Empress of the Lost Solar System

Leigh Douglass Brackett was born one hundred years ago this past 7th of December, in Los Angeles. Her husband, Edmond Hamilton, wrote in his preface to The Best of Leigh Brackett (1977, Del Rey) that when little she was “a sunburned, muscular small girl roaming the California beach in front of her grandfather’s old house and playing at being a pirate. From what her family told me, I believe she was a hardy, adventurous little tomboy.”

She certainly wrote plenty about women of that sort later. Her science fiction stories are filled with them, some noble, some wicked, some down-to-earth, but none of them weak-kneed. Beudag, the shield woman of “Lorelei of the Red Mist,” Ciaran in People of the Talisman, who hides her sex behind a helmet and armor as leader of a tribe of barbarians, until she’s exposed, and then takes command undismayed (“I have led you well, I have taken you Kushat … will a man here dispute me?”), Sydna Cochrane in The Big Jump (“You play rough.”  “I grew up with three brothers. I had to play rough or not play”), Virgie in “The Veil of Astellar,” of whom the narrator says, “Life had kicked her around some … a tough, unbreakable character … ,” Jen in “Shannach – the Last,” “a woman who had already learned the happy, the passionate and the bitter things, who had lived with pain and fear and knew better than to trust anyone but herself” and the tormented, vengeful Ahrian in “The Woman From Altair,” destructive but more sinned against than sinning – they all have minds of their own and can all stand on their own feet. Rann in “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, Varra in “Enchantress of Venus” and for that matter Varra’s horrid, ruthless grandmother, Fand in “The Beast-Jewel of Mars” and spiteful, malicious Kell a Marg in the “Skaith” trilogy, clinging to the past on her dying world, are all bitches deluxe – but they’re all believable, not cardboard, all have their own passions and motivations, with some of which you can sympathize, even while feeling glad they never crossed your path. Fand at one point says bitterly, “Mars, the world that could not even die in decency and honour, because the carrion birds came flying to pick its bones, and the greedy rats suck away the last of its blood and pride.”  The carrion birds and greedy rats are the Earthmen, typified by the bosses of the Terran Exploitations Company in Shadow Over Mars.

Feathers, played by Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, a movie Brackett scripted and later novelized, is an itinerant poker player who spars feistily with sheriff John Wayne on equal terms and declines to let him run her out of town as a bad influence. She even helps save his unforthcoming butt from gunmen at one point. Another gutsy Brackett woman was Vivian Rutledge, played by Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, which Brackett co-scripted. For that matter Bacall would have been perfect as Sydna in The Big Jump, if a movie had ever been made of that. Hmm. I wonder if the similarity of titles was just coincidence …

As a person, by all accounts, Leigh Brackett was warm, friendly, gracious and unassuming, one hundred per cent a lady. I never met her. But Harlan Ellison did. Caustic and scathing as he frequently is, when Brackett died of cancer, he said in print, “There are not enough tears to mark her passing.”  Ellison isn’t an easy man to move to that extent.

Although she scripted movies (including The Empire Strikes Back), wrote tough crime novels (like her very first novel, No Good from a Corpse, published in 1944, followed by The Tiger Among Us and Eye for an Eye, both in 1957) and westerns (Follow the Free Wind won the Spur Award), as well as a superb post-nuclear-apocalypse novel, The Long Tommorrow, which appeared in 1955, Brackett made the romantic, traditional, but sadly mythical, Solar System of the pulps uniquely her own. She was delighted by Burroughs’ novels of Mars and Venus from the moment she discovered them. Later she created her own fictional Mars, Venus and Mercury, all habitable, even if marginally and only by the strongest. The moons of the outer planets were peopled in her mythical Solar System too. Her descriptions of them were often hauntingly poetic. Try this paragraph from The Sword of Rhiannon, set on Mars:

Carse walked beside the still black waters in their ancient channel, cut in the dead sea-bottom. He watched the dry wind shake the torches that never went out and listened to the broken music of the harps that were never stilled. Lean lithe men and women passed him in the shadowy streets, silent as cats except for the chime and whisper of the tiny bells the women wear, a sound as delicate as rain, distillate of all the sweet wickedness of the world.

Or this one, from “The Moon That Vanished”:

Darkness on Venus is not like the darkness of Earth or Mars. The planet is hungry for light and will not let it go. The face of Venus never sees the Sun but even at night the hope and the memory of it are there, trapped in the eternal clouds. The air is the color of indigo and it carries its own pale glow … the slow hot wind made drifts of light among the liha-trees … and blended into the restless phosphorescence of the Sea of Morning Opals.

In her fictional solar system, which could not really have been even at the time she was writing — but who cares? – even the occasional asteroid, as in “The Lake of the Gone Forever”, had a breathable atmosphere and was habitable. Mercury, at least in the “blazing valleys” of the Twilight Belt, a rocky, searing hell where the mountains tower high above the shallow atmosphere, could be survived. Mars is ancient, barren and dying, Venus young, watery and fecund. All these worlds have an archetypal, mythic quality, as Leigh Brackett depicts them.

And she was a Robert E. Howard fan.

Brackett wrote a story called “Lorelei of the Red Mist” in 1946. It’s a great story, set on Venus, and in several ways pays respects to REH’s memory; it was, of course, written a decade after his suicide. The sea-roving barbarians of Venus’s eerie “Red Sea” are blatantly Irish barbarians transposed to another planet. They have names like Faolan, Romna and Beudag. They wear kilts, fight with longswords, and their stronghold echoes to haunting harp music. Its name is “Crom Dhu”, and their enemies’ home is Falga. As if that wasn’t enough, the main male character, execrated by the rovers as the traitor who led their fleet to destruction, is named … Conan. Brackett said herself she did that as an homage to Robert E. Howard. Afterwards, though, she came to regard it as a mistake, the name Conan being so completely identified with a certain giant Cimmerian.

Here’s his description: “The mouth was sensuous, with a dark sort of laughter on it. The eyes were yellow. The cruel, brilliant yellow of a killer hawk … a powerful body, rangy and flat-muscled … weather and violence had written history on it, wealed white marks on leathery bronze skin … black hair on … chest and thighs and forearms … hands … lean and sinewy for killing … ”

Substitute volcanic blue eyes for brilliant yellow, and you recognizably have Howard’s hero, to labor the obvious. And physically he’s not unlike Brackett’s greatest, most successful hero, Eric John Stark, whom she created later. Hugh Starke in “Lorelei” is a precursor. EJS is a primitive, raised by nonhumans on Mercury, in the Twilight Belt. His foster people were wiped out by “civilized” Earthmen, and now he’s a wandering mercenary, living by choice in the wild barbaric reaches of various planets, most often Mars. For a capsule description, he’s a combination of Conan and Tarzan, though Brackett gave him her own distinctly individual slant.

She wasn’t able to finish “Lorelei of the Red Mist” herself. An offer to work on the screenplay for The Big Sleep came from Howard Hawks at that exact time. Instead of shelving it, she gave the project to a young fan and burgeoning writer by the name of Ray Bradbury. They had met and become friends at the Los Angeles Science Fiction Club. Bradbury completed the story, and showed Brackett the results, probably nervous and hoping he hadn’t made a hash of it, as young writers do. Brackett read it, and cried in delight, “Damn!  You’re me!”

She was right. Readers of “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, unless they know, have been puzzled to pick where Brackett left off and Bradbury took over. This blogger couldn’t do it for the life of him.

As you’d expect of a writer Howard Hawks wanted on the basis of a crime novel of hers he’d read, Brackett could write hard-boiled prose featuring tough guys with any man. And they had a few brains to go with the iron fists. Tough?  The perfect actor to play Arch Comyn in The Big Jump (about the first extrasolar space voyage and the conniving that surrounds it) would have been Lee Marvin aged thirty-five or forty. A superb voice narrator for “The Veil of Astellar” (I’m not the first one with this idea) would have been Bogart. I’d suggest the young Charles Bronson for Richard Gunn Urquhart in Shadow Over Mars. He could’ve played Burk Winters in “The Beast-Jewel of Mars” too. Eric John Stark himself?  Not so easy to say. If the movie was remotely true to the original stories (a pipe dream right there) his skin would have to be extremely dark, “burned almost black by the terrible sun of Mercury”, so he’d be a black actor or darkened with makeup.

“Enchantress of Venus,” like the earlier “Lorelei of the Red Mist,” is set on the Red Sea. This time the protagonist is EJS. It closes with the words, “A restless, cold eyed tiger of a man, that’s what Varra said. He’s lost something, she said. He’ll look for it all his life, and never find it.”

What Stark lost, of course, was the half-animal aborigines who raised him, few enough in the beginning and now wholly extinct. In The Hounds of Skaith (1974) the hero-worshipping orphan boy Tuchvar notices that about him while Stark is sleeping. “In his dreams, it seemed, the Dark Man remembered lost things and mourned them … He wondered where … on what remote and unimagined worlds, Stark might have lost those things, and what they might have been.”

As another, earlier Stark novel, The Secret of Sinharat, opens, he is about to be taken by the authorities for his crimes against colonial exploiters on behalf of untamed tribes who resist them – “running guns to the Middle-Swamp tribes when they revolted against Terro-Venusian Metals, and a couple of similar jobs.” Trapped at last, he grimly faces the inevitable – twenty years in the Luna cell-blocks. “He was used to inevitables – hunger, pain, loneliness, the emptiness of dreams. He had accepted a lot of them in his time.”  Fortunately, he gets an offer from his mentor Ashton, the man who saved him when the half-evolved savages of Mercury were wiped out by the mining combine. The authorities will rescind his sentence if he stops a barbarian warlord who may drown half Mars in blood for a false, lying purpose. “I won’t put it on the grounds that you’d be doing civilization a service,” Ashton says. “You don’t owe civilization a thing, Lord knows.”  But the warlord, Kynon, plans to use the barbaric dryland tribes as tools to make him supreme, with the clever vultures of the Low Canals also getting a cut, and Stark has a feeling for primitive tribes like the one that raised him. “You’re clever, Ashton,” he admits. Upon meeting Kynon, he accuses him of “lying to your people … making false promises, to lead them into war.”  Kynon, genuinely surprised, answers, “Of course!  Is there anything new or strange in that?”

This is a recurring theme in many of Brackett’s sword-and-planet romances – “Secret of Sinharat,” “The Road to Sinharat,” “The Citadel of Lost Ships,” “Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon” (the over-the-top pulpish title was deliberately chosen), “The Beast-Jewel of Mars,” and “The Last Days of Shandakor.” Conquest and colonialism doesn’t benefit the conquered nearly as much as the civilized conquerors claim, and they often don’t know better than the natives, though they’re quite certain they do. They frequently screw things up worse than they were in the beginning, albeit with the best of intentions. As the Low Canal Martian, Derech, says to Woodthorpe of the Rehabilitation Project in “The Road to Sinharat,” he’d rather the gods sent him a wicked enemy than a well-meaning fool. And these stories were written in the 1940s, many of them, though “The Road to Sinharat” came from Brackett’s typewriter in 1963. Still ahead of prevailing current views.

The theme also resonates strongly with REH’s sympathies for barbarians over civilised powers, and with his resentment of the outside commercial interests that exploited his native Texas. In a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, circa December 1932, Howard wrote:

For generations Texas has been the prey of certain particular breeds of vultures: magnates from other sections, who wish only to exploit and loot the state; and native promoters and politicians who are eager to sell the birthright of their people in return for personal graft. That is not to say by any means that the people who come to Texas are all commercial pirates, or that all the native promoters and politicians are grafters. But both breeds do exist in goodly number …

Another letter to Lovecraft (December 1935) contained the lines:

You express amazement at my statement that “civilized” men try to justify their looting, butchering and plundering by claiming that these things are done in the interests of art, progress and culture. That this simple statement of fact should cause surprize, amazes me in return. People claiming to possess a superior civilization have always veneered their rapaciousness by such claims.

Brackett’s Middle-Swamp Venusians and Dryland Martians could have echoed those sentiments.

Another correspondence between Howard’s work and Brackett’s lay in the fierce, independent warrior women they created. Brackett admired REH’s “Sword Woman,” Agnes de Chastillon, in particular, to the point of writing an introduction to the Berkely paperback which contained the two complete Dark Agnes stories, “Sword Woman” and “Blades for France,” as well as the Agnes fragment “Mistress of Death.” She particularly liked Agnes’ fiery response to the mercenary captain Guiscard de Clisson when he advised her to stick to her “proper place” as a woman. “There is no man alive who can face me with weapons and live, and before I die, I’ll prove it to the world … I’ll live as I please and die as God wills, but if I’m not fit to be a man’s comrade, at least I’ll be no man’s mistress. So go ye to hell, Guiscard de Clisson, and may the devil tear your heart!”

Brackett called it “ … as eloquent a statement of individual pride and self-respect as you are likely to find anywhere.”

A like passage occurs in The Secret of Sinharat, when the Martian warlord Ciaran states her position to Stark. She was fathered by a king, but she’s illegitimate, with no lawful standing. She defied custom and tradition by training at arms with the boys. “Every day I was beaten for it, but every day I went … I did not ask to be a bastard, and I will not be bound by it. I did not ask to be born a woman, and I will not be bound by that either. So much I have accomplished, if I die today.”

REH’s Belit, Queen of the Black Coast, also has royal blood, possibly on the wrong side of the blanket, like Ciaran’s. At least she says that her “fathers were kings of Asgalun!” Like Ciaran, she has struck out on her own and made her own life as a leader of savage warriors. In her own milieu, she, like Ciaran, is “the wildest she-devil unhung.”

There is enormously more to declare about Leigh Brackett, her work and her life; it would fill a volume. Others will be saying much of it this month, for certain. Perhaps there are no better words than a paraphrase of a tribute to Robert E. Howard. “The parts of a writer that don’t die with [her] body are [her] stories – and [Brackett’s] stories are not going to die among those of us who frankly and whole-heartedly like adventure on the grand scale.”

Agnes de Chastillon Illustration by John Watkiss