This was the second Leigh Brackett story I ever read. How do I remember that detail? Easy, it’s the second story in The Best of Leigh Brackett, which was the first Brackett book I ever read (in the SFBC edition you see there). And in those days, I read anthologies and collections in order. This was still a few years before I went through my read-anthologies-backwards phase.
I found the story to be powerful, with the image of snow capped mountains in the distance to be a powerful one. I still find the story powerful today.
Note: there will be spoilers after the “Read More” break.
A group of exiles from Earth have been wandering Venus, trying to find a permanent home. They’re weary of wandering the swamps and lowlands, and wracked by fever, they’re hoping against hope to find a home in the highlands.
As part of a last ditch effort, three men scale a cliff to see if there is a habitable area at the top. The men are Rory McLauren, an idealistic young husband of a Venusian wife with a baby on the way, Matt Harker, an embittered older man who is getting tired of life’s struggle, and a big black man named Sim, who has a habit of singing spirituals.
Near the top of the cliff, the men find a passage alongside an underground river. In the river are some creatures which resemble motile flowers. The are the juveniles of an aggressive race. When the grownups arrive, the men are forced to flee up to an opening in the roof. The hole is too small for Sim to fit through, so he sacrifices himself so that Rory and Matt can escape.
The men find themselves on an open, grassy slope. They soon discover they’re being watched by a young woman who is also more vegetable than animal. Rory is injured, and Matt has to carry him. After tending to Rory’s wounded leg, they fall asleep. The girl, whom Matt calls Button, throws Rory over a cliff where her people go to die when they’re injured. When Matt wakes up, she tells him that he will stay with her for a while. Button is telepathic, and she controls two large raptors as well as some of the plants. She uses them to keep Matt from going to help Rory.
Button tells Matt that the creatures in the cave, known as Swimmers, are ancient enemies who used to prey upon her people, who migrated down from what are now barren cliffs. Eventually, they drove the Swimmers into the cavern.
When Matt realizes that Button can’t understand the concept of love, he concludes she and her people have no souls. He strangles Button and makes his way to the ravine where Rory has been left to die. He gets Rory to the top of the cliffs, and together they set out to divert the river into the hole they climbed out of. His plan is to flood the valley at night, allowing the Swimmer to come up out of their cavern.
They manage to do this, although the other residents of the valley try to stop them. Matt is fatally injured, but before he dies, he gazes on a distant peak, one covered with snow. He hides on a ledge, watches the Swimmers emerge and kill the residents of the valley. The river changes course, and the Swimmers are trapped in the valley. At first they revel in the warmth and sunlight (they’re above the cloud layer). Then as the day progresses, they fatally succumb to the heat and sunlight. Rory waits a few days for his wounds to completely heal, then proceeds down the cliff to bring up the rest of the people from Earth.
Two things I want to address in this post. First, the way Brackett portrays Sim, the black man. (He’s not an American, so African-American really doesn’t fit.) Unlike most pulp writers, Brackett treats him with respect. He’s played straight, never as a caricature or for laughs. Both Rory and Matt treat him with respect and as an equal. When Sim sacrifices himself for Matt and Rory, neither of the men like the decision and both argue against it. This portrayal of blacks was not typical of that era. In her portrayal of persons of African descent, Brackett was well ahead of her time.
Second, is the way Matt and Rory find a home for their people. It’s hard for a modern reader to accept wiping out not one but two races in order to find a home. Most readers today would consider that to be genocide. I wonder how many people would buy Matt’s justification of his actions by saying that Button’s people have no souls.
And really, it’s hard (at least for me) to argue with Matt’s rationale. Button’s description of her people’s way of life isn’t one that most humans can relate to. It’s very much a plant-like existence for all the mobility they have.
Also, what choice does Matt have? Brackett pretty well establishes that the humans can’t keep on the way they’ve been living. If they don’t find a permanent place to live, they’re going to die. They need to find a place to live above the swamps with their fetid air and fever. If he doesn’t act the way he does, then Matt’s people will die. From his perspective, he has no choice.
His choice would be viewed in many circles these days as unacceptable. But really, isn’t that the way much of history has been? One people move into an area because they are searching for a place where they can survive. They meet inhabitants and often hostilities break out. If the newcomers win, they settle down and are often driven out. See Robert E. Howard’s poem “A Song of the Naked Lands” for a good example of this cycle. Howard understood kill or be killed, conquer or be conquered better than just about anyone.
Regardless of an ending that some might find distasteful, “The Vanishing Venusians” is a solid piece of fiction, moving and powerful. It’s easy to see why it was included in The Best of Leigh Brackett.