RETROSPECTIVE: “Song in a Minor Key” by C. L. Moore

Tuesday , 30, August 2016 14 Comments

If the pulp ethos can be summed into just one thing, it’s this:

There is always a woman.

It’s in everything, really. No matter how outrageous the setting, how dangerous the threat, or how weird the the situation is in the opening hook, honestly… it’s all just prelude for the entrance of a dame. Whether she’s in the classy or mysterious variety, it doesn’t matter: there is always the requisite romantic tension.
This was the norm from A. Merritt to Jack Williamson and on to Stanley Weinbaum. When you see the old Star Trek episodes setting up subplots where Bones gets married to a Space Priestess or Chekhov hooks up with a Wild West saloon girl… it all goes back to the pulps.

C. L. Moore wrote that way, too. Her feminine foils come in right on cue. And unlike a lot of heroes, Northwest Smith is not just upstaged from that point, he is nearly overwhelmed. It’s not what you’d expect! It’s not how anyone would think to tell a Han Solo type story today, really.

Moore’s “Song in a Minor Key” is not even full story, and it even follows the pattern. It’s just about Smith taking a break, lying in the grass. There’s no action. There’s no plot. It’s little more than a single moment, really. Even so, a woman enters into things as soon as the stage is set:

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.

These sort of romantic elements are among the first things dispensed with by fans of “serious”science fiction. The first pass of this consisted of proponents of “hard” science fiction looking to distance themselves from the fun and style of works in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition. A few decades later, feminist critics would pile on with an ideological reason to trash the pulps.

And yet… the classic pulp stories retain their full entertainment value to this day, while the books that were meant to replace them fail to hold up near as well. Both science and the narrative have moved on. The books that were supposed to make science fiction “respectable”…? They simply made satisfying the critics a higher priority than serving the reader.

The old pulp approach really does cover all the bases. The weird and wild components dazzle the mind. The centrality of traditional virtues lend a moral dimension that gives the tale an almost fairy-tale quality. What does the romance add…? Well, the old pulp stories are about human beings with human motivations. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how sacrificing that could have ever looked like a good idea.

From Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories all the way through to Star Wars’s “Rey” today, this has been a problem. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

14 Comments
  • PCBushi says:

    A nice post, Jeffro! I would offer a counterpoint, though (perhaps in large part due to my like of Asimov, and in continuance of our sporadic exchange about him).

    I would venture that the Foundation stories are a separate subgenre, and thus I think it’s a little unfair to make such a comparison. At least the early, good Foundation books were more political intrigue in space than space opera or adventure. And I think there’s room for both types of story.

    Asimov’s Elijah Baliey series would maybe be a better comparison (though here we have a detective story, which may also be a bit different from what we’re talking about). I enjoyed these stories but didn’t care for them as much, perhaps in part because they deviate from the formula you mention. The second and third books do have a babe character, but I’m not sure her role is necessarily comparable. I never read the fourth book due to lack of interest, so can’t speak to that.

    I’m quicker to agree on your Rey example, as Star Wars is a scifi adventure story and thus I think suffers for the alteration. The Burroughsian (if that’s the proper adjective) template seems to me to be one of adventure and drama. Not all stories are going to follow this track.

    That’s just my two cents, though, and admittedly I’m relatively new to the scene.

  • Jeffro says:

    Isaac Asimov was a fanboy. Most people have no idea what it was that he was a fan of. That’s what sticks in my craw, really.

    I’ve enjoyed the heck out of his books, but the more I get into this survey, the more disgusted I am at his arbitrary elevation to being the face of science fiction.

    • pcbushi says:

      Haha yeah…I’m not sure I understand exactly what the fanboy part means, but I get your frustration. I was at the mall today and stepped into a Books A Million just to see if they might have any Vance or Zelazny (I knew the odds were slim). Of course they didn’t, but they had like 5 copies of I, Robot.

    • pcbushi says:

      Without getting off on too much of a tangent about Asimov, I guess my point was just that we may want to consider that (while I agree that scifi has lost something by veering away from Burroughsian adventure stories and romances) there are other subgenres that have emerged that aren’t necessarily inferior (of course opinions may vary).

      Off the top of my head I remember very much enjoying Ender’s Game and a Mote in God’s Eye for example, but they don’t fit the aforementioned mold; no women/romantic interests that I remember, and not so much focused on adventure at all. But they weren’t meant to be. I don’t see that as a bad thing, though I do wish the old classic pulp form hadn’t good out of style. I guess I don’t see them as necessarily mutually exclusive.

      • Jeffro says:

        Yes, that’s the default position among people that I would tend to consider to be the “real” sf fans. There’s no need for balance in my posts because I am one of only a handful of voices that are providing a different take on that narrative. The whole series can be called “Beyond the Big Three”, “Before the Big Three”, and/or “Secrets of the Ancients.” (!!)

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Yowza. A. Merritt, Sax Rohmer and C.L.Moore in the same magazine. Not to mention that cover.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    One oddity that I have been theorizing on with the new wave and beyond to today is how full on explicit sex was introduced into SFF while at the same time romance and love was removed from it.

    When I say romance and love I mean a man and a woman courting each other and then starting a family a marriage a life.

    Tarzan has no explicit sex yet the romance leads to marriage. John Carter marries Dejah and they lay an egg together. Again no explicit sex despite everyone in the book being naked all the time.

    Gallagher’s Torchship (spoiler) actually stands out to me as an oddity where a couple meet, romance, have somewhat explicitly described sex and end up married.

    How many SFF novels can you think of where there is explicit sex of either an established married or long term couple or the couple ends up married?

    • Hooc Ott says:

      Oh yeah I guess “The Sleeping Dragon” has explicit sex between a married couple or one of its sequels does.

      But again that one stands out as an oddity to me.

      I am fully aware this might just be in my head alone and am interested if anyone else who read different books then me is either seeing it or can negate it.

    • Jeffro says:

      Marriage is often the endgame in stories from A. Merritt to Jack Williamson and Stanley Weinbaum.

      Its treatment is maybe code for consummation, but it works quite well as eucatastrophe. For instance, the marriages of Aragorn and Sam in Tolkien are of course integral to the resolution.

    • PCBushi says:

      That’s a very good observation that hadn’t really occurred to me.

  • Jill says:

    Romance is life at its most essential. I mean that literally. It’s when the two halves of the human coin unite to produce life, or in the case of story metaphor, produce new life in the protagonist or inspire him to achieve. Romance almost always enhances a plot, but is obviously not necessary due to the range of plots out there. What I find more disturbing than leaving out romance is twisting it.

  • […] RETROSPECTIVE: “Song in a Minor Key” by C. L. Moore […]

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *