Alpha Centauri or Die!, Leigh Brackett

Alpha Centauri -Or Die!, Leigh Brackett (1963)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

There were no more men in space. The dark ships strode the ways between the worlds, lightless, silent, needing no human mind to guide them. The R-ships, carrying the freight and the passengers, keeping order, keeping the law, taking the Pax Terrae to the limits of the Solar System and guarding there the boundary which was not now ever to be crossed.

No more men in space. No strong hands bridling the rockets, no eyes looking outward to the stars. But still upon the wide-flung worlds of Sol were old men who remembered, and young men who could dream.

Leigh Brackett is a name that every science fiction fan should know, but a name often relegated to the moldy back shelves of SF history. Brackett was a great pulp science fiction writer, combining beautiful prose with hardboiled noir, a wonderful imagination, and stock science fiction tropes to make amazing stories. Given her amazing prose, it’s no surprise to find she was a mentor of sorts to Ray Bradbury – when Brackett rushed off to screenwrite The Big Sleep, she passed the half-completed novella ‘Lorelei of the Red Mist’, stopped mid-sentence, to Bradbury to finish. She had an expansive list of works in the pulp era, which petered out when she went to work writing screenplays for Howard Hawks (El Dorado, Rio Bravo, Hatari!) and for Raymond Chandler films (The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye). She also wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, revised after her untimely death from cancer in 1978. And she married Ed Hamilton, fellow forgotten pulp SF legend.

So, an interesting background and certified pedigree. Brackett is (rightly) coming back thanks to a resurgent interest in early SF (1930s-1950s), but she’ll always be more of a deep cut than a household name author.

In the 1960s, Ace Books ended up reprinting a good chunk of her pulp work; these were old novellas from Planet Stories, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Tales, either expanded to full novels, or combined together to form a longer work. Alpha Centauri –Or Die! is a fix-up of two earlier Brackett novellas from the Planet Stories magazine: ‘The Ark of Mars’ (September 1953) and ‘Teleportress of Alpha C’ (Winter 1955). I don’t have those, nor have I read them, so I can’t comment on specifics; the novel felt longer, and was well tied-together in plot… Though it’s easy to see where one work ends and the other begins, because of the change in tone.

In the far future, humanity’s space travel has been overtaken by robots. Humanity itself is too unpredictable and warlike to be left to its own devices, and so the government holds a monopoly on space travel with its robot spaceships. (Other forms of oppression may exist, who knows; this part felt so very 1950s in its “humanity’s manifest destiny unchained” plot.) Former starship pilot Kirby, and his Martian wife Shari, lead a bunch of other people in an uprising: they’re crammed aboard an old tramp freighter, the Lucy B Davenport, blast off from Mars, and set out to run the robot-ship blockades. Their goal is Alpha Centauri: a robot probe found the planet to be habitable and Earth-like, facts suppressed by the government. Possibly for a reason: after a harrowing pursuit and escape, and a five-year voyage to Alpha Centauri, the ship of refugees finds the planet to be inhabited by a strange species of psi-wielding creatures which can teleport matter…

The tension in the first section is great – evading patrols, leaving Mars, chased by robot ships – but the second half felt weaker, too noticeable a change in style: things become even more straightforward, without the tension-building techniques and literary flair of the first half. The material that used to be ‘Teleportress…’ was a weak second half. It fit into the established plot, sticking with the same characters and setup, and hearkening back to the oppressive robot-ship people, but it was jarring to go from the tension of “We must escape to Alpha C!” to the slow-burn mystery of “There’s something weird out there”. The flaws of using two novellas to make a novel: the novellas themselves have their own dramatic arc, so putting them side-by-side to make one long work feel weird. And though they’re tight, plot wise, they’re still novellas: even expanding them into a 130-page Ace Double half hardly satiates the urge for more.

It’s worth noting that while Brackett was female, most of her protagonists were strong, hardboiled men, and her female characters fit the stereotype of the time. Well, almost. See, Brackett could more than handle a strong, independent (but still feminine) female role, part of the reason Howard Hawks considered her his favorite screenwriter – hell, Brackett herself was more or less that character. In this case, it’s Kirby’s wife Shari; she’s strong, sticks up for herself, and won’t be bossed around, though is still feminine and can be emotionally overwhelmed. Contrast her with the many women in the Lucy B Davenport: mothers and housewives who don’t want to be there, don’t want to go home, and bitch about those facts to Edmund. Yet they pull together for the climax of ‘The Ark of Mars’, a battle with robotic pursuit ship RSS-1, and the male copilot points out that the women are tougher than the men in many ways. Gender dynamics in a Brackett novel are interesting.

Also worth noting: despite the short length, Kirby goes through some development in ‘The Ark of Mars’ as he realizes (and copes with) what he’s done, ripping frightened families out of their lives and cramming them together on a metal can for five years. ‘The Ark of Mars’ segments are really well done, between the tension and the development; the ‘Teleportress…’ part is a single-minded find-the-alien plot which ends up having relevance in the overall plot. Attaching it to ‘The Ark…’ made the overall plot muddled, and there’s no real sense of conclusion to the epic journey begun in ‘The Ark…’ at the end of ‘Teleportress…’.

The cover is a glorious example of both the 1960s and Ed Emsh. Let me describe it for the visually impaired. Four men and a women, in bubble-headed yellow-spectrum spacesuits with oversized gloves, float down one of those spinning tunnel funhouse rides made up of flat mechanical-looking things. Their target is a cross between a stained-glass sombrero and a piano. The colors and design is an embodiment of the 1960s, purple, blue and radioactive green. Emsh had a very specific art style, which emphasized weird technological-mechanical parts as a design element, and this cover is an embodiment of that as well. It’s not my favorite Emsh cover, but it depicts the best sequence in the book: the assault on the RSS-1. As does the better cover to Planet Stories Sept 1953, by Frank Kelly Freas.

To be honest, the novel is somewhat basic; Brackett’s strengths were her fantastic imagery, weird creations, and hardboiled trappings, which aren’t showcased here. It’s a straightforward science fiction adventure, without anything to set it apart or break the mold: a workmanlike concept that could use some of the wild and imaginative ideas Brackett came up for her Eric John Stark stories. That said, Alpha Centauri –Or Die! is still good. On a bad day, Brackett could outpace most of her competitors, hence why Haffner Press, Baen Books, and Paizo are reprinting her works. Hell, go read that intro quote again; it’s beautiful, almost poetic, and a solid example of the writing in ‘The Ark of Mars’. Quite ahead of her more-famous contemporaries, such as Clarke and Asimov. If the plot and writing was of that consistent quality throughout, the novel would have been a knockout. Instead, it’s merely passing-grade.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.


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