Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January. Eagle eyed readers may recognize that it is now February, so yes, I’m playing a bit of catch up here. That said, I read both of the below during January and better late than never.
Judgement Night by C.L. Moore – Moore is one of those early female SF authors that are often glossed over in genre discussions. She was one half of the foremost husband-and-wife team in SF history (the other half was her husband, Henry Kuttner), and they were quite prolific together, publishing under numerous pen names (most famously Lewis Padgett), but also wrote solo stories. The standard take is that Kuttner was faster and more prolific, but Moore was more original and more highly regarded as a writer. There’s also complicating factors because some of Moore’s stories were published under Kuttner’s name, owing to the fact that he had a higher word rate than she did. Still, the notion that their strengths and weaknesses offset each other is the prevailing narrative, and it does make a certain sort of sense.
This 1952 novel is one of Moore’s later solo efforts, and I think I can see some of the dynamics here. The story is about Juille, headstrong daughter of the emperor, an amazon warrior who wants to take a hard line against the barbarian hordes that threaten the empire. It’s a story about an empire, so naturally it all hinges on an attempt to overthrow the emperor. Both sides are developing frightening weapons of great power, and seem hellbent on destruction. Egide is a leader of the barbarian faction, and he develops a rather strange relationship with Juille. There’s a simultaneous attraction and repulsion between the two that is consistently revisited throughout the story, and represents the emotional core. There are other factions and the requisite schemes and betrayals, as befits this sort of tale.
The proportion of exposition is perhaps a bit too high given the simple adventure story, leading to some inconsistent pacing. However, Moore is great at evocative atmosphere, and she pulls from all sorts of elements that we’d be familiar with. There’s definitely a Western vibe to a lot of the setting, though instead of horses and swords you get spaceships and fire swords (perhaps one of many precursors to the light saber?) For some reason everyone still walks around with spurs on their boots too, which I found kinda funny. The star-crossed lovers trope is certainly common, but it’s common for a reason, and it’s well done here. Moore’s prose is colorful and creative, especially when it comes to Cyrille, a sorta pleasure planet (moon?) that features tons of artificial environments. I kinda thought of it like Risa from Star Trek, and we see it a couple of times throughout this novel.
The ending is surprisingly downbeat for a golden age work, but it absolutely fits with Moore’s common themes (and actually, her husband’s as well). She described the fundamental theme she revisited in her work often as “The most treacherous thing in life is love,” and she summarized her husband’s too: “Hank’s basic statement was something like, ‘Authority is dangerous and I will never submit to it.'” The ending of Judgement night is certainly fitting with both of these; a powerful statement on the folly of war, if not particularly satisfying. As Moore herself comments towards the end “The human mind is not constructed to accept defeat even in the face of finality.” I think she pulled it off and this represents an interesting deviation from the genre at the time, but it’s probably not an entry point or must-read.
The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance – Another story about a power struggle in a monarchy, this one with considerably more idea content that reaches for that fabled SF sense of wonder. Young Beran Panasper’s father and Panarch of the planet Pao has just been murdered. Beran must flee his home to survive, and is aided by a man named Palafox from the planet Breakness. Growing up in this foreign planet, Beran learns their ways while struggling to maintain his Paonese culture and mindset. Meanwhile, Palafox works with the current leader of Pao, who is unpopular with his people and vulnerable to an outside threat. But Palafox is basically setting up Pao to meet his own needs, and Beran will need to find a way to navigate back to Pao, save it from its current leader (thus avenging his father’s death), fend off other attackers, and eventually defeat Palafox himself.
This is one of the earlier works of SF exploring linguistics and in particular, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The idea is that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ worldview to a large degree. Vance rather directly presents these ideas in the text:
“Think of a language as the contour of a watershed, stopping flow in certain directions, channeling it into others. Language controls the mechanism of your mind. When people speak different languages, their minds work differently and they act differently…”The Languages of Pao, Page 41
This idea has been a powerful influence on the field. For instance, it’s the driving principle behind Ted Chiang’s 1998 “Story of Your Life” (which was adapted into the film Arrival in 2016). In The Languages of Pao it is perhaps more contrived, but no less interesting. To make it work, Vance creates two very different societies. Different from each other, and different from our own. Pao is a very passive, accepting society, almost communal in nature. Breakness is extremely individualistic. Pao’s indifference makes them vulnerable to outside attack, and in order to defend against it, they develop several new languages in order to generate a warrior class (as well as a technology class and a merchant class). Eventually these new classes are successful, but at what cost? If language changes your outlook away from traditional Pao society, are you still Paonese?
This is a short book, and despite the rather bald way some of these ideas are presented, the pacing is still quite brisk. It actually represents an interesting contrast to Moore’s Judgement Night, which definitely gets bogged down in its atmospheric prose. Vance is perhaps not as much of a stylist, but he’s clear and concise, and while the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is debatable, it does still make an intriguing basis for a story. As I understand it, this early Vance work is not one of his best, though it is something of a turning point for him. After reading this, I’m definitely curious to seek out more from him, which is usually a pretty good sign. I enjoyed this well enough and it has all the right elements, but the balance feels a bit off. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in the genre’s usage of linguistics…