Short Story Review: “The Moon Is Green” by Fritz Leiber

(Cover by Richard Powers. Galaxy, April 1952.)

Who Goes There?

Nowadays we’re used to genre authors hopping across the border, so to speak, or even just mixing several genres together in a stew; you have “SF” authors writing fantasy with ease and vice versa. But 70 years ago there was not much cross-pollination, mostly due to there not being much of a market for fantasy then. Fritz Leiber started as one of the best fantasists of his generation, contributing regularly to Weird Tales and Unknown in the late ’30s and ’40s, but the SF magazine market started bubbling and by 1950 it became prudent to turn to writing SF. Some authors did not make the transition, but Leiber was one of those who became a good science-fictionist due to market forces; he had written some SF prior to 1950, but his material from this second phase of his career was decidedly stronger than what came before. It seemed only natural that he would be made Guest of Honor at the 1951 Worldcon, given his almost rebirth as one of the best SF short story writers of the period, and this rebirth was in no small part due to the premiere of what was, at least for a time, the best SF magazine on the market.

Galaxy Science Fiction, for at least most of the ’50s, was the gold standard for magazine SF—not just short SF, but even novels which ran as serials. While not always appealing to the hard SF crowd which continued to devour Astounding and while not as strictly “literary” as F&SF, Galaxy presented a new breed of SF which was socially conscious, which commented on what were then current conditions for real people, and which was more willing to discuss topics like gender roles, the growing suburban populace, and a wave of new technology which overwhelmed people’s minds in the years following World War II. Leiber, who was always a little more cosmopolitan than his fellows, spent 1950 to 1953 delivering a string of classic short stories in the pages of Galaxy, of which “The Moon Is Green” is one.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the April 1952 issue of Galaxy, which is on the Archive. Oddly it has not been reprinted that often, but there are options. There’s The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1953, edited by Everett F. Bleller and T. E. Dikty, which has a couple alternate titles, such as The Best Science Fiction Stories: Fourth Series. We also have The Great SF Stories #14, covering fiction published in 1952, edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. If you’re looking for more of a collector’s item then there’s The Leiber chronicles: Fifty Years of Fritz Leiber from Dark Harvest, although I’m not sure how pricey it would be to get online.

Most curiously this is the first story I’ve covered for my blog which got adapted for the legendary radio program X Minus One, which in the ’50s was probably the best introduction to short SF of the period. That episode is available on both the Archive and YouTube, although I recommend only listening to it after reading the story, since… well, it doesn’t entirely do justice to Leiber’s writing. It’s a bit less poetic and a bit more overblown is what I’m saying, along with the performances being uneven.

Enhancing Image

Effie and her husband Hank live in an apartment, which is normal; what’s not so normal is that this apartment is one of the few constructed on the surface. Most of what is left of humanity lives underground, but Effie and Hank live a privileged existence by virtue of Hank’s connections with the Central Committee—what is left of the government—while Effie is supposed to be fertile, although she and Hank have been unable to have a child all these years. The obvious implication is that Hank is impotent, but it must also be said that the world had gone to SHIT a good deal prior to the story’s beginning. The years following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw a nigh-endless wave of SF about the dangers of nuclear weapons, and “The Moon Is Green” is not even Leiber’s first go at the subject.

What makes “The Moon Is Green” different from a lot of other nuclear catastrophe stories of the period, especially ones prior to the coming of Galaxy, is that it’s more a domestic drama than an outright nuclear catastrophe story. Another thing that was unusual (for the time, anyway) is that we get a heroine in Effie, and unlike most female characters from this period in SF she’s not fickle or overly reliant on the men in her life, but someone with thoughts and dreams of her own. I know, totally radical. Mind you that by 1952 we had started to see an influx of women in the field, and for the first time it could be said that SF had a place for women among its many voices—though the ratio of men to women was still very much lopsided. Still, authors like Leiber dabbling earnestly in writing female protagonists was a sign of some profound changes.

Anyway, despite the fact that objectively life is pretty good for her (or at least it could be a whole lot worse), Effie is not satisfied with her life as essentially a first-generation Morlock. “A mole’s existence, without beauty or tenderness, but with fear and guilt as constant companions. Never to see the Sun, to walk among the trees—or even know if there were still trees.” She pines for pastoralism, for the simple pleasures of taking a stroll through the forest and gazing up at a full brightly lit moon during a clear night. Both Effie and the narration specifically describe her hunger as a hunger for beauty, which takes on almost a religious zeal; that she hopes to transcend her semi-buried existence will lead to tragedy. The problem is that she can’t go outside because the outside world is shrouded in radioactive dust, which will kill most things and what it doesn’t kill it would presumably make stranger.

So what to do? She’s unhappy but she can’t go anywhere, and at this point she doesn’t even like staying with her husband, whom she clearly sees as having become overly controlling and bureaucratic. Hank is not exactly a villain, but he’s pretty far from what we would call a model husband; he almost cares more about his relationship with the Central Committee than with his wife, and while his fears about death by radiation are not unjustified (what stops him from being a villain), he has become one of those no-fun-allowed people who has to do everything by the book. What separates the two, and what allows the real drama of the story to happen, is that Hank demands that Effie go with him to a Committe meeting, where he hopes to get his foot in the door as a small-time bureaucrat, but Effie refuses on the grounds that she has Covid she’s too sick to go. Relauctantly Hank leaves her behind, on the condition that she not do any funny business like touching the lead shutters of their apartment, which can carry radiation.

I wonder how long she’ll behave herself?

A more important question that will become more pronounced when we get to spoilers is: What is more important to life, its longevity or its quality? Because the two are not always the same. The main conceit of Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To…, maybe the thorniest of all ’70s SF novels, is that life can only mean so much when there’s minimal pleasure to be taken from it. What’s the point of continuing to live after the bombs have gone off if you’re to become a burrower for the rest of your years? If the best you can hope for is that your children’s children will be able to enjoy what you could not (assuming there’s anything left) once there’s been enough radiation decay. You might have a long-term plan, but what do you do in the short term? Even the act of love-making might lose its luster.

In post-nuclear stories there’s a variety of possible obstacles for the characters, and you’d know this regardless of whether you’re a connoisseur of the subgenre or if you just play a lot of Fallout. In A Canticle for Leibowitz the biggest threat is the death of human knowledge; in The Road the biggest threat is the total loss of human empathy, never mind that the race is ultimately fucked in that novel and there’s no going back; in “The Moon Is Green” the biggest threat is the fact that regardless of who’s left, life underground or just barely above ground is quite shitty. There’s government, there’s a semblance of order, and some human culture remains, but at least in Effie’s mind there is no beauty left—only the machinery of human endeavor. Which is what makes what happens next tragic and yet vaguely hopeful.

There Be Spoilers Here

While Hank is out, Effie gets a visitor—from outside. How? Surely everyone who didn’t go underground died or turned rabid; but Patrick is not like most people. (He also sounds like a damn leprechaun in the X Minus One adaptation for some reason.) Somehow he and his cat have been able to survive in the outdoors this whole time, with Patrick himself seemingly bereft of mutations. Tempted by the prospect of life outside of her burrow, and the fact that Patrick is a charming enough fellow, Effie not only touches the shutters but opens her apartment window to meet Patrick face to face, exposing herself to the radioactive dust of the outside world. Why would she do this? Consider that it seems to be standard practice for the underground people to have Geiger Counters on them, to test for radiation easily, so paranoid are they about what’s left of civilization succumbing to its own failings. Yet Patrick claims that actually the radiation has decayed much faster than expected, and that actually it’s all fucking sunshine and rainbows outside civilization’s metal coffin.

Now, a few question. Why do these buildings on the surface have windows? Why are they comprised of materials which could transmit radiation? How come Effie and Hank didn’t divorce after failing to produce a child after several years? The last question is sort of answered by Hank eventually coming back and accusing of Effie having an affair with a colleague of his (Effie claims at one point to be pregnant, but from how I read it I took her as lying about it). I’m also not sure what Patrick would’ve lived off of all this time, given how much animal and even plant life would’ve died off in the interim, although given what he reveals later some radioactive sunflower seeds would probably not hurt him. Doesn’t quite explain the cat, but in typical ’50s post-nuclear fashion we just take mutated animals for granted. You’d think with how well-documented the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were that there would be more stories from this period about the actual effects of radiation on organic matter.

When Hank returned unexpectedly, however, the truth about Patrick comes out via a waving of the Geiger Counter. Contrary to what Patrick had said, the outside world was still smothered in radioactive dust that would be fatal to most living things, and in fact Patrick HIMSELF makes the Geiger Counter go off the damn charts. Appartently Patrick puts on an act in order to get some action with women who have locked themselves off from the outside, which is… actually even more horrifying than it sounds at first. Like how many times has he done this? How many people have died because of his need for companionship? Not that he makes a secret of being a harbinger of death once he’s outed, being “Rappacini’s [sic] child, brought up to date,” in reference to the famous Nathaniel Hawthorne short story. Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is one of the great 19th century SF stories (worthy of a future blog entry, I’d say), about a mad scientist’s daughter who, in being experimented on and living alongside poisonous plants, has become immune to the poison at the cost of now being poisonous herself.

The twist here is that while Patrick thinks himself a modern incarnation of that tragic woman, it is really Effie who takes after Rappaccini’s daughter, being the victim of her own circumstances, torn and ultinately brought down by the two most important men in her life. Leiber takes what was already potentially a feminist narrative (Hawthorne’s sympathies for the women of his time being prescient, all things considered) and alters the perspective to make that feminist angle more explicit. Leiber would explore the “woman’s angle” in later works such as The Big Time, albeit much quirkier in that case, but “The Moon Is Green” is a quite serious and quite effective early attempt at writing a woman’s perspective in a science-fictional context.

Having lost hope in the man who’s been with her and having been betrayed by the man who had teased her with a new way of living, Effie runs off on her own into the wasteland, for good or ill. In a lot of love triangles you would get rid of the hypotenuse by way of, say, death, or having the third wheel find someone else, but what makes “The Moon Is Green” subversive for its time is that Effie turns her back on both of the men in her life. Patrick leaves, knowing he won’t be able to bring Effie back, while Hank locks himself up again and tests himself with his Geiger Counter, his own immediate future hanging in the balance. Whether Effie dies or adapts to the wasteland is unknown, but even if she doesn’t adapt to the radiation she might think it best to die on her feet and with her lungs taking in the unclean air. All for just a slice of beauty, and a taste of freedom.

A Step Farther Out

Leiber’s short fiction from this period tends to be pretty damn solid, and “The Moon Is Green” is no exception. It could be that I’ve been reading a good number of his works in quick succession, but I’ve been noticing how many of Leiber’s stories read like plays. “The Moon Is Green” could very easily work as a one-act play: you’ve got one location, a total of three on-screen characters (four if you count the cat), and it’s not like you need fancy effects work to realize the setting or what happens in the climax. It’s very simple like that, but it also works. When I picked this one for review I knew basically nothing about it, not even it being a post-nuclear fable not entirely dissimilar to “Coming Attraction”; but whereas you could argue that that more famous story is tinged with misogyny, “The Moon Is Green” is one of Leiber’s more actively feminist efforts.

Effie is an active chaeacter with a sense of interiority, and she doesn’t want anything stereotypical like wanting to have a ton of kids or to be a good wife, but to escape from the cage of her daily life for something more freer and more beautiful. Her fate is left open, but Leiber supposes that, regardless of whether she lives or dies in the wasteland, it might be best for Effie to leave the men in her life and chase after her dream. Best of luck to her.

See you next time.


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