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.

More Women of Wonder, Pamela Sargent

morewomenofwonderMore Women of Wonder, edited by Pamela Sargent (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

Why do such a collection at all? Should it not be evident that women can and have written fine science fiction? (p xlvii)

As in the preceding volume, Sargent opens More Women of Wonder with a long and well-argued introduction. The purpose of this book, she tells us, is to showcase longer fiction – novelettes – written by women, as well as include works she couldn’t fit into Women of Wonder. She also gives a potted history of women in the genre, beginning with Francis Stevens and working her way forward through Brackett and Moore and Norton to the careers of “Vonda N. McIntyre, Suzy McKee Charnas, Joan D. Vinge, Marta Randall, Eleanor Arnason, Lisa Tuttle, Brenda Pierce, and Joan Bernott” (p xxiii), one of which appears in More Women of Wonder and only five of which are still writing in the twenty-first century (although Randall had two stories in F&SF in 2007, and McIntyre two in 2005 and a short-short in 2008). While Sargent claims that women were usually readily accepted as writers, the lives of women as a topic for genre stories was far less common, if not actively discouraged:

When one considers the impact that technology has had on human life throughout human history, it is surprising that more writers have not considered the effects such technical tools might have on women’s lives. (p xxxviii)

Sargent then goes on to consider four contemporary sf novels – Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Thomas M Disch’s 334, before veering off to discuss childbirth, the lack of women characters in hard sf – or rather, the lack of women as characters with agency in hard sf – and then commenting on the infrequent mentions of homosexuality in science fictions. It’s not entirely clear what point Sargent is trying to make. That in its early days science fiction did not actively discourage contributions from women? But Norton admits to being told to use a non-gender-specific pseudonym, and both Brackett’s and Moore’s gender is not obvious from their names. That there is still a problem – in 1976, that is – with the role of women in science fiction stories? This is certainly true, and sadly remains true even today. Six of the stories in More Women of Wonder show that it is not wholly true across the genre – which does make you wonder why Sargent chose Brackett’s ‘The Lake of Gone Forever’ – which features two female characters, both of whom are defined by their relationships to male characters. Despite an argument which could have been tighter and more focused, Sargent’s introduction makes a number of valid points and is an interesting read. Indeed, given that so many anthologies’ introductions are just chaff and waffle, Sargent’s are excellent examples of how it should be done.

In the introduction, Sargent quotes CL Moore on the ease with which she sold her first story, ‘Shambleau’: “My own perfectly clear memory tells me that I sent it first to WT because that was the only magazine of the type I knew well, and that an answering acceptance and check… arrived almost by return mail” ( p xxviii), in part to counter claims that women writers in those days found it hard to get published. There is no mention of whether Moore’s covering letter mentioned her gender, or if the editor believed the writer to be male. However, Moore’s ‘Jirel Meets Magic’ (1935) is clearly the product of a woman writer – the title character is a warrior woman, and I know of no male genre writer using female protagonists writing at that time (all of Robert E Howard’s protagonists’, for example, were male). Despite Jirel’s gender, Moore’s first story featuring her was a success and readers demanded more. ‘Jirel Meets Magic’ is the third such, and it’s notable more for the roles men play in it than for its plot or writing. Jirel has sworn revenge on the wizard Guischard after he ambushed and killed some of her men. She storms his castle with some of her soldiers, but the wizard has vanished… through a magic window in a room in a high tower. Jirel follows him, and finds herself in a mysterious land. She immediately stumbles across a sorceress in the act of killing a dryad, and though she doesn’t prevent the murder, the sorceress flees before taking an important talisman – which the dryad gives to Jirel because. Jirel tracks down the sorceress to her lair, where she discovers that her name is Jarisme, and she is extremely powerful, very much more powerful than Guischard who, in a neat role reversal, fawns over her and wibbles fearfully at Jirel’s presence. There then follows a series of dreamlike episodes in which Joiry tracks down Jarisme in a variety of settings and tries to killer her. Because there is a prophecy that Jarisme will die at the hands of someone she let live three times (clue: the meeting over the dying dryad was the first). There’s a sort of fevered colourfulness to ‘Jirel Meets Magic’ – Jarisme, for example, is repeatedly associated with the colour purple – and the prose reads like the sort of cod-olde-time-speeche popular in fantasies of the time: “For a while there was tumult unspeakable there under the archway” (p 3). But there’s also a pulpish relentlessness to Moore’s vision and it’s easy to see why Jirel proved so popular a protagonist. The plot may be straightforward to the point of banality, and the prose style somewhat over-egged for modern tastes, but the story shines in its clever and natural-seeming reversal of gender roles. Jirel does not feel exceptional; nor indeed, does Jarisme.  And that, I think, is this novelette’s greatest strength.

‘The Lake of Gone Forever’ (1949) by Leigh Brackett is, conversely, a very masculine story – as indeed is much of Brackett’s genre output. Rand Conway has persuaded the wealthy Rohan to mount an expedition to the mysterious planet of Iskar. Conway has history with Iskar – his father journeyed to the world, the first and only human to do so, years before and his experiences there made him a broken man, especially something that happened at the eponymous lake. Rohan’s ship finds and lands on Iskar, and Conway leads the way to the nearby village described to him by his late father. But Conway is after the treasure hidden in the Lake of Gone Forever. The Iskarians are not happy to see Conway and his party and initially threaten them, but Conway persuades them to let them stay. Relations quickly sour, Conway sneaks away in the night – with the help of a rebellious young Iskarian woman – and discovers the secret of the Lake of Gone Forever, and a not-especially-hard-to-figure-out truth about himself. ‘The Lake of Gone Forever’ is typical Brackett from start to finish. While the Iskarians do not possess the sense of history with which Brackett managed to imbue her tales of old Mars, and the existence of an unknown – so much so that only one man ever found it – planet in the Asteroid Belt is wildly implausible… Conway is certainly a characteristically two-fisted Brackett hero.

There’s quite a leap in time from the Brackett to Joanna Russ’s ‘The Second Inquisition’ (1970), and much changed in the genre during those intervening twenty years – and not just the role of women in stories, or number of women writing science fiction. For one thing, the Moore stretches the definition of sf well past breaking point, and Brackett’s planetary romances cannot be mapped onto the real Solar System, and by 1970 most science fiction was expected to contain more rigour and more scientific verisimilitude… and certainly not show its pulp roots quite so plainly. So I suppose it must be perversity which led Sargent to choose a time-travel story by Russ which is set in 1925. The narrator is a teenage girl whose parents have taken in a strange lodger, a forthright woman who is allegedly from the circus. She’s not, of course; and it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal she’s from the future. It’s not clear whether she’s a criminal or a rebel, but she is eventually tracked down by a man from her time who tries, and fails, to take her into custody. All witnessed by the narrator. It’s a curiously laid-back story for Russ, and driven not so much by anger as it is by futility. The narrator has seen what the lodger – she is never actually named – can do, has witnessed her independence, her power and intelligence, and rues her own lack of the same. There is a nice conceit throughout the story in which the visitor reads a lurid romance, and encourages the narrator to read it (she, of course, falls in love with the heroine and her lifestyle in the book) – despite the book being banned by her parents, and her mother actually counting the book among her favourites. Whether that’s intended meta-fictionally is open to question, but given Russ’s meta-fictional games in other stories – such as those in The Adventures of Alyx – then it’s likely deliberate. ‘The Second Inquisition’ manages to feel very 1970s without actually containing any details which refer to that decade – in fact, the time-travellers and their equipment manage not to feel at all dated – and which rather than being a weakness only makes it more appealing.

‘The Power of Time’ (1971) by Josephine Saxton also has a very 1970s feel to it, though half of the story is set at its time of writing. The other half is set in the distant future, when some people on Earth possess great power – so much so, in fact, that one of them, the narrator, has decided to transplant Manhattan from the US to Nottinghamshire, just for shits and giggles. Meanwhile, an unnamed housewife in the present day (as was) has won a competition for an all-expenses trip to New York. A succession of male escorts show her about the city, wine and dine her, and engage in sparkling conversation with her. Meanwhile, in the future, Manhattan is shifted in its entirety – including inhabitants – across the Atlantic and placed in the middle of an artificial lake. There’s a lightheartedness to ‘The Power of Time’ which belies the seriousness of its point – the future narrative feels a little flippant, as indicated by the novelette’s opening sentence:

“It shouldn’t present much difficulty if you approach it in a positive way,” I said to the Chief of the Mohawks, Flying Spider. (p 149)

And while such lightness of tone works well for the sections set in the present day (of the story), the flippancy undermines the difficulty of the narrator’s “project” and the seriousness of its consequences. ‘The Power of Time’ reads as though it were written as a comedy rather than a commentary, but it succeeds better at the latter than the former.

It’s near impossible not to think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when reading Kate Wilhelm’s ‘The Funeral’, (1972), even though Wilhelm’s novelette predates Atwood’s novel by thirteen years. Carla is a pupil at an all-girls school in a US very different to the one we know. It’s not entirely clear what happened to create the US of the story – Wilhelm reveals some details in italicised flashbacks, but she leaves much unexplained. Men and women now appear to be separated into different categories by profession. These are “citizens”, who are enfranchised. One such category for women is “Lady”, which is little more than a courtesan. Carla has been made an apprentice Teacher, and the funeral of the title is for Madam Westfall, who invented the educational system which has led to the society depicted in the novelette. Madam Westfall will be buried in state, and Carla is in attendance on the body. But it seems Madam Westfall had a secret, and Carla’s Teacher, Madam Trudeau, who she hates and fears, thinks those girls who waited on Madam Westfall during her last few months – and Carla is one of those girls – know the dead woman’s secret. ‘The Funeral’ is one of those sf stories which impresses more through its world-building than its plot. It’s a stronger piece than others I’ve read by Wilhelm, though some of the vagueness about its setting does work against it.

The ‘Tin Soldier’ (1974) by Joan D Vinge is the first story in More Women of Wonder which might qualify as heartland sf – the Moore is fantasy, the Brackett pulp sf, the Russ is set in the past, part of the Saxton is set in the present day, and the Wilhelm is set in a post-apocalypse USA. ‘Tin Soldier’ has starships and alien worlds and an interstellar human civilisation. It’s also very much about people. Maris, the “tin soldier” of the title, is a retired soldier and a cyborg. He runs a bar also called the Tin Soldier. Because Maris does not age, his bar is popular with crews of visiting starships who travel between worlds AAFAL – Almost As Fast As Light. A trip to another world and back takes them three years, but twenty-five years passes on Oro. Oh, and all starship crew are female, as neither men nor cyborgs (of either gender) can handle AAFAL, as revealed in one of the most egregious examples of info-dumping I’ve come across in sf:

She frowned in concentration. “‘After it was determined that men were physically unsuited to spacing, and women came to a new position of dominance as they momopolized this critical area, the Terran cultural foundation underwent severe strain. As a result, many new and not always satisfactory cultural systems are evolving in the galaxy…'” (p 218)

Because of the time-lag, women cannot form relationships with men on worlds and have a rule of only having sex with a man once – they call them “Tails”. Because Maris is a cyborg, some starship crew occasionally think it is funny to set up new crew with him. As soon as they show interest, he admits to his cyborg nature. Cue laughter. When her shipmates do this to Brandy, she remains interested and Maris privately admits that he’s not wholly a cyborg. Afterwards, the two become friends, and manage to maintain their friendship for almost a century – Brandy visits Oro every twenty-five years, Maris barely ages… though everything else changes. Eventually, their relationship too changes. There is some very nice descriptive prose in ‘Tin Soldier’ and the central relationship is handled well. There’s also a slight Delany-esque atmosphere to the story, though less so in the language used.

‘The Day Before the Revolution’ (1974), Ursula K Le Guin, is actually a short story rather than a novelette, but since in the previous volume, Women of Wonder, Le Guin appeared with a novelette, one of only two in the anthology, that seems fair enough. Back in April of this year at the Eastercon, EightSquaredCon, in Bradford, I was on a panel about older women in science fiction and fantasy, with Rochita Roen-Luiz, Caroline Mullan, Fred Warrington and David Tallerman. I mentioned the story ‘Mab Gallen Recalled’ by Cherry Wilder, which appears in Millennial Women (see review here), but had I known of it I could also have mentioned Le Guin’s ‘The Day Before the Revolution’. Laia Asieo Odo is a famous revolutionary. In her younger years, she wrote a number of seminal revolutionary texts while in prison. Now, she is in her seventies; now, she remembers he husband, who died decades before; now, she remembers the heady days when she was a political agitator. Though there was no revolution, during the story one happens in another nation, and it’s implied that one is about to begin in the city in which Odo lives – and that this revolution eventually leads to the anarchist society on Anarres in Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed. The story is a reflection by Odo on her life, and her thoughts on the position she now holds in the minds of her followers and the public in respect to what she achieved in the past. It paints her as occupying an elder stateswoman sort of role, one she doesn’t really feel she deserves – and she spends much of the story remembering her husband, and how she first met him. It’s a clever juxtaposition of beginnings and endings, but I suspect that putting it last in More Women of  Wonder has done it few favours. Very little actually happens in ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ and it makes for a slow end to the anthology.

In my review of Women of Wonder (see here), I suggested a similar project should be put together now. Of course, it already has been – Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, edited by Justine Larbalestier, published in 2006 by Wesleyan University Press, and containing stories by Clare Winger Harris, Leslie F Stone, Alice Eleanor Jones, Kate Wilhelm, Pamela Zoline, James Tiptree Jr, Lisa Tuttle, Pat Murphy, Octavia E Butler, Gwyneth Jones and Karen Joy Fowler. But that is just one anthology, and published by a university press. Common perception has it that anthologies don’t sell, and yet more than ever seem to be published each year. Admittedly, of late many have used Kickstarter to finance themselves, but even the big publishers put out half a dozen or more themed anthologies each year. Happily, in late 2014 there will be The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, edited by Alex Dally McFarlane. Until then, Pamela Sargent’s five Women of Wonder anthologies – three from the 1970s and two from the 1990s – are worth tracking down. They’re excellent anthologies in their own right, and Sargent’s introductions are worth reading.