Anyway, I’ve never hidden my love for Leigh Brackett’s pulp sci fi, particularly her visions of Mars and Venus and her growing anticolonial themes. I was specially drawn by the latter, being a Filipino, and because my first taste of Brackett’s work was the anthology The Coming of the Terrans. And I suddenly remembered that I’d never reviewed this book nor the stories in it. Gotta remedy that!
Sadly, this anthology is out of print, but some of the stories in it are available in other Brackett anthologies such as Sea Kings of Mars by Gollancz and the Ace Best of Leigh Brackett. The cover is in a psychedelic 70s style that faithfully captures the contents of the book.
Brackett is half the reason I have red sand between the ears (ERB being the other half). I was already totally hooked on Barsoom when I first encountered Brackett, but her vision of Mars – truly dying, truly decadent, glowering helplessly at the arrogant Terrans – really haunted me.
The book was first released in 1967, the height of the Vietnam War, when some Americans were starting to realize the Vietnamese had a real grievance behind their hostility. Asia and Africa had been in ferment since the late 1800s, and by the time these stories were written matters were fast reaching a head. All over the world, ancient peoples were confronting a brash young West they were tired of having around uninvited.
I think Brackett mined that a lot for her stories, resulting in a flavor that’s very different from her earlier pulp works such as Dragon Queen of Venus. Let’s dive into some of the stories to explore those themes.
Mars Minus Bisha
A mysterious Martian nomad child, Bisha, is abandoned in the arms of the Terran physician Fraser. Disdaining the warnings of the Martians that the child is cursed, Fraser keeps her safe from those who would slay her, only to find out there’s a terrible element of truth in Bisha’s ‘curse.’ The Martian condemnation of the child was based not on superstition, but a real memory of a race that, without others of their kind for company, unwittingly become psychic vampires.
The crux of the story is Fraser’s mistaken rejection of the Martian warnings, and a good swipe at the attitude of ‘White Man’s Burden.’ The high-handed Terran, despite all his good intentions, mistakes a considered lesson from history to be rank and ignorant superstition simply because the Martians are living a ‘primitive’ lifestyle.
The Road to Sinharat
Brackett revisits the coral-carved city of Sinharat, home of the ghoulish Rama civilization, in this second swipe at White Man’s Burden. (Brackett first uses Sinharat and the Ramas in Queen of the Martian Catacombs, an Eric John Stark stories, later re-released as The Secret of Sinharat; events from that are alluded to in Road to Sinharat).
In this story, Terran archaeologist Dr. Carey journeys to the lost, forbidden city of Sinharat, evading attempts by Terran police to arrest him all the while, to fetch ancient records that will prove a vital point of history. His purpose is to halt a Terran project to ‘rehabilitate’ Mars by drilling up and pumping out its existing water reserves, a project violently opposed by the Martians of the Drylands. Again, it turns out that the Martians knew better all along, for the records of the Ramas prove that something similar had been done before, only for Mars’ inexorable dessication to triumph in the end and leave the intended beneficiaries in worse straits than before.
Anticolonial themes seem blend here with anticipation of environmental concerns. Did Brackett anticipate later findings about the environmental impact of damming rivers and similar problems brought about by ‘progress?’ Perhaps she did. Or perhaps I’m seeing that because I read this in the 80s and 90s?
The Beast Jewel of Mars
This is a little less stridently anticolonial in sentiment, as the Terran hero is very much a victim of the Martians, but it’s still rife with themes of resistance and revenge against a colonial power. I like it though that the story also explores what it could be like for an ordinary Joe to get caught up in this volatile milieu.
Spaceship captain Burk Winters returns to Mars, ostensibly to purchase the ultimate forbidden pleasure of Shanga, an ancient Martian technology that causes mental and physiological regression to an earlier stage of evolution. The Martians gleefully and scornfully let him – but it turns out the ultimate Shanga den is a sadist’s zoo where hopelessly regressed Terran Shanga addicts are kept and tortured for the Martians’ pleasure. Shanga, it turns out, is a conspiracy by the ancient royal house of Valkis to make money and get revenge on the Terrans for trampling over Mars.
The villainess of the story puts it thus:
"Mars," said Fand quietly. "The world that could not even die in decency and honor, because the carrion birds came flying to pick its bones, and the greedy rats suck away the last of its blood and pride."
Sadistic and screwed up, but yeah, if you were a Martian you probably couldn’t help but sympathize with her a bit, no?
Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon
This story has a nicely Lovecraftian chill to it. Innocent Harvey Selden, a cultural specialist, comes to Mars and gets into an argument with old Mars hand Altman over the Cult of the Mad Moon. Selden dismisses the stories of the cult as mere superstition.
Altman and his Martian friend Firsa Mak drug Selden and smuggle him out to the forbidden city of Jekkara. There they disguise him as a Martian and join a procession into a cave, where the horrified Selden is made to watch a human sacrifice, and catches a tantalizing (but only to the reader!) glimpse of what the sacrifices are being fed to.
Altman then appeals to Selden; no Terran authority has ever listened to his warnings about the creature, perhaps Selden can make them listen. Because something like that is a threat to all Martians and Terrans alike.
Again, it’s as if Brackett really did see into the future. Yes, a lot of what’s going on in the world today is a legacy of the West’s unbridled expansion and exploitation over the rest of the world. But there are bigger and more inhuman threats that affect all, and we should work together to face them. Things like climate change, industrial pollution, and the other monstrosities created by our unconsidered addiction to ‘progress.’