7. C.L. Moore & “No Woman Born” [SF Women of the 20th Century]

Catherine_Lucille_MooreCatherine Lucille (“C.L.”) Moore is one of the most prolific female writers of the pulp magazine era of science fiction – her most active period being from the 1930’s through to the late 50’s. She was married to Henry Kuttner, another active writer of the period, and the two often collaborated on their work which was published under a wide variety of male pseudonyms (including Lewis Padgett and Laurence O’Donnell in Astounding Science Fiction) as well as their own names. (Indeed, they first met after Kuttner wrote a fan letter to Moore in appreciation of her work – the ultimate writerly romance connection!)

Moore’s first story “Shambleau,” is a vampire planetary romance set on Mars published in Weird Tales (1933). Its protagonist, the hero Northwest Smith, was a central figure of many of her stories. Perhaps her most iconic work, the Jirel of Joiry stories, helped to shape the sword-and-sorcery subgenre and are credited as the first fantasy series with a female hero as protagonist.

In 1944, Moore’s story “No Woman Born” was published in Astounding. Often cited as the first cyborg story, it has a great deal to say about perceptions of beauty and femininity which are still all too relevant today.

Deirdre, a beautiful and successful performer, dies tragically in a theatre fire and is brought back within an exquisite body of golden metal by a robotics specialist, Maltzer, at the behest her manager, Harris. These two men obsess over Deirdre’s body and her existence in minute detail, greatly concerned that she intends to relaunch her career as an actress, dancer and singer.

The first impression that [Harris’] eyes and mind took from sight of her was shocked and incredulous, for his brain said to him unbelievingly, “This is Deirdre! She hasn’t changed at all!”

Then the shift of perspective took over, and even more shockingly, eye and brain said, “No, not Deirdre—not human. Nothing but metal coils. Not Deirdre at all—” And that was the worst. It was like walking from a dream of someone beloved and lost, and facing anew, after that heartbreaking reassurance of sleep, the inflexible fact that noth-ing can bring the lost to life again. Deirdre was gone, and this was only machinery heaped in a flowered chair.

deirdreThe writing is vivid and emotional, showing how Deirdre has to relearn how to be (or perhaps to mimic) human, and in particular, how to perform femininity to a level of precision that will place her above reproach from a presumed fickle audience.

The role of the two men in Deirdre’s recovery – and their fears that she will fail to replicate her former success in this new body – evoke Pygmalion far more than Frankenstein (a comparison made within the text), though Deirdre herself is allowed a greater internal life and a sense of personal awareness than either Frankenstein’s monster, or George Bernard Shaw’s flower-seller. The narrative gives Deirdre’s perspective priority over that of the male characters, who see themselves as her saviours and creators – and are most concerned with Deirdre’s outward appearance and behaviour. Indeed, the story is full of Deirdre’s voice – Maltzer and Harris both see her as Malzer’s creation, but it is she who demonstrates her new body and her mastery over it to Harris, explaining it soothingly to him in a series of thoughtful, powerful speeches before she goes on to enact her professional triumph.

“It’s—odd,” she said, “being here in this . . . this – instead of a body. But not as odd or as alien as you might think. I’ve thought about it a lot—I’ve had plenty of time to think—and I’ve begun to realize what a tremendous force the human ego really is. I’m not sure I want to suggest it has any mystical power it can impress on mechanical things, but it does seem to have a power of some sort. It does instill its own force into inanimate objects, and they take on a personality of their own. People do impress their personalities on the houses they live in, you know. I’ve noticed that often. Even empty rooms. And it happens with other things too, especially, I think, with inanimate things that men depend on for their lives.

Ships, for instance—they always have personalities of their own. “And planes—in wars you always hear of planes crippled too badly to fly, but struggling back anyhow with their crews. Even guns acquire a sort of ego. Ships and guns and planes are ‘she’ to the men who operate them and depend on them for their lives. It’s as if machinery with complicated moving parts almost simulates life, and does acquire from the men who used it—well, not exactly life, of course—but a personality. I don’t know what. Maybe it absorbs some of the actual electrical impulses their brains throw off, especially in times of stress.

“Well, after awhile I began to accept the idea that this new body of mine could behave at least as responsively as a ship or a plane. Quite apart from the fact that my own brain controls its ‘muscles.’ I believe there’s an affinity between men and the machines they make. They make them out of their own brains, really, a sort of mental conception and gestation, and the result responds to the minds that created them, and to all human minds that understand and manipulate them.”

She stirred uneasily and smoothed a flexible hand along her mesh-robed metal thigh. “So this is myself,” she said. “Metal—but me. And it grows more and more myself the longer I live in it. It’s my house and the machine my life depends on, but much more intimately in each case than any real house or machine ever was before to any other human. And you know, I wonder if in time I’ll forget what flesh felt like—my own flesh, when I touched it like this—and the metal against the metal will be so much the same I’ll never even notice?”

I first came across this 70-year-old story in the Women of Wonder anthologies edited by Pamela Sargent, and it’s always stayed with me as a powerful, important piece of fiction which explores the ramifications of artificial intelligence from the inside perspective, rather than as a threat to be overcome. The story also has so much to say about gender, and the perceptions of famous women and their physical beauty – you can imagine it being adapted to be about Marilyn Monroe, or a modern day Hollywood celebrity, without having to change much at all. “No Woman Born” has been reprinted across at least 10 anthologies, and as Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, deserves its status as a classic in the field.

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