Tuesday, June 17, 2008

C L Moore's "No Woman Born" (novella, science fiction): Among the defining cyborg stories

Quote from short story titled No Woman Born by C L MooreI can no longer find the reference, but I recall this being referred to as the first cyborg story. Reference I can find now, Scifipedia article on the story, has this quote of Martin Greenberg: "The concept of the ‘cyborg’, part-machine and part-human, had existed in science fiction before this story was published, but no one had explored the potential of the idea until No Woman Born. It was also one of the first to examine the future of the arts in science fiction, and a classic story of anguish and rebirth."

I know of very old stories that mix human parts with animal parts to create new creatures, sometimes with inanimate things too. But even being among the first modern cyborg stories will make it worth a look.

Of the perhaps a half dozen solo stories of Moore I've read, this wins hands down in entertainment value & concept. It has everything a classic should have, except tight narrative. It still suffers from usual pre-Kuttner Moore flaws: tendency to use too many adjectives, dragginess, & superfluous sentences. Still, it's too good a story to miss.

While there are just too many cyborg stories around, let's see a few comparisons with better known stories I've seen before I get down to its specifics.

  1. In del Ray's "Helen O'Loy", & far more interesting & better known Asimov's "The Bicentennial Man", we see an advance robot fighting to get recognized as a human. Here we have a human who is not quite human - she's both more & less; story devotes substantial parts to her efforts to come to terms with her identity.

    Like those stories, we also see some space devoted to the necessity of death for this not-exactly-human entity; idea of immortality will make her too inhuman: "She was not cut off from the rest of her race in the essence of their humanity, for though she wore a body of steel & they perishable flesh, yet she must perish too, & the same fears & faiths still united her to mortals & humans, though she wore the body of Oberon's inhuman knight."

    We see more uncomfortable musings too: "providing, of course, that the mind inside the metal did not veer from its inherited humanity as the years went by. A dweller in a house may impress his personality upon the walls, but subtly the walls too, may impress their own shape upon the ego of the man."
  2. At some level, there are parallels with Poul Anderson's "Call Me Joe": hope for a new full life for serious accident victims in a new body, even if the new body is not quite human.
  3. Eric Donovan, a character that appears in some stories of Larry Niven, is a lot like heroine of this story. But Niven's version less well developed; here it's the center of the story.
  4. We see some themes, in passing, here that will again be seen in some detail in Kuttner &Moore's hilarious story "The Proud Robot". In fact, except for tight narrative, this story could have been placed with many superlative stories author will later turn out with Kuttner.
Story gets its titled from "old words James Stephens wrote long ago for another Deirdre, also lovely & beloved & unforgotten after two thousand years":

The time comes when our hearts sink utterly,
When we remember Deirdre & her tale,
And that her lips are dust.
There has been again no woman born
Who was so beautiful; not one so beautiful.

These quotes from the story include both words of wisdom, & highlights & moods of the story.

Story summary.

Deirdre, a famous singer/dancer in New York City theaters, died in a fire. Rescuers reached soon enough while her brain was still alive, though no other part of body could be salvaged.

Note: The story is set in a world where New York theater programs are widely telecast on TV - so she's better known than a theater-only actress would be. I got somewhat irritated by author's repeated insistence of the "whole world" as Deirdre's audience, where author seemed to have no clue to how cranky & heterogeneous the "whole world" is in their entertainment & beauty preferences.

Maltzer, a technical man, with the help of a lot of money & a team of helpers, has put her in a newly created hinge-less metal body of a robot. Her brain directly interfaces with this metallic body for control. Her body is much smaller than a typical robot's because in robots, "much of the space had to be devoted to the inadequate mechanical brains that guided them about their duties. Deirdre’s brain still preserved & proved the craftsmanship of an artisan far defter than man." The really funny thing I found in this episode was: the entire project - from fire to resurrection - took just one year!!!

Now, at the end of the year, she's ready. She's been through shock, then acceptance & even liking of her new asexual metallic body with few external feature. And only two senses - hearing, & speech; no sense of touch, odor, or taste. Throughout the story, this issue will occupy a lot of space, & we will see a theme of "The Proud Robot" develop - the idea that 5 senses are all that can be: "why do you think sight is the last of the senses? It may be the latest, ... but why do you think it's the last?" Turns out, while our cyborg has lost three senses, she's gained some others - even though Maltzer has no clue how she got them.

Main conflict in the story is: Maltzer's conviction that she's subhuman because of lack of 3 senses, that this subhumanness will start showing soon, & people can then hurt her; so she needs to be protected, & kept from interacting with anyone except an intimate circle. And, after her revelation of her superhuman abilities, her own concerns: "I'm afraid. It isn't unhappiness... - it's fear. I don't want to draw so far away from the human race. I wish I needn't. That's why I'm going back on the stage - to keep in touch with them while I can. But I wish there could be others like me... I’m lonely".

Story has one more major character: John Harris, her manager before accident, & probably her lover/husband too (am not sure of later). But he has only a sort of supportive role.

Story also has what I consider a peripheral comparison of Maltzer's position with that of protagonist in Shelley's Frankenstein. But I've not read Shelley's original - so may be author might have a point in comparison.

Collected in.

  1. "The Best of C L Moore".
  2. Isaac Asimov & Martin H Greenberg (Eds)' "Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 6 (1944)".

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding Science Fiction, December 1944.
Rating: A