Reblog: Happy Birthday to Leigh Brackett!


Cirsova observes that the Queen of Mars and hard-boiled Babe of Film Noir would have been 106 today and that there are plenty of ways to celebrate, whether by watching one of the many award-winning movies she scripted (HATARI! happens to indeed be an excellent choice, bravo Cirsova; but so is The Big Sleep, or Rio Bravo, or Rio Lobo, or Eldorado), or by reading one of the many memorable books she has written.

Stranger at Home is a possibility, if you want a combination hard-edged melodrama or romance-infused noir; or No Good From a Corpse if you just want straight-up, hard-boiled, smack-talking, straight-shooting, private-detective-starring noir.

Or perhaps, if you are in the mood for a glimpse of another future, where time has worn even the dust of aeons away from the shattered palaces and crumbling walls: there is Shadow Over Mars/The Nemesis From Terra.

Or if you want just plain space opera, the stories of dangerous, laughing women and grim, conquering men, evil geniuses and star traders and space-sickness and stowaways, try Starmen of Llyrdis.

Happy Birthday, Ms. Brackett. Thanks for the stories. You gave us a glimpse of the stars as they should be, not as they are.

The Nemesis from Terra – Leigh Brackett – Repost Review

Nemesis From Terra

The Nemesis from Terra, or, in what I suppose is its original and much better title, Shadow over Mars, was Leigh Brackett’s first science fiction novelwow. That simultaneously explains the slight discrepancies between this and her other Martian works, and is really impressive for a SF debut. Incidentally, excuse the slight incoherence. No coffee. Also spoilers will be casually dropped.

It’s a short work, less than 150 pages, and I finished it in under an hour.

The story is fairly straightforward: ambitious Ed Fallon and his enigmatic, brutal henchman Jaffa Storm own and run the Company that is eventually going to take over Mars. They aren’t gentle about it, either. Rick–Richard Urquhart–is introduced running for his life against Venusian anthropoid press gangs. He flees into a Martian house and is confronted by a creepy old woman who reads his future: that he is destined to cast his shadow over Mars–and then tries to kill him. Rick kills her and escapes the house, but is promptly caught by Jaffa Storm’s anthropoids and dragged to slave in the Company mines.

Meanwhile, for the people of Mars, their boy-king Haral and his grim and gallant general Beudach, the wind is rising….

The plot is straightforward–rebel-revenge-rescue-ride off into the sunset (or the Space-sunset)–with a few twists that are, while welcome qua twists, also quite straightforward. For instance, when it is revealed that Jaffa Storm has psychic abilities and has been using them to keep very close tabs on Rick, all the way up to the point at which the united masses are about to storm the Company compound, Rick doesn’t consider obfuscation. He merely changes his mind at the last minute and does something slightly different. It’s not unexpected for a hero to outmatch a villain with his wits, but something a little cleverer is usually expected. Not to complain about the end result–ramming an airship into an enemy compound to bring down the shield is a time-honored and worthy procedure. Ask Star Wars.* But it is a slightly less than clever solution.

Unusually with Brackett, the Martian setting does not wholly steal the show. If this was her first novel (I’m not bothering to dig and find out if she had other short stories/novellas in the setting before), this is understandable. This Mars isn’t choked with the dust of a billion years of human life, weary, sensual, wicked, barbaric, noble, and brutal, the haunt of Eric John Stark (who can be best and most accurately be described as Space Tarzan), resting place of Ban Cruach, warrior, god, and king, a million years guardian at the Gates of Death; the citadels of forbidden Shandakor and Jekkara of crumbling walls.

It comes close, mind you, and all of that atmosphere is there–but it’s slightly to the background and submerged against more modern concerns and more modern men–like Hugh St.-John (the guy who ends up running Mars after Rick’s shadow gets up and moves on) and his wonderfully pragmatic native sidekick (who melts the ancient and sacred relic of his people to get it off Rick and Rick out of their hair).

The characters are usually not the most interesting part of the pulp novel, but in this one they do well. Rick is a man who awakens from lifelong slumber and finds that he is great, capable of mighty deeds, casting a long shadow…but he’s not necessarily a good man–and the people around him know it.

Mayo McCall is a girl who epitomizes the pulp dichotomy (and there is a sentence I didn’t expect to see before coffee): a beautiful, smart, strong woman who influences the political and moral actions of the plot because of her own convictions, who is physically capable and hugely courageous and nevertheless still spends a chunk of the book as a damsel in distress. I’d say it was genius at work, but then again, at no point does she also end up scantily-clad, so it misses being a perfect tenner.

Jaffa  Storm is an excellent antagonist: fearless, ruthless, as smart as and more prepared than the hero–and physically stronger and more capable. There is a real sense of menace whenever he’s around, but at the same time he’s easy to root for. A scene of him stalking the streets to slaughter the secret war-council of the Martian king–alone–at the dead of night–while bystanders slink away or bolt their doors–was really thrilling.

Even the minor characters–boy-king Haral, who summons up the rebellion to rise over Mars with a political savvy beyond his years; his loyal general, the wolflike Beudach, whose last moments are filled with a desperate nobility and dignity that makes him vie for spot of the most memorable character; Llaw the insane and vengeful dwarf–are clearly delineated and written.

I’m out of time.

tl;dr: Rick rises to revenge and rebel on Mars. Not all of Mars wants him to.

Rated: Four and a half ancient cities out of five. Good book. Read it.

* This review was written before The Last Jedi. This review does not constitute an acknowledgment of any sort that The Last Jedi did anything well. This review would prefer to take the stance that The Last Jedi does not exist. Anyhoo, Leigh Brackett rocks.

Book Haul

Due to a very generous tip from some people who really oughtn’t’ve, I was able to hit up a bookstore that has been on my list for a long time. So we’re looking at:

  • Agent of Chaos – Norman Spinrad (never heard of it, looks interesting)
  • The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien (Needed an extra copy since I’m giving my illustrated edition to my niece. Have offered it to one of the other interns who inexplicably likes the movie.)
  • The Star Kings – Edmund Hamilton (Don’t have)
  • Great Science Fiction Adventures – Edmund Hamilton anthology (Don’t have)
  • The Star of Life – Edmund Hamilton (Don’t have)
  • The Ginger Star – Leigh Brackett (Never, um, finished)
  • Roadmarks – Roger Zelazny (Didn’t have)
  • Warriors of Blood and Dream – Zelazny-edited anthology (It’s got Zelazny’s name on it, it ought to be good, right?)
  • A Wizard in Bedlam – Christopher Stasheff (Sometimes you just want to spend time with your old friends.)

At least some SF book reviews to appear shortly!

Repost: Starmen of Llyrdis

4411400255_d68d1bd758Star Men of Llyrdis is one of Leigh Brackett’s less famous but still characteristic novels, and it’s got all the best ideas: ancient demigods who once were men; strong men who follow in their footsteps; passionate, dangerous women; the endless, vast, perilous, glamor of space.

American Michael Trahearne is in Gascony, trying to trace his family roots. He succeeds beyond his wildest dreams–for Trahearne’s blood traces back to the famed and hated star traders: the Vardda of Llyrdis. Famed–because due to mutation–they are the only species physiologically capable of traveling at paralight velocities between stars. Hated–because they are the only species with that mutation, a monopoly on star-trade, and they have no intention of sharing either.

The one scientist who studied the mutation, Orthis, fled Llyrdis a thousand years ago when the High Council decreed that the information would not be shared to any other world. His laboratory-ship was never found, only drifting lifeboat. The search for his ship has kept the outlaw Orthist faction alive over the centuries, battling against the Vardda law that states only Vardda may or ever will fly the Stars.

Enter an Earthman, only part-Vardda, who survives the interstellar journey. A legal battle and a societal fracture will surely occur!

Actually, though, Brackett delays the payoff one by smoothing Trahearne’s entrance to Vardda society via falsified documents (prove he’s not full-Vardda! Hah, thought you couldn’t, and anyway, he’s leaving planet right now.) and basic human decency (are we really going to just kill an innocent man?)

The real revolution starts later, with a more resonant and emotional buildup.

The characters are…actually, I think that they’re kind of weak in this book. Joris, the Port Coordinator, Torin–the non-Vardda who smuggles himself aboard the spaceship and forms the catalyst for Trahearne’s own personal revolution; and Orthis–who has been dead for a thousand years–are more memorable than Shairn (femme fatale/love interest), Kerrel (villain tending to smugness), or Edri (hero’s friend/mentor). All the same, they’re sketched with vivid color, in Brackett’s amazingly visual writing.

Action is brief but suited. There is a nigh-hallucinatory, nightmarish sequence on a fungus-gathering mission when Trahearne subconsciously anticipates the attack before it happens; and a higher-pitched hunt and chase when he confronts his enemy.

There are a number of really good scenes. I have to mention (Grrl powr!) Shairn’s response to being tied up with her own scarf and stuffed in a closet: showing up twenty minutes later with a gun and a cop at her shoulder. “You should have tied it tighter. This silk is awfully flimsy.”

The standout scene for me was [spoiler] when Trahearne and his band are arrested by Kerrel and the Council agents. Kerrel–who has passed from impassivity, to smugness, to anger, to outright hatred over the course of the book–prepares to murder them in cold blood in the name of the law. He is immediately stopped–by force–by his own comrades, men of principles as strong as the Orthists’, who follow the law as well as enforce it, without taking that same law into their own hands.

Additional analysis will have to hurry:
– Worldbuilding is vivid and visual.
– Prose is excellent.
– Rated: ten starships out of ten.

Leigh Brackett’s Land – liquid water suspected on Mars

NYTimes reports:

Italian scientists working on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission announced on Wednesday that a 12-mile-wide underground liquid pool — not just the momentary damp spots seen in the past — had been detected by radar measurements near the Martian south pole.
… scientists could not measure the thickness of the lake, but […] it had to be at least a yard or so thick for the radar pulses to bounce back.
…a back-of-the-envelope calculation indicated several hundred million cubic meters of water. That’s tens of billions of gallons.

I, for one, bid these scientists beware:

Beware the Martian winter–and seek not to pass through the Gates of Death that guard the citadel of ice!