LEIGH BRACKETT, “QUEEN OF PULP,” TAKES ON MARS

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Figure 1 – Leigh Brackett

I pity the modern reader, who can’t go to the local library or bookstore and find more than a few tie-in novels for TV or movies, with the occasional Herbert or Heinlein thrown in. When I was a youngster, the library had several shelves full of hardcover SF/F, ranging from the 1930s to the 1950s (seldom paperbacks). The bookstores had hardcovers and paperbacks in a wide range of authors and types of SF/F, and magazines sometimes. Heck, even the corner store had SF/F paperbacks and magazines, alongside the Westerns, comics, and hardboiled detective and action paperbacks and magazines. There was none of this newfangled stuff like e-ink or electronic readers or cell phone apps. Your phone was this big black thing that sat on a table in the front hall or on a wall in the kitchen. And it had a cord connected to a handset that you put in front of your ear and mouth. (And only us lucky big-city folk had a single line; most rural or semi-rural people had party lines.) The idea that you’d soon (in relative terms) be able to carry a pocket-sized device that you could make phone calls on, play games on, talk to (and have it talk back), watch TV and movies on, and even read books on, would have been pure SF!

So why didn’t any of the predictive types figure this one out? Well, Dick Tracy in the comics had his Two-Way TV watch—an offshoot of his futuristic two-way radio watch—and, in the 1960s, Star Trek came up with a “flip-phone” type communicator, but technology has advanced really far and extremely quickly. We SF-predictive types have been caught with our figurative pants down. But I digress.

Figure 2 – Sea-Kings of Mars

If you grew up during the ‘50s and ‘60s and read SF/F, you had to be aware of the name Leigh Brackett. (Even those who didn’t read SF/F were probably aware of the name because of her screenwriting credits, like The Big Sleep (with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman), 1946; Rio Bravo (with Jules Furthman), 1959; Hatari!, 1962; and El Dorado, 1967. She had more screenwriting credits, but for the period, those are probably her best-known. Because Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Howard Hawks, Dean Martin!) But by 1960 or so, she was firmly established (after E.R. Burroughs) as one of the best writers about a fictional Mars in the whole field. Her tales of Eric John Stark, soldier of fortune on a dying planet, rank with the best “lost world” action fantasy ever written. (Of the contenders, only Stanley G. Weinbaum, who died less than two years after the publication of his first and best-known story, “A Martian Odyssey (1935),” might have rivaled Brackett, in my opinion, had he lived. And his stories were less pulp and more SF in some cases.)

Figure 3 – A Martian Odyssey illo by Frank R. Paul CENTER

The link in the name above will take you to a Project Gutenberg version of the story. The Paul illustration above shows Jarvis and Tweel. If you’ve never read this seminal story, I urge you to do so, and tell me what you thought of it. Anyway, as you probably know as an SF/F fan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan books, wrote a whole series of novels (because he made a lot of money out of series books) about Mars, and the adventures of Captain John Carter, who mysteriously mentally teleported himself to the Red Planet. It’s been years since I’ve read the Burroughs books myself, so I’m a little bit fuzzy on the details, but much of what ERB (as most fans refer to him) wrote appeared in the recent movie John Carter (2012) (not to be confused with the low-budget A Princess of Mars starring former porn star Traci Lords.) It was a seriously undervalued movie (John Carter, not the Lords movie), despite being the fourth most-expensive movie made to that point (Wikipedia). Although it adhered to much of ERB’s writing, and had some good effects and serious actors (like Bryan Cranston, Willem Dafoe, and Mark Strong, for example) in CGI makeup, the plotline was a bit muddled and it failed at the box office. It has since made up ground with its digital, Blu-Ray, and DVD releases, by the way. One notable thing about ERB’s Mars is that John Carter, by virtue of growing up on Earth, is super-strong compared to native Martians (as you know, Mars only has a bit over 1/3 of Earth’s gravity).

Figure 4 – Taylor Kitsch as John Carter

Well, Brackett’s protagonist, Eric John Stark, doesn’t have those super-strength powers on Mars, even though he’s an Earthman. It might have been awkward for him anyway, as he grew up on Mercury, so he might have ended up being no stronger than your average Martian compared to other Earthmen. So maybe it’s a good thing she didn’t bring that one in. (By the way, she did have other protagonists on Mars besides Stark; for example, in The Sorceror of Rhiannon, the male character—most of her protagonists were male, which was fairly standard for the era—was named Max Brandon. But the one which caught everyone’s attention was Eric John Stark (he called himself “N’Chaka” in his own mind because he grew up with the aboriginal inhabitants of Mercury), who made his living in the dusty towns of the lowlands of Mars, as a trader/thief/whatever made him money. One oddity about Brackett’s Mars was that a lot of Martian towns and people had names that derived from Irish folklore, like “Conan,” “Crom,” and “Caer Dhu”… she said later, that she wished she’d used another name because Conan and Crom became so firmly associated with Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

The book referred to in Figure 2 comprises 14 stories and novellas:
The Sorcerer of Rhiannon
The Jewel of Bas
Terror out of Space
Lorelei of the Red Mist
The Moon that Vanished
Sea-Kings of Mars
Queen of the Martian Catacombs
Enchantress of Venus
Black Amazon of Mars
The Last Days of Shandakor
The Tweener
The Road to Sinharat

Figure 5 – Black Amazon Of Mars by Allen Anderson from Planet Stories

Not all of the above are Mars-based; at least one (“Enchantress of Venus”) is based on the assumed water-planet. But for writing pulp fiction, she’s hard to beat as an author (but what can you expect from someone who met with Ray Bradbury almost weekly to discuss writing?). And although her Mars (like ERB’s and many others’) had a breathable oxygen atmosphere, I somehow prefer it, in my nostalgic moments (of which I have many) to the cold, CO2 reality of our Mars, with all our technological advances and Rovers. I like it better, even, than Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet Mars, with its nymphs and “Old Ones.” After all, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids; in fact, it’s cold as hell,” as Elton Reginald Dwight said, but *I* prefer a Solar System that a) includes Pluto; b) has an inhabitable Mars and Venus, even if the former has the remnants of a million-year-old civilization in its sea bottoms and along its canals, and the latter is a young planet with swamps, hot and muggy as hell; and c) may have the remnants of an even older civilization in the fragments of an exploded planet that make up our asteroid belt. (In fact, I’d settle for Weinbaum’s or ERB’s Mars at a pinch.)

But hey, maybe that’s just me. At a later date, we’ll talk more about Leigh Brackett and her non-Mars books; about her husband, SF writer Edmond Hamilton, and her last contribution to screenwriting: The Empire Strikes Back.

Addendum to the Moscon 40 photos: The tiger character was portrayed by Leora Tria Laureno; the tiger is “Tigress” and, in male drag, the character becomes “Ty Grass”. Super intelligent woman, I’m told!

Comments on my column are welcome. You can register and comment here, or on my Facebook page, or in the Facebook I link to. All your comments, good or bad, positive or negative, are welcome! (Just keep it polite, okay?) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!

Leigh Brackett bibliography (from Wikipedia):
Science fiction novels

Shadow Over Mars (1951) – first published 1944; published in the U.S. as The Nemesis from Terra (1961)
The Starmen (1952) – also published as The Galactic Breed (1955, abridged), The Starmen of Llyrdis (1976)
The Sword of Rhiannon (1953) – first published as Sea-Kings of Mars (1949)
The Big Jump (1955)
The Long Tomorrow (1955)
Alpha Centauri or Die! (1963) – fixup of The Ark of Mars (1953) and Teleportress of Alpha C (1954)
The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman (1964)
The Ginger Star (1974) – first published as a two-part serial in Worlds of If, February and April 1974
The Hounds of Skaith (1974)
The Reavers of Skaith (1976)
Science fiction collections
The Coming of the Terrans (1967)
The Halfling and Other Stories (1973)
The Book of Skaith (1976) – omnibus edition of the three Skaith novels
The Best of Leigh Brackett (1977), ed. Edmond Hamilton
Martian Quest: The Early Brackett (2000) – Haffner Press
Stark and the Star Kings (2005), with Edmond Hamilton
Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories (2005) – #46 in the Fantasy Masterworks series.
Lorelei of the Red Mist: Planetary Romances (2007) – Haffner Press
Shannach–the Last: Farewell to Mars (2011) – Haffner Press
Screenwriter
The Vampire’s Ghost (with John K. Butler), 1945
Crime Doctor’s Manhunt (with Eric Taylor), 1946
The Big Sleep (with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman), 1946
Rio Bravo (with Jules Furthman and B.H. McCampbell), 1959
Gold of the Seven Saints (with Leonard Freeman), 1961
Hatari! (with Harry Kurnitz), 1962
Man’s Favorite Sport? (uncredited), 1964
El Dorado, 1967
Rio Lobo (with Burton Wohl), 1970
The Long Goodbye, 1973
The Empire Strikes Back (with George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan), 1980

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