Short Story Reviews: Fritz Leiber’s “The Moon Is Green” (1952) and Sonya Dorman’s “Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird” (1967)

Today I have selected two radical post-apocalyptic visions to review. Fritz Leiber (1910-1992) writes a conscientious attempt to understand the plight of a housewife trapped in a fallout shelter with an abusive husband and a mysterious man outside who whispers her deepest fantasies. I am fascinated by subversive 50s stories–especially on sex, masculinity, colonization, suburbia–and Leiber’s tale ticks many of my favorite boxes. Sonya Dorman (1924-2005), a skilled American representative of New Wave movement, recounts a highly metaphoric flight of a woman attempting to maintain independent thought and experience in a world hurtling towards disaster.

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Fritz Leiber’s “The Moon Is Green” first appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (April 1952). You can read it online here.  

On January 3rd, 1950, in response to the successful 1949 Soviet test of atomic weapons, President Truman announced a crash program to develop the hydrogen bomb. It is within this moment of escalating terror after Truman’s announcement that Leiber wrote “The Moon is Green” (1952). While Leiber references hydrogen weapons, the story was published before the “Ivy Mike” Hydrogen bomb test (November 1st, 1952)–known to the public after a media blackout on January 7th, 1953–that revealed the devastating presence of fallout. The Soviets conducted their own test of a thermonuclear device–Joe-4–on August 12, 1953 (source).

Effie lives with her abusive husband Hank in an apartment on the upper level–with lead-protected walls and window shutters–of a vast fallout shelter. Due to Hank’s rising position in the ruling Committee, they are spared life in the basement tenements–described by Effie as “fetid huddling, that shameless communal sprawl” (92). Hank spends his days ridiculing Effie’s desperate attempt to grasp on to something beautiful in the dying world. After catching her looking out the window at the green moon, he mimics her voice in “falsetto”: “[You] only wanted to die like a little fool and make me that much more ashamed of you!” (90). He reminds her that he could receive a new wife if she does not bear him a healthy child (93). The child and demure wife will be important in his rise up the ranks. His abuse threatens to chip away at her last hope that there is something beautiful in the wreckage of the world outside. And while Hank is away at a governmental function, a man named Patrick appears at her window–deformed cat in tow–with a delusion far more destructive.

Rather than harboring a fear of radioactive dust as a generator of the monstrous. Patrick claims that the dust has created a “wonderland” outside her window — transformations that the men who journey outward in protected suits cannot see (97). The dust has purged the Earth of the dangerous and aggressive: “flowers have petals a yard across, with stingless bees big as sparrows gently supping their nectar” (97). Hank views that the conflict with Communism restarting when humanity emerges from its warrens. Patrick claims that an new Eden of peace already exists. Hank returns to the apartment gun in hand and confronts Effie and Patrick. Effie begs Patrick to share the state of the new world: “Oh, Hank, forget your silly, wrong jealousy and listen to me. Patrick here has something wonderful to tell us” (100). But all delusions must come crashing down. And some are too much to bear.

I’m a sucker for nuclear gloom stories. And unsurprisingly, after reading Martha A. Batter’s The Way to Ground Zero: The Atomic Bomb in American Science Fiction (1988), I created a list of stories to review. And Leiber’s was at the top. “The Moon Is Green” effectively dodges the traditional miasma of nuclear gloom by instead following the experiences of a woman trapped and driven to insanity by the men in her life. Rather then spelling out how humanity might survive or justifying new oppressive systems of control under the promise of survival, Leiber ruminates on contemporary patriarchal forces–transposed to an alien post-apocalyptic Earth landscape drenched with a deceptive tincture of green from the light permeating through the nuclear dust–that attempt to control the thoughts and actions of women. The existential dread and immediacy of post-apocalyptic devastation brings the commentary into relief. Leiber’s “The Moon Is Green” might be productively read in conjunction with Alice Eleanor Jones’ later “Created He Them” (1958).

Highly recommended.

4.75/5 (Very Good)

Sonya Dorman’s “Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird” first appeared in Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison (1967). You can read it online here.

A handful of adjective come to mind in the stories that I find appealing over the history of my site–hallucinatory, entropic, decayed, nightmarish. I am relentlessly drawn to stories that cut to the bone, that lay bear the sadness that permeates all, that scream out in the fear that we all pretend doesn’t exist. If this is territory that you do not like to cross then Sonya Dorman’s “Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird” is probably not for you. I thoroughly enjoyed Dorman’s “Splice of Life” (1966), a terrifying vision of an unusual hospital ward whose poor patients’ wounds go unhealed and re-inflicted…

“Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird” delves similar purgatorial depths with even more grotesque bite. After an unknown apocalyptic event, a nameless woman runs down an abandoned concrete highway–“seizing the shriek in her stained teeth”–beset on all sides by denizens (old and young) of hovels and burrows (fallout shelters?) who want to sink their teeth into her “succulent” thirty-year-old flesh (406). She runs to both physically and mentally survive the oblivion the world finds itself hurtling towards. Interspersed are memory fragments that suggest how she arrived at this point—the headman Marn killing her deformed third child (408); the dying Earth whose soils and waters no longer bear sustenance (408); her second partner Tichy’s sexual assault that she cannot mentally detach from the act of cannibalism (409); and her son Neely’s murder of Tichy “on the north slope of the dead orchard” (410). But the run must come to the end.

Dorman’s prose and structural choices–hyper-reduced dialogue, memory fragments, the relentless movement of the run, recurrent metaphors of the death of the land and the smokehouse as a womb generating nourishment–artfully cohere in one of the highlights of Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology. As for the subject matter, I found it almost as shocking as it must have been for readers at the time. In the previous decade, editors excised far less overt references to cannibalism in Wilson Tucker’s The Long Loud Silence (1952, rev. 1969). The unexpunged novel with the sections restored only appeared in print in 1969 (with other revisions).

“Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird” also operates on a metaphoric level as a hellish representation of society’s conception of women as primarily producers of children. The main character, after the death of her partner, can no longer rely on her old position as wife of the headman for protection. And after the birth of a deformed child, those around her no longer consider her a viable producer of children. She will be consumed by her own children and grandchildren. This is powerful and brutal in every possible way.

Highly recommended.

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5 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Fritz Leiber’s “The Moon Is Green” (1952) and Sonya Dorman’s “Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird” (1967)

  1. I think in Sonya Dorman’s piece, that such a vile practice has become less of a moral issue in the face of a desecrated world, that has lost it’s societal values, because it seems such acts of violence have become necessary for survival and probably status. This is followed by a breakdown of familial relationships, where even parentage has lost it’s intrinsic value. I think she might also be trying to say that it has atavistic roots, and that people will resort to their primitive instincts under pressure.

    I reread it in my edition of “Dangerous Visions”. It is of course quite shocking, but I’m not sure if it has the same impact now as it and the other pieces did when they were first published in this anthology. I think the ending is excellent though.

    • Yup. I enjoy how the nature of the catastrophe isn’t spelled out, the dialogue is hyper constricted and direct suggesting the decay of complex thought, and the ending. A great story! And I still found it shocking.

  2. What’s amazing is that after all these years there STILL hasn’t been a career retrospective collection of her short stories yet to be published. Especially in this age of small-presses and print-on-demand publishing.

    • I agree. I’d buy it. I simply do not think she has the audience to make it a financially wise thing to do unfortunately… Which is one reason I plan on continuing to review her work this year.

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