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.

Leigh Brackett’s Future History, part 2

Leigh Brackett’s Future History – Connecting the Stories: An Examination
An essay by Blue Tyson

This essay follows on from Part 1 here.

Part 2

Rio Bravos
There is no reason, in a creative mythography sense, that the adventures of sheriff John T Chance in protecting his town along with his friends cannot be included here, or even James Beckwourth’s frontier work. There is actually no direct mention of the historical 19th century at all that I am aware of in her stories other than these.

L.A. Confidential
As goes the Wild West, the same for the mean streets of 1940s USA and the crooks, cops, dicks, dames and other unfortunates in the following: No Good from a Corpse, Stranger At Home, Murder Is Bigamy, Red-Headed Poison, Murder in the Family, Design for Dying, I Feel Bad Killing You, No Star Is Lost and The Misfortune Teller, or even the late fifties in The Tiger Among Us, An Eye For an Eye, and So Pale, So Cold, So Fair. The sixties are represented by Silent Partner and The True Death of Juanito Rodriguez.

They Walk Among Us
The 1950s saw aliens with starfaring capability come into contact with humans who discovered what they were, but only in isolated incidents. Wisely, they appeared to have kept away from the big cities. Possibly due to the prevalence of too many smart investigators in places like Los Angeles that may have discovered them eventually and blown the whistle.

In 1950, a local Newhale reporter discovers the Hrylliannu using the area to bring people to Earth in ‘The Queer Ones’. In fact, there is even a hybrid child produced, but they cover their tracks well. This year also saw a Pennsylvania farmer and his children encounter joyriding alien children in ‘The Truants’. Parents from both worlds were happy for no-one to know about this.

Cornwall in 1952 sees Earthman Michael Trehearne discover he is of Varddan extraction in The Starmen Of Lyrdis. As such he possesses the mutant gene to allow him to survive their particularly exacting form of interstellar travel, over which they have a monopoly. As we see here, and with later human ingenuity on display, the Varddans are far from the only people with interstellar travel technology, so they rapidly become of little interest, barely a curiosity. Those that require genetic quirks to survive space travel are not going to be able to compete with the crews of ships that do not, by sheer weight of numbers.

The Coming of the Terrans
A detailed examination of the colonisation era of the Inner Worlds is beyond the scope of this article, but the collection above does give some dates:

There were conflicts and uprisings on Mars that were pro-native. The Martians were more technologically advanced and capable than the native Venusians, so did not suffer the same wars and brutal colonialist programs of slaughter and military action.

1998 ‘The Beast-Jewel of Mars’
2016 ‘Mars Minus Bisha’
2024 ‘The Last Days of Shandakor’
2031 ‘Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon’
2038 ‘The Road to Sinharat’

‘Queen of the Martian Catacombs’ would happen around these times as mention is made of the Shanga trade in that story:

“Stark realized now what secret vice Kala sold here. Shanga – the going back – the radiation that caused temporary artificial atavism and let men wallow for a time in beasthood. It was supposed to have been stamped out when the Lady Fand’s dark Shanga ring had been destroyed. But it still persisted, in places like this outside the law.”

So the later Stark stories ‘Black Amazon of Mars’ and ‘Enchantress of Venus’ should all be in this range, them or their expanded versions.

In ‘Cube From Space’, there is an encounter with representatives of two interstellar capable alien races: “I am Crom. I was king once, in a land called Yf. And they are the Rakshi. The time came when we had to fight them, we humans, because we couldn’t take any more.”

The Big Jump Outwards
Things changed considerably when the Cochrane Company make the breakthrough to discover a method of fast interstellar travel thanks to their engineer Ballantyne and his drive (The Big Jump). The failure of Barnard II as a colony and exploitation site because of the Transurane was never going to deter further exploration. Nor was the fact that prototypes will have problems. “… whole robot-shift for the drive had bugs in it. The relays won’t take the load. Rip it out and rebuild it …” Even though the Cochranes may lost the taste for it, others would not.

Planetary Survey
The Preliminary Planetary Survey revisits Barnard II in How Bright the Stars:

“It was a hellish world to be wandering on, this second planet of Barnard’s Star.”

“Man had finally made the Big Jump outward, with the Wenz-Boroda FTL (faster-than-light) drive, and the exploration of the galaxy had begun.”

The more stable starship propulsion technology had made this possible. Men could also live on Barnard II if they wanted to, but as Jerry Baird discovers, it is still pointless. The galaxy is a hostile environment, in general, but has countless other stars to explore.

Here man has been concentrating on nearby reachable neighbourhood stars, such as Altair in ‘The Woman From Altair’. One of the spacemen here actually brings back a wife from one of the Altairan planets, to tragic consequences.

Galactic Survey
So successful has man been at least with the ability to explore, if not the usefulness of end targets even getting to stars and planets without name so many have been visited. The Galactic Survey era shows the technology has been developed to enable ships to push past the nearby sites such as Barnard’s Star, Proxima and Alpha Centauri, etc.

During ‘The Shadows’ tired and disillusioned Exploration Team leader Barrier finds the remnants of a race destroyed by astrological catastrophe, and their faithful doglike servants.

“Maybe there enough worth in us that here and there some little world will give us another chance. Anyway, it’s nice to know there’s one place where we have some friends.”

An explicit reference to a far away settlement is given in ‘Come Sing the Moons of Moravenn’. The planet in this story has a topaz colored star in the vicinity of the Vela Spur, which could mean it is up to thousands of light years away.

However, things do change, as should have pleased Barrier greatly. There is a Galactic Union out there, and races involved in this organisation do come into contact with Earth and the Solar System. In fact, in ‘All the Colors of the Rainbow’ Mintakan weather engineers on Earth have a violent encounter with nowheresville USA racist rednecks. As the engineer Flin notes: “It was his first big job on his own responsibility, with no superior closer than Galactic Center, which was a long way off.” Racism has always been in existence in the Solar System, but such recidivism again is not going to deter the benefits of expansion and exploration.

Sometimes though, it takes some special people becoming involved to sort some planets out. To whit, Simon Ashton and Eric John Stark in The Ginger Star:

“A newly discovered, newly opened world called Skaith that hardly anyone had ever heard of, except at Galactic Center. Skaith was not a member of the Union but there had been a consulate. Someone had called to the Union for help, and Ashton was the man who went to see about it.”

Stark leaves from Pax to head for Skaith. In ‘Last Call From Sector 9G’ we find operatives at Galactic Center:

“The city was beautiful. Its official name was Galactic Center, but it was called The Hub because that is what it was, the hub and focus of a galaxy. It was the biggest city in the Milky Way. It covered almost the entire land area of the third planet of a Type G star that someone with a sense of humor had christened Pax. The planet was chosen originally because it was centrally located and had no inhabitants, and because it was within the limits of tolerance for the humanoid races.”

“He was remembering how he had seen it when he was fresh from Earth, for the first time—the supreme capital, beside which the world capitals were only toy cities, the heart and center of the galaxy where the decisions were made and the great men came and went.”

Note that in ‘All the Colors of the Rainbow’ there are Mintakan engineers working on Earth. In ‘Last Call From Sector 9G’:

“BAYA sat on the bed and watched him pack. She was from one of the worlds of Mintaka, and as humanoid as they came”.

The Galactic Center and Pax and the Federation of Worlds would appear to be the same. In fact this hard to find until New Year’s eve gives the greatest detail on the interstellar setting of any of the work, so is important from that point of view.

Interplanetary Wars
Even though expansion can take off some of the population pressure, resources are still an issue, and wars still happen. Mars is particularly water-poor when looking to rapidly increase population by colonisation.

While not a war, ‘Water Pirate’ is certainly about resources.

“It was early in 2418 that the Solar System realized that there was a Water Pirate. The great tanker ships, carrying water to the rich dry-world mines and colonies, began to vanish from the space-lanes, with their convoys. The Trans-Galactic Convoy Fleet, which for two hundred years had kept the space-ways safe, was suddenly helpless.”

The Earth-Venus War saw Mars neutral in ‘No Man’s Land In Space’, and Mars also fought against the Jovians with Earth and Venus as seen in ‘Outpost On Io’.

Mars fought a World War in 2504, then became embroiled in an Interplanetary conflict later in the 26th century and tried a disguised sneak attack on Venus, which was foiled in ‘Interplanetary Reporter’.

In ‘A World Is Born’: “who had conceived this plan of building a new world for the destitute and desperate veterans of the Second Interplanetary War”. It is not clear if this is meant to refer to one of the past wars, as a well understood by veterans term, or a completely new conflict. It is possible that the Second Interplanetary War meant is referenced in ‘Thralls Of the Endless Night’, with a documentary discovery:

“Treaty of Alliance between the Sovereign Earth and the Union of Jovian Moons, providing for Earthly colonization and development of the said Moons, and mutual aid against Aggressor Worlds.”

“…have taken the precaution of Halm, the treaty secretly in a ship of colonists, in care of the captain who knows nothing of its nature. It has been rumored that our mutual enemy, the Martio-Venusian Alliance, may try to intercept it, possibly with the aid of hired pirates. This would, as you know, mean war. It is my prayer that the treaty will safely…”

Stabilization and Desperation
Alpha Centauri or Die shows a Solar System government either disillusioned with interstellar travel, or perhaps having more jackboot clad reasons. They do not want the people to have the freedom to travel and communicate in an uncontrolled fashion. This is explained by the bitter would be escapees:

“But damn them all eternally, even so. Because of them all the Stabilization Acts had passed. Trade Stabilization. Population Stabilization. Crop Stabilization. The busy minds of the experts working. Take the manned ships out of space and there can’t be any trade wars or any other kinds of wars. The worlds can’t get at each other to fight. Stop expansion outward to the stars and eliminate the risks, the economic upsets that attend every major change, the unpredictable rise and shift of power. Stabilize. Regulate. Control. We may lose a few unimportant liberties but think what well gain. Security for all, and for all time to come! And the dark ships of the Government will keep you safe.”

“The populations of the Solar System had been carefully figured to the last decimal point and portioned out among the planets according to food- and employment-potential, so that nowhere was there a scarcity or an overplus, and nobody’s individual whim was allowed to upset the balance. If you wanted to change your residence from one sector or one world to another, the red tape involved was so enormous that men had been known to die of old age while waiting for a permit.”

If this sort of control is extended and expanded, then the consequences could easily appear in ‘Retreat To The Stars’. The 40th century shows a more extreme Soviet-like political structure in the Tri-State, compared to the more extreme right-wing colonialism or American style capitalistic expansion of earlier times. ‘In Retreat To the Stars’ there are a few rebels on an asteroid base still resisting state control. They are desperately building a starship to escape. The implication here is that starfaring technology is government controlled.

With a Future History of many centuries, cycles of political ideologies and experiments would not be at all surprising. Few dates are given in Brackett stories, so the Alpha Centauri or Die/’Ark of Mars’ situations could have been followed by relaxing restrictions and great expansionism again, cycling around again until the 40th century.

For example, A Peace and Happiness doctrine backed up by actual brainwashing technology saw President Hilton rule the Federation of Worlds in ‘Child Of the Sun’.

“There was no way out ahead, either. Mercury was there, harsh and bitter in the naked blaze of the sun. The ships of Gantry Hilton, President of the Federation of Worlds, inventor of the Psycho-Adjuster, and ruler of men’s souls, were herding him down to a landing at the lonely Spaceguard outpost.”

The Unregenerate rebels have almost lost completely and are also looking for a place to flee. “Unregeneracy was almost dead in the inhabited worlds.” Falken and Moore do so, and find an immensely powerful stellar energy being using a small world as a plaything, and hope to use him to help them survive Hiltonist oppression.

Two thousand years between The Coming of the Terrans and ‘Retreat To the Stars’ leaves a lot of time for things to change and plenty of chronological slots for the above to fit in.

On analysing the stories in this way, it does appear there is good evidence to include most of them in a coherent Future History.

Leigh Brackett’s Future History

Leigh Brackett’s Future History – Connecting the Stories: An Examination
An essay by Blue Tyson

Part 1
It is well known that Leigh Brackett has a group of stories that share a common setting, and that those are based on the planets of the Solar System, primarily on Venus and Mars. However, there is much other SF included in 50+ short stories and ten novels.

I thought it might be interesting to see what work might coherently fit in one Future History, even if it was never explicitly stated. I haven’t seen anything written talking about the interstellar and other stories in general, whereas there are good articles at Wikipedia about the planetary romance era.

Very few dates are given in Brackett stories, so this is an attempt at division into rough periods, in order. There is no mention of medical technology or lifespans given for humans, either, at least insofar as they may differ from the known range of readers of the times.

Elimination of Work
Firstly, there are definitely a small number of works that definitely do not. The novel The Long Tomorrow and its on-Earth postapocalyptic lost technology religious setting definitely does not.

Secondly, the short story ‘The Tweener’ has a soldier return from a Mars that is empty apart from some small rabbit-like native animals, that are actually discovered to be sentient. This is not relevant.

Thirdly, ‘The Citadel of Lost Ages’ is set on a future earth that astronomical calamity has caused to have a Darkside and a Lightside, like Mercury. There is no evidence of such directly in any work. It is in fact somewhat Planet of the Apes-like, Darkside notwithstanding, with hybrid beastmen running the planet, and humans as slaves. An outsider enters with forgotten knowledge, a trove of past human technology including atomic power. Nothing is mentioned of spacefaring or starship technology. Therefore it is extremely unlikely this story is relevant.

Fourthly, her last story, ‘Mommies and Daddies’ has a near future Earth dystopia ravaged by a drug destroyed populace and their abandoned children. Or at least the American part of this world is. This certainly does not fit with the rest of the Future History. Given these multiple bad times on Earth stories all do not seem to fit at all, it is presumably deliberate on her part.

Fifthly, ‘Runaway’ is obviously out thematically with its investigation of the psychological destabilisation of an accountant. Content makes this certain:

“He knew that Venus was important because it produced very large amounts of uranium, thorium, germanium, and a lot of other things that Earth was using up too fast. And that was all he knew, except that people had to live there under domes, and that it never rained.”

It appears that she did indeed intend them to share a common history and setting.

Creative Mythology
If you want to believe in this exercise, the greatest problem is the lack of explicit reference to the interstellar travel at the same time that there is intense focus on the local Solar System, so you have to get past that in a handwaving manner. Brackett of course was American, so you could perhaps assume that the Solar System chroniclers have the same intense inward looking focus that Americans do. The colonisation does have an American flavour. That is, making the happenings around other stars analogous to international affairs as far as interest goes for the average denizen of either at the time. There may also be author notes or mostly forgotten conversations that render this particular exercise moot, but these are unlikely to ever come to light to trouble us, given the passing of multiple decades already. Spaceports are mentioned often, without detailing the types of ships they serve. Certainly starships are given names like Stellar and Starflight.

One Million Years BC
Some background is given of Martian ancient history:

There is a reference to the Quiru living a million years ago or so, which sounds like an extremely rough ballpark figure. Rhiannon was a Quiru (see ‘The Sword of Rhiannon’).

“The Quiru, said the myths, had for that sin crushed Rhiannon and locked him into a hidden tomb. And for more than a million years men had hunted the Tomb of Rhiannon because they believed it held the secrets of Rhiannon’s power.”

Ancient Sea-Kings and Other Weird Tales
Much later, on a far wetter Mars the Dhuvians ruled an empire as seen in ‘Sea-Kings of Mars’. As told to Matt Carse:

“You know at least that since long ago there have been human peoples on our world and also the not-quite-human peoples, the Halflings. Of the humans the great Quiru, who are gone, were the greatest. They had so much science and wisdom that they’re still revered as superhuman.

“But there were also the Halflings-the races who are manlike but not descended of the same blood. The Swimmers, who sprang from the sea-creatures, and the Sky Folk, who came from the winged things-and the Dhuvians, who are from the serpent.””

An alien race with advanced technology was also living in the City of Shandakor, as per ‘The Last Days of Shandakor’. While not a million years in the past, tens of thousands of years it would have taken Mars to dry out.

Also The Thinkers, as mentioned in ‘Shadow Over Mars’ also likely also were around tens of thousands of years in the past:

“But these Thinkers have done a lot of good from time to time.”

Mak nodded. “Sure. Theoretically at least they guide the viewpoint of Mars-when they feel like bothering. It has to be some big important split, like the inter-hemispheric war back in Sixty-two Thousand and Seven, when the Sea Kings had trouble.”

As did the Prira Cen: “Ancient things. Things deeply buried, nearly forgotten, clouded by superstition and legend. Forty thousand years—” from ‘The Sorceror of Rhiannon’.

The serially immortal Ramas had also existed since long in the past as talked about in ‘Queen of the Martian Catacombs’ / ‘The Secret of Sinharat’. The Rama Berild talks of just one relationship: “‘Delgaun has had me for a thousand years, and I am weary of him. So very weary!'” Given they are the last of their people, they must have existed a lot further back in the past.

Brackett appears to have liked Robert E. Howard and Abraham Merritt. As far as Howard goes, from ‘The Jewel Of Bas’:

“He gave them a lament, one of the wild dark things the Cimmerians sing at the bier of a chief and very appropriate to the occasion” and “The priests of Dagon, of all the temples of Atlantis, spoke against me. I had to run away. I roamed the whole earth before the Flood, carrying the Stone.”

Her husband, Edmond Hamilton, of course was a writer for Weird Tales, so these are likely a small nod towards a favored writer. A further nod to the Weird Tales boys: “Ciaran, because he was a gypsy and a thief and had music in him like a drunkard has wine, had heard it, deep in the black forests of Hyperborea where even gypsies seldom go.” ‘The Jewel Of Bas’ is itself set on a hidden world in the Solar System.

‘Lord of the Earthquake’ is an Abraham Merritt style adventure where two men enter a portal that takes them back twelve thousand years in the past to Ancient Mu. So a tribute by story type, with Brackett of course injecting one of her favored hardboiled misfit-types in the character of Coh Langham. There may even ben a Doyle influence : “I devoured Burroughs, Haggard, Balmer and Wylie, Doyle’s unforgettable “Maracot Deep,” with this exploration of the deep in a submarine. The same applying to ‘Out Of the Sea’, with its attack on the USA by human created sea monsters.

The horror story ‘The Tapestry Gate’ also has an otherworldly portal contained therein, but is utilised in an horrific vein, as opposed to fantasy adventure.

So Brackett has linked Mu, Atlantis, Cimmeria, Hyperborea and Lovecraftian Elder Gods in to the ancient background of her work.

There were no advanced technological or even literate cultures on Venus, so any history as yet known is limited to fragmented oral traditions, divulged grudgingly, if remembered at all, such as those of the Moon Cult.

A much harsher place than Venus, aliens such as Shannach, long-lived, may have been there in the past, but not literate natives, so nothing is known.

The Big Jump, Leigh Brackett

The Big Jump, Leigh Brackett (1955)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Leigh Brackett’s The Big Jump is a solid (if predictable) pulp sci-fi adventure with a few delightful poetic moments. Although Brackett is primarily known for her numerous short stories from the 40s and 50s and screenplays (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Empire Strikes Back, etc) her novels deserve to be read as well.

Despite The Big Jump‘s positives it often feels like a short story and the by-the-numbers plot might frustrate modern readers. The work suffers from an extreme case of brevity (128 pages) and as a result lacks substantial character development. Brackett also has the unfortunate tendency to complete important actions between chapters (along the lines of “…and after the landing”). However, Brackett’s prose is adept at creating haunting sequences, poignant images, and genuine excitement.

Across the gulfs between the worlds, from end to end of a Solar System poised taut and trembling on the verge of history, the rumors flew. Somebody’s made it, the Big Jump. Somebody came back.

Comyn, cut from the working man heroic mode (brawn, street smarts, no-nonsense talk), chases rumors of the first interstellar flight, christened the Big Jump. Comyn seeks to uncover information about his friend Paul Rodgers who didn’t return from the small expedition to Bernard’s Star. Ballantyne, the only crewman to return, is more dead than alive and posses a manipulated body chemistry.

Comyn tracks down Ballantyne and hears his “last” words about the planet and the crew’s discoveries. Various people attempt to kill Comyn because of the information he now possesses. Our hero soon falls in with the ultra-wealthy Cochrane family who have cornered space travel within Earth’s solar system and constructed palatial establishments on the Moon and Mars. The Cochranes and Comyn do not get along due to Comyn’s impulsive nature. However, Comyn pretends to know more than he does inorder to rescue his friend.

The Cochranes decide to quickly equip a second vessel to preempt their rivals and hope with Comyn’s help find the rest of the crew. Of course the Cochranes have ulterior economic motives and Comyn suspects one of his new crew wants him dead.

Despite the simplicity of The Big Jump‘s plot and the work’s extreme brevity there’s much to admire: the excitement, the moments of beautiful prose, and just enough technological interjections about spaceships, the mechanics of interstellar travel, etc to keep the reader hooked. Despite the dearth of character development Comyn’s likable yet impulsive nature and drive to rescue his friend manages to come across.

Worthwhile for fans of 40s and 50s science fiction. A fun, fast, and exciting read.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett

The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
Review by Martin Wisse

You may think you don’t know Leigh Brackett or read any of her stories, but you’re wrong. If you think The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the real Star Wars movies, you have her to thank for it, as she wrote the original screenplay, just before she died. This is no fluke either, as her screen writing career is almost as old as her science fiction career. She started off on The Big Sleep together with William Faulkner and has worked on other well-known movies like Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye. She knew her way around a film script; combine that with her long experience writing science fantasy for pulp magazines like Planet Stories and you know why The Empire Strikes Back is so much better than any of the other Star Wars movies.

If you liked The Empire Strikes Back then the good news is that Leigh Brackett is even better when working on her own stories. Though she wrote other science fiction, she’s best known for writing planetary romances (or science fantasy) in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Her best stories are set on the Mars of Burroughs and dozens of pulp imitators, a dying world turned into a worldwide desert as its seas dried up, with a highly evolved but degenerated civilisation clinging to life through an elaborate system of canals, now a new version of the Western frontier as Terran adventurers and never do wells come to try their luck. Brackett’s Mars is more than just a pulp adventure setting though. Her best stories leave you with a sense of melancholy and loss, perhaps nowhere more so than in The Sword of Rhiannon, “a hymn to the lost past of a Mars that never was” as Nicola Griffith put it in her introduction to a recent reissue.

The Sword of Rhiannon was first published in 1949 as ‘The Sea Kings of Mars’ in Thrilling Wonder Stories and it’s under this title you can find it in the Leigh Brackett volume of that name in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series (rather than in the Science Fiction Masterworks as it should’ve been). As with most novels of this period it’s quite short and the plot is fairly straightforward. Matt Carse is a human adventurer with a background in archeaology, who gets the opportunity of a lifetime when a lowlander Martian thief promises to lead him to the tomb of Rhiannon. Rhiannon being the Martian equivalent of Satan, the Fallen One, the Cursed One, the rebel who the Quiru gods of Mars had left behind when they had left the planet for other realms. Carse doesn’t believe all this of course, thinking Rhiannon only a myth, but one that might have a kernel of truth and the discovery of his tomb will make him a rich man.

Of course he’s double-crossed by the same thief that let him to the tomb, thrown into a trap inside, a “a big brooding sphere of quivering blackness”. Passing through this he finds another mind touching his own and after what seems an eternity he emerges on the other side of the room, with no trace of his betrayer. Worse, he finds himself locked in the tomb amongst signs that not all is what it seems. When he manages to dig himself out he finds himself no longer in the ruins of a city abandoned for a million years, but in that same city at the prime of its life, on a Mars that still had its seas. A stranger in a strange land, Carse quickly learns all of Mars is at war, a war between the evil forces of the Sark and their half human, half serpent Dhuvian “allies” and the still free Sea King and their Wing Men and Swimmer allies. Seen as the incarnation of Rhiannon and mistrusted therefore by the Sea Kings who have his sympathies, Carse is the key to winning the war, if they let him.

Apart from Matt Carse/Rhiannon himself, the main characters aren’t fully fleshed out, largely pulp stereotypes. There’s Boghaz, the fat, amiable rogue and thief who would cheerfully rob Carse yet is loyal at heart. There’s the reluctant villainess of the story Ywain, the princess-heir of Sark, proud, fierce but ultimately unable to resist Carse’s masculine power, there are the hearty noble barbarian sea kings, not to mention the serpentine Dhuvians oozing evil. The Sword of Rhiannon is still mired in the pulp sensibilities of the magazines Leigh Brackett wrote for, where morality is black and white, where there is such a thing as racial character and a whole race can be irredeemably evil, where men are men, women are women and a proud woman like Ywain secretly yearns for a strong man like Carse to “master” her. Leigh Brackett certainly isn’t a feminist writer here, though there isn’t the rapeyness of some of her male colleagues.

What sets The Sword of Rhiannon a touch above other pulp adventure stories is both Brackett’s writing and that elegiac sense of loss that comes across through it. At the end of the story Carse returns to the Mars of his own day, leaving a still living world for one that is slowly dying. He may have saved Mars from the tyranny of the Dhuvians, but its ultimate fate is still fixed…