The Best of Leigh Brackett, Leigh Brackett

best_brackettThe 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.

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The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett

thelongtomorrowThe Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955)
Review by Megan AM

Len Colter sat in the shade under the wall of the horse barn, eating pone and sweet butter and contemplating a sin. (p 7)

That’s a killer first line. And now I want some cornbread.

With its bucolic setting and unsophisticated characters, as well as some rambunctious river moments with two growing boys, it’s as though The Long Tomorrow invites the tradition of Mark Twain into the realm of SF, supporting the success of Ray Bradbury’s nostalgia stories and setting the stage for Clifford Simak’s pastoral entreaties for peace in the following decade. (Yes, I know Twain wrote sci-fi. I saw that episode of Next Gen, too.)

An excellent example of a post-WWII attempt at post-apocalyptic fiction, a tradition that has endured and endured and endured. I often wonder if, after we finally suffer the apocalypse that humanity seems to crave, will we then sit around the campfire telling gripping stories about copy machines, fast food tacos, and skyscrapers.

Of course we will. But in The Long Tomorrow, Brackett explores that same question.

Some eighty years after nuclear war, humanity’s survivors subsist in pastoral communities ruled by religious sects, while a federal law forbids the establishment of cities. Len and Esau, teenagers of the New Mennonites of Piper’s Run, fantasize about the cities of the past, with their metal skyscrapers, electric lights, and automobiles. When the punishments for their technological transgressions go too far, the boys decide to break free of their stifling community in search of the mythical Bartorstown, where technology and science are celebrated and preserved.

Brackett is better known for her screenwriting career, with credits on popular hardboiled crime movies and some involvement in The Empire Strikes Back, and even most of her own bibliography is crime and space opera stuff. The Long Tomorrow is an unusual piece in the Brackett oeuvre, though many consider it to be her best. Whatever the state of her other novels, this is an excellent place to start.

Extremely readable and thematically immense, The Long Tomorrow tugs on the worries of a post-war world, a planet sitting on its own atomic power while two superpowers wobble in a precarious balance. This coming-of-age tale about Len and Esau mirrors the loss of innocence of post-WWII nations, where mid-20th citizens grapple with the consequences of the pursuit of knowledge and technology, while mid-20th nations grapple with each other. Len and Esau want to know things. They’re fearful, but warnings of danger don’t stop them.

Could you give up all the mystery and wonder of the world? Could you never see it, and never want to see it? Could you stop the waiting, hoping eagerness to hear a voice from nowhere, out of a little square box? (p 42)

The boys dance a precarious dance, both experiencing a spectrum of convictions, but never at the same time, constantly in flux with one another. Constantly in a bid to outdo and overpower one another. They blame each other for their uncomfortable pursuits. They are never in harmony.

Len. Esau. Lenin. USA. I know it’s the wrong time and conflict for Lenin, but maybe? Just because “Stal” is a crappy name? And maybe “Nik” is too obvious. (I searched around to see if someone else noticed this, and came up empty. So maybe I’m stretching. Me? Stretching? Never!)

But as much as this taps into the current events of the time, this is no study in polemics. Brackett explores the arc along with the reader, and questions are left to drift in the post-nuclear wind. Is knowledge worth the sacrifice of blissful ignorance? When the boys finally get their wish, their skins practically crawl with fear when confronted with certain technologies. Maybe ignorance sounds good again. But, can one ever return to ignorance? (Think on this before you judge the ending.)

Of the flaws, the women are thin in character and agency (read: annoying), typical for fifties SF, but surprising to see from a female author. We do get people of color, a tiny bit, but the one Hispanic is an alcoholic, and Len can’t help noticing the beautiful white skin of the (assumed to be) Native American daughter. This thinness does, however, lend some validity to the product-of-their-time apologists (myself included). The fifties just sucked for women and POCs, even in imaginary tales, even when written by women.

But, it’s remarkable how much Brackett packs in to this 200-page novel based on themes of Cold War social tensions, the risk of knowledge, the power of individuality, and socio-psychological conditioning. She explores post-apocalyptic power structures, the roles of religion in times of fear, and the manifestations of oppression in various societies. The tale feels literary as Brackett experiments with structure and foreshadowing. Her protagonists are developed, not just as agents of the narrative like many early SF characters, but as independent personalities. Len and Esau change and grow, sometimes in unpredictable ways that only make sense upon reexamination.

I’m happy to have found such a satisfying piece of fifties SF with Leigh Brackett. Nothing I’ve read from the fifties comes close to this level of sophistication.

Recommended for readers who want to read fifties SF, but can’t stand the stilted prose.

Recommended for readers looking for proof that women have been writing SF for a long time, and doing it well (better).

Recommended for readers who want to like Bradbury, but think he’s too heavy-handed with the metaphors.

Recommended for readers who love their post-apocalyptic fiction on the soft side.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

The Secret of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett

sinharatThe Secret of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett (1964)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Leigh Brackett was the queen of pulp SF. She started writing adventure stories in 1940, but her first novel in 1944 was a mystery, No Good from a Corpse. As legend has it, Howard Hawks was so impressed by it that he asked for “this guy Brackett” to write a screenplay of The Big Sleep with William Faulkner. Today Brackett is more famous for her screenwriting career working with Hawks – most of them westerns or noir, old John Wayne flicks like Rio Bravo and Hatari!, but also the first pass of The Empire Strikes Back for George Lucas, the only time she worked on a SF film. Those screenplays diverted her focus from science fiction, though she did return in the early 1970s to write the Skaith novels before succumbing to cancer at the age of sixty.

The Secret of Sinharat is a novel expanded from one of her 1940s novellas, 1949’s ‘Queen of the Martian Catacombs’ for the Planet Stories pulp. Everything points to her husband, fellow SF writer Ed “World Wrecker” Hamilton, as the source of the revisions, especially since Brackett was busy writing screenplays at the time. There’s enough differences to make The Secret of Sinharat and ‘Queen of the Martian Catacombs’ their own distinct works, but the core of the novella is alive and well in the short novel.

Eric John Stark finds himself trapped on the Martian desert, his mount dying of thirst, men of the Earth Police Control hot on his heels. Led by Stark’s foster-father, Ashton Simon, the police are on to Stark’s purpose on Mars: they know he was hired by a revolutionary to train an army of drylander barbarians and low-canallers, they’re aware of the coming revolt against the Martian city-states that will cause rivers of blood to flow in the streets. But since they cannot intervene in Martian affairs, they need Stark to become a double-agent and shut this revolt down, and Stark finds himself working to diffuse the very revolution he was hired to instigate.

Playing the game of bluff and double-bluff will be easy for Stark. Finding one of his fellow mercenaries is an old adversary, Luhar the Venusian, is only a passing concern. Nor are the grudges of the rebel lieutenants, one of which has an addiction to radioactive rays that bring out mindless, primal savagery. No, the trouble comes from the revolutionary leader, who claims he’s found the secrets of the lost Ramas of Mars – long-dead immortals thought close to godhood, with incredible powers like the ability to transfer minds between bodies. Because there are long-dead secrets on this planet many would kill for, and legend of the Ramas’ extinction may be greatly exaggerated…

Brackett’s prose is unmistakable; it’s full of vigor and wonder, and it’s no surprise she influenced dozens of authors (such as Michael Moorcock, who wrote a glowing introduction). She transmutes the California of 1940s literature into the red planet Mars – the seedy underbelly of the Martian city-states could be the San Francisco streets trafficked by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; her unforgiving Martian desert is the same type of rugged frontier she brought to life in Howard Hawks’ westerns. The twists, the thrills, the adventure are all here. Regardless of the flaws of the planetary romance sub-genre – of which they are many – it makes for excellent entertainment. Really, there is no finer practitioner of SF adventure than Brackett: her tales echo Burroughs’ Mars, but have a uniqueness all their own.

The Secret of Sinharat is a good example of why Brackett’s fiction surpasses much of the pulp adventure of her time: elements of revolution and postcolonialism add extra depth to this story. The Martian revolt centers on the groups living in the shadow of the ruling city-states, drawing immediate comparison to the African states gaining independence in the early 1960s; the underground revolt is trained by grim mercenaries and led by a die-hard idealist reminiscent of Castro or Che. These themes would have been relevant and topical when novelized in 1962, but they were part of the story back when it was a 1949 novella. Brackett’s women are femmes fatale – sexy, dark, and dangerous, not simpering clichés in constant need of rescue. Stark is an anti-hero, and I can’t recall many anti-heroes before the 1970s… Yet you can picture him in some alternate universe played by Humphrey Bogart, grinding out a cigarette stub in the sands of some dead Martian sea.

The Secret of Sinharat succeeds because of Brackett’s compelling prose and rich atmosphere. I could argue that The Sword of Rhiannon is her best sword-and-planet work, but I can’t really fault The Secret of Sinharat; it’s a solid adventure yarn made better by its depth. Characterization and plotting is still pulpy – that is to say, thin and straightforward, respectively – and Brackett’s tales are dated, an acquired taste at best. But if you’re in the market for adventure, Brackett is among the best practitioners of that art. Moorcock makes a persuasive argument in his introduction that Brackett raised the bar for space opera, and I’m inclined to agree with him. An enjoyable old-school romp.

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

The Halfling and Other Stories, Leigh Brackett

halflingThe Halfling and Other Stories, Leigh Brackett (1973)
Review by Martin Wisse

The Halfling and Other Stories is the sixth book I’ve read in the Year of Reading Women challenge I set myself after I’d noticed last year how few female written science fiction books I read. I had chosen this because it was something I hadn’t read before and I always liked Brackett. Unfortunately it turned out this was one of her lesser collections. The stories don’t fit well together, there’s no real theme to the collection and some are decidedly on the weak side.

It doesn’t help that the first two stories are basically the same. In both there’s the hard-bitten protagonist falling for a mysterious beautiful alien girl who he knows is trouble yet can’t help himself but get involved with, who then turns out to be evil. Worse, in both stories this girl is shown to be representative of her race, their evil part of their biology. It’s a bit… uncomfortable… shall we say, but unfortunately these sort of assumptions are build into the kind of planetary romances Leigh Brackett wrote.

As a genre planetary romance has always been a bit dodgy, an evolutionary offshoot of the Africa adventure story, with a lot of the same racist and colonial assumptions built in. So you have cringing Gandymedian natives, mysterious jungles and alien drums, crazed halfbreeds and all those other tropes recycled from Tarzan. Just because the native races are now Martian or Venusian and coloured green or red instead of black or yellow doesn’t make the assumptions behind them any less racist. There’s still the idea that the various alien races encountered have existential qualities that each and every member of such a race shares. Leigh Brackett is usually better than this, with those tropes present in her stories but never this blatant as in these first two stories. Her writing style and sense of atmosphere are still present, but the execution is pedestrian, unlike the Eric John Stark story also present.

It isn’t all planetary romance in this collection. In fact most of the stories here are rather classic sf puzzle stories, something I don’t really associate with Brackett. These stories are okay, but nothing special. The same goes for the whole collection. There aren’t any bad stories in here, but apart from ‘Enchantress of Venus’, the lone Stark story, there’s nothing really outstanding here either. Something for the completists.

‘The Halfling’ (1943). A beautiful alien dancer joins John Greene’s circus. And then the murders start…

‘The Dancing Girl of Ganymede’ (1950). A Terran adventurer down on his luck rescues a strange dancing girl from her would be assassins; his native helper does not like this. Only when he meets her brothers does he realises what a mistake he made…

‘The Citadel of Lost Ages’ (1950). A twentieth-century New Yorker is resurrected in the far future, once the Earth has stopped revolving around its axis and the mutated people from the nightside reign over the Earth…

‘All the Colors of the Rainbow’ (1957). One of the better stories in the collection, this tale of two funny-coloured alien visitors lost in an unreconstructed Southern town is not very subtle, but it is interesting to see a science fiction story of this vintage openly treating racism.

‘The Shadows’ (1952). A small expedition lands on a newly discovered planet and finds the ruins of the once dominant intelligent species that lived there, but who killed them? And what does their disappearance have to do with the strange shadows that start to hang around the expedition?

‘Enchantress of Venus’ (1949). An Eric John Stark story and the best in the anthology, as Stark comes to a half legendary city on the edge of the Venusian ocean in search of revenge. Leigh Brackett’ s pulpish stylings are always at their best when she’s doing a Stark story and this holds up with the best of them.

‘The Lake of the Gone Forever’ (1949). His father came back half mad from the planet Iskar, now Rand Conway is back to see the terrible secret his father left behind – and get rich exploiting it.

‘The Truants’ (1950). When Hugh Sherwin’s daughter and other children start skipping school to play with the “angels” and their “spaceship” in the forest on Sherwin’s land, he’s determined to get to the bottom of this. What he finds surprises him, though perhaps not the reader.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett

thelongtomorrowThe Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett (1955)
Review by Hudson Jesse

If indeed social movements occur in cycles that over time have a net result of zero, what then is the value of scientific pursuit? If humanity will inevitably revert to primitivism, of what use is maneuvering toward that fuzzy idea of ‘civilization’? Is it just to give us something to do with our time on Earth? Is it an innate, unavoidable aspect of being human we should shun? Is it just false hope? Or, is there a light at the end of the tunnel? These questions and more Leigh Brackett examines in her oft-overlooked 1955 magnum opus The Long Tomorrow. A simple tale, it nevertheless lays bare one of the most fundamental questions we face: to what goal should humanity strive?

Post apocalypse, The Long Tomorrow posits an America where technologically advanced civilization was put to blame for the catastrophe of global nuclear war that followed upon Hiroshima. Religious groups jumping into the void of leadership that followed, new laws were enacted to prevent cities from developing larger than 1,000 people. Large gatherings of minds seen as the root cause for the development of such destructive technology, in the years that followed America became a scattering of pastoral micro-communities of religious groups of varying fervor. Neighbor keeping close watch over neighbor, technology such as radios and tvs is the work of the devil, the simple life of farming the norm.

The Long Tomorrow opens with Len Colter contemplating a sin. Living in Piper’s Run, a New Mennonite community in the former Ohio, the mere thought has his mind burning. Thus it is with reluctance he and his cousin Esau sneak out of their houses that night to attend a tent meeting in a nearby village. Witness to a fire and brimstone sermon, the meeting ends with the violent death of a man believed to have forbidden technology. Len and Esau accidentally coming into possession of the radio in the resulting chaos, curiosity gets the better of them, and after hiding it in a tree, the two begin spending their nights trying to figure out how the strange device works. But when their community discovers the radio, a scandal breaks out, and Len and Esau, whipped and punished, must make a decision: remain in Piper’s Run or see where destiny will take them.

Given the rural life depicted, philosophical questions asked, and everyday man’s approach to dialogue and social interaction, The Long Tomorrow is reminiscent of a John Steinbeck novel. No one novel in particular, but for the horses and quotidian details of farming, as well as the ability to place within the simplest of scenarios some of the most basic and important questions regarding belief and what’s good for society does the parallel occur. That Brackett likewise does this in intelligent fashion while maintaining her characters’ humanity places her novel in company with the American great.

But where Steinbeck’s concerns were often regarding class and the economic systems underpinning class struggle, Brackett’s concerns are more knowledge based. Focusing on the value, purpose, and application of science, nuclear technology is the crux of her story. Knowledge that can be both utilized to supply electrical power to mankind as well as destroy it in terrible fashion, Len must ultimately grapple with the idea of whether the pursuit of knowledge benefits mankind. Brackett not shuffling the deck in favor of either side, the decision is anything but straight forward. The positives and negatives of both conservative and progressive views are put on display, making Len’s decision all the more difficult. Thus, despite the seeming anti-religious stance of the plot summary above, a brighter side of pastoral life is displayed, in turn lending the outcome a strong sense of real-world relevance.

The Long Tomorrow thus forms a wonderful yang to the ying of George Stewart’s 1949 Earth Abides. Both post-apocalyptic novels, Stewart, in rather clumsy, unrealistic fashion, depicts the descent of mankind from civilized to primitive in the aftermath of a catastrophic event. The Long Tomorrow’s starting point many years after such a catastrophe, Brackett questions the value and possibility of re-climbing the ladder, of bringing humanity back to a state of ‘technologically advanced civilization’. Relaying the resulting quandary in terms far more human than Stewart’s, one can appreciate the sentiment Mother Earth will outlive us all, but without humanity, there would be no story. Brackett’s novel is thus the more relevant of the two, as no matter what point in humanity’s existence is examined, the questions remain valid.

In the end, The Long Tomorrow is a wonderful novel that examines the long-term value of technology in human terms. Set in a bucolic, post-apocalyptic scenario wherein nuclear technology has humanity in fear of its own creations, one young man, coming of age, grapples with the value of furthering the research into technology, with both sides of the argument fully represented. Involving religious fundamentalism, founded and unfounded fears, the concerns and motivations of human behavior, the false and real hopes technology offers, and the future of mankind, Brackett shows insight into humanity through the characters – as rational and irrational as they are – to make a statement beyond the text. For this balance, The Long Tomorrow is a more satisfactory novel than not only George Stewart’s Earth Abides, but also the novel which most often steals the spotlight of post-apocalyptic humanism: A Canticle for Leibowitz. Not just apologetics for urbanity and technology, the novel extends beyond politics to touch upon one of the most basic and complex relationships existent: humanity and it’s technology in the long term.

The Secret of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett

sinharatThe Secret of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett (1964)
Review by Martin Wisse

Back when I was twelve I discovered a novel starring a brave Earthman transported to ancient Mars, a dying world of grand canals and encroaching deserts, populated by noble and barbarian races slowly sinking in decadence. I’m of course talking about Leigh Brackett’s pulp Mars stories rather than Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series, which I never read until much later. But that Leigh Brackett novel was my first exposure to both Brackett and that grand pulp idea of a dying Mars filled with ancient secrets and half forgotten ruins of a greater past. To this day I still like Brackett better than Burroughs, not just I encountered her first, but because she’s the better writer.

If Leigh Brackett sounds familiar but you’re sure you’ve never read any of her stories, it might just be because you remember her name from the credits of The Empire Strikes Back, the second and best Star Wars film. You see, apart from writing some of the best pulp science fiction ever, Brackett also had a long and distinguished career as a Hollywood script writer, working on such movies like The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye. But it’s her science fantasy I like best.

Science fantasy is that subgenre of science fiction that has all the trappings of science fiction – aliens, other planets, blasters and aircars – but which actually read a lot like sword and sorcery in disguise, with strapping barbarian heroes fighting degenerate warlocks using superscience of an earlier age that they barely understand. It’s very romantic, not very plausible or much concerned with realistic science. Science fiction in that grand pulp tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And like Burroughs had his John Carter, Brackett has Eric John Stark, the outlaw with a twenty year Moonprison sentence on his head, raised by a strange non-human tribe on Mercury, (in)famous on three planets as a barbarian and renegade, but also as a man with his own code of honour.

Which is why Earth Police Control can use him for a little job when they finally got him cornered on Mars. Stark has been known to support native rebellions on Mercury, Venus or Mars before, when the cause was right and they know he has been invited to participate in one more. But this time the cause isn’t just. Somebody is riling up several of the dryland Martian tribes for a holy war while gathering together some of the greatest villains in the Solar System together and it won’t be for noble purposes. EPC needs Stark to infiltrate the rebellion to see what’s going on and in return he’ll get his freedom. Now Stark is of course the sort of man who’d only agree to such a deal if he thought what he would do was right, but knowing that one of the mercenaries involved is his old enemy Luhar the Venusian is enough for him; anybody who’d hire him is up to no good.

Stark is right to be suspicious. The leader of the uprising, barbarian chief Kynon of Shun is genuine in wanting to unite the dryland tribes to end the tyranny of the Martian city states which hoard most of the scarce water away from his people. His lieutenants however, Delgaun of Valkis, who has hired Stark and the rest of the offworld mercenaries, and his companion Berild, are only using him to reach their own goal. They need him to unite the tribes using the old legend of the Ramas, which promised immortality through mind transfer and once the tribes had conquered the city states they planned to get rid of him.

Stark joins the rebels in one of the dangerous and degenerated lower canal cities, where a public demonstration of the Ramas mind-transfer technique is given. Stark denounces it later as hokery, which Kynon admits, but justifies as necessary to unite the tribes. Meanwhile Delgaun sets a trap for Stark using his old enemy Luhar, which fails. Only when a sandstorm hits them on their way to Kynon’s desert headquarters do Delgaun and Luhar manage to leave Stark behind for dead. Delgaun’s companion Berild however is accidentally also left behind. Together they struggle through the Martian desert to the rendezvous at Sinharat. It’s there that the secrets of Delgaun and Berild are revealed and Stark has to fight an ancient evil before it conquers Mars…

The Secret of Sinharat is very pulpy written, almost each scene an action scene with broadly sketched characters and a straightforward plot. What makes it is the atmosphere Brackett manages to evoke in this limited space. Her Mars is familiar to anyone who has read any of the Barsoom novels or their many imitators, but she manages to make it all slightly more interesting and believable. What makes it different is that Brackett has transplanted the sort of colonial politics to Mars that eg, the British dealt with in India, as seen in the set-up of the story here, making it slightly less of a fantasyland than Barsoom was… It’s still very Orientalist of course, but how much does this matter in this kind of story?

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The Reavers of Skaith, Leigh Brackett

The Book of Skaith volume 3: The Reavers of Skaith, Leigh Brackett (1976)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

The Reavers of Skaith is the conclusion of Brackett’s Skaith trilogy. When we last saw our intrepid heroes, things were looking up: Eric John Stark managed to contact one of the last ships out of Skaith as the starport was closing. While Stark decided to stay behind, his foster-father Simon left on the ship with a small party, hoping to plead their case to the United Planets agency.

Things immediately take a drastic turn: the starship’s captain turns on his passengers, capturing Stark and Simon, and with two other starships embarks on some merry brigandry as they loot the dying planet. Stark has to reform his shattered band of allies… heck, he first has to escape from the traitorous starship captain and meet up with his friends. With the starships banished, and the planet’s sun quickly dying, things quickly break down. The Wandsmen still want to keep control, and are doing the best they can (in their narrow-minded, “how it’s always been” way), but find themselves hard-pressed with all the refugees abandoning their fields and heading to the Wandsmen for handouts.

The Skaith trilogy comes to its explosive, sweeping conclusion. As Stark heads south along the Sea of Skaith, we get to see a lot more of the planet’s civilizations, cannibalistic tribes worshiping the dying sun. Stark faces off against various mutants and pirates, and the titular starship reavers, intent on plundering the planet before it freezes over. Stark has to topple the Wandsmen, or at least have them to realize their errors, in order to evacuate the planet in time. And there’s a nice return to prophecy at the end, an interesting surprise.

Much like the last two books, Brackett has a strong pen and a lot of flair for this kind of thing. The Reavers of Skaith has less of the epic battles and action compared to the previous book, focused more on Stark traveling the world, but the final few showdowns are pretty slick. And seeing more of Skaith’s weird “dying earth gone medieval” culture is a plus. Despite being the longest in the trilogy, it feels short, rushed at points, and several plot points are hand-waved, have too-contrived explanations, or are oddly random. The opening twist, after the high-note ending of the last book, is one of them; it’s an interesting setup and great mechanic, but it could have used some more foreshadowing.

Even with those complaints, The Reavers of Skaith is a good read. I’m torn between it and The Hounds of Skaith as my favorite in the trilogy, but I lean towards The Reavers of Skaith because it introduces a smidgen of science fiction tech into Skaith’s otherwise primitive world. And the idea behind it is awesome. It’s a worthy conclusion to a solid trilogy; the ending is equal parts satisfying and bittersweet.

It’s even more bittersweet in that The Reavers of Skaith was the last thing Leigh Brackett published; two years later, shortly before dying of cancer, she submitted the first draft for The Empire Strikes Back. And while the movie was built around two other drafts, you can see a lot of Brackett in the film.

This review originally appeared on Logic is My Virgin Sacrifice to Reality.