Note: This post became a lot more personal than I intended. Rather than rewrite it, I’ll expand on the opening paragraphs about the Ballantine Best of series in a future post.
Way back in ancient times, in other words the summer before I started high school, my parents agreed to let me join the Science Fiction Book Club, something I had been asking to do for a while. I still remember the first shipment of books contained one of the Ballantine Best of series (Frederik Pohl).
In fact, for the first six months or so I was a member, each month the catalog I received contained a different volume of that series. I bought them all. Or rather all the ones the Club offered from the time I joined onwards. (For some reason I never saw the C. L. Moore volume listed in any of the mail-outs. I bought it in paperback, although there was an SFBC edition.)
I had become aware of Ballantine’s Best of series in the seventh grade, when I found a copy of The Best of Jack Williamson at the flea market in a little book shop that sold paperbacks with missing covers for a quarter. I wouldn’t learn that such sales were illegal until a few years later.
I loved the Williamson volume and quickly collected all the titles I could find. Quite a few were still in print (Weinbaum, Leiber, Clement). So when The Best of Leigh Brackett popped up early in the fall of my freshman year, I bought it.
One thing you need to understand about high school football in Texas, especially if you live somewhere else, is that it’s a religion. Similar to soccer in some parts of the world. Everything about the high school I attended revolved around the football games on Friday.
This was not a world into which I comfortably fit. Instead I found my refuge in the stars, even if those stars were only in my imagination and on the pages of the books I read. I recall several Fridays when I came home and read while everyone else was going to the football game.
I had never heard of Leigh Brackett beyond seeing the omnibus of her Skaith trilogy, The Book of Skaith, in SFBC ads. The Empire Strikes Back had come out the previous summer, but I hadn’t realized she wrote the first draft of the screenplay. The English teacher who would introduce me to Humphrey Bogart and Raymond Chandler was a few years and an entirely different town in the future, so I didn’t know at the time she was a screenwriter.
I recall reading The Best of Leigh Brackett in the backyard that September and early October. The air was crisp and cool, the book clean and unread, just waiting for me to dive in. I was at the perfect age for the book to make a lasting impression, and it did.
“The Jewel of Bas” was the first story. It wasn’t like anything I had read. I quickly devoured the stories, falling in love with the writing, the settings, the characters, the sense of loneliness and loss that pervaded the best of Brackett’s stories, especially those of Mars.
I’ve reread many of them in the years since that autumn when a lonely teenager sought refuge from the strange and disconcerting world of adolescence in bygone visions of a solar system that never was.
But I never reread “The Jewel of Bas”. I’m not sure why. I totally enjoyed the story. It definitely had a sense of wonder to it. But it didn’t fit with the rest of Brackett’s solar system. That much I recognized. Or at least I thought I did. Although now that I’ve reread it, I’m not so sure it can’t fit.
The story opens with two thieves making their way from one town to the next. Mouse is a small, almost boyish young woman who has a brand between her eyebrows signifying she’s thief. She’s accompanied by her husband, Ciaran, who is a harper. They’re camping out in the woods on the edge of the Forbidden Plains, down on their luck, low on food, and generally pretty stressed. After a meager stew that really doesn’t fill their bellies they discuss stories of people and even entire villages disappearing into the Forbidden Plains. No one has ever ventured into them and returned.
The legends also tell of Bas, an immortal god who resides in a volcano in the midst of the Plains and the Stone of Destiny, which gives him his power. Bas created androids to serve him, and he is a god who is generally feared.
It doesn’t take long to realize that wherever Mouse and Ciaran are, they aren’t on Earth. Sunballs, lights that float in the sky to heat and illuminate the world, are soon mentioned. It appears that this world is hollow.
Mouse and Ciaran are soon attacked by creatures known as Kalds, which are humanoids but not human. Brackett’s description makes them sound like mutated rats. They capture the pair and join up with other Kalds who are taking a group of humans to the volcano as slaves, Ciaran is chained behind a hunter, a giant of a man with a long red hair and a beard, who is simply called the Hunter. The description reminds me a bit of a chap named Fahfrd.
Hmm…I wonder. This isn’t the only possible homage in the story. More on that in a bit.
During a rest stop, Mouse uses a set of lockpicks she has hidden on her person to open her chain, and then passes the lockpicks to some of the other slaves, who do the same. When a signal is given, the slaves turn on the Kalds. They aren’t able to overcome the Kalds, but Mouse, Ciaran, the hunter, and a hermit (which is this story is a type of holy man) manage to escape.
They are pursued into a cave where they find a giant machine being built in a vast cavern. A large number of slaves are working on the machine. The slaves seem to be in some type of trance and don’t react to much around them other than their tasks. The group is still being pursued by the Kalds, so to escape they pretend to join a group of slaves and make their way to the bottom of the cavern.
While they’re there, the androids appear on a ledge where they can be seen by all the slaves. One of them holds up a lance from which a white light is emitted. The light is hypnotic and Mouse and the hermit are brought under its spell, while the trance the slaves are in is strengthened. The hunter manages to keep Ciaran from looking at the light. They make their way through the tunnels but are attacked. The hunter sacrifices himself so that Ciaran can escape.
Ciaran flees and eventually comes across a chamber in which a young boy is sleeping under a shield of light. During a power surge, something that is happening with increasing frequency, he manages to get inside the shield and wake the boy up. He’s Bas, of course.
Bas tells Ciaran that he was once a fisherman’s son in Atlantis. A meteor fell one day, and the radiation changed Bas so that he became immortal. Trapped in a child’s body, he never aged physically, never grew to manhood, never loved a woman. He was treated as a god, but even that grew old in time. Eventually, he builds his won world inside a planet, but the people there are still people. Bas retreated into a dream world, leaving the humans, Kalds, and androids to muddle along as best they can.
But now the Stone of Destiny, a piece of the meteor that made Bas what he is, is beginning to lose its power. The androids are plotting to overthrow Bas. Bas merely wants to retreat into his dream world. Ciaran wants to save the world and be reunited with his beloved Mouse.
I’ll let you read the story to find out how things turn out.
This was a little different than the other works I’ve looked at by Brackett. Those were set mostly against a common background, using depictions of real planets in our solar system, albeit fanciful depictions. And while this story could take place inside an as yet undiscovered planet (the planet is never named, only referred to as the tenth planet), there is nothing in this story to directly connect it to the rest of Brackett’s solar system.
That’s okay. The science in this story, such as it is, is a type of super science not seen much in today’s science fiction but was rather common in the 1930s and into the early 1940s. Basically an application of Clarke’s Law: the science is so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic. It’s this super science that powers the sun balls, hypnotizes the human slaves, (and presumably allows there to be gravity inside a hollow sphere, where there ain’t none cuz it cancels out). It’s not the sort of thing Brackett tended to write.
Also, the characters aren’t your typical Brackett characters. Oh, sure, she has thieves, rogues, and ne’er-do-wells, but they tend to be heroic in stature. Mouse and Ciaran are both small of build. She’s described as almost boyish, certainly not lovely or voluptuous in the sense of many of Brackett’s other female characters. Ciaran and short and bandy-leg, a far cry from the ruggedness of Eric John Stark. Mouse and Ciaran love each other but they also fight and squabble. He even smacks her from time to time. Not exactly a shining hero, our Ciaran, and certainly not one that would be acceptable in today’s fiction market as the protagonist. Yet he loves Mouse and after she’s captured, he tries to get her back, willing to risk his own life.
Finally, there is one reference each to Cimmeria and Hyperborea. Not the Robert E. Howard countries of those names, but most likely either a reference to regions on Earth in ancient history that had those appellations. (Howard lifted liberally from history at times.) We know Brackett was a fan of Howard’s, so perhaps this is another homage, like the similarities to Leiber’s heroes mentioned above.
So, final thoughts. “The Jewel of Bas” is not quite your typical Brackett. It’s something different. Memory decays over a span of more than three and a half decades, so only the outline of this particular story remained in my memory. But upon rereading, I can see why it appealed to the 15 year old me I was then, and still appeals to the much older than 15 year old me I am now. There’s a level of imagination here that is somewhat hard to find in all the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Tolkien imitations flooding the shelves. (I mean, the sun balls, how cool is that?) The protagonists are flawed, human, and not your usual archetypes, and seem all the more believable for that. This story is an example of why I started reading science fiction in the first place. It deserves to be more widely known.