“No Woman Born” (pdf) first appeared in the December 1944 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction, a time when few women were writing science fiction. Catherine Lucille Moore did not use her initials to hide her gender, but to hide her writing career from her employer. I’m not sure when I first read “No Woman Born” but when I reread it this week in The Great SF Stories 6 (1944) it felt familiar. I could swear I’ve heard it on audio, but I can find no audiobooks that contain it. I ached to hear a talented reader perform this story.
There’s a chance I first read it as a kid in the sixties when reading old rebound copies of Groff Conklin’s anthologies from the Miami public library. It’s been reprinted in many anthologies I’ve own, so it’s no telling. It just bothers me I can’t remember because I feel very sure I’ve read it recently. I guess it’s just the kind of story that sticks in your head.
I’m not sure I appreciated “No Woman Born” the first time I read it. When young I loved stories with lots of action revealed in the dialog. I tended to speed read over the narrative. “No Woman Born” is a dramatic story, but it’s beauty today comes from Moore’s 1944 speculation about what it’s like to be a cyborg, and that’s in the narrative. There were earlier science fiction tales of brains being put into mechanical bodies, like the Professor Jameson series, but their authors didn’t spend as much time exploring what it means. I give C. L. Moore a lot of credit for examining ideas that are still valid today.
There are three characters in this story, Deirdre, a singer, dancer, actress, Harris her manager who loves her, and Maltzer, her Frankenstein/Pygmalion savior/creator.
Deirdre nearly dies in a theater fire, but Maltzer transfers her brain into a mechanical body and spends a year bringing her back to life from total sensory deprivation. Maltzer created a new body for Deirdre and teaches her how to use it with thought control. Much of Moore’s tale is about what this means.
It’s not fair to call Deirdre’s new body robotic since Moore imagines far more than the average mechanical man. Deirdre’s head is a modern art sculpture of femininity, while her body is golden concentric rings held together by magnetism moving with fluidity and grace. Deirdre only has two senses, vision and hearing, which Moore philosophizes are the intellectual ones while smell, taste, and touch are our animalistic emotional senses. Again, this is still valid speculation today.
The plot is rather simple. Deirdre wants to perform again on television. She believes she’ll be accepted as a person. Maltzer thinks she’s wildly optimistic about her acceptance and reunites her with Harris hoping he’ll convince her otherwise. Deirdre is headstrong and insists she knows how she’ll be received.
Not to give away spoilers, “No Woman Born” features a beautiful description of Deirdre dancing and singing on a majestic Ziegfeld-like stage. Moore also takes us further than the average tale of robots and cyborgs, into the psychological impact of being reborn. Moore touches on spiritual evolution and transhumanism, a concept I don’t think existed in 1944, although Olaf Stapledon was covering some of the same territories in the 1930s.
“No Woman Born” is one of the best stories in The Great SF Stories 6 (1944), which means it’s one of the best science fiction stories of that year if Asimov and Greenberg found all the best SF stories for 1944. Moore’s competition is Clifford Simak’s “Desertion” because it covers the same territory of what it means to be human when we stop looking human. Emotionally, I love “Desertion” more than “No Woman Born,” but Moore brought up more philosophical issues. In science fiction, there’s always a fine balance between storytelling and science fiction speculation. Simak was able to draw out far more emotion, even though there are three good dramatic scenes in “No Woman Born.”
Moore collaborated constantly with her husband Henry Kuttner. We know very little about Moore, most of which is summed up in “The Many Names of Catherine Lucille Moore” by Andrew Liptak. I’ve often read that readers can’t tell who wrote what, and even the stories with their solo bylines are still collaborations. I feel Moore did write most, if not all, of “No Woman Born” because it feels like her work before marrying Kuttner.* Her stories always had a philosophical bent to them, while Henry’s stories have more action, often comic, drunken, zany, or pulp fiction. I believe Catherine was the philosopher of the family, and Henry was the hack pulp writer who could churn out all kinds of stories but with a lot less contemplation.
I enjoyed “Desertion” more as a story than “No Woman Born” because Simak is superior at evoking emotions in readers. I greatly admired “No Woman Born” for its science fictional ideas. Moore is too wordy in places, which slows down the drama. “No Woman Born” isn’t as haunting as “Desertion.” Yet, I still love it. I wished Moore could have been more atmospheric like her “Vintage Season.”
But does this 1944 story still hold up? I wish Goodreads was designed to handle short stories because I’d love to read reader reviews of classic SF stories. I don’t think we’ll ever put a brain in a robot body. Nor do I believe we could build a robotic body like Maltzer created. Today we talk about brain downloading, meaning we’d record all the information in a human brain digitally, and transfer it to a computer, or a cloned body. There are millions of people hoping this will actually be possible, so “No Woman Born” might have an audience today as a precedent story.
Maltzer doesn’t believe Dierdre will ever survive psychologically, and Moore makes a dramatic case for this in the story. The ending, which I don’t want to give away, is satisfying but unbelievable, or at least for me. It offers too much hope that humans can become something I don’t think we can.
* In 1975 Moore wrote an extremely short, but very revealing afterward to The Best of C. L. Moore stating that “Vintage Season” and “No Woman Born” were written before she married Kuttner and were not collaborations.
James Wallace Harris (9/6/18)