The stories are set in a milieu common to science fiction stories of the pulp era. All of the planets of the system are able to support life and have their own civilizations. Many of the intelligent races living on the planets have comparatively primitive cultures. The relationship of the "planetary primitives" to the earth colonists is analogous to the situation of Native Americans, Africans and other indigenous people facing colonialism. Exceptions to this rule are the planets Mars and Venus, which Moore depicts as having ancient and decadent cultures (which might stand for China and other ancient Asian cultures, as they seemed to Westerners at the time). This general milieu was shared by a number of other writers, including Moore's friends Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett.
By profession, Smith is an outlaw who lives by a variety of criminal means, including smuggling. By nature, he is an anti-hero, ruthless, self-serving, and cynical. Despite this, he has a core of goodness and often does the right thing in spite of himself. Smith is described as a dark haired man with "space bronzed" skin and pale eyes, who wears brown spacer's leathers and carries a raygun at his side like an old west gunfighter. His ship, the Maid, is small and unspectacular but surprisingly fast and agile. His closest ally is the equally amoral Venusian, Yarol.
His stories often involve ancient alien beings who have been worshipped as gods. This theme is similar to the tales of H. P. Lovecraft though, unlike Lovecraft's tales, Moore provides a hero who always manages to win out over hopeless odds. The classic Northwest Smith story is "Shambleau", in which Moore plays with themes of sexuality and addiction in Smith's encounter with a strange female alien.
The story "Quest of the Starstone" is also worth noting because it connects Smith with Moore's other most famous character, Jirel of Joiry.
Moore originally created Smith as a western character and kept the name when she switched to science fiction. She reportedly liked the absurdity of a character named "Northwest" in space, where compass points are meaningless.
Moore traced the origin of the character's name to the typing work which she was doing for a living while writing Shambleau and which included a letter addressed to a "Mr. N.W.Smith." Moore admitted that the name of Smith's Venusian buddy, Yarol, was simply a permutation of the name of her favorite typewriter.
In the history of both the United States and Canada, the term "Northwest" recurs in various contexts, greatly variant with time and place but all carrying associations of wild frontier areas, exploration and adventure (Northwest Territory in early US history, North-Western Territory/Northwest Territories in Canada, Northwest Passage, North-West Rebellion and more).
Northwest Smith is sometimes compared to the Star Wars character Han Solo; both are violent, gun-wielding, rogue smugglers with hearts of gold who travel among planets that are stand-ins for existing Earth cultures.
The Northwest Smith stories include the following:
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:
The Tree of Life
Northwest Smith stories appear in the following collections: