As I’m sure you’ve figured out if you’ve spent much time at this site, I’m a huge Leigh Brackett fan. Today (December 7, 2016) marks her 101st birthday. I’ve been observing the occasion with looks at The Sword of Rhiannon, “The Sorcerer of Rhiannon“, and “The Veil of Astellar“. I’m going to try to work “The Enchantress of Venus” in sometime over the next week or so.
If you’ve not read Brackett, do your self a favor. Read her. There are very few writers who can write fast paced action adventure with complex and flawed characters like she can and do so with a sense of poetry.
Here’s a quote I found in which she explains what plot is. It’s a pretty good definition.
“The Veil of Astellar” Thrilling Wonder Stories, Spring 1944
There are going to be spoilers in this post. I’ll put them below the Read More cutoff, but be advised they’re there.
Edmond Hamilton wrote in his introduction to The Best of Leigh Brackett that the narrator of this story, Steve Vance, was modeled on Humphrey Bogart. This was pure speculation on Hamilton’s part because Brackett wasn’t saying. I’ve been a big Bogart fan ever since we watched Casablanca in sophomore English in high school, and it’s still my favorite film. It’s not hard to hear Bogart’s voice when you read this story. Hamilton said he did every time he read it.
“The Sorcerer of Rhiannon”
Astounding February 1942
“The Sorcerer of Rhiannon” predates The Sea-Kings of Mars AKA The Sword of Rhiannon by seven years. Other than the word “Rhiannon” in the title, there doesn’t appear to be much connection between the two, at least on the surface. But the seeds of the later work can be seen in “Sorcerer” if one takes the time to look. Spoiler Alert for both stories.
In this story archeologist Max Brandon is searching for the mythical Lost Islands in one of the dry sea bottoms of Mars. He’s trying to outrace a lawman intent on arresting him, a rival from Venus intent on beating him to the find, and a woman intent on marrying him. Lost in a sandstorm, he stumbles upon the remains of an ancient ship. There he finds a room that has been sealed for ages and takes shelter in it.
The room isn’t empty, nor does it and the contents look as old as they must be. A man and a woman sit across a table from each other. About the man’s head is a metal band. The woman isn’t human, but Brandon recognizes her as a member of an extinct race called the Prira Cen. She’s wearing a golden girdle over a white tunic and a ring. The Prira Cen died out forty thousand years earlier when the Lost Islands were the dominant power on Mars. Both the man and the woman appear to be alive but in some sort of stasis. Continue reading →
The Sword of Rhiannon was originally published under the title “The Sea-Kings of Mars” in the June 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. I’m not sure if the story was expanded for book publication. I can certainly understand the change of title. The Mars in this story is an ancient Mars that still contains plenty of water, not the dry and dusty global desert of Brackett’s other works.
The story opens with Matt Carse, who is sort of an Indiana Jones type archaeologist but with less ethics, being lured to a cavern on present day Mars. A two bit thief has found the millennia lost cavern in which the god Rhiannon was imprisoned. (This Rhiannon has no connection to the witch from Welsh mythology.) Rhiannon is something of a Prometheus figure, punished by the other gods because he gave advanced technology, specifically weapons, to some of the early Martian races. Continue reading →
“Shannach – the Last”
Originally published in Planet Stories, Nov. 1952
Another longer work, this time set on Mercury. Brackett’s Mercury is a twilight world of valleys surrounded by mountains that pierce the shallow atmosphere. From what I understand, life only exits in valley’s along a twilight zone along the terminator. Since this story refers to the Sun rising and setting, either I’m missing something or there’s a slight wobble in the planet’s orbit which creates the day and night effect.
None of which stopped me from enjoying this adventure tale. Trevor is a prospector whose ship has crashed. There’s no life in the valley where he crashes, and he can’t get over the mountains because he doesn’t have a pressure suit. (Don’t ask me why.)
He’s trying to find a way to another valley through a system of caves when he is swept away by an underground river. He ends up in a large valley with a city in the distance. And that’s when his troubles really start. Continue reading →
“The Last Days of Shandakor”
Originally published in Startling Stories, April 1952
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. Continue reading →
“The Woman From Altair”
The Best of Leigh Brackett
Del Rey, 1977, 423, $1.95
Originally published in Startling Stories, July 1951
I was asked in the comments of a previous post what I thought of this story. I had only read it once when I first read The Best of Leigh Brackett, back in the fall of [redacted]. I liked all the stories, but this one didn’t have much of an impact on the 14 year-old me who read it, unlike some of the other selections in the book.
So I reread the story the other day. Here are my thoughts, spoilers included: Continue reading →
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.
This is a unique item. The only collaboration between two great science fiction authors, Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury. Here’s how it came about:
Both authors were living in the Los Angeles area in the 1940s, and both had been working hard to develop their craft as writers. Both were regulars in Planet Stories at the time. They were friends who had both been mentored by Henry Kuttner. They used to meet once a week to read and critique each other’s work.
Brackett had sold some detective short stories as well as one novel, No Good From a Corpse. The novel caught the attention of movie producer Howard Hawks, who decided he wanted Brackett to work on the screenplay for his next project. She was approximately halfway through a novellette she was writing for Planet Stories that was set on Venus (More about Brackett’s Venus in a bit.) when she got a call from Hawks, or more probably his secretary. Which is how Brackett launched her screenwriting career by coauthoring with William Faulkner the script for Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. How freakin’ cool is that? Continue reading →