of Science Fiction (nos. 18 & 19).

C. L. Moore (1911 - 1987)
First story "Shambleau" (Weird Tales, 1933) began series of science fantasy stories featuring the adventurer Northwest Smith. Also known for the "Jirel of Joiry" stories, the first sword and sorcery stories to feature a female protagonist. The Northwest Smith story "Quest of the Starstone" (1937) which also featured Jirel was her first collaboration with Henry Kuttner (m. 1940). Much of their subsequent work was collaborations. Lewis Padgett and Laurence O'Donnell were names used for their work for Astounding. The SFE says that Padgett was primarily Kuttner, O'Donnell primarily Moore. After they went to U. of Southern California to study (1950), their sf output lessened, though they wrote mystery novels. After Kuttner d. 1958, Moore wrote scripts for TV until she remarried in 1963.

"Shambleau" shows her vivid, colourful style. The Mars of the story is exotic and decadent: the prologue links old myths to the space-travelling future. Hints of similar undercurrents of frightfulness to Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos (20s/early 30s).

Smith rescues an alien girl from a mob, howling "Shambleau". His yell "She's mine" (meaning the same as his earlier "I'm taking care of her") causes the mob to back off in contempt. Puzzled, Smith takes her home.

The girl is hairless, head covered by a scarlet turban, three-fingered, and feline eyes and claws. He responds erotically to her, but is also repelled. In pushing her away, what appears to be a tendril of scarlet hair is revealed. "A pretty little thing, but animal." He oscillates between ecstasy and revulsion. She does not eat human food, but scornfully denies being a vampire.

Eventually she shows what is under her turban: "the mass of scarlet, squirming -- worms, hairs, what? ...... twisting, writhing, obscenely scarlet ...... like a nest of blind, restless red worms ...... like naked entrails ...... [her face] demure and sweet, framed in tangled obscenity that crawled ......"

"And Smith knew that he looked upon Medusa."

Moore's prose pounds on with images of writhing worms, wetness and warmth, ecstasy, obscenity ("Slimy ecstatic embrace"). Smith is saved from his unholy rapture only by the arrival of his Venusian friend Yarol, puzzled why their arrangements have not been held to. He sees Smith in the embrace of the thing, recognises it, and shoots it, using the reflection in the mirror to aim (as did Perseus). He explains the reality of the Shambleau to Smith, who recalls the obscene pleasure and the evil lust. Yarol makes Smith promise if ever he across a Shambleau again to kill it. Smith can only say "I'll -- try."

Obvious sexual link: the perversity of cross-species sex, domination by female magnetism & loss of the male will. Fetishism of the scarlet leather she wears.

Why has Smith, with his reputation and contacts, not heard of Shambleau?

Are there too many long passages of "unspeakable horror"?

As with Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu" (Weird Tales, 1928):
The Most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black eras of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little, but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Science Fantasy rather than Science Fiction?

* Colourful, quasi-rationalised settings and characters. How far is this, for example, a realistic Mars? The "medusa" figure given a quasi-rationalised "science fiction" origin. See also H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow out of Time" (1936, Astounding).
* Romantic, tarnished hero. (Is Northwest Smith any relation to Indiana Jones?)
* Influences of othe popular fiction. See, e.g. P. C. Wren's novel of honour and the Foreign Legion Beau Geste (1924); Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire story "Carmilla" (1872); Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars (as "Under the Moons of Mars, 1912; 1917).
* What resonances does the word "Shambleau" have?

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