Greater than Gods

Given the Google nonsense, I think it would be fun to give a little synopsis of C.L. Moore’s Greater than Gods.

Male babies are dying out, and a scientist is working on a means of using X-Rays to ensure a balance between the genders. More importantly, though, he’s trying to decide between Betty and Veronica (their real names are unimportant). His friend comes in and tells him how crazy it is that the future exists in a quantum state and how our choices can cause entire universes to come into or flash out of existence. Coincidentally, the scientist is psychically contacted by his future descendants at the same time… But they are from completely different timelines!

Short version, if the Doctor marries Betty, he spends more time with his beautiful but vapid wife, he has a kind and sensitive daughter, his work fails, and mankind slouches into a decadent feminist dystopia in which everyone is hippie-dippie and living in peace and harmony in little groves as all knowledge and technology is lost, dooming the race of man to end in a whimper.

If the Doctor marries Veronica, the sexy brilliant scientist gives him a brood of strong and virile young men, his work succeeds but leads to endless war and conquest of earth and someday the stars, with a mankind bred to rule and be ruled.

One of his lines of descendants will be wiped from existence, and he can doom mankind to a future of decadence and death or galactic immortality and perpetual war.

Given the choice between feminist dystopia and war world, he immediately proposes to his secretary instead, wiping out both possible futures and  opting instead for the unknown.

Jirel of Joiry

Why is Jirel of Joiry, one of few bona fide woman pulp Sword & Sorcery heroes, so comparatively obscure? Is it because Jirel is a female protagonist? Or is it because C.L. Moore is a woman author?

To those last two questions, the answer is “Of course not”; C.L. Moore is beloved and influential, and with so many people supposedly out there looking for women heroes in SFF to hold up, Jirel’s sex is certainly not the reason.

I think Jirel’s relative obscurity has to do with the intensity and complexity of the source material. When Weird Tales billed Black God’s Kiss as “The Weirdest Story Ever Told”, they were perhaps only being slightly hyperbolic. Barbarians with swords killing shapeshifting reptile cultists? Kinda weird, I suppose. Tentacle monsters from beyond the stars driving a New England poof crazy? That’s pretty weird, I guess. Jirel of Joiry? It is weird in ways that cannot really be described; loud tastes, flavorful sounds, deafening sights – Edvard Munch’s the Scream, but in blacks and purples and greens and with words.

If Jirel were just some woman who fought monsters with swords and had adventures and quipped “I pity you, traitorous wizard!” as she vanquished some foe, she might very well be much more widely beloved and remembered today* and placed alongside John Carter, Conan and Stark on the pantheon of pulp action heroes, but she would also lose so much, if not all, of what makes her a fascinating character.

First off, you really have to accept the premise that you can’t staple the male hero’s journey to a female hero to understand why Jirel is so different. Yet in her life prior to where Moore’s stories pick up, Jirel may have been attempting to undertake the male hero’s journey, which is why things have immediately gone to hell (quite literally) in her debut adventure.

The male’s journey is to achieve stature, dominance, then legacy; the female’s journey is to achieve stature, security, then legacy; of course that is a gross simplification because how they go about these things are entirely different. The woman does not have to seek virile stature among men to achieve her second or third goal, merely appeal to those who can help her achieve them. The legacy may be achieved by works** or parenthood, leaving a mark upon the world, but the woman can best achieve legacy through motherhood and upbringing of children with (in conjunction with the goal of security) a man or without him. In her pursuit of the male’s journey, Jirel has forfeited, to her regret, her feminine security and legacy by destroying someone who may have been able to provide them to her. This forfeiture, and how she feels it has ruined and cursed her, is central to Jirel’s character. And it is a VERY uncomfortable thing.

In a way, Jirel is a character in another’s story, Guillame’s; in Guillame’s story, he bravely fights against one of the strongest kingdoms, led by one of the strongest leaders, a brash and haughty woman waiting to be tamed…only she kills him. Rather than be tamed by the strong heroic swordsman, Jirel sells her soul and literally goes into hell to retrieve a “weapon” to kill him. But it is not a warrior’s weapon; it is a woman’s weapon—a kiss. A kiss that will kill and damn to hell. Too late does Jirel realize that Guillame was someone who could have given her security and legacy. He was stronger than her and could have protected her. She realizes that perhaps she wanted to be tamed by this rogue. And it devastates her to the core of her being. She is Belit killing Conan. Leia shooting Han.

While Jirel is, by outward appearances and actions, the dashing and brash heroic swordsman, that is a mask (one which her supernatural foe uses to mock her). She’s not a ‘man with boobs’ (though she at times tries to be one), but a feminine woman with feminine needs, emotions and desires. The Black God sequence is a terrifying look at the emotional turmoil and consequence of a woman who has tried to live the trope of Strong Female Protagonist and been utterly crushed and broken by it.

*: Copious amounts of erotic art aside
**: Oftentimes works are not enough, particularly in the heroic mold and tradition. It is not enough to create or maintain, one needs to pass on. For instance, part of what makes Kull a tragic figure is that for all of his efforts to sustain his empire, he left no line—doubly tragic for the importance he placed on love and marriage’s role in society while he himself never found a mate.

Weekend Micro-Haul

The long weekend allowed me to make some headway in my reading and a harmonious convergence of a thrift-store half-off sale and a bored teenager not wanting to break my twenty meant I grabbed Otis Adelbert Kline’s Maza of the Moon and Earth’s Last Citadel by C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner for free this weekend.

I finished Sceptre of Morgulan.  The worst thing that can be said about it is that it’s book 2 of 4 (or 3 of 5, depending on how you want to count Drasmyr).  Even though the scope of the book in terms of characters and plot threads is a bit more new-school, the flavor is very retro.  While Children of Lubrochius shows the rise of the titular criminal/necromantic organization (Gimme Shelter playing in the background), Sceptre shows the turning point where the villain’s enterprises begin crumbling.  So, the organized crime venture is falling through with the thieves guild on the rebound, internal squabbles getting out of hand, a botched demon summoning, and the head of the Children coming in to shut Korina’s operation down because of the turf wars she’s started.  Still, the lady has demons, goblins, a couple mages, an ancient vampire and maybe even the Sceptre, if she can track Gaelen to Morgulan’s pocket dimension.

Because I had to drop everything and read Sceptre of Morgulan, I still had about 100 pages left in Hardtack and Coffee.  Overall, it was a great book and full of fun invaluable minutiae for Civil War buff regarding the day to day life of Union soldiers, but I wish that Billings had thought to put in an afterword to bring it all back around.  The book is a bit front-loaded, with most of the best stuff in the early to middle of the book (everything from what daily rations consist of to the various means soldiers would use to try to get out of doing work), and ends rather abruptly with the chapter on signal flagging.

Earth’s Last Citadel was a bit of a disappointment.  An American, a Scot and two American Nazis in Africa happen upon a spaceship that is the vanguard of an alien invasion. They get stuck in time stasis for a million years or something, so that when they come out, the aliens had come, conquered, built and declined so that all that was left on the planet was one lone alien citadel, Carcasilla, inhabited by a race of immortal humans and a crazy giant telepathic wizard face.  The 4 WW2 era humans are caught between the crazy wizard, the immortal quasi-humans in the fortress, the barbarian humans in the caves and the energy alien that will starve if it can’t feed on the remaining humans’ life force.  In something of a script-flip, the morlock-like cave dwellers are the descendants of the humans who fought against the alien overlords and team up with the humans to fight the eloi-like Carcasillians who had been engineered by the aliens as toys and vessels and can therefore be controlled by the alien.  Eventually, the past-humans defeat the wizard (a human controlling a robot face), the alien, get the source of Carcasilla’s power and the Carcasillian’s immortality, use it to power up the ship and restart humanity on Venus.  Sounds awesome, right?  Unfortunately, the weak descriptive language made it difficult to picture any scenes or action at play, leaving one with only a vague sense of what had happened or was going on.  It was like trying to watch something through murky water or a fog.  Or like that time when Elmer Fudd was unicycling down a highwire into a lion’s mouth while wearing dark glasses:

The Time Machine meets Wizard of Oz with hyper-intelligent parasitic alien energy beings should’ve been so much better!

Anyway, I’m reading Leigh Brackett’s Sword of Rhiannon to cleanse the palate a bit.  It is more than sufficiently awesome.