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.


The Dancers of Noyo, Margaret St Clair

dancers_noyoThe Dancers of Noyo, Margaret St Clair (1973)
Review by Ian Sales

My previous experience of St Clair’s writing had been only with her short fiction, but I thought I had some idea of what her novels might be like. In fact, The Dancers of Noyo read more like Doris Piserchia than the St Clair I’d expected. The story is set after a plague – world-wide possibly, US-wide certainly; it’s sometimes hard to tell with US science fiction novels – in a California which has returned to a tribal agrarian culture. The protagonist, Sam McGregor, is a bit of a rebel and doesn’t understand why the young men of his tribe must always dance under the instruction of the android Dancer. Neither is the reader, as St Clair fails to explain the purpose of the dancing, or why the tribes – and it seems they all have one – each have an android Dancer. Because he refuses to dance, Sam is sent on a Grail Quest, which means driving down the coast in search of some sort of epiphany.

En route, Sam begins to relive the lives of people from earlier – chiefly from last decades of the twentieth century – including a dead young woman being autopsied, and a man who may have been patient zero for the “bone melt” plague which drastically depopulated the Earth. Sam then meets up with the daughter of the man who invented the android Dancers, and she leads him to her dead father’s secret underground laboratory. Where Sam must defeat some of the monsters which roam the underground complex…

While The Dancers of Noyo opens much like any other science fiction novel of its time, with its Republic of California, and a village society which borrows freely from Native Americans, and feels much like hippy films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But St Clair doesn’t seem to know what story she is actually telling. The past lives experienced by Sam as he travels south don’t seem to belong to the main plot – which involves indvertently breaking the tribes free of the android Dancers. It’s all a bit Easy Rider, but with some weird science fiction twist based on the sort of secretive research programmes people believed governments were undertaking – not unlike the sort of thinking which inspired Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive.

Unfortunately, the result is a novel which is very much a product of its time. It’s tempting to think she made up the story as she went along – common practice in sf in those days – but it reads more as if she couldn’t be bothered to turn a promising start into a plot that made sense. It was her last novel.

The Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ

hidden_side_moonThe Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

There can be little doubt by now that Joanna Russ was one of the most important figures in American twentieth-century science fiction, although for many years, particularly afterward, her contribution to the genre was downplayed or ignored. Much, in fact, as she described in her important work, How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Of course, she was not the only female sf writer to be “forgotten”. From the twenty-first century it seems like there was a concerted effort from the late 1970s through the 1980s to write female authors out of science fiction history. Only a few managed to hang on in there – Ursula K Le Guin, of course, who is often the only woman writer on so-called lists of “classic sf”. And this despite a huge number of female mid-list writers publishing throughout the 1980s, some of whom went on to bestseller status, like Lois McMaster Bujold.

Joanna Russ won four major genre awards, and was nominated 41 times, during her career; and yet by the turn of the century she seemed to be known only as the author of a little-read classic, The Female Man. In part, I suspect this was due to the fact she was a vocal feminist and feminist writer, and conservative sf fans, echoing a move in wider US culture, tried to demonise feminism and feminist sf. Fortunately, science fiction is a progressive genre, and many of its fans fought against this reactionary rewriting of sf history.

Having said all that, I still think Russ is under-appreciated. While her novels now often appear on “classic sf” lists, much of her short fiction output has been overlooked. And she wrote a lot of short fiction – fifty-six stories between 1955 and 1996. The Hidden Side of the Moon, a collection from late in her career, contains twenty-six stories published between 1959 and 1984. Some are less than a page long. Not all were originally published in genre venues.

Twenty-six stories is too many to cover individually.  Overall, they give an impression of fierce intelligence I don’t recall getting quite so strongly from other Russ collections (although certainly from individual stories). This is especially odd given I don’t believe the collection was curated, or its contents chosen for particular reasons. It may simply be a consequence of the fact that not all of the stories are science fiction or fantasy.

The opener, ‘The Little Dirty Girl’, is a chilling ghost story, told in epistolary style. In ‘Sword Blades and Poppy Seed’, a female writer rails against society, before being told she should, in fact she will, use the nom de plume George Sand. ‘This Afternoon’ describes a play in a park, in which one of the actors plays a satyr, only he may not be an actor…

‘”I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!”‘ is a Cthulhu story. In fact, a number of the stories in The Hidden Side of the Moon play with, or reference, other literary works, something Russ did throughout her career. Given that ‘Window Dressing’ was originally published in 1970, in New Worlds of Fantasy 2, I suspect it’s not referencing the film Mannequin, although it shares the same story.  ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’ is about a friend of the writer who is an anthologist of science fiction stories and, well, the title says it all. After reading the slushpile for the anthology, the narrator: “… that pile of rejected mss must have been the vehicle for a curse … How do I know? I began to write trash.” Some of which is then given.

‘Nor Custom Stale’, published in 1959, is the oldest story in the collection. It’s a variation on ‘The Machine Stops’ by EM Forster, although here it’s the reverse which is true, and which leads to a strange, inexplicable result. ‘The Experimenter’ is a sort of fantasy, but ‘Reasonable People’ is definitely science fiction. Russ’s stories – and these two are good examples – often seem to end on single lines which question everything has gone before. The final three lines of ‘Reasonable People’, for instance, go:

Isn’t it a lovely world?
And so it is. It is.
For reasonable people


Both ‘Visiting’ and ‘Visiting Day’, titled here ‘I. Visiting’ and ‘II. Visiting Day’, although originally published in 1967 and 1970, and ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’, which contains two stories, ”The Autobiography of My Mother’ and ‘Daddy’s Girl’ are more literary experiments than genre fiction. And yet, genre reading protocols still work on them – if anything, Russ’s genre fiction had a tendency to confound genre protocols more than her non-genre work did. Or rather, ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’ can be read as genre; but something like ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ (collected in Extra(Ordinary) People) is clearly genre but resists an obvious read.

The more of Russ’s fiction I read, the further I want to explore her oeuvre. From what I have seen to date, it is variable but, to borrow from Longfellow, “when she was good, she was very, very good”. But more than that, there was a fierce intelligence driving her fiction – and her non-fiction too, of course – and a fierce commitment to feminism evident in pretty much every word she wrote. As I have said before, the giants of twentieth century fiction we have been lumbered with are Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov; when the true giants were, and are, Russ, Delany and Le Guin.

Heaven Chronicles, Joan D Vinge

heaven_chroniclesHeaven Chronicles, Joan D Vinge (1991)
Review by Simon Petrie

Joan D Vinge’s asteroid-colony book Heaven Chronicles is novel-length, but it’s not a single novel: instead it combines the works ‘Legacy’ (which I judge to be on the awkward cusp, in length, between a novella and a short novel) and the short(ish) novel ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’. To complicate matters slightly, ‘Legacy’ is itself a combination of two short novellas ‘Media Man’ and ‘Fool’s Gold’. Two of the three component stories (‘Media Man’ and ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’) first appeared in Analog magazine, respectively in 1976 and 1978; ‘Fool’s Gold’ was first published in Galileo magazine in 1980. The Outcasts of Heaven Belt has also all been published separately as a paperback. Additionally, Vinge has apparently revised all of this material, in a book entitled Heaven Belt which, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet seen release.

The tales within Heaven Chronicles all concern the unfolding, and downward-spiralling, history of the colonised asteroid belt orbiting the star Heaven, in a system rich in planetoidal resources but lacking any habitable planets. The two stories comprising ‘Legacy’ explore the adventures of prospector-turned-media-reporter Chaim Dartagnan and pilot Mythili Fukinuki, who meet as participants in an ill-fated mission to rescue the wealthy occupant of a spacecraft marooned on the frozen, inhospitable Planet Two. ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’ deals with the events that unfold following the arrival in Heaven system of Ranger, a well-resourced and technologically advanced starship piloted by Betha Torgussen who, after the ship comes under attack from an overzealous colony defence force, is one of only two survivors from an original complement of seven.

There’s a decidedly old-fashioned and pulpy feel to Heaven Chronicles. (I offer this as an attempt at classification rather than any implied criticism.) There’s a lot of argument, a lot of tension, some well-telegraphed action and a kind of rough simplicity to the characterisation, more so in the space-operatic ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’ than in ‘Legacy’. The most obvious overarching characteristics of the stories are, however, an evidently thoroughgoing respect for the laws of physics and an interest in the exploration of gender politics. It’s probably relevant also to note the book’s thoroughgoing use of “metric time” – ie, seconds, kiloseconds, megaseconds, gigaseconds – rather than the “imperial time” (hours, days, years, etc) to which readers are presumably accustomed. The use of unconventional time units is initially disruptive – the conversion to familiar units has to be thought through, the first few times – but does, I think, encourage a degree of immersion in the story that might otherwise be absent.

I found ‘Legacy’ to be the more rewarding of the assembled components: while neither Dartagnan nor Fukinuki is a particularly compelling viewpoint character, the interaction between them is fascinating, and I appreciated the story’s ultimate (rather elliptical) denouement. ‘The Outcasts of Heaven Belt’ suffered slightly by comparison: the story seemed overlong and meandering in places. Overall, while I found the book enjoyable, I suspect its “bitsy-ness” might irk some readers, since, despite the presence of common characters, the three stories don’t really mesh together to form a complete whole. On the other hand, it would probably hold a strong appeal to devotees of 1950s and 1960s space-based SF.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.