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by James Sallis

Martian Quest: The Early Brackett, by Leigh Brackett, Haffner Books, 2002, $40.

AMONG younger readers, Leigh Brackett is likely known, if known at all, as author of the second Star Wars script and dedicatee of the movie. But beginning in 1940 and continuing well into the seventies, she published a stream of stories and novels that remain of near-legendary stature among science fiction readers and served as a profound influence on subsequent fantasy and science writers.

Though it was fantastic literature that remained her primary interest, her influence extended far beyond.

1944: Howard Hawks has just hired William Faulkner to write the screenplay for Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Thinking about who to bring on as collaborator, Hawks remembers reading an outstanding hardboiled novel titled No Good from a Corpse and tells his assistant to "Get me that Brackett guy." Surprised when an attractive young woman shows up, he hires her anyway. She works again with Hawks in 1959, creating with Jules Furthman one of the great classic Westerns, Rio Lobo. In 1967 she's summoned again by Hawks to collaborate on El Dorado.

1973: She writes The Long Goodbye for Robert Altman, a reinvention of Chandler's landmark novel, with Eliott Gould as Marlowe.

1980: Months before she dies in 1978 at the age of 62, she turns in the draft of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, for which, posthumously, she receives a Hugo.

Other mystery and hardboiled novels would follow No Good from a CorpseAn Eye for an Eye (1957), The Tiger Among Us (1957) and Silent Partner (1969)—as would other work in film and scripts for TV shows such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, a Western novel, Follow the Free Wind, and thirteen science fiction or fantasy novels.

Brackett's first sale, "Martian Quest," was to John Campbell at Astounding. That story and nineteen others published over the next three years in such pulps as Planet Stories, Startling Stories, Amazing Stories and Super Science Stories, 478 pages of them, are collected in Martian Quest: The Early Brackett from Haffner Press.

As with many true originals, much of Brackett's work, for all its seeming diversity—hardboiled, standard mystery, Westerns, high fantasy, science fiction—falls in a remarkably straight line. Here in Martian Quest are adumbrated the themes and preoccupations she'll fulfill in later work: the creation of an entire world in précis, details forthcoming. Here, too, is clear demonstration of the power, the narrative inertia that once set in motion cannot be stopped, and the genius for description that will forever be her hallmarks and heritage.

Leigh Brackett's Mars, for instance, this too-real toad in its imaginary garden: red desert stretching to ranges of barren hills and red dust rolling like water, actual water carted in on tanker ships from wetter worlds, humus and phosphates and nitrates also shipped in from offworld to make farming possible, a world of desert tribesmen, lost secrets, and a rich, unknown history.

Or Leigh Brackett's Venus of blazing heat, unreclaimable swampland and treacherous monsoons.

It was night, the deep indigo night of Venus. Beyond the open hut door, Campbell could see the liha-trees swaying a little in the hot, slow breeze. It seemed as though the whole night swayed, like a dark blue veil.

For a long time he didn't hear anything but the far-off screaming of some swamp beast on the kill. Then, sharp and cruel against the blue silence, a drum began to beat. ["The Citadel of Lost Ships"]

Brackett's Mercury, in the earliest stages of being colonized as a refuge for destitute, desperate veterans of the Second Interplanetary War, is the harshest and most inhospitable of these landscapes. Yet all Brackett's settings are frontiers: difficult places to live, ever hostile, ever perilous. Witness the forts of "The Dragon-Queen of Venus" (complete with Texan) and "The Stellar Legion," or the very title of "No Man's Land in Space."

Her characters, too, are the people who make up a frontier: outcasts, renegades, petty criminals and rebels, men with too much past and too little future.

He disembarked at Thern, heart of the Rikatva Area, a pale, stooped shadow of a man, young from his face, but old and hopeless from his eyes. With him nearly five hundred other passengers on the ancient spacetub climbed down into the dry red earth that was their last hope of economic freedom. ["Martian Quest"]

And on a moon-washed Martian night, Jaffa Gray stood in the shadow of the Valkis slave-market and cursed, bitterly and softly; a stocky, strong-boned man, his square face hard with the failure that he had at last to admit. ["Water Pirate"]

Fantasies such as Brackett's with their full-blooded romanticism, Mike Moorcock writes in the introduction here, passed from grace with World War II. Newer writers of popular fiction, folks like Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler, shared "a sense of yearning loss, as of innocence, a nobler, irredeemable past and an uncertain future." Brackett's characters are often aware, Moorcock writes, of some moral transgression for which everyone forgives them except themselves. Our sense of progress toward real civilization had been blasted to bits before our eyes. We were all guilty. We had become, again, barbarians of a sort.

A favorite and recurring theme, Ed Hamilton wrote in his introduction to The Best of Leigh Brackett, is that of a strong man's quest after a grand dream, and his failure as it turns to smoke and ash in his hands.

Moorcock in turn points out that Brackett's loners are avatars of the original American hero, all those cowboys, frontiersmen, and half-outlaws who bespeckle our popular mythology. It was Ed Hamilton, he says, who first described such books as The Continental Op not as detective stories but as urban adventure stories. Finally Brackett took as much from James M. Cain as from Burroughs, Moorcock insists,

bringing the spare, laconic prose and psychically wounded heroes of Hemingway, Hammett and Chandler into the sf pulp, rather as Max Brand (especially as Evan Evans) had brought it to the Western. It was why she could move so easily between private eyes with a nasty past, star-weary spacers and moody cactus-cussers.
It's not far, after all, from the beginning of "Child of the Sun" with Black Guard ships in pursuit of a fleeing Unregenerate, or from "Retreat to the Stars" and its band of rebels, to Star Wars or any of a hundred genre novels on today's shelves. Or to a posse on the trail of some falsely accused, honorable man. "Martian Quest" itself is a transliteration of the standard Western plot: stranger with mysterious past rides in from off-planet to a farming community in the reclaimed Martian desert, meets a fine woman, encounters distrust and rejection, solves the community's problem and saves all.

Similarly, Brackett's Eric John Stark blurs the boundaries of the Western, heroic fantasy and science fiction, and could serve as a kind of template for much modern fantasy. A civilized man, Stark reverts under stress to savage N'Chaka, the Man-Without-a-Tribe:

He had begun fighting almost before he could stand. Born in a mining colony in Mercury's Twilight Belt, he had fought to live on a planet that did not encourage life; his parents were dead, his foster parents a tribe of sub-human aboriginals clawing a precarious existence out of the sun-stricken valleys. He had fought, without success, the men who slaughtered those foster-parents and put him in a cage, a snarling curiosity. Later on, he had fought for a different kind of survival, the survival of himself as a man. [The Ginger Star]
Stark was created just after the stories of Martian Quest, in 1944, in a tale set on Brackett's familiar Mars, "Lorelei of the Red Mists"—a story completed by Ray Bradbury when Brackett was called to Hollywood to work on The Big Sleep. Brackett brought him back, relocated to Mercury, in her last three novels, the Skaith series.

A few further signs and landmarks.

In 1946 Brackett married Edmond Hamilton, the two of them moving four years later from Southern California to an abandoned farmhouse without electricity and with only a well for water outside Kinsman, Ohio. With studios beset by strikes and other disruptions, Brackett again turned to writing science fiction. From 1948 till 1951 she published better than a dozen stories. Then, with publication of Shadow Over Mars (1951) and The Starmen (1952), she began concentrating on book-length fiction. Further novels followed: The Sword of Rhiannon in 1953 (in an Ace Double with Robert E. Howard's Conan the Conqueror), The Big Jump in 1955 (in an Ace Double with Philip K. Dick's first novel, Solar Lottery), The Long Tomorrow in 1955. Of the last, Hamilton wrote:

When she first came to Ohio, she was greatly intrigued by the Amish folk here who continue their old, simple way of life in the midst of the modern world. This led her to remark that if modern civilization disappeared, the Amish would be perfectly fitted to live in a nonmechanical world and that remark grew into a novel.
Though for many it comes first to mind upon hearing the author's name, The Long Tomorrow, with its tale of a rural, religious-based culture surviving destruction of the cities in nuclear war, is something of an exception. The Sword of Rhiannon is far more typical. Earthman Matt Carse, dealer in Martian antiquities and thief, is projected back a million years to a time when the Martian landscape was verdant and there becomes involved in an age-old struggle; he wins liberation for the spirit of the once-accursed Rhiannon and returns to the present with his new love, Princess Ywain.

Brackett published several more novels with Ace in the sixties, then in 1974 and 1976, with Ballantine, the series of three Skaith novels reintroducing Eric John Stark. Two collections also appeared. Ace brought out The Halfling and Other Stories in 1973. And from Doubleday in 1977, the year before Brackett's death, came The Best of Leigh Brackett. Edited by husband Hamilton, it was paired with Brackett's own editing of The Best of Edmond Hamilton.

Anyone who reads a single page of Martian Quest will understand what Mike Moorcock meant in writing that, with Brackett, it's the atmosphere that gets you: the visuality and sheer physicality of her writing, the reflective landscapes that become, themselves, a species of narrative. In that, and in the doomed struggles and ultimate indomitability of her characters, Mike feels she was a guide, a trailblazer.

It's readily arguable that without her you would not have got anything like the same New Wave, which changed generic sf so radically from a fundamentally mechanistic realism to a fundamentally humanist romanticism in the 60s and 70s. With Catherine Moore, Judith Merril and Cele Goldsmith, Leigh Brackett is one of the true godmothers of the New Wave. Anyone who thinks they're pinching one of my ideas is probably pinching one of hers.
I grew up on stories by Brackett, Kuttner, Sturgeon, and their contemporaries, moving pretty much in a straight line from pabulum to solid food to science fiction. Reading Brackett's earliest work again after all these years reminds me of the early hold science fiction had on me and causes me to consider how deeply not only my taste in literature but my very view of the world was formed by science fiction. The stories in Martian Quest and I are of an age. I limp. They don't.

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