The Best of Leigh Brackett, Leigh Brackett (1986)
Review by Ian Sales
These days, it’s likely Brackett is better known as the screenwriter of The Empires Strikes Back (and The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye and others). But back in the day, she was almost science fiction royalty, published in many magazines, a collaborator with Ray Bradbury, and married to Edmond Hamilton. And throughout the 1940s and 1950s, she churned out dozens of science fiction stories, most published in Planet Stories, and a handful of novels. Much of her output could be described as “planetary romance”, stories in which the planets of the solar system – Earth excluded – hosted the dying remains of ancient civilisations. Titles included ‘The Dragon-Queen of Jupiter’ (AKA ‘The Dragon-Queen of Venus’), ‘Sea-Kings of Mars’ and ‘Enchantress of Venus’, among many others.
These were stories in which adventurers sought alien treasures and became trapped by ancient curses, or the last members of a dying race managed to exact their final revenge. The sensibilities were pure pulp, but the prose was hard-boiled noir polished to a diamond sheen. Brackett was very very good at what she did, and her nearest male rivals – including her husband – were no match. Perhaps the closest was CL Moore, Catherine Lucille Moore, with her tales of Northwest of Earth, or her superior space opera novel, Judgment Night.
Given the nature of Brackett’s science fictions, it’s no real surprise that despite her skill she is these days mostly forgotten. The style of what she wrote, irrespective of its quality, has fallen out of favour. The real indignity of this, however, is that other such progenitors, like EE ‘Doc’ Smith, whose writing was so vastly inferior, are still remembered fondly. Make no mistake: of the sf authors writing planetary romance or space opera in the 1940s and early 1950s, Leigh Brackett was probably the best.
And so it seems reasonable to expect superior stories in a collection titled The Best of Leigh Brackett. Which was, incidentally, edited by her husband, Edmond Hamilton. It would not be unreasonable to expect Hamilton to be in an excellent position to select Brackett’s best fiction. But this collection feels more like an attempt to show her range rather than simply showcase her best. It would also not be unreasonable to expect her husband of such motives in selecting stories for the collection.
Sadly, the end result does not play to Brackett’s strengths. There is some classic stuff here, science fiction of the 1940s/1950s that demonstrates it could be serious and superior pulp fiction, like the aforementioned ‘Enchantress of Venus’, or ‘The Jewel of Bas’, or ‘The Last Days of Shandakor’… These are hits of the pure stuff. Known planets of the solar system, ancient civilisations, magical technology… Planetary romance does not get better than this.
Unfortunately, The Best of Leigh Brackett also includes some of her “straight” sf stories, such as ‘The Tweener’ or ‘The Queer Ones’, neither of which compare well to similar contemporary material. If they suited at the time they were published, that’s one thing; but Brackett’s planetary romances are, happily, mostly timeless and still hold up well today…
Albeit perhaps not as well as Moore’s Judgment Night, which rings some changes which took nearly fifty years to take hold in the genre… And Brackett’s fiction was often so well-tuned to its time it now reads as misogynistic… But she had the elegiac tone down pat, and her evocation of long-dead cultures is second to none in genre fiction. There is perhaps a tendency to recycle plots, but no more so than is the case in hard-boiled detective fiction.
Brackett’s style of science fiction is these days considered passé, and was thought so when she returned to it in the late 1970s after a hiatus of a decade or more. It’s certainly true the genre has a tendency to faddish-ness, inasmuch as certain styles and “preoccupations” may prove more popular than others at various times… But good fiction is timeless; and the best fiction evokes timelessness even at the time it is published. Some of Brackett’s stories – and she liked to write at length, so much of her best fiction is novelette- or novella-length – has that quality. Yes, it could be argued Brackett’s planetary romances were colonialist and orientalist; but because they were constructed to a specific pattern – albeit only inasmuch as they were seemingly patterned on ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’ by J Milton Hayes in much the same way Heinlein’s sf was apparently inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim… And the former being a pastiche of the latter… And both being imperialist and racist to a considerable degree…
Of course, this relies on a particular reading of Brackett’s fiction, or indeed of much American sf of the first half of the twentieth century, and it is perhaps unfair to complain of issues endemic to her entire generation. If Brackett’s fiction did not overcome those issues, it at least made them a mostly unobjectionable element of her stories. Her tales of Mars and its dying races are good stories, put together with enviable skill and economy. She even collaborated with Ray Bradbury – in ‘Lorelei of the Red Mist’ – and her voice drowned out Bradbury’s.
During the 1940s, the two best writers of science fiction were arguably Leigh Brackett and CL Moore, and if history has not recorded them as such, that may well be due to their gender. Some male writers of the period went on to greater success – such as Asimov and Clarke – and so occluded better writers whose subsequent careers did not really survive the 1950s. But the history of women writers in sf is filled with examples who enjoyed historical success, only for their success to be forgotten in subsequent years in favour of the few male authors whose success continued into following decades. True, it also happened to male writers; but the many of the female writers thus forgotten were of better quality.
The Best of Leigh Brackett is not the best-named collection ever published. But Brackett was extremely good at, well, at what she was extremely good at. Her fiction is long out of print, bar collections from some small presses; although she did appear in the original Fantasy Masterwork series from Gollancz, with Sea-King of Mars, despite it not actually being fantasy… But books by Leigh Brackett are not hard to find, and she is totally worth reading. She should be in print – more so than the likes of Asimov or her other contemporaries. If you see one of her books snap it up. You will not be disappointed.