So here’s a Mars story, a planet we’ve not looked at yet in this series of posts on Brackett. As cool as her Venus stories are (and we’re not done looking at them), Brackett’s stories of Mars are what made her reputation.
In this one, an ethnologist named John Ross is on Mars studying the various tribes and hoping to be awarded an endowed chair at a university on Earth for his work. He’s sitting in a dive, waiting for the final preparations to be made for his caravan, when a man walks in. Ross can see immediately there’s something different about this person. Everyone pretends he’s not there. When Ross asks his caravan master about the man, the caravan master tells him to forget about him. Curiosity getting the better of him, Ross approaches the man and engages him in conversation. He’ll wish he’d heeded the caravan master’s advice.
The man is from no known Martian race. He tells Ross he’s from the city of Shandakor. He and two companions fled the city across the desert. He’s the only one who survived, and now he wants to go home.
Ross agrees to take him, but when the reach the crossroads where they have to turn off, the caravan master refuses to go. Ross and the man are on the outskirts of the Shandakor when the man tries to kill him. Ross had figured out that he was being used and expects the attack. He ends up killing the Martian in self-defense.
When Ross tries to enter the city, he’s captured by an alliance of tribes. Shandakor is an ancient city with an evil reputation. They’ve found the source of Shandakor’s water and have cut it off. Now they’re waiting for the inhabitants of the city to die. The tribesmen are afraid to go into Shandakor because they think it’s haunted.
They’re right. They send Ross in. It’s either that or kill him, and he’s traveled all this way to reach the city. Ross discovers a vibrant city filled with a number of races but ruled by members of the unknown tribe. He soon discovers that the inhabitants are phantoms who can’t see or hear him and are insubstantial to the touch. At least most of them are. A group of guards grab him and take him to the leaders of Shandakor.
It seems that the illusion of a living city is being projected from a large globe in the center of the city. The remaining survivors are undergoing voluntary euthanasia in small groups. The last group will die just before the water runs out. The leaders of Shandakor want to kill Ross, but a young girl named Duani requests that he be spared. She’s the only young person left, and she wants someone to talk to.
So Ross is put to work maintaining the mechanism that operates the globe. He and Duani become good friends. He attempts to convince her to sneak out of the city with him and not die. When she refuses, he takes matters into his own hands, with tragic results. (You’ll have to read the story; I’m not giving away the ending.)
Brackett shows a dislike of Earthmen who come to Mars and try to meddle, who bring their civilization and science. There’s an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss in this story. Edmond Hamilton wrote in his introduction to The Best of Leigh Brackett that he considered “The Last Days of Shandakor” to be “the last, finest, and saddest of her Mars stories…a summing up, a valedictory of the Brackett Mars. The old glories of Mars are faded and lost, and the dreamers of Shandakor, summoning up as shadows the magnificence of the old legends, doubtless mirror the mood of the author taking leave of the wonderful world she had built up in her imagination since the time a little girl had read Burroughs on a California beach.”
I think Hamilton hit the nail on the head with this assessment. It was about this time that we see a change in Brackett’s output. Gone are the exotic planetary locales filled with color and adventure; no more are the rugged outlaws and the dancing girls. Brackett’s science fiction took a turn to the more serious and socially relevant. And really, that’s not surprising. Scientific advances were making the Mars of Burroughs and Brackett, of Bradbury and Moore, obsolete.
“The Last Days of Shandkor” is available in ebbok format in Martian Quest, published by Baen.