Blogging Brackett: Alpha Centauri or Die!

Alpha Centauri or Die!
Leigh Brackett
Ace Books, 1963

I thought I had read this one, but I think I was confusing it with The Starmen of LLyrdis.  I would have remembered the story if I had read it previously.  The ISFDB lists this book as being a fix-up of “The Teleportress of Alph-C” and “Ark of Mars”.  I’ve not read those stories, so I’ll refrain from putting my foot in my mouth by commenting.

By setting most of her work in the wilds of the solar system, particularly Mars and Venus, Brackett focused on adventure more than politics.  When political considerations arose, they tended to be in tribal or feudal systems of government.  That’s not the case here.  A centralized government controls all aspects of the solar system.  Human space travel has been outlawed.  Individuals are assigned a job and a sector in which to live.  It’s almost impossible to move from one sector to another, never mind from one planet to another.  All transport between planets is done by computer controlled spacecraft.  The entire economy is centrally controlled, and individual initiative is quashed.

This is not a system of which Brackett approves.

Brackett’s philosophy of exploration versus safety comes out strongly.  It’s not quite a Howardian barbarism vs. civilization approach, but the echoes are there.  She starts describing the setup thusly:

No more men in space.  No strong hands bridling the rockets, no eyes looking outward to the stars.  But still upon the wide-flung worlds of Sol were old men who remembered, and young men who could dream.

She continues a few pages later:

It was the planners that did it…Because of them all the Stabilization Acts had passed.  Trade Stabilization.  Population Stabilization.  Crop Stabilization.  The busy minds of the experts working.  Take the manned ships out of space and there can’t be any trade wars or any other kinds of  wars.  The worlds can’t get at each other to fight.  Stop expansion outward to the stars and eliminate the risks, the economic upsets that attend every major change, the unpredictable rise and shift of power.  Stabilize.  Regulate.  Control.  We may lose a few unimportant liberties but think what we’ll gain.  Security for all, and for all time to come!  And the dark ships of the Government will keep you safe.

Sound familiar?

Kirby is a former rocket pilot living on Mars who is approaching middle age, the time in life when most pilots would have begun think about hanging it up, and he’s going to rebel.  He’s not alone. There is an organization who have kept an old freighter hidden, and they’re planning on getting out.  A secret probe visited Alpha Centauri and discovered a planet capable of sustaining life.  The report was suppressed, but portions of it have leaked out.  The group is planning on heading to Alpha Centauri.

Not everyone wants to go.  The men involved in the conspiracy have kept quiet, but now that’s it almost time to leave, they have to tell their wives.  Not all the women want to be yanked out of their secure and comfortable lives to settle another planet in a distant solar system.  A couple of the wives spill the beans.

Kirby was once married to a human woman.  It wasn’t a happy marriage, but she died.  Kirby has found a woman more suited to him.  Her name is Shari, and she is a Martian.  Kirby lives with her in a Martian settlement.  He hasn’t told of his plans and intends to leave her in order to protect her.  But Shari has a little surprise for him.

What’s that? No, she isn’t pregnant.  She’s telepathic.  Shari has known everything all along, and she intends to accompany Kirby to Alpha Centauri.  But first she has to help Kirby escape from his former brother-in-law, who is a high ranking official.  Some of the women talked, remember.

They make their escape, of course, or this would be a pretty short book.  Along the way, they have defend themselves against a ship sent to destroy them.  Brackett does some interesting things with Shari’s telepathic ability when Shari tries to read the mind of the AI controlling the ship.

And of course, once they reach their destination after five years in space, things aren’t quite as edenic as they thought.

There’s plenty of adventure, but we see a more mature and thoughtful author writing at the top of her game.  As I’ve already mentioned, she makes no secret of her views on centralized government.  Given that the Cold War was in full swing, it would be easy to cast the government in the role of Communism.  The parallels are pretty clear, and I think that’s a fair assessment, but it doesn’t go far enough.  There are some other passages I didn’t quote.  From what I read, my take away was that Brackett didn’t like government regulation, period.  She seems to think it stifles creativity and humanity.  I’m inclined to agree with her.

This is also a book that feminists will hate.  Shari is the only woman who is portrayed in a positive manner.  I find that interesting since she is the only nonhuman woman in the book.  I get the impression from what I’ve read of Brackett’s work that she was pretty egalitarian when it came to racial relations.  Brackett does mention the prejudice Kirby faces because of his relationship with Shari.

The human women, while minor characters, are portrayed as weak, whiny, and manipulative.  Near the end, the human woman whose character was most developed (wife of one of the leaders), contacts a second ship sent to retrieve the colonists and bring them home.  She does this without telling anyone until after she’s made the contact, condemning everyone to what she wants, without allowing the other colonists to have a say in the decision.  Brackett does not present this behavior as a positive thing.

What Brackett does present as positives are traits typically considered to be masculine values.  Leadership.  Courage.  Risk-taking.  Sacrifice.  Heroism.  Characteristics that are in short supply these days.  Cooperation is stressed because it’s what the colonists must do to survive.  This involves bearing and raising children (it was a long trip without much to do).  A traditional family structure was shown and presented as a good thing.

Like I said, I suspect it’s a book feminists will hate.

I, on the other hand, enjoyed the heck out of it.  There was plenty of adventure and action, but there was a depth missing from much work published in the pulps, even from the works of other writers I enjoy.  Kirby is a typical Brackett character, meaning he’s slightly worn around the edges, has taken a few knocks here and there, but he still strives for what he believes in even when he knows he’ll probably die in the process.

Great stuff.  Check it out.

3 thoughts on “Blogging Brackett: Alpha Centauri or Die!

  1. Matthew

    Actually, I found this quote on the Wikipedia entry on the book that describes my feelings:

    Rich Horton’s review was mixed. He felt that the novel didn’t have “the frisson of Dunsany-esque fantastical imagery that so drives her best work,” concluding that it was “[m]ediocre stuff, really, though Brackett is never unreadable, and I did enjoy the book.

    Readable, but not her best.


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