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 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.