This is another of my “In Short” columns for Vector, in this instance it’s about “No Woman Born” by C.L. Moore, which was published in Vector 278, Winter 2014/2015.
Catherine Moore wrote under the gender-neutral name, C.L. Moore, not, as is widely thought, to disguise her sex, but so that her bosses at the bank where she worked would not discover that she was writing for the pulps. But in the heavily male-dominated world of the sf pulps, it helped her establish a reputation without standing out as a woman. Indeed, Henry Kuttner wrote a fan letter after the appearance of her first story, ‘Shambleau’ (1933), under the impression that he was addressing a fellow male writer. He discovered his mistake soon enough, and the pair were collaborating by 1937 and married in 1940, thereafter often writing together under the pseudonyms ‘Lewis Padgett’ and ‘Laurence O’Donnell’. But they still wrote alone on occasion, and one of her finest stories was ‘No Woman Born’ which appeared in the December 1944 issue of Astounding.
In her groundbreaking essay, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ (1985), Donna J. Haraway evokes the figure of the cyborg, a hybrid between human and machine, as a metaphor for the position of women and as a radical new way of approaching feminist arguments. The chimeric quality of the cyborg breaks away from the binary divisions that had commonly characterised discourses about men and women. Although she nowhere mentions Moore, ‘No Woman Born’ might well have been the paradigm for Haraway’s essay.
Written four years before the first regular television network was established in the USA, Moore’s story nevertheless envisages a world of global television celebrity. And the first international star is Deirdre. No surname is given for her, which suggests the intimacy with which she is universally known, but perhaps also indicates the infantilising effect of celebrity which has reduced her to just the one familiar name. In the four or more pages before Deirdre herself puts in an appearance, all we are told about her is her beauty. The very first words of the story are: ‘She had been the loveliest creature whose image ever moved along the airways’ (21), and again, a few lines later: ‘There had never been anyone so beautiful’ (21). There is something inside that projects this beauty, as Harris, her former manager, reflects: ‘It was the light within, shining through her charming, imperfect features, that had made this Deirdre’s face so lovely’ (22); but essentially she is being defined by her appearance.
At least, that is how she is being presented by the men in her life, by Harris, our viewpoint character, and by Maltzer, who has been working with Deirdre for the last year. Note that the men are identified by their surnames, Deirdre by her given name.
There is one other thing that we are told about her this early in the story; she is dead: ‘the whole world had mourned her when she died in the theatre fire’ (22). And Harris prefers to think of her as dead still, even though he is now, a year later, on his way to meet her in her apartment. In fact, her body had been destroyed, the physical manifestation of her beauty, but her brain had been preserved and had been put inside a cyborg body. That had been Maltzer’s job, and Harris was now on his way to see her new being for the first time, and it is clear that the loss of her beauty bothers him more than the loss of her person. Or perhaps it is another loss he mourns, for when he thinks of the year of intimacy that Maltzer has just experienced he thinks: ‘There had been between them a sort of unimaginable marriage stranger than anything that could ever have taken place before.’ (24)
Maltzer is disturbed, nervous, and again it relates to her beauty. ‘It’s not that she’s – ugly – now … Metal isn’t ugly … Maybe she’s – grotesque, I don’t know.’ (24) The same refrain, even the same words, come again when Harris finally goes into her room to see Deirdre herself.
He had envisioned many shapes. Great, lurching robot forms, cylindrical, with hinged arms and legs. A glass case with the brain floating in it and appendages to serve its needs. Grotesque visions, like nightmares come nearly true. And each more inadequate than the last, for what metal shape could possibly do more than house ungraciously the mind and brain that had once enchanted a whole world? (26)
It is, noticeably, a list informed by the garish covers of the pulp magazines that Moore wrote for. But they are masculine notions of mechanical men, and this is emphatically a feminine notion of a mechanical woman:
The machinery moved, exquisitely, smoothly, with a grace as familiar as the swaying poise he remembered. The sweet, husky voice of Deirdre said,
‘It’s me, John darling. It really is, you know.’
And it was. (26)
There is, of course, an ambiguity in these words that Moore does not make explicit. For John Harris, it is Deirdre because the metal body recalls the physical beauty of the old Deirdre; for Deirdre, the consciousness, the sense of identity, the mind is still exactly the same as she has always been, regardless of the casing that houses the brain.
The cyborg (the word is not used in the story, of course; it had not been coined yet) does not exactly duplicate Deirdre, for ‘she had no face … only a smooth, delicately modelled ovoid.’ (27) Significantly, we learn that for Harris, ‘The mask was symbol enough for the woman within. It was enigmatic’ (27) she is, in other words, objectified by being rendered featureless. She is further separated from the human Deirdre in her clothing, for she does not wear what she once might have done. Instead, ‘the designer had [given] her a robe of very fine metal mesh.’ (28) As a performer, she would have been used to being given costumes for different roles, but this is something more, this is an object that is given no choice about what it might wear.
To the male gaze, she is all that is needed to recall the flesh and blood Deirdre. But Deirdre herself subtly begins to undermine this perception of her. The first and practically only thing the male gaze told us about Deirdre was her beauty, but she says: ‘I never was beautiful. It was – well, vivacity, I suppose.’ (30) And she moves ‘with a litheness that was not quite human. The motion disturbed him as the body itself had not.’ (29) To the men, the cyborg Deirdre recapitulates the woman whose beauty they adored; for Deirdre herself, it allows her to become something Other. ‘“It’s – odd,” she said, “being here in this … this … instead of a body. But not as odd or as alien as you might think.”’ (32, ellipses in the original)
One of the ways this otherness manifests itself is that Deirdre is supremely confident. Was she like this before? We are not told, but given how nervous both Harris and Maltzer become in the face of this confidence, it seems unlikely. She is determined to go back on the stage, but the men are wary of the prospect. At first it seems that this is inspired by a sense that she is frail: ‘She was so delicate a being now, really. Nothing but a glowing and radiant mind poised in metal.’ (34) This is a view that Maltzer emphasises later: ‘If she only weren’t so … so frail […] she’s so pitifully handicapped even with all we could do. She’ll always be an abstraction and a … a freak.’ (41) But we quickly realise that this takes us straight back to body image: ‘if the world did not accept her as beautiful, what then?’ (34)
What he does not realise, but Deirdre clearly has realised, is that her new body has changed the world. Planning the dance and the music that will constitute her act she says:
Later, you know, really creative men like Massanchine or Fokhileff may want to do something entirely new for me – a whole new sequence of movements based on a new technique. And music – that could be quite different, too! Oh, there’s no end to the possibilities! (35-6)
She is confident because her cyborg incarnation has given her a new power, new abilities, that the flesh and blood Deirdre did not possess. Being no longer quite a woman has liberated her. ‘I don’t want [the audience] to pity my handicaps – I haven’t got any!’ (38) she says, directly repudiating Maltzer’s perception of her.
Harris perhaps gets an inkling of this when ‘It came to him suddenly that she was much more than humanly graceful – quite as much as he had once feared she would be less than human.’ (37) But the thought leaves him just as quickly when they start to plan her comeback performance: ‘That strange little quiver of something – something un-Deirdre – which had so briefly trembled beneath the surface of familiarity stuck in Harris’s mind as something he must recall and examine later.’ (39)
There is a hint of the old patriarchal attitude when Harris suggests that Maltzer will have to ‘give his permission’ (38) for her performance, a notion that Deirdre quickly repudiates: ‘I don’t belong to him.’ (38) And later, when Harris and Maltzer are watching the play that precedes Deirdre’s performance, Maltzer declares that she cannot compete because ‘She hasn’t any sex. She isn’t female anymore.’ (39) Sex would seem to reside in her appearance and in her being possessed, or as Maltzer puts it: ‘You know how she sparkled when a man came into the room? All that’s gone, and it was an essential.’ (40) This view, specifically about Deirdre but by implication about all women, goes unchallenged; Moore was writing for a predominantly male audience, and put into Maltzer’s mouth perceptions that the audience would unquestioningly share. But what we are watching in the cyborgisation of Deirdre (‘“She isn’t human,” Harris agreed slowly. “But she isn’t pure robot either. She’s something somewhere between the two,”’ (41) a sympathetic perspective that still classifies her as a something) is an individuality that takes her away from such notions of sex and beauty.
The idea that Deirdre is something new in the world, that the world has been changed, is stressed again when she gives her performance. The stage set, a shimmering golden haze, is as ‘The world might have looked […] on the first morning of creation, before heaven and earth took form in the mind of God.’ (42) Her appearance suggests ‘the chivalry and delicacy of some other world,’ (44) and the music ‘was utterly pure and true as perhaps no ear in all her audience had ever heard music before.’ (45)
Her performance is, of course, a triumph, but in the moment of her triumph Maltzer decides that she must immediately retire from the stage. Because of her appearance (because everything that is female is tied up with appearance) he is convinced that the audience must inevitably turn against her, and, a now-familiar refrain, ‘She’s too fragile to stand that.’ (48) And in this moment we are reminded of their ‘long intimacy so like marriage’ (49) so that the clash of wills to come must be read as a husband laying down the law to a compliant wife.
The confrontation comes two weeks later, after Deirdre returns from a trip to the country. The scene begins, as if reminding us of the perspective with which we first entered the story, with a reiteration of the male gaze: ‘She was all metal now, the Deirdre they would know from today on. And she was not less lovely. She was not even less human – yet.’ (52) That final ‘yet’ prefiguring what is to come. Maltzer’s tone is patronising and possessive: ‘You can’t deceive me, Deirdre […] I created you, my dear. I know.’ (52) But Deirdre ‘had withdrawn far within, behind the mask of her voice and her facelessness […] Humanity might be draining out of her fast, and the brassy taint of metal permeating the brain it housed.’ (53)
In a long speech, Maltzer compares himself to Frankenstein, creating a life that must become horrible to the mob because of its difference. ‘You are not wholly human, my dear […] in spite of all I could do, you must always be less than human […] You’re only a clear, glowing mind animating a metal body, like a candle flame in a glass. And as precariously vulnerable to the wind.’ (55) Inevitably, perhaps, he sees her not as an independent being but as his own creation.
When Deirdre takes her turn to speak, she immediately repudiates this view of herself.
I’m not – well, subhuman […] You didn’t create my life, you only preserved it. I’m not a robot, with compulsions built into me that I have to obey. I’m free-willed and independent, and, Maltzer – I’m human. (56)
The recreation of herself as cyborg has released Deirdre from the traditional weak and subservient female role, and this is her own declaration of independence. It is only by becoming a cyborg that she can become fully human. ‘“Of course I’m myself,” she told them.’ (57) Her release from the perception of weakness is symbolised by the incredible speed and strength she displays in rescuing Maltzer from his suicide attempt. Far from being subhuman, she has in fact become superhuman.
There is distress, yes, but not because of frailty, rather she is lonely, the only one of her kind. But in the years remaining, before her brain wears out, ‘I’ll learn … I’ll change … I’ll know more than I can guess today. I’ll change – That’s frightening.’ (64) The transformation out of the traditional female role has opened incredible prospects to her.
Some readings of the story find a hint of menace in the final line: ‘“I wonder,” she repeated, the distant taint of metal already in her voice.’ (64) She has gone beyond human, they argue, and therefore must be a menace. I don’t agree. I think the emphasis should be on ‘wonder’ rather than ‘metal’. Deirdre’s liberation now allows her to wonder. As Donna Haraway says: ‘The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century.’ (149)
Quotations taken from ‘No Woman Born’ by C.L. Moore in Women of Wonder: The Classic Years edited by Pamela Sargent, San Diego, Harcourt Brace, 1995, pp21-64.
‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ by Donna J. Haraway in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, London, Free Association Books, 1991, pp149-181