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  • Writer's pictureFrederick Gero Heimbach

Brackett Is Best

Who was Brackett, What Is She?

Leigh Brackett was a writer known as the Queen of Space Opera. She was big in Hollywood and wrote the screenplays for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and The Long Goodbye. Most famously, she wrote an early draft of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. But she's my literary hero for her stories and novels written in the Sword and Planet genre. BRACKETT IS BEST -- and I intend to show you why.

But First: What is Sword and Planet?

A genre that overlaps with Space Opera, Sword and Planet is a romance subgenre, where romance is defined in its broadest sense to include thrilling stories of adventure in exotic locations, always with clear heroes and villains and plenty of romance in the conventional sense as well. It has a strong tendency to focus on personal valor as dramatized by the age of hand-to-hand combat with edged weapons, especially as wielded by lone heroes. I.e., THERE WILL BE SWORDS.

Okay--there might be blasters as well.

If the setting is not the sword age as it existed in history, then another sword age must be invented. Such a fictional age can be located in the prehistoric past or in the future. This is why there are three "Sword and ..." genres. For the historical past, we have Sword and Sandal, with the setting usually placed in classical Greece or Rome. For a prehistoric or unhistoric era, we throw in a bit of fantasy and call it Sword and Sorcery, with Conan the Barbarian being the iconic example. Or we throw in a bit of alien technology (and maybe a bit of magic too), move the setting to outer space, and call it Sword and Planet.

Brackett's Science Fiction

In the science fiction world, Brackett is known for stories that appeared in Sword and Planet magazines like Thrilling Wonder Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and Planet Stories. She is also remembered fondly for a number of novels. A recurring character is John Stark, an anti-hero who appears in some of Brackett's best stories. It's quite shocking to me that John Stark has never been brought to the silver screen by a major Hollywood name, by a Humphrey Bogart, Charlton Heston, Harrison Ford, or Clint Eastwood. In fact, none of Brackett's impressive writing credits in IMDB are for her sword and planet fiction.

Most of her stories exist in the "Leigh Brackett solar system" which follows assumptions common to the pulp era: Venus is a hot, humid, "young" world full of jungles and savages, and Mars is a dying "old" world where a sophisticated race lingers in the ruins of a once great civilization. Brackett's sci-fi style can be categorized as both space opera and planetary romance, where magic and magic-like technology mix freely and where one is likely to encounter a pirate, a mercenary, a sorcerer or a space princesses, any of whom might be handy with both sword and blaster.

Exotic planets, weird (very weird) aliens, lonely men at war with society, sultry femme fatales, love triangles, House of Usher-levels of decadence -- these are the tropes you will meet in the Leigh Brackett solar system. Among them you'll typically find one lost soul with a reckless need to gamble his life on some Quixotic quest.

Leigh Brackett writes Quixotic quests better than anyone.

Why Brackett Now?

Brackett is on my mind because I just finished reading an old anthology assembled by Donald A. Wollheim called Swordsmen in the Sky. (Gee, I wonder what genre that belongs to?) It's got an impressive lineup of authors, including Poul Anderson and Edmund Hamilton. Of the five stories found there, Brackett's "The Moon that Vanished" stands head and shoulders above the rest.

In this story, a man's psyche has been blasted by exposure to an incredibly seductive but false vision of a goddess. Others crave this vision too and he's coerced into leading them to a forbidden zone on the planet Venus where godlike power is on offer. He turns away from this siren song where all others have succumbed--a watery graveyard of abandoned ships testifies to the number of the fallen--and he pledges himself instead to a flesh and blood woman. The choice springs from a stubborn integrity that's harsh and gritty. The ending is strange and nothing like most "romantic" stories you've read.

"The Moon that Vanished" reminded me of some of my other Brackett favs, namely "Enchantress of Venus", "Black Amazon of Mars", "The Last Days of Shandakor," and "The Sword of Rhiannon." They have similar themes:

Theme 1: Decay and Loss

So many of these Brackett worlds are presided over inbred freaks, noble families whose last generations live with a legacy gone to rot, whose rule is based on the inertia of an ancient, glorious bloodline that survives--not for much longer--in a ruined castle. This is dramatized most fully in Enchantress but the theme is in Shandakor in a unique way and somewhat in Black Amazon as well. It's interesting how much decadence was on Brackett's mind, considering she wrote in the high noon of the American empire, a time of incredible dynamism and optimism. I dare say if she had been writing in the third decade of the 21st century we wouldn't wonder where the decadence came from.

Theme 2: Men of Action

Brackett's solar system is the American frontier projected into outer space. It's roomy and wild and ungovernable and those who wander in it can find anything they want, and much they don't want. There is little to restrain evildoers and the innocent don't last long. Fortune favors the bold and boldness is a masculine virtue. The advantages of the over-civilized are negated; a barbarian can gain mastery if he's quick and strong. John Stark is himself an orphan of the civilized world and was raised by a subhuman race on Mercury. There he was known as N'Chaka and through that experience, Stark's natural intelligence was joined to the finely honed instincts of a wild animal.

Theme 3: Anti-Hero Turned Hero

Brackett's heroes tend to have a wide streak of exhausted cynicism. Nevertheless, when duty calls, they answer. They never shy away from smashing the corrupt order they find even as all others around them are enervated by despair. This contradiction at the heart of Brackett's heroes--an apathy that leads to sang froid and ultimately to self-sacrifice--is a major source of their appeal. It takes a master to pull the contradiction off; Brackett is up to it.


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