Balladeer’s Blog continues its examination of another neglected pulp hero – in this case Northwest Smith. Created by the female author C.L. Moore in the 1930s Northwest Smith was a ruthless outer-space smuggler and mercenary decades before Han Solo. With his Venusian partner Yarol at his side and armed with a trusty blaster Smith roamed the solar system in his deceptively fast spaceship The Maid. For more on Northwest Smith and other neglected pulp heroes click here: https://glitternight.com/pulp-heroes/
9. LOST PARADISE (1936) – A smuggling job has taken Northwest Smith and Yarol to Earth. Afterward the pair find themselves relaxing in New York City which, in their era, is a multi-leveled metropolis reaching high into the sky.
The pair witness the theft of an enigmatic parcel from a very small and fragile man. That man turns out to be a member of the Seles race; a people who have secretly lived among humans for millions of years. The Seles are so ancient in fact that they lived on Earth long before the continents had their present shape. The tectonic shifts that created the modern-day layout of the planet destroyed the cities of the Seles, who established subterranean bases where they have lived undetected by humanity since then.
The man whom Smith and Yarol are helping is one of the many agents the Seles have sent topside to infiltrate and keep an eye on the surface-dwellers over the eons. He hires the two outlaws to recover the stolen parcel and offers huge amounts of money. Yarol calculates that the legendary secret of the Seles’ technology is more valuable than any other offers from the diminutive man and, desperate to get his parcel back, the Seles agent agrees to those terms.
The parcel is recovered from the thief and the Seles representative lives up to his promise, treating Northwest and Yarol to the secret and showing them that they should have settled for cash. The package contained some of the Selenite technology that allows the ancient race to travel in time and space. Their “client” transports himself and our outlaw protagonists to Earth’s moon hundreds of millions of years in the past when the satellite had an atmosphere and the original Selenites (as their name implies) lived there.
The time travelers are in a lunar city that, even then, was far more advanced than the New York City they left behind. Some of the Selenites are already migrating to the primitive Earth below to colonize it since the moon’s atmosphere is delicate and gradually wearing away over the centuries. The Selenites have been tyrannized in a sort of “Morlocks and Eloi” relationship by a trio of aliens called The Three Who Are One. This odd extraterrestrial trinity demand periodic, willing sacrifices from the Selenite population.
Though Smith and Yarol’s client had sought merely to show them his race’s secret origin on the moon science fiction fans are very familiar with the risks of time travel. The travelers find themselves involved in the story of the doomed love affair of a Selenite woman and her mate, who has been selected to sacrifice himself to the Three Who Are One. Those aliens have been using their powers to keep the fragile atmosphere around the moon which is why the Selenites agree to sacrifice themselves to them for the good of their people.
In a now-typical paradox for time travel stories Smith, Yarol and their guide wind up accidentally causing the catastrophe that resulted in the moon’s atmosphere being expelled into space and the deaths of the remaining millions of Selenites on the moon, leaving their colonists on Earth as the only survivors. The time travelers return to New York City of the future in time to avoid dying themselves, but the Selenite is emotionally devastated by the knowledge that he, in his rashness, actually caused the disaster that befell his ancient forebears.
For their part Northwest Smith and Yarol are just grateful they didn’t wind up dying with everyone else on the moon millions of years ago. The grieving Selenite decrees that they must die now that they know his people’s secret. Naturally our cagey outlaws turn the tables and kill the Selenite instead and then flee, ruing the fact that they failed to take their late client up on his original offer of money.
10. THE TREE OF LIFE (1936) – After some form of illegal activity has taken Smith and his partner to Mars our hero finds himself flying an intra-atmospheric aircraft to try to elude some airborne Patrol Officers out to arrest him. Shot down in a barren desert region Northwest hides from his airborne pursuers in the ruins of the Martian city called Illar.
Illar was at its height long ago when this area of Mars actually had water and most of its buildings are crumbled beyond repair. Smith, not even aware of what particular offense the still-circling Patrolmen want him for, finds thirst and hunger overwhelming him as the hours go by. Torn between dying of thirst or abandoning his hiding place to turn himself in our hero takes one last look around the surrounding ruins.
He encounters a beautiful naked woman with long purple hair and pure white (not caucasian – actually white) skin. The woman communicates with Northwest telepathically and outrightly mesmerizes him, luring him to a well in a decrepit courtyard. The well is adorned with an elaborate Tree of Life design common to so much ancient Martian architecture, a throwback to a long-forgotten religion.
The unnamed woman leads Smith into a shadow that is really an entrance to a pocket dimension with food and water aplenty. The dimension is mostly forest and is inhabited by small black woodland humanoids. Since Northwest Smith always put me in mind of Han Solo back when I first read these stories I always think of these creatures as “humanoid Ewoks.” Periodically these beings are fed upon by an alien named Thag, an alien whom Smith realizes inspired the design of the Tree of Life symbols on Mars so long ago.
Thag’s lower body is in the shape of that tree with the branches really his tentacles. The monster’s upper body is too horrific for the human mind to retain, hence no ancient drawings of him included anything but the makeshift “tree” design. The white-skinned, purple-haired beauty is Thag’s lover as Smith observes during a particularly gross interlude. She also lures the rare visitors to Illar’s ruins to this dimension for Thag to feed on as an occassional supplement to his steady diet of the tiny black woodlanders.
Northwest Smith and various members of the little black humanoids are eventually clutched by Thag’s tentacles to be devoured but naturally the interplanetary outlaw puts up a huge fight and, firing his blaster, manages to cut all the way through the “trunk” of Thag’s tree-like lower body. That trunk was what kept him anchored in the pocket dimension and with it severed Thag floats helplessly away and Smith finds himself back in the ruins of Illar. The Patrolmen overhead have long since given him up for dead apparently, freeing him up to make the trek to the nearest city.
Overall this is a very disappointing story from C.L. Moore. It reads like one of Robert E Howard’s Conan stories rewritten for science fiction. The part where Smith’s “savage self-preservation instincts” rise up in him just before the enthralled spaceman can be devoured by Thag reinforces that impression since it echoes some of Howard’s descriptions of Conan. Plus it featured too much recycling of themes from previous Northwest Smith adventures, especially the premise of malevolent aliens as the origin of ancient deities.
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