Blogging Brackett: “The Jewel of Bas”

“The Jewel of Bas”
Planet Stories, Spring 1944

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.

The set of the Big Sleep l. to r. Howard Hawks, Slim Hawks, Brackett, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, I have no idea

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.

Interior Illustration by Graham Ingels

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.

Interior Illustration by Graham Ingels

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.

Leigh Brackett as a teenager, circa 1930

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.

27 thoughts on “Blogging Brackett: “The Jewel of Bas”

  1. Paul McNamee

    I don’t like reading ‘plans’ but after I get through some NECON authors between now and July, I think I’ll spend the second half of the year reading pulps and classics. I need to catchup on all these great stories.

    1. Keith West Post author

      I’m just trying to find time to read. I’m wanting to read more pulp and historical adventure such as we discussed yesterday at Frontier Partisans.

  2. Matthew

    I need to reread this I don’t remember a thing about it.

    The protagonist of No Good From a Corpse (not her best work in my opinion) also smacks a few women. That’s interesting since she was a woman who did NOT fit in on the standards of the time.

    That’s an interesting picture from The Big Sleep to see them all together like that.

    1. Keith West Post author

      I haven’t read No Good From a Corpse yet. The smacking wasn’t a big deal in this story, but it was mentioned. To me that was one of the most interesting parts of the story. There’s no way that would fly today. I wonder how much it was an accepted thing in the 40s. Speaking only of “The Jewel of Bas” (since I haven’t read NGFaC), I wonder if Brackett was using that as a characterization trope. What I mean by that is both Mouse and Ciaran are presented as members of the lower classes of society, although we aren’t really shown any upper classes. Domestic violence is somewhat stereotypical of lower income groups, so I wonder if she was playing to the common stereotypes of the day.

      Yes, I found that picture online. I’d never seen it before, but I really liked it so I included it.

      1. Matthew

        It may be a characterization thing. People were certainly less sensitive about that in those days. I don’t think Brackett approved of domestic violence. I also think if anyone hit her she would have probably hit him back.

        No Good for a Corpse was not as good as most of her science fiction. It’s an interesting read if you’re a Brackett fan, though.

        1. Keith West Post author

          I suspect you’re right about Brackett hitting back. And I don’t think she portrays Ciaran hitting Mouse as a positive thing. There’s a point where he’s feeling remorse over the way he treated her. This is after she comes under the spell of the androids and is working as a slave. He’s wanting her back and is willing to risk the world to make it happen.

  3. PCBushi

    This is the only Brackett story I’ve read so far, and honestly I wasn’t that impressed. But as you say this isn’t her typical stuff, perhaps I’ll like some of her other stories better.

    1. Keith West Post author

      You should really give some of her other work a try. This one was a little different in tone and subject matter.

  4. Howard Jones

    I really have to swing out from my own web site more often, because this was a great post. I wish I’d seen it sooner. I remember reading “Jewel of Bas” but I don’t recall it very well. After this I may have to pick up one of my Brackett collections and give it another go.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Thanks, Howard. I’ll be doing more Brackett posts over the next few months, so keep your eyes peeled. I’d love to know what you think about some of the things coming up.

  5. deuce

    I agree with several people that this isn’t one of LB’s top-tier stories. Still, it’s easily better than 90% of the SFF being written today.

    BTW, Keith, if you need a little something for your next “Women Other Women Don’t See” post, there’s this:

    Hanley runs a damn good blog. I like Stevens’ work, but I have to agree with him that there seems to be special pleading going on and, perhaps, an outright manufacturing of “facts”. Hoppenstand’s grandstanding (Hoppenstanding?) aside, there just isn’t much evidence that she influenced Merritt or HPL. Let her work stand on its own estimable merits.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Thanks for the link. I was unaware of that blog, but I’m going to pay attention to it now that you’ve pointed it out. I’ve not read much of Stevens’ work, but I’m certainly aware of her. I’ll try to fit her into the rotation sometime later this year.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Thanks for the link, Deuce. I’m going to have to read some Stevens this year. I’ve only read one or two of her stories at most, and it’s been a while.

  6. deuce

    Oh, and Leigh’s birthday is in a couple weeks. The anniversaries of ERB’s and HPL’s deaths are coming up as well.

      1. deuce

        Yeah, working from memory on that didn’t work out so well. HPL, then LB, then ERB. All within a 5 day block. March has been a rough month for the Great Ones of weird lit. Brackett and HPL both started out as ERB fans, though Lovecraft distanced himself in later life. HPL actually got a fan letter for GODS OF MARS (?) published in Argosy/whatever when it was serialized. Lovecraft was a teen/young man when ERB was at his height.

    1. Keith West Post author

      That’s an interesting article. Thanks for the link. I’ve never really thought about Kipling being an influence on Brackett, but now that I’ve read that article, it makes sense.

      1. deuce

        Haggard makes even more sense. That man was the foundation. Other than Shakespeare, the only author that Kipling, Doyle, ERB, Merritt, HPL, Eddison, REH, JRRT, CS Lewis, Brackett and Mundy ALL admired…was H. Rider Haggard.

        He is the one who really got the whole “exotic adventure” train rolling. He wrote everything from Lost Race to historical fantasy to Merritesque scifi. All pretty much before anybody else and he did it quite well. I only read one of his novels in the first four decades of my life and I could kick myself. All of us who love wierd fiction and gonzo adventure owe him a debt. It can be easily repaid. The cost is days of entertainment. He wrote 70 novels.

        Jim Cornelius is an HRH fan, BTW.

        Check out this fine review/essay:

        1. Keith West Post author

          Thanks for the link. Haggard has been on my radar for a while. I’ve been making a conscious decision this year to not read as much simply because I want to try and get more writing done. I’m still trying to find that balance between reading and writing.

          1. deuce

            I don’t want to interfere with that. I’ll just say that Morgan Holmes and myself both deeply regret not getting into HRH decades ago. From reading his stuff, I’ve figured out he was a bigger influence on REH than I ever imagined. It’s just obvious.

            The main thing is, he’s just fun to read. A lot of times, his books start a tad slow, but they rev up pretty well on average. Like I said, there’s a reason all of those authors admired the man. He was also a very kind, good person in his personal life.

          2. Keith West Post author

            You won’t interfere with it. I’ve got to develop the discipline to write consistently. I was doing well until the first round of exams hit. I’ll be grading this weekend, something I should have already finished.

            I’ve got all the Ayesha/She novels in paperback, plus some of the Quatermain titles along with one or two stand-alones. I just need to make time to read them.

          3. deuce

            Assuming you find the time, I would read SHE AND ALLAN, SHE and KING SOLOMON’S MINES. In that order. It’s how I wish I’d read them, anyway. Maybe you should canvass your readeship on the topic, though I find HRH fans in these decadent times are few and far between. Cornelius might have a different list, though I do think mine does a good job of melding the two series in a logical and entertaining fashion with a minimum of reading. From there, the sky’s the limit. Sixty-plus novels to go!

          4. Keith West Post author

            Thanks for the tip. I’m hoping this summer to dive into more writing from that time period. I’ve had a hankering for lost world novels lately.

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