This is science fiction by way of H. P. Lovecraft, where ancient evils meet ray guns and iron will. Northwest Smith is a smuggler and outlaw adventuring through the solar system - Mars, Venus and the moons of Jupiter. He has a Venusian sidekick, Yarol, and it is never clear whether Yarol is near or part human, or something else. That doesn't really matter though, and nor does the fact we see all of one spaceship, and that while heat-guns exist, they are rarely used.
These are tales of femme fatales, forgotten gods and lost civilisations. The imagery is superb - the fall of gardens of the moon in the light of the Earth is vivid in my mind's eye. The action is there, but the real struggle is in the character's head in almost every case.
The stories are somewhat formulaic and perhaps repetitive, but to an extent, that misses the point. It's the sensual, decadent prose used to tell the story that makes us read on. Its better to read only one tale at a time, putting the book aside from time to time, as this is similar to how the stories were originally read (and written) : as monthly (or so) instalments in the pulp magazines of the 1930's.
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I've owned a copy of the book Shambleau for many years and always enjoyed the stories it contained. I recently heard a reading of the title story on Radio 4, so felt compelled to re-visit with Northwest Smith. This lead me to purchase 'Northwest of Earth' as it contains all of the Smith stories (and one crossover with Jirel of Jiory) in one volume. And that's the problem.
CL Moore was a talented writer and her stories are vividly imagined and well described (to be avoided if you dislike the 'jungles of Venus' and 'red sands of Mars' settings); the prose is good for admittedly 'pulp' science fiction. Unfortunately the breadth of the stories is somewhat limited. The plot usually involves Smith meeting a too-beautiful woman who is eventually unmasked as an alien of some form; cue a perilous situation; cue a not-always convincing escape! Despite Moore's reference to Smith living by his wits and being a seasoned man of danger, he seems to wander into peril quite merrily, as long as there's a graceful female form to follow.
Taken individually the stories are all very good; Shambleau is probably the best of them. So my suggestion would be to buy this book and dip into it on occasion and not, as I did, read the whole volume in one go!
With 'Shambleau', her very first published story in 1933, C. L. Moore (Catherine Lucille Moore: 1911-1987) not only published a classic, but would become a rock star. And yet, even though most of the stories in the Northwest Smith series have become classics in the sf/fantasy field, none ever earned cover story status in the pulp magazines in which they first appeared.
While I've read many of the stories here over the years, this is the first time that I've ever had the opportunity to read the whole series from the first story to the very last. And perhaps that is something that I shouldn't have done, but, more on that later.
As I read these stories I noticed that the first three stories formed a sort of trilogy in which the reader can trace the evolution of a series, and an author. In the stories 'Shambleau', 'Black Thirst', and 'Scarlet Dream' Moore gives the reader an uneasy mix, at times, of misogyny, puritanism, eroticism, female body fetishism, surrealism, and adventure. Some of this is probably because Moore was writing for a male oriented pulp magazine, but at other times, with the extreme fetishism of the female body, I would often wonder about Moore's own sexuality.
********In 'Shambleau' Moore reimagines the Medusa myth, and introduces us to one of fantasy's most famous male heroes/anti-heroes. Here, Smith is in Lakkdarol on Mars, the place where he is most often situated, when a beautiful young brown-skinned, four-fingered woman is chased by a mob that is intent on her bloodshed. Smith rescues the beauty, and declares her to be under his protection, something that leads to great disgust from the people of the crowd. Then the crowd breaks up leaving her behind with a much puzzled Smith.Read more ›
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
the original Han Solo25 April 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
Paizo's Planet Stories line gives us another classic from the "queen of the pulps" C.L. Moore. This volume focuses on Northwest Smith, hardbitten, yet strangely vulnerable, outlaw of the spaceways. Smith faces weird, and sometimes horrific, alien menances in a solar system owing inspiration to Edgar Rice Burroughs--Venus is swampy and cloud-enshrouded; Mars is an ancient desert. Moore has all the adventure of her pulp forebears, but adds to it a gift for weird imagery, an undercurrent of sensuality, and superior characterization. Moore's science fiction isn't shiny rockets, but dark and moody encounters with ancient horrors.
The volume opens with the first Northwest Smith story--the darkly sensual "Shambleau" which made her a star when it was published in 1933, just eleven months after Howard's Conan. It ends with the poignant vignette "Song in a Minor Key" which, in the words of writer/editor Karl Edward Wagner, packs a punch "Bruce Lee would have envied."
In between are tales full of adventure and strangeness waiting to bring CL Moore to a much deserved new audience.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Not quite what I expected but still good23 July 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
About 75% finished with this one. I really like it but let's just say it's not what I expected.
The way I've heard it described, with Northwest Smith being a Han Solo prototype, I was expecting good pulpy action with rayguns and gross monsters. It's more like Han Solo nearly getting seduced/killed by Lovecraftian beasties (often disguised as women) and just barely surviving. The writing is much better than I expected, like Michael Moorcock at his pulpy best. The stories are fairly creepy and held my interest. The one gripe I had was that many of them are fairly similar in plot and structure.
In conclusion, creepy: yes, action-packed: no.
44 of 52 people found the following review helpful
Know what you're getting into...10 Dec. 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
Northwest Smith is described on the back cover as a "quick-drawing outlaw of the spaceways", and in her Introduction, C.J. Cherryh describes him as the archetype of Indiana Jones. So you might be expecting planet-hopping tales of action and derring-do.
The NW Smith stories consist mostly of description. Not much happens, but the inaction is luxuriously described. Here's a taste. "...it was truly dreadful. Dimly he knew it, even as his body answered to the root-deep ecstasy, a foul and dreadful wooing from which his very soul shuddered away--and yet in the innermost depths of that soul some grinning traitor shivered with delight. But deeply, behind all this, he knew horror and revulsion and despair beyond telling, while the intimate caresses crawled obscenely in the secret places of his soul--knew that the soul should not be handled--and shook with the perilous pleasure through it all."
It's like that for pages and pages and pages, all nameless horror and soul-shuddering revulsion and despair, until about five pages from the end NW finally pulls his ray-gun and blasts the obscene perilous crawling ancient evil into smithereens.
Most stories have just four characters: (1) NW himself; (2) a female story hook, always aluring and exotic, usually alien, always a slave to, or herself the (3) indescribable and yet comprehensively described nameless ancient horror; and (4) NW's best friend and partner in crime, who sometimes shows up at the end to help rouse him from the thrall/sleep of the dreadful eons-old soul-sucking obscenity.
Since all that happens in most stories is that NW runs into the alien babe, gets enslaved by the inhuman crawling madness, and eventually either summons the inner strength to draw his ray gun and blast it or gets roused by his best buddy, the stories don't occupy much physical space. Most of them take place in a single town, and most of the action in each story takes place in a single building or even a single room, as NW engages in a soul-deep struggle against the aforementioned nameless indescribable writhing ancient horror.
So if you're expecting fisticuffs, shootouts, dogfights, chases, escapes, rescues, or other forms of Plot, you may want to look elsewhere. In time it takes NW to grapple with, "...knowledge so dreadful that consciously he could not comprehend it, though subconsciously every atom of his mind and soul sickened and writhed futilely away," an Edgar Rice Burroughs protagonist would have found, rescued, and married a princess, killed a few thousand aliens with in swordfights, and been declared a planetary warlord.
But if nigh-endless descriptions of the indescribable are your bag; if you like Poe and Lovecraft but can't stand their breakneck pacing; or if you have a limit of only one weapon discharge per narrative, these stories will be right up your alley. See if you can track down one or two to test-drive before you spring for the whole volume, though.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Fantasy disguised as science fiction25 April 2009
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The name of this collection is a little confusing: this has the same title and the same main character as the anthology published by Gnome Press in the 1950s, but it is not the same book. The Gnome Press collection featured the space smuggler Northwest Smith, but also included stories about C.L.Moore's other recurrent character, the fantasy-genre warrior woman Jirel of Joiry. This Planet Stories reprint includes stories from Gnome's Shambleau and Other Stories, Gnome's Northwest of Earth, as well as various other Northwest Smith stories. (Planet Stories also publishes the Jirel tales in a reprint collection titled The Black God's Kiss). Is Northwest Smith an earlier, more remote, less exuberant version of Han Solo? Northwest is a smuggler, has an alien side kick, and a ship too fast for the trudging space patrol; definitely there are some similarities. On the other hand, Northwest's Venusian partner, Yarol, is a far quieter, more thoughtful type than Chewbacca (who seemed to be designed as sort of a humanoid golden retriever) and, more significantly, Northwest Smith does not have the kind of over-the-top action adventures we associate with Star Wars. Like Jirel, Smith's conflicts are ultimately more psychological than physical; what appear to be physical challenges usually resolve through changes in mental state. Beyond that, Northwest's universe has the trappings of science fiction, but the ambience is far more like fantasy. Blaster guns and space ships are referred to, but have a generic feel; the story is more about the sense of strangeness, the weird and exotic, often beautiful, landscapes, and the pervasive sense of dread. The villains are reminiscent of horror fantasy characters, slightly evolved into science fiction form. Sometimes this "playing against type" works well, an author writing science fiction from a fantasy mindset can produce very interesting stories. It works in this case. I recommend this book even more than the Jirel of Joiry collection.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
One of the true greats5 Sept. 2010
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Northwest Smith is one of the true greats of science-fiction characters, he's archetypal. That said, there are some people who will not appreciate these tales as much as I (and a lot of others) do. I wish I could say it would be a good read for everyone, sadly this is not the case.
That being said however, for the right person, these are truly gemstones of fabulous value. The tales are written in a style that is regrettably no longer seen, a pulp-Lovecraftian style that is heavy on detail, nameless horror and sensual description. If you are a fan of Lovecraft you'll probably enjoy this, if you either don't know or don't have strong feelings for HPL, I think that a good number of the stories will still be interesting and fun to read. If you hate Lovecraft, you'd probably be better to get your hands on the paper copy, scan-read a few pages and see if there is still something there that will catch your interest. It's worth the effort.
If there is a major problem however, it is in the repetition of the basic plotlines. Many of the other reviewers have noted that there is a kind of pattern to the stories, and I'm not going to say there isn't. This is probably the thing I like least about the series myself. In a way, this phenomenon is a "nature of the beast" thing, the common problem of the era in which it was written. That's not a cop-out, while the story structures may have some similarities, the description and the "meat" of them are still worthy of delving into. Think of them as variations of a theme. So even with that caveat, I recommend these tales highly and have bought more than one as a gift for some of my friends with similar tastes to my own.