Young People Read Old SFF

Vintage Season

Lawrence O'Donnell (C.L. Moore)

Young People Read Old SFF

28 Jul, 2016

The by-line on this story credits Lawrence O’Donnell …but the person behind that name was Catherine Lucille Moore (1).

The gender balance in early science fiction was much more heavily skewed towards men than it is today but even then there were some women and C. L. Moore was one of them. She was prolific and well-regarded. If not for the intervention of her second husband, she would have been the second woman named Grandmaster by the Science Fiction Writers of America. She did win two other career awards, both in 1981: a Gandalf Grandmaster of Fantasy Award and a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. She was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1988, the year after her death. 

I knew Moore would be featured in this series. I just was not sure which Moore story to pick. One of her stories about Jirel, indomitable French swordswoman? Or perhaps Shambleau, which introduced her magnificently useless (but handsome!) adventurer Northwest Smith, who never encountered a deadly trap from which someone else could not rescue him (to their detriment). In the end, I went with Vintage Season, mainly because people often falsely attribute it (in part or whole) to her husband. That made me suspect that the attributors consider it the most significant of her stories. It has been adapted both to film (under the title Grand Tour: Disaster in Time) and  to radio and was selected for inclusion in The Best of C.L. Moore . This, I think, is the right Moore. 

But what did my readers think? 

1: Attribution is often difficult, because the person behind the O’Donnell pen-name was sometimes Moore’s husband, Henry Kuttner. Sometimes it was both authors, as they shared an unusually intimate writing partnership. One would take up stories where the other left off; the whole process was poorly documented. In this specific case, reliable sources like the SF Encyclopedia credit Moore as the primary and probably sole author. 


Hey 1946, we get a story where women have speaking roles. Though I guess women in this world have the choice of being a child or a shrew. This story was probably more impactful when it was set in the present’ or the next week’-scale future. Reading it now, the climax loses something because the set dressing is from an era 70 years ago. In addition to being set in the 40s, the older vocabulary and idioms and even some of the sentence construction all combine to make this story feel all-around old.

The main character owns a mansion with waitstaff but needs money to get married? And speaking of getting married, that looks like some pretty casual infidelity for the 40s, where I imagined they had stronger moral taboos against that kind of thing.

The indifference of the privileged time travelers to the suffering of those stuck in one time sticks out as still making a strong point today. They are indifferent not because they are immune to the suffering, but because the suffering is necessary for their way of life to emerge. Cenbe says as much. I’m getting strong allegory vibes here.

The story ends on a major down note, something I’ve found more common in science fiction than in any other genre I’ve read.


Lawrence O’Donnell used a technique that, while transparent, kept me interested enough in this story to keep me reading. (Well, the technique and the fact that I’m part of this project kept me reading.) He tells the story from the perspective of a partly-informed outsider who doesn’t have enough information about the other characters, but notices that something is up with them. (Though he, and the readers, have no idea what.) By continuing to drop treats here and there for the readers, he manages to keep them intrigued. 

This story also included a bit of a seduction/romantic element that showed real emotional vulnerability in a character, which I felt strange since it was written by a man named Lawrence O’Donnell in the 1940s. It turns out that Lawrence O’Donnell is a pseudonym used by Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore. After finding out that half of Lawrence O’Donnell is female, some of the scenes in the book made a lot more sense. 

The characters in the book have distinct personalities. Oliver is a decent enough guy with a pushy girlfriend who is trying to make her happy. The three visitors are stern, rule-abiding, and a bit of a mess, respectively. Their mysterious rival is up to no good… or maybe she’s trying to save Oliver from his three visitors who are up to no good. It’s impossible to tell (arguably by design). To find out which group of people were bad”, I had to keep reading. By continuing to read, I learned who the bad ones” were,and the answer to that question certainly surprised me. 

Finally, I really enjoyed the imagination behind the mysterious visitors: their clothing, furniture, other asthetics, music, and motivations for showing up. All of these things are revealed throughout the story. Throughout most of it, I felt like I was reading while blanketed in euphoria – the visitors’ homeland sounds beautiful. However at the end, my cup was taken away and it was up to me to finish the story – unassisted and alone. 


Has it aged well?

Yes (for the most part). Unlike other stories, the setting was vague enough with few enough details to allow the reader to fill in the blanks. An old mansion is an old mansion. It helped that most of the action took place in that old mansion.

The female characters haven’t aged so well. They’re almost cartoonish. Kleph plays the damsel-in-distress and also the siren with not much else to her character. Oliver’s fiancé Sue plays the nagging, materialistic wife with neither imagination nor curiosity. Plus, Oliver’s attraction and flirtation with Kleph is only stopped by the sharp reprimand of another male character – and we presume Sue never hears about any of it.

References to contemporary technology are few. Further descriptions of future technology come later. Much of it is plausible. Pre-programmed self-heating teacups? Sure. A crisp moving picture? Sounds like HD TV. Hand waving motions to command technology? We have that. The only odd thing could be the headphones, except retro headphones are back in style right now.

It reminds me of…

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield – the beginning of Vintage Season reminded me of it. I read The Garden Party in high school and was distinctly underwhelmed by it. Except Vintage Season has a distinctly creepy feeling to it. Oliver seems to be alone in the house – the servants don’t appear as characters and are only mentioned twice in passing.

Halfway through the story, I was strongly reminded of the theory that aliens are actually just humans from the future. Tall. Thin. Huge eyes. I was mildly surprised to learn that I was right.

Other Thoughts

Reading this story made me go back to check the author’s name. After looking up Lawrence O’Donnell, I learned it was a pseudonym used by Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore. I’ll have to read more of their work.

Rating: 10/10 (I would read this again sometime)



How to burn all the goodwill you’ve built up by actually having women in your story: spend the first 2+ pages having the male narrator describe how they and their clothes are far too perfect to actually exist, and then have one of these impossibly perfect women be obviously interested in him.

And have it seem not to matter to the narrator that he’s engaged.

There are some ideas that could be interesting in another story. Time tourism. The dangers of modifying the past, and what it could do in the present. The idea of a culture that thrives on experiencing the suffering of others.

But we didn’t actually get to focus on any of that. Instead, we’re stuck in the head of a guy who’s trying to have at least an emotional affair with one of the time travellers, despite the presence of his fiancee, and the disapproval of the other time travellers.

The main mystery of the story turns out to be irrelevant. There seems to be all this importance about possession of the house, but really it’s just because it survives the initial apocalypse, and they want to have a viewing party there. And are apparently bad at sharing.

And then the whole city dies, and there’s plague, and we have to hope that some time in the future another time traveller will decide to fix things, regardless of the threat to history, because our narrator wrote a note.

I was actually quite relieved when the narrator died, since I didn’t have to spend any more time in his head. Nothing in the way he interacted with anyone in the story made me want to like him at all. It started bad and continued that way. I didn’t care about his observations about the people around him, since apparently he thinks that his fiancee losing a staring contest makes her look unfashionable, grotesque, and ridiculous. I’m going to assume all his other observations are also this ridiculously wrong, and ignore them.

Am I giving the themes of this story a fair shot? Of course not. I just wanted it to be over as quickly as possible, and nothing in it was interesting enough to make me pause and examine. If I want to read a story discussing if time travellers changing things would impact their future, and art in different cultures, there are far more enjoyable ones than this.