25th Century Five and Dime #4: Leigh Brackett’s 1955 Masterpieces – The Big Jump and The Long Tomorrow

It is strange how some writers’ names are remembered, and some are not. In her day Leigh Brackett was a name that sold magazines and paperbacks but today she is barely remembered. Her screenwork is famous to fans of classic cinema but they are remembered for Bogart and John Wayne, not for the woman who wrote the movies. The legend goes that Hollywood director Howard Hawks read No from a Corpse a hard-boiled crime mystery and said “Get me this Brackett guy.” He was looking for a screenwriter to work on his Humphry Bogart movie The Big Sleep. That Brackett guy as it happens was a woman who was already publishing space operas galore and earned a rep as the Queen of the Pulps or Queen of the Space Opera.

Her early draft of Empire Strikes Back contained the structure of the finished film and there is a theory that she ghostwrote The Star Wars novelization that is given credit to the creator of Star Wars George Lucas. Maybe her biggest impact went beyond her work, to the powerful influence she had on Ray Bradbury one of the most famous of genre writers. Not only did she mentor Bradbury, but he served as best man at her wedding to long-time pulp author Edmond Hamilton.

Her influence is not a question for those of us who study the history of the Genre. Consider the words of British SF author Michael Moorcock from a 2002 blog post. “It’s commonly known because Ray has said so that Ray Bradbury’s Mars, like Ballard’s Vermillion Sands, is not a million miles from Brackett’s Mars. And before the whole world realized how good he was, Bradbury regularly appeared in the same pulps. Leigh would have credited Edgar Rice Burroughs for everything, but Burroughs lacked her poetic vision, her specific, characteristic talent, and in my view her finest Martian adventure stories remain superior to all others.”

In this edition of 25th Century Five and Dime, I want to talk about two of her novels that deserve your attention today. Brackett was called the queen of the pulps because she wrote plenty of space adventures with out-of-date science that took place in the Wild West like the Solar System, with Mars and Venus being the setting for the Eric John Stark books.

For a long time, I thought pulp was the only style of SF that Leigh Brackett wrote. I knew she wrote screenplays for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and The Empire Strikes Back but Star Wars was pretty much one of those pulps. While she returned to pulp SF, albeit sending Eric John Stark out into the solar system

The Long Tomorrow and The Big Jump. Both novels are excellent examples of high-class genre fiction and at the same time very different from each other. While Both were published in book form in 1955, The Big Jump appeared first two years earlier in the February 1953 issue of Space Stories it is a thin but powerful piece of Science Fiction. The Big Jump was an Ace Double and is bound forever With Philip K. Dick’s first novel Solar Lottery ) is a Science Fiction horror novel far ahead of the time it was released.

The Big Jump is not exactly hard SF but compared to the near fantasy of the majority of her space operas The two novels of 1955 have a dark edge to them. The tagline on the ACE Double edition says “One man had come back- but he was neither dead or alive.” The story is one a survivor returning from the first interstellar space flight to Bernard’s Star. The survivor Ballantyne returns to earth wrecked from the experience and this sets up the mystery.

Our main point-of-view character is Arch Comyn who had a friend on the mission. There are some fights and chases that lead up to Comyn following the mission to Bernard’s Star. While Brackett hand waves a bit of the science away this is not pure fantasy, she knows the right distance for Bernard’s Star, she invents a ship that travels outside of space-time. I love that she refers to it as “Not-Space”

Early in the novel, Comyn wants to get the mystery that the builder of the ship Cochrane, who oddly has the same name as the person who breaks the warp barrier in Star Trek, this character will invoke Elon Musk to the modern reader.

“Ballantyne made the Big Jump, he and the men with him. They did the biggest thing men have ever done. They reached out and touched the stars. And you tried to hide it, to cover it up, to rob them even of the glory they had coming.”

This sets up the mystery and it is a good one. Why the cover-up? Why did the mission go bad? More than anything I think these early pages do a good job of making sure the reader understands the stakes and gets on board. It is implied that the ship was saved from crashing into Pluto and that a patrol was looking for it. The first chapter establishes the characters and Cochrane’s company. If there is a weakness to the story it is the thin details on Cochrane and his corporate motive. The story works fine but one wonders if Brackett was limiting these elements for the magazine/Ace Double format.

I really loved the early world-building, The opening paragraph is so cool. It talks of the rumors that somebody made it. I like the implication that many space jockeys were trying and failing. Spacemen talking in a thousand ports was a great world-building detail. when Comyn returns to New York from Mars.

“The Big Jump had been made. Man had finally reached the stars, and every clerk and shopgirl, every housewife, businessman, and bum felt a personal hysteria of pride and achievement. They swayed in dense masses across Times Square feeling big with a sense of history, sensing the opening drumbeats of an epoch in what they saw and heard from the huge news-service screens.”

Of course, these moments to the modern eye have some cringe-inducing moments but of course, the modern reader has to consider how much progress was yet to be made. I love the idea that she conveys so quickly the pride and happiness that all humanity feels. The novel suggests that the celebrations are so wide that Comyn is like everyone else having trouble staying inside. Deft moments of subtle but powerful world-building. Consider that this was first published in a magazine years before the Mercury program had started and four years before Sputnik.

It is telling that she is so good at explaining the wonder and terror of space flight in another moment of excellent world-building prose.

“Comyn thought it was funny. It was very funny, indeed, that men making the second Big Jump in history, that men going faster and farther than any men but five had ever gone before, separated only by metal walls from the awfulness of infinity, should sit and play games with little plastic cards and pretend they were not where they were.”

Brackett is a great storyteller and those moments of world-building are great examples and that was something I remembered about her. I was surprised by some of the incredibly solid moments of horror that she wrote in this book. The scene where Comyn visits Ballantyne is very disturbing and conveyed by beautiful dark prose.

“The thing that lay in the bed between the barred sides was Ballantyne. It was Ballantyne, it was dead, quite dead. There was no covering on it to hide its deadness; no breathing lifted the flattened ribs; no pulse beat anywhere the pale transparent skin, and the tracery of veins was dark, the face was…Dead. And yet it moved.”

Not only does it bring the horror but it deepens the mystery and makes the build-up of repeating the journey so much darker and richer. There are other moments of Science Fiction and horror blending in excellent prose, the transition from faster than Light travel from the end of chapter 9 to the opening of chapter 10 was super impressive.

“…For one timeless ghastly interval he thought he saw the fabric of the ship itself dissolving with him into a mist of discrete particles, he knew that he wasn’t human anymore and nothing was real. And then plunged headlong into nothingness.”

Seriously. Good stuff. Once the mystery is revealed and the crew lands on Bernard II, the truth those on the planet are transformed by the local environment. This is a great answer to the mystery. The reveal has weight and makes the journey worth it. It presents Cromyn with a dilemma that the final act builds too.

The Big Jump
is fantastic 50s sci-fi. The weight of the prose, the mechanics of the storytelling, and the details in the world-building are all fantastic. The change highlights flaws in the human character, so in the final moments, the novel even turns a mirror on humanity. This Big Jump is more than just a trip. The transformation offered to these humans has the potential to change their humanity completely and totally. Everything that humanity has done for food, shelter etc. “You have developed beyond civilization.”

What began as a Sci-fi horror adventure ends with a not-so-subtle message that The Big Jump is not just about traveling to another star be evolving past the life we have lived dependent on the one above us. Life on earth is dependent on survival and here four years before Sputnik Leigh Brackett was telling her readers in the stars we can evolve and become something better. It is not considered her masterpiece and it is a reflection of taste but to me, it is her masterpiece.

Most would consider The Long Tomorrow to be Brackett’s most serious, thoughtful and enduring masterpiece. Set one hundred years after a Nuclear war in the Midwest. This is a very different novel from the bulk of Brackett’s but it is a hero’s quest just like many of her books. This quest is more Tom Sawyer than Frodo because the Midwest of this future has gone back to the primitive, not by choice they are survivors. That said the beliefs and laws of this society have adapted and despite surviving books, the idea of embracing technology and going back is a big no-no.

So enter our Hero Len Coulter who is very focused on the journey to find the city where technology and the old world are embraced. Along the way, there is a love triangle with his brother and many adventures. He dreams of this place and the central question of the third act is whether this dream is all he believed it would be. The society that survived is fighting to prevent any of the seeds that destroyed the past world from being planted again.

You may be thinking – I have read or seen this story one thousand times, and this story is cliché. Well, this novel was released in the 50’s so this is one of the trailblazers along with Alas Babylon and On the Beach. It is one of the novels that established the cliché so understand that.

The Long Tomorrow shows its age at times, but it is an epic that stands up better than Doomsday Morning, a similar novel by fellow pulpster Catherine Lucille Moore is as close a peer as Brackett had. Their styles, credits, careers, and lives were similar. Brackett’s novel wasn’t universally praised author and critic Damon Knight thought the novel lost steam when embraced more speculative elements in the final act. Some felt the book lost some power when it moved away from realism.

Leigh Brackett’s 1955 novels to this reader/historian are the high point of her career although I love the Eric John Stark books that were my introduction to her work when I was a young reader. I was looking for Science Fiction action. If you are looking for quality thoughtful genre and want to engage with Brackett these novels are a great place to start. She is canon of 20th-century SF and I will fight with anyone who disagrees.

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