Vintage Season: C. L. Moore and the “Golden Age” of Science Fiction
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“All golden ages look like bronze from the inside.”
– Barry Malzberg, Breakfast in the Ruins
‘Snatched from university’ by the Great Depression, as she would later put it, Catherine Moore switched to vocational school and landed a job as a secretary at a bank in the early 1930s. Every spare moment she would practice her typing, tapping out random sentences to improve her speed and facility. Soon, to pass the time, she began to work on a weird space Western called “Shambleau” in the mode of her favorite magazine, Weird Tales. Once she finished, she sent it off to the magazine–why not?–thinking if it got rejected she’d go on to other things.
The editor of Weird Tales bought the story on the spot for the then-impressive sum of $100 and, according to legend, shut down the offices for the rest of the day to savor it.
The story appeared in the November 1933 issue under the name C. L. Moore, which Catherine claimed was not to disguise her gender but simply to hide what she was doing from her employer. Still, all the pseudonyms Moore would later use would be male, and female authors hiding behind male pseudonyms was a common practice at the time.
Reading “Shambleau” nowadays, we might cringe at the racially tinged title character, a brown-skinned cat girl hunted by a lynch mob along the canals of Mars, concealing a nest of Medusan serpents beneath a red leather turban–a seductive, persecuted Other revealed in the end to be truly monstrous. None of this was an issue in 1933, though, and its style, novelty, and sensuality caused a sensation and immediately established Moore’s career. “It is probably impossible to explain to modern readers how great an impact that first C. L. Moore story had,” editor Lester Del Ray would write in 1976. “Science fiction has learned a great deal from her many examples. But if you could go back to the old science-fiction magazines of the time and read a few issues, and then turn to ‘Shambleau’ for the first time, you might begin to understand.”
Moore soon quit her job and began churning out stories full time for the pulp magazines–so named because of their cheap paper stock. And “churning out” is an apt term. The same Great Depression that had reoriented Moore’s life had created a down-and-out public with a seemingly limitless demand for cheap entertainment. In this age before television, with paperback books as we know them not yet invented (they first started appearing in 1935 and didn’t reach their full maturity until the 1950s), the pulps boomed, brimming with thrill-a-minute, scintillating tales, and selling in the millions of copies. The money flowing into the publishers’ coffers didn’t precisely trickle down, however. The Depression had created demand, but it’d also provided supply, with every unemployed, would-be writer having plenty of time for the typewriter. Publishers paid on a work-for-hire, per-word basis– writers got a flat fee and no royalties or rights to speak of no matter how well that work sold or into what mediums it was adapted. This created an unusual situation, where low rates but high demand meant that to make a living a writer simply had to pump out as much material as they could as quickly as possible. The result was writers in the mold of Lester Dent or A. E. Van Vogt who routinely produced 200,000 words (about 700 pages) a month.
Often, as not uncommon at the time, Moore would write so many stories in a given month that she’d use pseudonyms for many of them so that they could appear in the same issue of a magazine.
In 1936, a young writer sent Moore a fan letter thinking she was a man. His name was Henry Kuttner, and he made ends meet while he developed his writing career with a low level job at a literary agency. (While there he incidentally discovered Leigh Brackett’s work in the slush pile, one of the few woman SF writers to publish under her own full first and last name at the time, and launched her acclaimed career.)
Moore and Kuttner began a romance and married in 1940, commencing a unique writing partnership where they collaborated on almost every story. The two worked so seamlessly that often neither could remember who wrote which part of a given piece, one making way for the other at the typewriter often mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence.
And by this time, the markets were changing. The generation who’d grown up on pulp fiction was aging out of the kind of cheap thrills they’d specialized in, while the younger generation increasingly turned to comic books, just now hitting its stride as a medium and taking all the air out of the pulps of yesteryear. Weird Tales, the magazine that had launched both Moore and Kuttner’s careers, entered a long decline.
In response to these changing tastes, when editor John W. Campbell took over the pulp Astounding Tales, he soon changed its name to Astounding Science Fiction and began aiming its contents at an older, more sophisticated audience. Campbell wanted to create something that felt like a contemporary fiction magazine of the future, with stories that didn’t require lengthy explanations of technology and would instead foreground human behavior. (This is first of many times the paraliterature of science fiction would reinvent itself in an effort to gain adult respectability.) For this work, Campbell was willing to pay higher rates than many of his competitors.
Moore and Kuttner became part of Campbell’s core stable, and this involvement increased from 1942 when many other writers headed off to war (including Campbell’s star, Robert Heinlein). The paper shortages of the war took a heavy toll on the pulps, but Astounding soldiered on. Many of Moore and Kuttner’s best stories stem from this period, at the height of their demand in Campbell’s (still freelance, work-for-hire) employ.
In 1943, Moore and Kuttner published “Mimsy Were The Borogoves” under the name Lewis Padgett, perhaps their most frequently anthologized tale (and one adapted in 2007 into the film The Last Mimzy). In this story, two children discover a box of toys sent back from the far future, and it slowly begins transforming their understanding of reality much to the confusion and consternation of their parents. This proves an excellent example of the period’s movement away from page-turning plots into something more cerebral and emotional, and it anticipates some of the later work from Kuttner’s protégé Ray Bradbury like “Zero Hour” (1947) and “The Veldt” (1954) where children’s open and frankly alien minds allow them to understand things adults never could.
In 1946, Moore wrote (mostly without her husband) what is arguably her masterpiece, “Vintage Season”, published in Astounding under the pseudonym Lawrence O’Donnell. It concerns a group of time traveling tourists who voyage back to the idyllic past of 1946-or-thereabouts to witness an apocalyptic event. The protagonist is a young man of the present who can’t understand why these odd people are so interested in his run-down house, not knowing it will have the best view of the coming pandemonium.
As the 1940s neared its end, the war was over, the atom bomb existed, and America had changed on a fundamental level. Science fiction grew darker, thick with visions of nuclear annihilations. In 1948, Moore and Kuttner, getting older and perhaps wearying of the word rates necessary to continue supporting themselves writing, went back to school for English degrees so they could supplement their income teaching.
Anyway, things weren’t so rosy at their primary market, Astounding. Campbell, once a paragon the scientifically plausible, had become enamored of pseudoscience like telepathy and psychic powers, buying more and more stories featuring them, while his personal and political views–idiosyncratic, right wing, and outright racist—became ever more apparent. Finally in 1949, Campbell edited and published the first appearance of his friend L. Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics in the pages of his magazine, becoming an outspoken convert to the system that would evolve into Scientology. Writers of any credibility scattered from his pages. Campbell, for his part, descended ever further into reactionary thought, to the point where in 1965, in response to the Watts riots, he suggested that black people were happier as slaves, and in 1970 he implied that the student protester victims of the Kent State Massacre had it coming. Famously, he also rejected a story by Samuel R. Delany with an explanation that his audience didn’t want a story with a black protagonist.
But back in 1950, a new boom was about to begin. Paperback publishers finally seized upon science fiction and writers found they could score good deals and actual royalties. New magazines started to proliferate along with now trendy (if typically shlocky) sci-fi movies, and venues like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy stepped into the position of primacy vacated by Astounding. Pay rates rose and folks like Heinlein and Bradbury broke into mainstream magazines like The Saturday Evening Post which paid very well indeed. Everything seemed on the up-and-up until, perhaps inevitably, the boom became a glut and ultimately bust.
In 1954, numerous magazines shut down as the oversaturated market spread the audience thinner than it could sustain, including Moore and Kuttner’s original mainstay Weird Tales.
Bad turned to worse in 1955 when the largest distributor in the country, the American News Company, had a major strike. More than half of all magazines in the US at the time were sold through the ANC, as well as 25-35% of popular books, and it also owned a system of newsstands that made it the largest magazine retailer in the world. And so, while the company refused to settle with the strikers, boxes of stock sat in warehouses for months or got returned entirely unsold to their publishers, crippling any magazine or book publisher without the resources to weather the storm.
In 1957, capitalist machinations delivered what would prove to be the killing blow for much of the industry. An opportunist investor realized that the American News Company’s commercial holdings were undervalued, bought the whole thing for a song, sold off its properties at a huge profit, and liquidated the company. The result of the sudden disappearance of the country’s largest distributor and retailer was a massive contraction and dieback in magazine and book publishing.
Just as in the late thirties Moore and Kuttner had shifted from weird fiction to science fiction, by 1956 they’d seen the way the wind was blowing and primarily moved to writing detective and mystery novels while making overtures towards television, where in addition to a steady salary they might even be able to get health care.
The 50s was the decade where television had finally transformed from a new curiosity into a mass medium, and had also served to take attention and dollars away from written fiction. In 1950, just 9% of US households had television sets; by 1955 it was 65%; and by 1960 fully 87% of US households owned one.
In 1958, Moore and Kuttner finally received their first television script assignment. On the cusp of the next chapter of their writing careers, Henry Kuttner died of a stroke in his sleep at the age of 44.
A month earlier, SF writer Cyril Kornbluth had died of a heart attack at the age of 34, and there was a palpable feeling among their fellows in the trenches that these men had died from the constant need to produce in the pay-per-word mills, especially through the long crunch of the mid-to-late 50s. “I was only twenty-three, then,” writer Robert Silverberg would say later, “but I somehow realized right away that these two men had literally died from writing science fiction and I was afraid that I was going to die too. I had some bad months.”
More writers would fall away over the next few years; Mark Clifton dead of a heart attack in 1963 at 57, H. Beam Piper a suicide in 1960 at 60. Still others quit prose fiction altogether. Isaac Asimov, for example, turned to cranking out nonfiction books at his customary breakneck pace and wouldn’t come back to fiction until the ’70s. Leigh Brackett took up a noted film career, including scripts for Rio Bravo (1958), The Long Goodbye (1973), and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), among many others.
Moore for her part completed the transition to television, writing for Maverick, Sugarfoot, 77 Sunset Strip, and other shows under the name Catherine Kuttner. But in 1963 she remarried a physician and quit writing altogether.
It’d be easy to speculate that her new husband didn’t want his wife writing, but she herself said in a later interview, “Since I don’t have to write for a living anymore, I just don’t have the motivation to resume writing, although I wish I did.” There’s a sense in this sentence that the pressures of commercial fiction had sucked out whatever passion Moore had once had for writing–all that giddy glee in which she’d typed out that first story for fun back in 1933–transforming it into just another job. And when the need for that job evaporated so did the desire to do it.
In 1981, Moore received both the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and the Gandalf Grand Master Award at the World Fantasy Convention. Later in her life (I haven’t been able to determine the exact year) she was nominated for the Science Fiction Writer’s Association Grand Master Award as well, but her nomination was withdrawn at her husband’s request because her Alzheimer’s had progressed too far for her to be able to attend the ceremony.
Catherine Moore passed away from complications with Alzheimer’s in 1987 at the age of 76.
When the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” occurred is still a matter of debate. People tend to mark the beginning at 1937 when Campbell took the reigns of Astounding and began the movement away from thrill-a-minute pulp yarns to more modern science fiction. The ending is sometimes marked at 1942, when so many writers went to war and magazines closed because of paper shortages; sometimes it goes to 1946, 1949, or all the way to 1953. Others have argued (notably Robert Silverberg) that the boom from 1950-1953 was the real golden age, and produced some of the most notable works of the era.
Sometimes you can catch modern writers pine for the days when you could throw a manuscript over an editor’s transom for them to find in the morning, when a short story could pay your month’s rent or make your career, and when demand was such that writers rarely got rejected or even had to rewrite their work. However, Catherine Moore is a useful lens to look at how, for the creators on the ground, the period was marked by rapacious exploitation at low wages, zero benefits, no job security, and ruinous market volatility. Writers were notorious for living hand-to-mouth and only a handful of big names like Heinlein managed to successfully escape the treadmill.
If that sounds familiar in this age of the ‘gig economy’, know that the way our economic system is structured isn’t accidental. Creators exist at the mercy of capital. Still, you never know what you’ll find on the other side of the apocalypse from the latest vintage season.
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Special thanks to the eminent Dr. Gary K. Wolfe for his assistance in researching this piece
Bibliography and Further Reading
- Breakfast in the Ruins by Barry Malzberg
- The Time Machines: The Story of the Science Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950 by Mike Ashley (2001)
- Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970 by Mike Ashley (2005)
- “Science Fiction in the Fifties: The Real Golden Age” by Robert Silverberg (2010)
- The Best of C. L. Moore by C. L. Moore, introduction by Lester Del Ray (1975)
- The Best of Henry Kuttner by Henry Kuttner, introduction by Ray Bradbury (1975)
- “Interview with C. L. Moore”, 1979
- “Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Lewis Padgett et al” by James Gunn, collected in Voices for the Future edited by Thomas D. Clareson (1976)
- Magazines in the Twentieth Century by Theodore Peterson (1956)
- The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls, and Graham Sleight (2019)
- Statistics on Television ownership in the US in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, The Buffalo History Museum website