Tag Archives: Leigh Brackett

The Book of Skaith

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Book of Skaith: The Adventures of Eric John Stark [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Leigh Brackett, illo Don Maitz, a Science Fiction Book Club omnibus of The Ginger StarThe Hounds of Skaith, and The Reavers of Skaith.

Brackett the Book of Skaith

Leigh Brackett’s golden age planetary romances are some of the most enjoyable science fiction adventure stories ever written. In the later Skaith trilogy, here bound as a single volume, she revived her character Eric John Stark, a “mercenary specializing in the small wars of remote peoples fighting for survival against stronger opponents” (466). The original stories had Stark, “an Earthman out of Mercury,” on Brackett’s Barsoom-like Mars, but here he is set in the expanded context of a Galactic Union, and the three books detail his exploits on the planet Skaith, which lies outside the Union. Readers who enjoyed the earlier stories are pretty much conscripted by the author into whatever retconning will make Skaith follow Mars.

Skaith is a largely exhausted planet under a declining star, and the story here thus partakes of the atmosphere and contents of the “Dying Earth” subgenre. The human natives of Skaith have thrown off mutated branches to cope with the changes to their world, but they never achieved space travel, and are still mostly isolated from the interstellar comity. The senescent cultures of Skaith include human sacrifice, cannibalism, suicide cults, and other sanctioned depravities, but the largest political and economic organization consists of the government of Wandsmen, administrators under the semi-mythical Lords Protector, who use mercenary troops to maintain order in the cities of the planet’s fertile belt, while organizing subsistence for the great masses of “Farers” — hippy vagrants who form destructive mobs at the behest of the Wandsmen.

The positing of the Wandsmen and Farers as the villains in this tale seems to insert something like an Objectivist right-wing political morality into the narrative, but the heroes from the Galactic Union have a left-heroic ambience: the guerilla revolutionary Stark, and his mentor the technocratic diplomat Ashton. The culpability of the Lords Protector consists of their narrow vision and refusal to allow the possibility of outside assistance to undermine their inherited power. 

The book club edition I read was cheaply made, and otherwise offered the following features of note: Each of the three component books begins with a beautiful little map of the portion of Skaith in which most of its action takes place. The artist for these is uncredited. The dust jacket art by Don Maitz is not so commendable. It depicts what was intended to be a terrifying Northhound as an outsized puppy with bared teeth, and makes the black Stark look like a tanned white man. (To be fair, he’s downright pale in most of the paperback cover art for the books.) The imperturable seeress Gerrith — who wasn’t present for that scene in the book — is shown as a frightened girl. There is also a “Guide to Characters and Locale” as an appendix, which seems quite superfluous, and has the tone of notes made by Brackett in her original drafting of the story. It might have been useful as an appendix to the second or third book if read separately from the first. 

Reading The Ginger StarThe Hounds of Skaith and The Reavers of Skaith in a single go is certainly the way to enjoy them. Each of the first two arrives at a point of dramatic resolution, but with nothing like an overall success or failure of Stark’s mission on Skaith. They read quickly: Brackett is an efficient and effective storyteller. But the mood of decline pervades them, whether rooted in the mid-1970s atmosphere of the US (palpable in some instances), the fact that Brackett’s brilliant pulp efforts were long behind her, or simply the chosen scenario of a planet circling closer to its demise. They don’t quite measure up to her earlier Martian and Venusian yarns. Still, an imaginative reader can relish many of the characters, scenes, and episodes offered here.

The Long Tomorrow

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Long Tomorrow [Amazon, Bookshop (New), Publisher (New), Local Library] by Leigh Brackett.

Brackett The Long Tomorrow

As an SF author, Leigh Brackett is known for her planetary romances, which are indeed very fine. But this novel, perhaps her most lauded book-length work, involves a more serious and credible look at the future of our society. Indeed, the book’s scenario for the not-so-distant time to come is not much less believable now than it was when she wrote it about sixty years ago. The only ways it seems dated are that she didn’t predict the microprocessor, or describe any anthropogenic climate change. Given the nature of the story, the first of these is not a significant lack. 

In some features, this book resembles Logan’s Run, which I read recently. Both involve a protagonist rejecting a stultified society and looking for a possibly-mythical site of organized resistance which has continuity with the lost values of the past. Where Logan’s Run has Sanctuary, The Long Tomorrow has Bartorstown. But while Logan flees an urban technocracy, Brackett’s Len Colter is trying to escape an American anti-civilization in the etymological sense: a society that has overtly rejected the idea of the city, along with all of the industries and technologies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 

With this rural, piously conservative, post-apocalyptic environment as the setting for what is in large measure a coming-of-age story, the novel invites an even more direct comparison with John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. On the whole, I consider Brackett more successful. She better realizes the ways in which even those oppressed by the prevailing morals have internalized them, and she traces a more extensive and nuanced process of maturation in her characters. 

The Long Tomorrow reads quickly — “I finished The Long Tomorrow today,” I remarked paradoxically to my Other Reader — with digestibly short chapters divided into three component “books,” which might have been titled “Piper’s Run” (the village of Len’s childhood), “Refuge” (a community where his exile leads him as a young man), and “Bartorstown.” Although it was not issued as YA fiction, it would serve that increasingly sophisticated market well today. And it continues to deserve the attention of adults willing to reflect on social and technological change outside the myth of progress.

Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherwordly Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherwordly Stories [Amazon, Abebooks] by Leigh Brackett.

Brackett Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories

This book is a Fantasy Masterworks compilation of Golden Age science fiction novellas and short stories set on the habitable and human-populated Mars and Venus of mid-20th century imagination, as influenced by the fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs. By and large, Brackett’s protagonists are rogue archaeologists (self-confessed “tomb robbers”), thieves, and mercenaries. The complete absence of female protagonists might have been in keeping with the general run of the pulps at the time, but I note that her contemporary C(atherine). L. Moore was able to deliver a good lead heroine once in a while. Still, Brackett does include a respectable range of well-drawn female characters. And lest I accuse her of kowtowing to the white male science fiction hegemony, her recurring “Earthman out of Mercury” hero Eric John Stark is black.

Brackett’s ancient Mars–as rendered in the title novella and several of the other stories in this anthology–is a terrific fantasy adventure setting, worthy of role-playing or other crossover exploitation. In addition to the Mars and Venus stories, the book supplies “The Jewel of Bas” on some nameless otherworld, and the short Mars-related “Tweener” set on Earth.

“Black Amazon of Mars” is pretty much Brackett’s version of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” and I liked it very much. Mind-transfer or psychic possession is a theme, usually a dominant one, in at least half of the stories in this volume, and telepathy is common. Once in a great while, Brackett has one of her spacefaring humans venture a “scientific” hypothesis about the mysterious ancient technology of Mars or Venus. These efforts may be somewhat cringe-inducing among educated 21st-century readers, but they are brief and thankfully rare.

Editor Stephen Jones provides a closing essay with a detailed bibliographic overview, for which I was grateful. I certainly look forward to reading more of Brackett’s adventure stories, and Jones has helped me to identify some target titles for my wishlist.