December 8, 2015

Sword and Sorcery … with Rockets

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Sword and sorcery with rockets. That’s what she wrote, and I just found out today would’ve been her 100th birthday. Who? Leigh Brackett, that’s who.

This won’t be the first time I’m saluting Brackett on this blog, and it likely won’t be the last. I’m STILL waiting for a proper Eric John Stark movie. When it finally gets made, I hope it’s handled much better than Disney’s failure to realize the potential of John Carter of Mars. (The House of Mouse execs totally missed what made the movie special to SF fans – and they missed the fact that they’d released the movie on the centennial of the novel it was based on!)

Anyway, back to S&S. Leigh Brackett was best known for her ‘planet adventure’ stories, set on fictional versions of Mars, Venus, and extrasolar planets (e.g. Skaith). Beginning as a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Brackett rather early on made a resolution to be a science fiction writer. She hit her stride in the 40s and 50s, and continued writiing into the 1970s. Her last project was to draft an early version of the script fro Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Brackett used scientific ideas in her stories with a light and often wavy hand. She was never a hard sci fi kind of writer. Instead she specialized in character and atmosphere, all tied together with very tightly paced plots. She brought the hard-boiled vibe of the 1930s detective stories into her F&SF, with hard-hitting results. She had very punchy ways of describing characters, almost impressionistic yet incredibly brief.

Her heroes were definitely in the old-pulp school of S&S: tough and two-fisted, scarred, honorable but with moralities well off from the norm. Take her signature creation, Eric John Stark: Stark is a fighter on the level of REH’s Conan, a feral child like Tarzan, but with a very hard-boiled personality that’s not without idealism. He’s been an outlaw, and when we first encounter him in Queen of the Martian Catacombs (aka The Secret of Sinharat), he has just been a mercenary aiding native rebels on Venus, and is wanted by the law for it.

Queen of the Martian Catacombs goes on to involve Stark in a secret plot to restore power to the Ramas, a civilization of immortals who steal bodies from the young and able and transfer their minds into them. There’s a mad ride through a sandstorm, swordfights, secret tunnels and hidden wells, and all of it happens against the  backdrop of Brackett’s splendid vision of a dying planet. Save for the dying planet bit and the fact that the protagonist is explicitly called an Earthman, this could’ve been sold as a straight sword and sorcery piece.

But it wasn’t. Brackett’s first love had always been the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs, not the Hyborian Age. Her sword and planet stories combine the very best of what we liked in Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs: vivid worlds, sparely-drawn yet memorable characters, stories that whisk you away into another place and time and leave you breathless before the end. Brackett wrote magic.

And that’s why I’m blogging about her on her 100th birthday, because so many F&SF fans now have never read a Brackett story nor even known her name.

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