Science Fiction Studies

#73 = Volume 24, Part 3 = November 1997

Thomas A. Bredehoft

Origin Stories: Feminist Science Fiction and C. L. Moore's “Shambleau”

It has become somewhat conventional to trace the roots of feminist science fiction back to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s powerful novel of science and creation. Indeed, Brian Aldiss’s Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction  traces all of science fiction back to this same origin. An interesting case might be made, however, for considering C.L. Moore’s 1933 story “Shambleau” as an alternative origin story for feminist science fiction. Like Frankenstein (subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”), Moore’s story of a Medusa-like alien retells and revises a fragment from classical mythology: both texts are themselves revisions of culturally powerful origin stories. Moreover, just as Frankenstein has itself spawned a seemingly endless genealogy of successors and revisions, so too has Moore’s story been subject to a degree of retelling and re-interpreting. This essay is an attempt to provide a reading of “Shambleau,” one which pays special attention to the dynamics of the attempt to re-narrate origin stories—dynamics which are of crucial importance both in feminist science fiction itself and in the criticism of it.            

Moore herself often figures prominently in histories of the role of women in the science-fiction field: stories by Moore lead off Pamela Sargent’s collections, More Women of Wonder and Women of Wonder: The Classic Years. Although she was not the first woman to publish sf in the pulps, as Jane Donawerth’s recent essay on “Science Fiction by Women in the Early Pulps” reminds us, Moore’s writing certainly influenced the field to a greater degree than did the female-authored pulp stories which preceded “Shambleau.” Also unlike those earlier women, Moore continued to be a prominent and prolific contributor to the field well into the 1950s. And since, as Robin Roberts points out, many of the “canonical” feminist sf authors (e.g., Butler, Tiptree, Le Guin) have admitted to reading and being influenced by sf during this very period (Roberts 45), Moore’s influential role argues forcefully for a contemporary critical interest in her work.            

Unfortunately, while most critics would probably agree with Susan Gubar’s assessment that Moore “is a writer who deserves readers” (17), too few of the recent examinations of science fiction and feminism pay any attention at all to Moore’s work. Criticism of Moore’s stories and novels is limited to a handful of essays in widely-scattered journals and collections (e.g., Gamble, Gubar, Rosinsky, Mathews, Villani); the booklength studies of feminism and science fiction by Wolmark, Roberts, and Barr take no account of Moore, in general preferring to focus on more recent writers whose works are often explicitly informed by feminist ideals.1 At the same time, the body of existing criticism of Moore and “Shambleau” has tended to characterize her as a writer who, though plainly interested in issues of gender, sexuality, technology, and language, is ultimately “a woman writer alienated from herself” (Rosinsky 72). “Shambleau,” it is claimed, dramatizes “not only the male imperative to murder the alien female, but also the female author’s culturally conditioned self-loathing” (Gilbert and Gubar 102). Finally, Moore may use “metaphors of female alienation [which] are potentially powerful and far-reaching” but she is ultimately unable to envisage how the dilemmas of her own metaphors “can be satisfactorily resolved” (Gamble 48). The critical desire for resolution of such dilemmas, or for the identification of the female writer’s subjective position and her characters’, however, fails to take Moore’s fiction on its own terms. These critics instead appear either to read Moore’s fiction to illuminate her biography and psychology (“a woman writer alienated from herself”; “the female author’s...self-loathing”) or to judge it according to a standard (the degree of resolution of certain dilemmas) which may have no real relevance.          

In the following, though, I utilize recent critical perspectives on gender, subjectivity, and language to argue that Moore—at least in “Shambleau”—offers valuable commentary on certain crucial “dilemmas,” though apparently leaving their resolution intentionally incomplete. Significantly, my reading of “Shambleau” is supplemented—even informed—by a reading of two later narratives spawned by “Shambleau” forty years after its first publication: Lester del Rey’s “Forty Years of C.L. Moore” and Moore’s own “Footnote to ‘Shambleau’. . . and Others.” These later essays serve as introduction and afterword to Moore’s collection The Best of C.L. Moore (edited by del Rey) and are especially useful in that they both offer readings of Moore’s story and its place within the sf tradition. Indeed, they offer contesting interpretations. Their special relevance for a reading of “Shambleau,” however, lies in the fact that the contest for meaning played out in these essays is anticipated in “Shambleau” itself. The contesting of origin stories through their revision and re-narration, I suggest, is a central feature of feminist sf in general, and so both Moore’s retelling of the Medusa story and the competition between origin stories within the story suggest that “Shambleau” itself can be usefully read as a feminist (or proto-feminist) text, at least in the sense that the text itself engages issues which are themselves the concerns of feminism and of feminist sf in particular.

1. Theoretical interlude: the tools of cyborg writers and cyborg writing. My reading of “Shambleau” in this essay is driven by the interactions I see between a complex and interwoven set of issues defined (or at least delimited) by notions of gender, language, technology, and authorship. And though Moore’s story was published over sixty years ago, its own engagement with these issues suggests that the sort of critical perspective outlined in Donna Haraway’s influential and widely-read essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” is both useful and relevant. Moore’s interest in cyborgic issues, of course, is confirmed by her 1944 story “No Woman Born,” which features a female cyborg as the central character; as Haraway herself implies, of course, cyborgs are not so much entities to be found (or awaited) in our future, but are rather figures already found in our present and our past. Moore’s writing of “Shambleau,” as we shall see, featured the very sort of subjective re-fashioning that marks the Harawayan cyborg.            

Haraway’s essay itself is both a celebration of feminist science fiction and in part a manifestation of it,2 a document which, despite its deeply-rooted suspicion of origin stories, has in its own way served as the originary text for a host of readings of texts and culture.3 The cyborgs Haraway describes are, like herself, writers: “Writing is preeminently the technology of cyborgs” (176). But further: “The tools [of cyborg writing] are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities. In retelling origin stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin of Western culture” (175).            

Two important points should be noted here. First, Moore’s very decision to re-write the Medusa myth in “Shambleau” marks her as a cyborg, at least to the extent that her revision “subvert[s]” one of “the central myths of origin of Western culture.” But second, Haraway subtly and easily blurs the boundary between the authors of cyborg texts and the subjects of cyborg fiction. The collapsing of the boundary between cyborg authors and their texts is central to an understanding of cyborg subjectivity: Harawayan cyborgs create themselves, write themselves.   

Haraway, then, presents herself as a cyborg author, but she is not the only one (nor the only possible origin for the development of a cyborg sensibility): in an essay on the K/S writers of Star Trek fandom that is remarkable for the ways in which it both does and does not parallel Haraway’s “Manifesto,” Constance Penley, for example, writes: “The desire to write real men can be carried out only within a project of ‘retooling’ masculinity itself, which is precisely what K/S writing sets out to do” (155).4 All possible puns here are surely intended, and the connections which Penley makes between tools, writing, masculinity, and the body not only update the venerable equation between the pen and the phallus, but they also have a certain Harawayan tenor. Penley’s reading of the technology of textual production in the world of K/S fandom focuses our attention on the literal tools of the writer and the producer of the text: “it is also likely that the publishing technology [of the K/S ’zines] is only semideveloped because deliberate decisions have been made to keep the technology ‘appropriate,’ unintimidating, accessible, and hence democratic” (141).            

The K/S writers and ’zine publishers, Penley suggests, reconfigure both the masculinity of Kirk and Spock (and thus reconfigure Star Trek itself, which has taken on aspects of a “central myth” of American culture) and the politics and technology of textual production and reproduction. The two “retooling” processes, Penley implies, are intimately interrelated.           

For both Penley and Haraway, the very tools of writing are themselves a part of the retooling process, to be seized, negotiated, reconfigured. For cyborgs and K/S writers alike, the re-narration of culturally powerful myths and stories is also accompanied by a reconfiguration of the relationship between subject and text: the “naturalized identities” which are reconfigured in the texts produced are paralleled by the altered and denaturalized subject positions of the authors and producers of the texts. Notably, the genre of choice for their reconfigured texts is, of course, science fiction: we can see this in the novels cited by Haraway and the Star Trek fiction preferred by the “slash” writers. The author of cyborg fiction (if we so dub these retooled and retold fictions and myths) must first become, or is always already, a cyborg; the Harawayan cyborg, it seems, lives according to a postmodern commandment: cyborg write thyself.   

Regardless of the cyborgs’ supposed postmodernity, however, what we gain from employing Haraway’s cyborg framework in a reading of “Shambleau” is a metaphor for exploring the connections between Moore and her story which does not rely on simplistic biographical (even essentialist) assertions about the connection between the plot of the story and the subjectivity of the author: I hope to do more than conclude that Moore was “a woman alienated from herself” (Rosinsky 72) merely because the Shambleau is depicted in ambiguous terms. And since the later essays by Moore and del Rey take the relationship between Moore and her story as their explicit or implicit subject matter, a Harawayan perspective seems especially useful. But first, a closer look at “Shambleau” is in order.

2. A first reading of “Shambleau.” From its very beginning, Moore’s “Shambleau” explicitly identifies itself as providing an imagined explanation (an alternative origin) for the Medusa story from classical Greek mythology. A brief prefatory note suggests: “The myth of the Medusa...can never have had its roots in the soil of Earth” (1). This note, then, serves to prepare readers for the basic plot of the story, which follows the familiar Medusa narrative, at least in its broad outlines. At the same time, the note’s comments about Venus and Mars and about the extraterrestrial origin of the Medusa story hint that, in its details, this version of the Medusa story might be vastly different in its effect.            

The story itself begins in the Martian frontier town of Lakkdarol, as the Shambleau, pursued by an angry and violent mob, ducks into a doorway, unaware that its concealing shadows hide the figure of the story’s protagonist, the roguishly masculine smuggler/pirate Northwest Smith. Smith, deciding to protect what appears to him as “a girl, and sweetly made and in danger” (2), faces down the mob, which quickly disperses in apparent disgust and derision after hearing him claim, “She’s mine! Keep back!” (4). Smith is puzzled by the mob’s reaction, and even though he realizes that the “girl” is not (quite) human, he takes her back to his lodgings after her promise, “Some day I— speak to you in—my own language” (7). After a day and a half of deferral, Smith finally sees that under the Shambleau’s turban there is not hair, but a “mass of scarlet, squirming—worms, hairs, what?—that writhed over her head” (18). Smith is temporarily frozen by the impact of the sight, but moments later, her living tresses grow to floor-length and:

His arms slid round her under the sliding cloak, wet, wet and warm and hideously alive—and the sweet velvet body was clinging to his, her arms locked about his neck—and with a whisper and a rush the unspeakable horror closed about them both. (21)

Smith is irresistibly both attracted to and repelled by the Shambleau, but once this obviously sexual embrace starts—which, of course, he both desires and loathes—he and the Shambleau remain within it for three days, until Smith’s (male) Venusian partner-in-crime, Yarol, bursts in and, borrowing Perseus’s mirror trick, manages to kill the Shambleau just before being seduced himself.  The story ends with Smith’s wavering promise to his friend to at least try to avoid such encounters in the future, by killing on sight any other Shambleau he might happen to find.   

The setting of the story on the Martian frontier, of course, is an instance of the common science-fictional trope of relocating narratives of the American “old West” on other worlds. The dissipated “dryland Martian” (7) whom Smith and the Shambleau encounter on the way to his quarters is an obvious echo of innumerable “drunken Indians” familiar from Western films. In such a context, the smuggler Smith corresponds to the heroic loner cowboy, in this case accompanied (and ultimately saved) by his less interesting, less masculine sidekick (recall that Yarol is from Venus). In a reading such as that put forward by Gilbert and Gubar, in which the story supposedly dramatizes “the male imperative to murder the alien female” (102), Smith functions within the tale to “clean up the town”: to face the threat posed by the Shambleau and to eliminate it, in order to reestablish the “proper” social order, i.e., that which obtained before the arrival of the Shambleau. The cowboy-figure, because of his marginal position within/outside society, as the generic (“Smith”) and directional (“Northwest”) qualities of his name suggest, seems to be ideally positioned to police the boundaries and borders of the social order. Smith is a displaced Everyman, a hero both central to and outside of the social order.

Yet this interpretation of Smith must certainly be complicated by a consideration of his reactions to the Shambleau. When the Shambleau, pursued by the mob, first appears to him, Smith’s first reaction is indeed to establish an uncrossable boundary:

Smith, lounging negligently against the wall, arms folded and gun-hand draped over his left forearm, looked incapable of swift motion, but at the leader’s first forward step the pistol swept in a practiced half-circle and the dazzle of blue-white heat leaping from its muzzle seared an arc in the slag pavement at his feet. It was an old gesture, and not a man in the crowd but understood it....
   “Are you crossing that line?” queried Smith in an ominously gentle voice. (3)

With this boundary-marking gesture, Smith separates himself from the mob; Smith and the Shambleau are on one side of the line, and everyone else in the story is on the other. Given that Smith chooses to stand with the Shambleau, rather than with the inhabitants of Lakkdarol, it certainly seems probable that his role in the story is something other than simply to re-establish the town’s social order; that task, in the end, falls to Yarol, Smith’s sidekick.   

Instead, the (hyper)masculine Smith (as I shall argue in more detail below) seems to have his masculinity “retooled” as a result of his encounter with the Shambleau. Where the kind of reading offered by Gilbert and Gubar might have us interpret the ending of the story as an example of the process whereby a Sedgwickian homosocial bond between Smith and Yarol replaces and supplants the (hetero)sexual bond between Smith and the Shambleau (a process which here insists upon the death of the woman in question), I would argue that such a homosocial bond is, in fact, not fully formed at the conclusion of the story. Certainly Yarol anxiously attempts to establish such a bond between himself and Smith in the aftermath of their encounter with the Shambleau: “Smith, I’ve never asked your word on anything before, but I’ve—I’ve earned the right to do it now, and I’m asking you to promise me one thing.... That if you ever should meet a Shambleau again—ever, anywhere—you’ll draw your gun and burn it to hell the instant you realize what it is” (31-32). But Smith is unable, or unwilling, to fully comply, as the story’s final words indicate: “‘I’ll try’—he said. And his voice wavered” (32). Smith’s wavering promise, so different from the confident masculinity seen in his defiance of the mob, suggests that the death of the Shambleau may have indeed re-established the social order in Lakkdarol, but Yarol’s killing of the Shambleau has not had the same effect of returning Smith to his pre-Shambleau state. Smith, the final scene suggests, has been changed by the encounter.   

The “retooling” that Smith undergoes, like the retooling of Kirk and Spock evident in the K/S texts, can be seen as the result of a process of rewriting and revision, The phallic tresses of the Shambleau both writhe and write: as happens to Kirk and Spock in encounters in later texts, the sexual encounter in “Shambleau” puts Smith’s masculinity under revision. Significantly, the writing and publication of “Shambleau” are also figured as moments of rewriting and revision in the later narratives by both del Rey and Moore. But where del Rey suggests Moore’s story reconfigured the discourse of early masculinist sf, Moore on the other hand suggests that she reconfigured other masculinist discourses: those of the business and academic worlds. Thus it is to these texts that we must turn next, in order to more fully understand the nature and function of the revisions operating in “Shambleau” and hence to better understand the story itself.

3.The monstrous author. In “Forty Years of C.L. Moore,” the introduction to his 1976 collection of Moore’s short fiction, editor Lester del Rey begins with an anecdote apparently intended to establish Moore’s reputation and to indicate the esteem in which she was held by the sf community at large. His text is worth quoting in some detail:

I sat in the audience at a World Science Fiction Convention banquet, listening to Forrest J. Ackerman announce a special award that was about to be presented to a writer. As is customary, Ackerman was saving the name of the recipient for the climax. But he mentioned a story called “Shambleau” and never got to finish his speech. As one, the 2,000 people in the audience came instantly to their feet in unanimous tribute—clapping, shouting, and craning their neck to see a gracious and lovely lady blushingly accept the applause. (ix)

Upon a first reading, del Rey’s anecdote seems simple, direct, effective. But a closer examination reveals a number of illuminating parallels to the situation described in the first scene of “Shambleau” itself. The image of a shouting, clamorous crowd which is brought to life by the single word “Shambleau” and which eagerly directs its gaze towards the (presumably redly) blushing figure of a woman calls to mind the mob pursuing the red-clad woman of “Shambleau” in the story’s first narrative paragraph:

“Shambleau! Ha ... Shambleau!” The wild hysteria of the mob rocketed from wall to wall of Lakkdarol’s narrow streets and the storming of heavy boots over the slag-red pavement made an ominous undernote to that swelling bay, “Shambleau! Shambleau!” (1)

The fact that del Rey’s “mob” shouts and stomps in a “wild hysteria” of acclamation rather than accusation merely highlights the “ominous undernote” to del Rey’s own description. Whether or not del Rey is intentionally echoing the opening of “Shambleau” with his anecdote, it is clear that Moore and the Shambleau are textually linked here, and that the beginning (and, here, the defining) moment of Moore’s career was the publication of “Shambleau,” despite del Rey’s backhanded compliment to the effect that “Many in that audience had never read the story” (ix).   

Woven into the fabric of del Rey’s introduction to The Best of C.L. Moore is a kind of origin story that reiterates and strengthens the identification of Moore and the Shambleau. Del Rey’s origin story operates on the tension between what science fiction was like before Moore began writing and what it was like afterward. The force of the argument, as it happens, reduces to what sf was like after “Shambleau.” The implication seems to be that it is the story (or even the Shambleau) that has the impact, as much or more than Moore herself:

Here, for the first time in the field, we find mood, feeling, and color. Here is an alien who is truly alien.... Here are rounded and well-developed characters.... And—certainly for the first time that I can remember in the field—this story presents the sexual drive of humanity in some of its complexity. (x; emphasis in original)

All of this, of course, is explicitly contrasted to what the field was like before “Shambleau”: “Up to that time, science-fiction readers had accepted the mechanistic and unemotional stories of other worlds and future times without question” (ix). The publication of “Shambleau” is here figured as a sort of “original sin”: the introduction of sex, feeling, and emotion into the “mechanistic and unemotional” masculinist Eden of pre-“Shambleau” sf. It is significant that del Rey locates in “Shambleau” both “an alien who is truly alien” and “the sexual drive of humanity in some of its complexity”: the female sexuality embodied in the Shambleau is “truly alien”to del Rey, but it is also complexly human. Science-fiction readers of the time, del Rey’s parallels seem to suggest, are (or were) like Northwest Smith: both attracted and repelled by the complexity of human (read: female) sexuality. But if the readers of the story are thus parallel to Smith in their response to Moore’s story, then it seems that del Rey implicitly suggests a link between the Shambleau and Moore. Consider also del Rey’s comments about Moore’s story “Bright Illusion,” published a year after “Shambleau,” in 1934:

Now in those days, as countless letters to the editor indicated, the one thing readers of science-fiction magazines did not want was a love story. Yet here was a tale of the pure quintessence of love that transcended all limits! Nevertheless, the readers raved about it and clamored for more. (x)

Again, the raving and clamoring readers are disturbingly reminiscent of both the WorldCon audience and the Lakkdarol mob. Superficially, del Rey’s introduction reveals his respect for Moore as a writer, but insofar as the textual parallels between his introduction and “Shambleau” serve to establish a parallel between Moore and her creation, he repeatedly casts the writer as a sort of monster, the agent of a Fall.   

The publication of “Shambleau,” del Rey’s essay suggests, rewrites, reconfigures, and “retools” the largely masculine sf world. Moore (the female writer, the female sf author) is implicitly figured as being parallel to the Shambleau, both appealing and repellent, monstrously so. Considering Haraway’s insistence that “Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing” (175), it seems of crucial importance that del Rey insists upon figuring Moore’s entrance into the predominantly masculine world of science-fiction writing in ambivalent terms which suggest an equivalent “Fall.” The “mechanistic” and mathematical perfection of previous sf visions are replaced, del Rey suggests, by a complex, chaotic, “fallen” and embodied discourse, one complicated by desire and sexuality, both within the text and within the predominantly masculine community of science-fiction readers. Superficially, where “Shambleau” appears to present the re-establishment of an exclusively masculine community as a desired and desirable end, del Rey presents the “Fall” of the masculine sf community as the positive result of Moore’s writing. But the implicit parallels drawn in del Rey’s essay expose the flip-side of each position: the incompleteness and insufficiency of the masculine community’s re-establishment in “Shambleau” and del Rey’s seeming nostalgia (part and parcel of his Fall-narrative) for the illusory but crucial essential masculinity of the early sf world.

4. Moore’s origin story. As an afterword to the same collection of her fiction for which del Rey supplied the introduction, Moore herself wrote a brief but revealing essay entitled “Footnote to ‘Shambleau’. . . and Others.”  Here Moore tells her version of the origins of “Shambleau,” in terms very different from del Rey’s narrative, but equally remarkable in their own way. Where del Rey implicitly proposes a parallel between Moore and the Shambleau, Moore herself makes the connection explicit: “I realize now that, unconsciously, no doubt, both [Shambleau and Jirel of Joiry, Moore’s medieval-fantasy heroine] were versions of the self I’d like to have been” (368). And so, as with del Rey’s introduction, it is also important to cite Moore’s commentary at some length:

Brace yourself for some rather dull but necessary background: My name was Catherine Moore and I lived in a large midwestern city and the Depression of the 1930s was rampant over the land. So I was snatched from my sophomore year at the state university and crammed into a business school to learn the rudiments of shorthand and typing. By incredible good fortune, before I’d finished the course, a job opening in a large bank loomed up and I leaped at it, unprepared but eager. (In those days you didn’t mess around. You bluffed, prayed, and grabbed.)            

Well, I was adequate, but typing was something practiced in every spare moment. And this is where “Shambleau” began, halfway down a sheet of yellow paper otherwise filled up with boring quick-brown-foxes, alphabets, and things like “The White Knight is sliding down the poker. He balances very badly,” to lighten the practice.            

Midway down that yellow page I began fragments remembered from sophomore English at the university. All the choices were made at random. Keats, Browning, Byron—you name it. In the middle of this exercise a line from a poem (by William Morris?) worked itself to the front and I discovered myself typing something about a “red, running figure.”  I looked at it a while, my mind a perfect blank, and then shifted mental gears without even adding punctuation to mark the spot, swinging with idiot confidence into the first lines of the story which ended up as “Shambleau.” (365-66)

Much like a Harawayan cyborg, Moore traces the origins of her impulse to write to a complex conjunction of forces in which gender, textual production, and economic survival figure prominently. Although she offers no explicit comment upon it, Moore’s first move here functions to remind us that her name was Catherine, a name which is explicitly gendered in a way that her pen-name was not. Her “self-fashioning” as a science-fiction writer clearly involved a re-gendering (or de-gendering) of her name.5 Further, her narrative explicitly links the origin of “Shambleau” not only to the economic realities of life during the Depression, but to consequences the Depression had for her as a woman: she was forced to enroll in business school rather than the university and to type correspondence rather than complete her course in “sophomore English.”   

But she goes further in figuring the origin of her writing career as an act of rebellion and resistance: “quick-brown-foxes” and alphabets, of course, are designed as exercises intended to reconfigure one’s bodily skills to accommodate the machinery of textual production and reproduction. Moore’s move from these exercises to her amusingly Freudian sentences about a White Knight who has trouble balancing on his poker exposes not only how her position within the “discourse-machine” is gendered, but also her own urge to upend or revise that gendered positioning. Likewise, she takes the tools of her business-world job and remembered fragments of (dead white male) literature and creates something new out of them, in one quick transition appropriating both the tools and the texts of the Depression-era business world and the academy in order to re-invent herself. The mechanistic quality of her own description is striking (“I shifted mental gears”), and it is precisely this mechanized process which accomplishes her metamorphosis into C.L. Moore the author (a producer of texts), as opposed to Catherine Moore the typist (a reproducer of texts). Once again, the gender dynamics coded into these terms are significant, and the mechanically-constituted Moore, we might note, like one of Haraway’s cyborgs, produces a retold story, a reconceived origin: “Shambleau.”   

Moore’s appropriation of material from the workplace, however, is not limited to the use of her typewriter and the “fragments remembered from sophomore English”: the names of both Smith and Yarol also originate in her business environment. “Northwest Smith?” she writes, “Well, once I had typed a letter to an N. W. Smith, and the name lingered tantalizingly in my mind” (366), and “His name was Yarol, and I cannot conceal from you that it is an anagram from the letters in the name of the typewriter I was using” (366-67). These details, as Moore knows, are crucial. She “cannot conceal” the origins of Yarol’s name not because it is obvious (it is not, unless we know in advance what sort of typewriter Moore used), but perhaps because she dares not conceal it. It seems reasonable, at least, to suspect that understanding Yarol and his genesis in the workplace is important for understanding “Shambleau.”  

Ultimately, Moore’s story of the origins of “Shambleau” is important for how it illustrates that, like Haraway’s cyborgs or Penley’s K/S writers, she, too, uses multiple revisionary strategies: she revises a narrative situation from “sophomore English” and a character from classical mythology as well as workplace names and texts. And all the while, she is simultaneously appropriating workplace machinery for her own ends. Her self-revisioning includes her renaming and her shift from typist to author. Finally, Moore’s narrative of her story’s origin exposes the centrality of her positioning within what Haraway would call the “informatics of domination,” the “scary” network of “social relations tied to science and technology” (161). It is a positioning in which Moore’s gender has very real consequences for her position within, and access to, the dominant discourses of textual and literary production.

5. A second reading: “Shambleau” and language. From the very beginning of the story, both the reader and Northwest Smith are faced with a linguistic riddle: just what does the word “Shambleau,” which the mob seems to be so very familiar with, mean? Del Rey’s perceptive comment that the word is “provocative but meaningless” (ix) seems right on the mark, but what exactly is provocative about “Shambleau” as a word is not really clear.6 Nevertheless, the mystery of the term drives even Smith to speculation: “Shambleau! Vaguely of French origin, it must be. And strange enough to hear it from the lips of Venusians and Martian drylanders” (5). For Smith and readers of the story both, “Shambleau” is a signifier with no referent, a mystery word, a problem in language. Perhaps unsurprisingly, issues of language and communication crop up repeatedly in the story.   

Smith’s use of his heat-gun to draw a boundary between himself and the other men in the story only serves to redraw and reconfirm the boundary otherwise defined by their differing linguistic knowledge (significantly, there are no women in the story except for the Shambleau: Mars, of course, is the most masculine of planets).7 The members of the mob are a mob precisely because they know (or think they know) exactly what the word “Shambleau” means: Smith (and, again, the reader) is an outsider with respect to their linguistic community. Yet “Smith was a linguist of repute among his contemporaries” (14), capable of “engaging in idle conversation with men of all races and worlds, usually in their own languages” (14). The whole motive of the story, of course, is for Smith and the reader both to discover the meaning of the word and (we might imagine in advance) for Smith to then enter that informed linguistic community. With this understanding, the Shambleau’s promise, “Some day I—speak to you in—my own language” (7), seems to be the promise of the story’s resolution.   

Yet things do not work out quite so simply: Smith’s encounter with the Shambleau is not the resolution of the story, but the conflict from which he must be released. Once again, difficulties arise from the separation between Smith and the mob (which would now seem to include Yarol). For the community consisting of (and identified with) the masculine Lakkdarol mob, the Shambleau seems to be the embodiment of a presymbolic, prelinguistic entity. As such, the members of this mob/community can assert a perfect signifier/signified relationship where the Shambleau is concerned: the word “Shambleau” is sufficient to define the nature of the Shambleau. In a very real sense, Smith’s failure to understand this word is a sign of his initial distance from the masculine community, just as his wavering promise at the story’s end indicates his incomplete integration into that community.   

The Lakkdarol mob, however, seems to think that Smith is a member of their community—when they believe that the Shambleau is loose, existing outside of a controlling masculine discourse, they fear her: “we never let those things live!” (4); when Smith claims her, however, she becomes merely an object of contempt: “Keep her then.... But don’t let her out again in this town” (5). This reversal, which greatly puzzles Smith, can best be understood, perhaps, as linked to the mob’s belief in a perfect signifier/signified relationship embodied in the Shambleau: they seem to believe that Smith’s (assumed) mastery of the word will correspond to a mastery (and control) of the Shambleau herself.   

But the death of the Shambleau, of course, raises again the question of how (or even whether) Smith has been able to solve the linguistic riddle posed by the word “Shambleau” at the beginning of the story. Significantly, after the Shambleau encounter, Smith’s very language has been altered. At the end of the story, his speeches are replete with the dashes and syntactic dislocations that had characterized the Shambleau’s earlier attempts at English: “Because of that I saw things—and knew things—horrible, wild things I can’t quite remember—visited unbelievable places, looked backward through the memory of that—creature—I was one with, and saw—God, I wish I could remember!” (31). Smith’s very response to Yarol, when the latter tries to ensure Smith’s full entry into the story’s masculine community, echoes the Shambleau’s dash-filled language: “I’ll—try” (32).   

Throughout the story, it seems that Moore has engaged in a project of “retooling” Smith’s masculinity, and that the surface form of his language serves as the mirror which reflects his identity. The apparent hypermasculinity and accompanying linguistic confidence of his first appearance (“she saw him standing there, tall and leather-brown, hand on his heat-gun” [2];.... ‘Are you crossing that line?’ queried Smith in an ominously gentle voice”—[3]) is, by the end of the story, replaced with a wavering-voiced uncertainty. The encounter with the Shambleau compromises the (linguistically constituted) boundaries of his identity, and rather than being re-integrated into the community of men by Yarol, he seems to remain an outsider. Despite her death, the writ(h)ing tentacles of the Shambleau have re-inscribed and reconfigured his very identity and self-definition.

6.“Shambleau,” cyborgs, and abjection. The trajectory of the reading of “Shambleau” proposed by Gilbert and Gubar—the social order is disrupted by a threatening female who is, in turn, destroyed, thus restoring the social order—might be usefully supplemented by considering the action in terms of what Julia Kristeva terms “rituals of defilement” (§3, esp. 72ff). Kristeva discusses such rituals as part of her examination of abjection in Powers of Horror. In Kristeva’s terms, abject entities always circulate along the boundaries of the social (and symbolic) order, defining the terms of these orders by their very abjection. Because the abject can never be completely eliminated (or else its power to define is lost), encounters with the abject must occur from time to time. In such encounters—Kristeva’s defilement rites—the social and symbolic orders are revitalized by the re-expulsion of the abject; the boundaries of both orders are (ideally) re-established.   

Kristeva’s formulation of this dynamic is more illuminating than Gilbert and Gubar’s dismissive reading of “Shambleau” precisely because Kristeva links the social order and the symbolic—which is connected, in turn, to the development of (individual) subjectivity and language. Moore’s story operates within the same network of links and connections, and the Shambleau is more than the “female alien” of Gilbert and Gubar’s reading, as it/she confounds the binary oppositions between human and animal, human and alien, male and female that the symbolic attempts to inscribe. Where Gilbert and Gubar see the monstrousness of the Shambleau and her eventual death as indicative of “the female author’s culturally conditioned self-loathing” (102), a Kristevan perspective would suggest we see the Shambleau as a threat to culturally sensitive boundaries. In principle, adopting a Kristevan perspective does not necessarily alter our reading of the story: we might still interpret it as a narrative of the re-inscription of culturally mandated boundaries and binaries. But if we choose such a reading, the question remains as to where Smith ends up in relation to the newly reconstituted boundaries of the social (and symbolic) order: where Gilbert and Gubar read this as a “buddy story” and thus focus on the homosocial bond between Smith and Yarol, a Kristevan perspective forces us to ask whether Northwest Smith—whose very name indicates his initial distance from the masculine “center”—moves closer to or further from that center, or if he simply maintains his distance. Yarol’s lack of success in securing a believable promise from Smith after the encounter with the Shambleau suggests at the very least that Smith has moved no nearer to that center; Smith’s adoption of some of the Shambleau’s linguistic patterns seems to suggest that he has in fact moved away from the center, becoming more like the boundary-threatening Shambleau than like the Lakkdarol mob. In the end, the symbolic is revitalized only for Yarol and the mob. For Smith and the reader—who initially shares Smith’s lack of knowledge about the meaning of the word Shambleau—the subjective position within the symbolic has been altered.8            

I have suggested above, however, that it is the masculine community of the Lakkdarol mob which sees (and has an investment in seeing) the Shambleau as abject and presymbolic. Part of the impact of the story is to expose the mob’s investment in that view of the Shambleau, an investment which Yarol is obviously anxious to protect. But Yarol, as Moore “cannot conceal,” embodies the link between the masculine community within the story and the masculine discourse outside of the story which attempts to define Moore herself as a reproducer of texts. His (and the mob’s) reliance on the dream of a perfect language is obvious—Yarol’s alter ego, the typewriter, is by definition a machine which writes in ‘type,’ a kind of linguistic sign system supposedly without variation on the literal level. Thus, within the story, Yarol’s mastery of the word “Shambleau” and his ultimate control over her fate tellingly correspond to the typewriter’s impossible promise of controlled textual and linguistic (re)production—and the control of Moore the secretary as a reproducer of controlled texts. Moore’s appropriation of the typewriter exposes the impossibility of that dream of control as surely as Smith’s wavering promise to Yarol exposes his own incomplete integration into (or submission to) the mob’s linguistic community. Through the parallels it refuses to conceal, Moore’s narrative of the origins of “Shambleau” urges us to read Yarol’s intervention not as the completion of a “defilement rite,” but as the attempted re-assertion of the power of an “informatics of domination,” the power of a discourse which regulates both social relations and technological ones. More precisely, perhaps, we might say that it functions as both the final maneuver in a defilement rite and the assertion of the power of a controlling discourse.   

Just as we found it necessary to supplement Gilbert and Gubar’s focus on the homosocial link between Smith and Yarol with an examination of the story’s presentation of a masculine community based on a Kristevan perspective, the Kristevan focus on abjection and the Fall into language must be revised through the mediation of Haraway’s “ironic political myth” of the cyborg. The most crucial distinction between the Kristevan abject and the Harawayan cyborg is that Haraway’s cyborgs must constitute themselves from within the various discourses (again, Haraway’s “informatics of domination”) in which they find themselves. Most specifically, they constitute themselves within language. In a seemingly straightforward manner, this leads to Haraway’s insistence that “Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall” (175): cyborgs are, in this formulation, always already “fallen,” already within language at the very moment of their origin. The political ramifications of Haraway’s position are of crucial importance: the cyborg promises a mode of political action to those of us who find ourselves already constituted within language.     

Yet Haraway’s position, when examined more closely, seems almost contradictory: at one moment she insists that “Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing” (175), while at the next she indicates that retold origin stories are the tools of cyborgs. The “Fall” which Haraway invokes here, the dream of a prelinguistic place, is, of course, a cherished origin story, precisely the one that the masculine mob of “Shambleau” places such faith in. Indeed, it is the mob’s belief in precisely this origin story, their desire to see the creature Shambleau and the word “Shambleau” as equivalent, which leads to, even insists upon, the death of the Shambleau when she turns out to be uncontrollable. Ultimately, Haraway’s dictum that “Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall” is a red herring, ironically designed to throw us off the track. Instead, cyborg writing must be about the Fall: the rewritten origin stories and retold myths of cyborgs must re-narrate, re-inscribe, and reconfigure the symbolic —otherwise, in what sense can they be said to be cyborg productions? Haraway’s cyborgs, it seems, would replace the monologic “Fall” with a proliferation of retooled (retold) origin stories, a multitude of falls.9 The cyborgic goal of retelling origin stories, after all, is not simply to replace one with another, but to bring a multitude of origin stories into being, in this case replacing the master narrative of “the Fall” with a host of (potentially contradictory) narratives.10 It is only through such proliferations of origin stories that the dominant originary stories can be contested: the cyborgic move does not replace one mononarrative with another, but contests the efficacy of such mononarratives by multiply recounting them.   

To return to “Shambleau,” we might note that the last sections of the tale, in which Smith and Yarol discuss the meaning of their encounter, replay the drama of conflicting origin stories. Yarol explicitly connects the Shambleau’s origins to the Medusa: “I suppose you recognized the legend of Medusa?” he asks (29), just before he explains how this ancient Greek myth allowed him (a native of Venus) to use Perseus’s mirror trick. Further, Yarol takes steps to paint the Shambleau as strictly inhuman, rather than as a dangerous hybrid of human and non-human: “I don’t believe that terribly hypnotic power they have indicates any superhuman intelligence. It’s their means of getting food—just like a frog’s long tongue or a carnivorous flower’s odor” (30). Yarol’s invocation of classical mythology and his effort at placing the Shambleau strictly outside of the human symbolic order confirm the link between the use of origin stories and the definition of cultural and symbolic boundaries. Smith’s response to Yarol’s long explanation of the Shambleau’s origin, however, includes what he has learned from the encounter: “I...looked backward through the memory of that—creature—I was one with” (31). Although Smith cannot quite remember what he saw through those memories, the placement of this passage as a counterpoint to Yarol’s account of the Shambleau’s origins suggests that Smith was probably exposed to the Shambleau’s own version of an origin story: his wavering at the end of the story, then, is perhaps a symptom of his inability or unwillingness to choose between the conflicting stories that he has been given.11  

If we read “Shambleau” through the lens of Moore’s “Footnote,” however, the implied connections between the mob’s discourse within the story and the business-world discourse of her job as a typist ultimately ask us to compare the fates of Moore and her creation. The Shambleau, though she has the power to reconfigure Smith’s masculinity, is powerful only as a consequence of her marginal position: she possesses the power of the madwoman or alien who rejects language itself. Moore, on the other hand, seizes a different, cyborgic power: located within language rather than outside it, the cyborg’s power is central, rather than marginal, as the cyborg contests the very origin stories which function to expel the abject—the very origin stories whose power leads to the Shambleau’s death. The Shambleau may die at the end of the story, but Moore herself thrives.12

7. Conclusions. The ending of “Shambleau,” I want to suggest, dramatizes the struggle over meaning, a struggle which has been a crucial subtext throughout the story, symbolized in the linguistic uncertainty surrounding the very word “Shambleau.” At the end, Yarol assigns to the dead Shambleau the status of a non-symbolic, non-linguistic, animal or vegetable entity. From Yarol’s perspective within the symbolic, the Shambleau’s death leaves him free to redefine her in a less threatening manner than he might be able to while she remained alive. Smith, on the other hand, clearly resists Yarol’s version of things: his inability to promise to kill (and simultaneously redefine) any Shambleau he might encounter in the future indicates his unwillingness to join the masculine community which encompasses both Yarol and the mob.   

It seems to be of crucial importance for reading “Shambleau” to see that precisely the same struggle for meaning is enacted in the later narratives by del Rey and Moore—but now the struggle takes place over the significance of Moore’s contribution to the sf world, instead of over the corpse of the Shambleau. Del Rey’s textual echoes of “Shambleau” and his use of a “Fall-narrative” to describe Moore’s impact on the sf field function to paint Moore (like the Shambleau) as a marginal outsider, wielding the power of the margins to redefine the center. Del Rey’s essay can be both nostalgic for the lost masculine world of early sf and appreciative of Moore’s introduction of the alien who is “truly alien” (x) and the complexity of “the sexual drive of humanity” (x) into that world precisely because del Rey defines Moore’s power as marginal. Thus, it appears that del Rey invokes the narrative of the Fall and places Moore upon the margins for the same reasons that Yarol and the Lakkdarol mob assert that the Shambleau is presymbolic and abject: both maneuvers preserve the power of the center against perceived challenges to that power, by defining such challenges as external. Where Yarol kills the Shambleau, del Rey apparently welcomes Moore’s entrance into the masculine community, along with the changes she brings—but Moore’s admission into that community comes at the cost of del Rey’s hints that female sexuality remains “truly alien”—the price of admission is, paradoxically, re-definition and alienation. But it is worthwhile to recall that it is the mob’s faith in the narrative of the Fall (in the form of their faith in the possibility of an unfallen language) which insists upon the death of the Shambleau, since she so clearly refutes that dream. For even if the embodied language of the Shambleau’s embrace proves its power over Smith, the mob’s apparent mastery of the word “Shambleau” gives them no control over her.     

Of course, Moore’s account in the “Footnote” resists del Rey’s narrative of the “Fall” of the masculinist Eden of early sf. Instead (and we might note that her account is written well after the first wave of American feminism and, indeed, after the first wave of feminist sf), Moore’s account prefigures Haraway’s depiction of the cyborg. She tells a tale of appropriation rather than marginalization, one which figures her power as central, authorial, productive; she counters one originary narrative with another, defining herself (and her story) for herself, rather than allowing del Rey to do it for her, or to her. Moore’s “Footnote” clearly insists that “Shambleau” springs from within the discourses which surrounded Moore herself. Reading “Shambleau” through the lens of Moore’s “Footnote” urges us to see the Shambleau as a symptom, too, of the mob’s discourses, even as they and Yarol attempt to expel and redefine her.     

Significantly, such a debate as is played out between del Rey’s introduction and Moore’s “Footnote” would be irrelevant if “Shambleau” did not have a certain power as an originary text for the science-fiction genre. But, as the re-narration of an originary myth, it is, not merely, but crucially, one origin story among many, a reminder of the power of viewing the narration of origins as a dialogic, rather than monologic, process. For even if Smith fails to reject Yarol’s narrative as convincingly as Moore rebuts del Rey’s, it is nevertheless important to see Smith’s hesitation as a powerful brand of resistance, as it seems to resist not only Yarol’s definitions, but the lure of all monologic definitions.

NOTES. A shorter (and much different) version of this work was presented collaboratively with Beth Ina at the 1993 MMLA conference. I would like to thank Beth and all the other colleagues who read versions of this paper for all their various contributions.

            1. Roberts, of course, explicitly examines the role of the early pulps in the development of feminist science fiction. Her avoidance of Moore seems, to me, to be inexplicable.
            2. See Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.’s essay, “The SF of Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway” (SFS 18: 387-404, #55, Nov 1991).
            3. Haraway herself seems to be aware of the irony, for she calls the essay “an ironic political myth” (149), a sort of ironic origin story. See below. At this point I want to acknowledge that I am indebted to Cathy Peppers’s essay on Octavia Butler, “Dialogic Origins and Alien Identities in Butler’s Xenogenesis” (SFS 22:47-62, #65, March 1995), for the reminder of how central origin stories are to Harawayan cyborgs.
            4. K/S fiction, a subset of the broader category of “slash fiction,” is fan writing which reworks the canonical world—and world-view—of the original Star Trek television series, portraying the characters of Kirk and Spock as participating in a variety of  homoerotic relationships and encounters. Other television series have also prompted slash fiction, such as Starsky and Hutch and the British series Blake's 7. For a fuller discussion of K/S fiction, see, for instance, Henry Jenkins’s “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching,” in Constance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel, and Janet Bergstrom, eds., Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991): 171-202.
            5. Sargent somewhat anxiously attempts to downplay the significance of the gender dynamics involved in Moore’s adoption of a pen-name: “Some have assumed,” Sargent writes, “that Moore used initials in her by-line instead of her first name, Catherine, to conceal her sex. In fact, she was trying to keep the management of the bank where she worked from finding out that one of their employees was writing for pulp magazines” (4). To deny the gender-based implications of the name change in favor of these workplace concerns elides the apparent connections between Moore’s gender and her employment situation that Moore’s own narrative foregrounds. It is also important to recall that Moore’s re-naming has consequences for readers as well as for the writer; in this context, it is both amusing and instructive to read Paul Carter’s note on Moore’s pen-name: “[Moore] bylined herself as ‘C.L. Moore’ and received fan letters (including one from her future husband, Henry Kuttner) addressed to ‘Mr. Moore’” (180). Perhaps the best account of Moore’s choice to style herself as “C.L. Moore” would balance the two perspectives: within the complex web of forces surrounding her (gender dynamics, textual dynamics, economic survival, the high culture-low culture split), her move to obscure her gender as she published in the pulps was probably structurally equivalent to attempting to hide her identity as a pulp author from her employers.
            6. As a medievalist, I am always tempted, at this point in the argument, to propose a string of possible etymologies of the word “Shambleau,” as Susan Gubar has done (19). The most interesting of these would probably link the word to the familiar noun “shambles,” which in its long and varied history meant not only a disorganized disarray (as it does now) but a slaughtering and meat-marketing district.
            7. Though it is important to note that Smith’s and Yarol’s ship is The Maid. This name emphasizes the homosociality of the initial bond between the two men, as it also links femininity to machinery within the text. Of course, Yarol’s twin origins (his name as an anagram of the Royal typewriter; his identity as a Venusian) confirm the link.
            8. It is important to note that the reader shares the viewpoint of Smith up to the point at which the Shambleau’s embrace actually begins. Yarol is then introduced as a new viewpoint character. The final sections of the story, after the death of the Shambleau, focus on both characters equally, as both attempt to assign some sort of meaning to the experience. In principle, in the final sections, readers can adopt the viewpoint of either character, but in my reading, the narrative effect has readers siding once again with Smith, in his ultimate halting and wavering rejection of the Shambleau.
            9. The initial section of Haraway’s “ironic political myth” is titled “An Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit” (149) suggesting, of course, that it is itself an ironic vision of the origin of a language. The “Cyborg Manifesto” itself, then, with its constant references to issues of coding and language, is one such re-narration of “The Fall,” insofar as it presents an alternative to the culturally/symbolically sanctioned (mono)narrative of “the Fall.”
            10. In psychoanalytic terms, Haraway’s cyborgs are located solidly within the symbolic order, though they reject the dream of a presymbolic purity or wholeness. The political action they represent is a challenge to the symbolic order from within and is accommplished through language itself. Rather than functioning as figures of (Kristevan) abjection, threatening the boundaries of the symbolic from the margins, where the enforced binarism of the symbolic cannot hold, a cyborg subjectivity—precisely by rejecting the definitiveness of a monologic “Fall”—insists that the binaries cannot hold at the center either. While Kristeva’s rituals of defilement function as a mechanism for the reinscription of cultural/symbolic boundaries (a re-enactment of the Fall), the cyborg cannot be expelled so easily.
            11. The Shambleau’s earlier promise to Smith, “Some day I—speak to you in—my own language” (7), comes as a response to his repeated efforts at determining her origins; this would seem to confirm that the Shambleau’s embrace includes a Shambleau version of her own origins, a narrative apparently at odds with that so anxiously offered by Yarol.
            12. It might be useful to compare this argument to that put forth by Robin Roberts: “The possibility of the female alien as a speaking subject, even if demonized, empowers later writers, just as Clément and Cixous elaborate their feminist texts from Freud and Maleficarum” (47). Moore herself seems to reject adopting the perspective of the demonized monster as a position to speak from, choosing instead to speak from within the symbolic, in the manner of Haraway’s cyborgs. That Moore apparently makes this choice before the publication of most of the pulp-sf images of women which Roberts suggests influenced later feminist sf writers demonstrates how valuable a better understanding of Moore and her role within the genre in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s would be.

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