No Woman Born

No Woman Born by C.L. Moore
from The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction ed. Asimov, Waugh, Greenberg
Carroll & Graf, 1989
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, December 1944
Price I paid: $3

During the 1940s, the great names emerged in an eruption of talent. They formed the mould for the next three decades of science fiction and their writing is as fresh today as it was then.

I had a real book, a bit of a return to form, lined up for today, but then a bunch of stuff happened and time got away from me. Entirely my fault, but here we are, dipping back into the Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction. On the plus side, that means I’m a little ahead on the reading for the next review already, so assuming I don’t completely drop the ball again, we’ve got some fun with sci-fi Texas coming up. One of my favorite topics!

There’s another plus side, though, and it’s that this novella by C.L. Moore was incredible. I was already debating whether I’d jump to this collection again so soon after the last time, but that hesitation was also based on the fact that so far, nothing from this book has really thrilled me. They’ve all been stuff by big names that nevertheless left me cold. But within a few lines, No Woman Born had me hooked. It’s easily the best story in this collection so far, and if it turns out to be the best one out of the ones to come, too, I won’t be surprised. There are four left, including a Jack Williamson I’ve been looking forward to, so we’ll just have to see.

This isn’t my first C.L. Moore story, although it is my first solo story by her, the other being “Two Handed Engine” from The Metal Smile robot compilation. That story was written alongside her husband Henry Kuttner and I do remember liking it, but this one was so much better even than that one. No Woman Born is a masterpiece, and it left me with a lot of thoughts. So let’s get to ’em!

We’re introduced up front to John Harris, the point-of-view character, but soon after we’re introduced to the star of it all, Deirdre. We get some quotes from the James Stephens novel Deirdre, which I’d never heard of, which is in turn about the tragic heroine of the same name from pre-Christian Irish tales, which I’d also never heard of. I’m allowed to be a Philistine about some things. Deirdre is a really pretty name, though. If I ever have a daughter, I’d like to name her that.

This particular Deirdre has it all. She’s an actress and a dancer of enormous renown. The whole world loves Deirdre. The narration tells us of her extraordinary beauty, beauty that doesn’t come from “perfection of feature” but rather “the light within, shining through her charming, imperfect features.”

The thing is, that whole world who loves Deirdre so much also thinks she’s dead. One year before the story takes place, Deirdre was supposedly killed in a tragic theatre fire. What the world doesn’t know is that she was saved, inches from death, by a scientist named Maltzer, who has spent the past year recreating her. But Maltzer is afraid. He thinks he’s done bad, that the compassionate thing would have been to let Deirdre die and avoid all this.

So gearing up for the worst, Harris, and we, finally get to see the new Deirdre. And she’s remarkable.

Moore did such an amazing job describing what’s going on. I can’t stress this enough. Everything about it is great, and moreover, doesn’t feel dated. This story could easily have been written today and felt the same. In fact, one of the things that stood out to me was that I could so easily picture everything going on—remarkable enough considering how bad my ability to do that is—but I pictured it in extremely modern terms, like an episode of some kind of anthology sci-fi series. But not the one you’re thinking of, because this story doesn’t involve phones, but bad and too much.

The new Deirdre is not a robot, but she’s close. Not a gynoid either. Her brain has been preserved and a new metal body built around it. The body is humanoid, but it’s also more than that. This is not a clangy robot body like Robby or even C-3PO. This is a work of art and engineering fused together by genius.

The term “uncanny valley” hadn’t been invented yet when C.L. Moore wrote this story, but she sort of predicted it. The men in this story talk about how Deirdre’s new body is not an attempt to recreate her old one. That would have been unsettling and wrong. So instead it’s something else. Her face is a featureless mask except for a line where her eyes would be and the barest hint of cheekbone. Her limbs are not jointed, but rather a series of rings held together magnetically. These limbs are capable of intricate and graceful, but inhuman, movements.

A lot of this story is exposition dump as Deirdre explains the situation to Harris. She is in good spirits, full of determination. She is delighted by her new body, while still recognizing that there are limitations and things that she will miss, things that will need to be compensated for. But she has no regrets about her situation. She describes how it works, how the magnetism that holds her limbs together is an extension of the electricity from her brain, how her voice is created, how her new body functions. It’s largely technobabble and goes on for a large chunk of the story, but I never got bored of it. I can see how others might, though.

For Harris’s part, he begins the story afraid of what he will see, but he soon realizes that yes, this is Deirdre. She may have a new shell, but that fire, that spark, that essential quality that made her beloved by the entire world, yes, that’s there. And Deirdre agrees.

Maltzer is not so convinced. Having built her new body, he sees her not as a woman, but as a robot. A collection of parts and materials that, yes, are remarkable, but are not a human being. He is convinced that society will never accept her, that she will be shunned and pitied by the rest of humanity, that she is somehow subhuman now. He’s also convinced that her mind is fragile, and that the rejection by humanity will utterly destroy her. His recurring refrain is that it would have been less cruel to let her die than to be like this.

Deirdre, on the other hand, is ready to reintroduce herself to the world. She is so keen on the idea, in fact, that she’s set up a performance for that very night.

She goes on stage, televised before the entire world (an interesting bit of datedness in this book is that vaudeville is still a thing and that it’s on television for huge audiences), and does her dance. What the world doesn’t know yet is that it’s her. The live audience stares in awe as this…thing, appears on stage and begins to dance. They look for strings or operators. The dance is perfect. Her limbs bend in ways a human’s never could, but they do it with grace and precision and intent. Moore describes the scene beautifully.

And then, after the dance is done, the thing sings a song, a song that was Deirdre’s centerpiece, a little tune that only she could sing in her own certain way. Others have tried, out of a sense of tribute, but only Deirdre had that essential Deirdre-ness that made the song her own. She sings it again perfectly, and it’s at that point that the audience knows what’s happening, and it goes bananas. Deirdre’s back.

The story might have ended there and been fine, but it goes on after that. Maltzer is convinced that this overwhelming reception won’t last, that soon Deirdre will become a mere curiosity, and then an object of scorn and pity. He attempts to stop her from going on with any more performances like this, that it would be better if she faded away from the spotlight from here on out. All he manages to convince her to do is to go on a sort of two-week vacation.

She comes back from her vacation and the three characters in this story meet up to talk things over. Maltzer attempts to explain to Deirdre why she needs to quit what she’s doing, that she needs to duck out of society and let the world forget about her before it rejects her and breaks her fragile little mind. He references Frankenstein a few times. And then he threatens to jump out of a window.

But Deirdre is here to tell him that no, this is not a Frankenstein situation. Maltzer didn’t create an inhuman monster, he preserved a life. And she goes on to point out that she’s still human. She demonstrates it in several ways, dancing about a little bit, laughing in a way that is undeniably Deirdre, but then, as a final gotcha, pointing out that throughout this entire conversation, she’s been smoking a cigarette, despite not having, you know, a mouth or lungs. And neither of the men ever questioned it or even noticed the strangeness of it.

And that’s when Deirdre displays the final surprise. See, throughout this whole conversation, Maltzer has been standing by the window, ready to jump out. He had this whole thing about how an unlawful creation of life demands a sacrifice or something. In his shock, he tumbles out, but then Deirdre moves across the room with uncanny, almost invisible speed, catching him.

And then she explains Maltzer’s mistake. He has been looking at her in terms of her limitations. She cannot sense taste or smell or touch any more. She no longer looks human. She can’t smile, or cry, or any of those other things that require, you know, a face. But Deirdre doesn’t see her limitations. She sees possibilities. She’s not subhuman, she’s superhuman, and growing away from humanity more every day.

She’s not upset that there are things she can’t do. If she’s afraid of anything, it’s of growing too distant from the rest of the species, and that’s why she continues to dance, because she needs to be down here in the mud with the human race while she still can be. She knows that she will eventually grow to be something so far away from humanity that she will leave the world behind, and she’s lonely, because she knows that she cannot be duplicated. She also knows that she could probably stop her progress, but that that’s not her nature, or indeed human nature. She has to grow, to learn, to become greater.

And that’s basically where the story ends.

Folks, I love this story SO MUCH. There’s so much going on! The story predates a lot of talk about transhumanism, but it also prefigures it. Deirdre has clearly become a more-than-human figure, although a lot of the story’s focus is on what, exactly, makes a person human in the first place? She’s got incredible powers now. She explains that she could physically demolish the building they’re in with her hands, or even with the device that creates sound so that she can talk. But she’s still intrinsically Deirdre, and that transcends her metal body. It’s all in how she moves. Even though that is now something utterly different in form and function than a human body, it’s how she uses it that shows the essential her-ness of the metal body.

And there’s stuff about gender to look at, as well. At one point in the story Maltzer points to a particularly beautiful actress and laments how Deirdre will not be able to compete with her, because she is no longer a woman. But she clearly is a woman, and the world sees and knows it as soon as she shows it. It’s not in what her outer shell depicts—the story only hints at feminine features in the face area and how the body is clad in metal “clothing”—but in how she behaves, moves, speaks, and knows herself to be.

Maltzer’s attitudes toward Deirdre are comparable to how our society tends to look at people with disabilities. He sees only the things she cannot do. He laments those shortcomings and pities Deirdre for them. He expects the rest of society to do the same. Deirdre, on the other hand, sees what she can do and celebrates it. She’s not less than she was before, just different.

It all comes down to what a remarkable character Deirdre is, and I’m so glad of it. I was afraid that Maltzer’s predictions would be correct and that the story would end sadly, but no, Deirdre held firm and proved herself. She’s not a fragile little thing encased in a metal body. She’s a confident, incredible woman who endured incredible suffering and came out stronger. She most certainly never lost anything, and it’s because she never let herself lose anything.

So yeah, this story was utterly great and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read it. Even though I’ve told you all about what happens, I think it’ll be worth it if you look for this one yourself just so you can experience how gorgeously-written it was.

I see here that it was nominated for a 2020 Retro Hugo for best novelette, which is pretty great. Didn’t win (“City” by Clifford D. Simak did) but it’s probably also worth mentioning that two other Moore stories were nominated in the same category, though those were both also written with Kuttner. C.L. Moore is rapidly climbing my personal ranks of Golden Age sf writers, and I think when I get back to the library on Monday, I’m gonna seek out a compilation and really dive in.

6 thoughts on “No Woman Born

  1. Interesting. I read C L Moore ages ago, which set me up to expect quality from this tale. From your description, it is just the kind of thing I love, a story with all the cilches firmly in place but turned on their heads. I’ll have to seek it out.

    I did expect a tragic ending, since the Deirdre story is so firmly established in Irish myth. It appeared quite movingly in Morgan Llywelyn’s novel Red Branch where Deirdre and her busband were hounded to their deaths. Her beauty was such that women universally hated her and men universally persued her, to her eventual distruction.

    It looks like C L flipped both Frankenstein and Irish myths.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve loved this story ever since first encountering it in Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder, which has got to be the greatest book ever on the art of writing SF. Check that out if you get a chance.

    You have quite the sanguine take on how the story finishes up, I have to say.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Aside from the better known collections of Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith, there’s also
    Judgment Night: A Selection of Science Fiction, and Miracle in Three Dimensions and Other Stories by C.L. Moore: The Lost Pulp Classics.

    Liked by 1 person

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