C.L. Moore is one of those unfairly obscurified SFF writers of decades past. This summer I did a little gushing about Jirel of Joiry, a terribly great series of short stories, but since then I’ve been sampling different fare. Until the other day, when I was looking for some quick train reading and remembered that I’d downloaded an e-book version of “The Tree of Life” (available for free on Amazon and at Gutenburg).
I wasn’t quite as impressed with this one, but there’s still a lot to admire and enjoy about it. First off, it makes a case that Moore was another author skilled at writing diversely.
“The Tree of Life” belongs to Moore’s Northwest Smith series of short stories. Along with Jirel, Smith was one of her trademark characters and probably represents her most recognized foray into scifi. Although we don’t learn overly much about the protagonist in this tale, we see that he’s on the run and that he’s cut from the same cloth as Conan and Eric John Stark – namely that though he’s intelligent, there’s something primal and barbarian about him.
While we’re talking about Conan, I don’t consider that note about intellect to be of small significance. The mainstream perception of our favorite barbarian has come to envision him as a dumb, muscly brute, but in fact he was no dullard. For one, Conan spoke a number of different languages, and if you’ve ever tried to pick up a second or third, you’ll know this is not an easy feat. That struck me about Northwest Smith, actually – in this story Moore flat-out tells us that our protagonist is familiar with a number of different languages, and he’s able to brokenly communicate with some alien creatures that speak a language similar to one he’s picked up to a small degree. This commonality between Smith and Conan is no surprise, really, as we know Moore and Howard were at least friendly (if not friends) and enjoyed each other’s work.
As in her Jirel stories, Moore blends in a generous dose of semi-Lovecraftian horror. Combined with the somewhat romantic science fantasy of the Smith setting, we’ve got a nice, refreshing blend of elements going here.
Moore’s way with language is characteristically impressive:
“It was no ordinary danger. A nameless, choking, paralyzed panic was swelling in his throat as he gazed upon the perilous beauty of the Tree. Somehow the arches and curves of its branches seemed to limn a pattern so dreadful that his heart beat faster as he gazed upon it. But he could not guess why, though somehow the answer was hovering just out of reach of his conscious mind. From that first glimpse of it his instincts shuddered like a shying stallion, yet reason still looked in vain for an answer.”
Though I was put off at a certain point in the story when she reuses the word “dynamo” a little too often for my liking…
I’m loathe to really say much about the story’s plot, as it’s not really very long and the buildup is part of the fun. So if any of this sounds enticing, go check it out!.
In summation, this is a great, free little SFF romp. It might not be my suggested entry point into her works, but it works as a standalone, it’s quick, and it’s imaginative, quality writing by a top-notch old great.