In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons and Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.
Leigh Brackett is up this week; in particular, a couple of stories from her “Leigh Brackett’s Solar System” planetary romances!
I’ll be honest; the first time I picked up Leigh Brackett, it was because Nicola Griffith (author of Hild, among many other treasures) wrote the introduction to Sword of Rhiannon, the book previously titled The Sea Kings of Mars. If Nicola says it is good, I listen, and you should too. The other reason I was interested in taking Brackett for a spin was a little indie film. You’ve probably never heard of it; it was the sequel to another little independent movie. The Empire Strikes Back? I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it has got laser swords, wizards, spaceships, robots, smugglers, a whole host of stuff you might enjoy.
Empire is what, I suspect, brings a lot of modern readers to Leigh Brackett, and you know, that is actually fairly on point, from what I can tell; her fiction has magic swords, wizards, spaceships, bounty hunters…enough that you can pretty easily draw a line from here to there. If that isn’t your cup of tea, her hardboiled mystery repertoire includes gems like The Big Sleep, so whichever your preference, she’s got you covered.
A brief word of caution, or complaint; take your pick. I bought a copy of The Black Amazon of Mars online, because I wanted a physical copy of it. I have no qualms with e-books—quite, quite the contrary—but I generally prefer a physical format when I can get it, just as a matter of personal taste. I bought a copy and I consider myself burned. Rather than a used book, or a re-print, I got what I can only assume is the output of evil robots; I’ve heard the rumors of bots scanning Project Gutenberg and then copying and pasting the free unformatted text from there into print on demand service, and I think that is what I got. Ugly and badly typeset, printed in 8.5 x 11 paper...I’m a sucker. Note to self, next time you buy something like this, look a little more closely at the dimensions and specs! I’ve had this happen to me before—also on a Martian tale, though that was Barsoomian—so I know I really have no one to blame but myself.
The first time I read Brackett was a few years ago, and while at the time I found her agreeable though nothing special, reading her again has caused me to revisit my opinion. Maybe it is because I stumbled upon her hero, Eric John Stark, also called N’Chaka. I know I have a tendency to describe things by way of anachronistic mash-up, but this time it really fits. Stark is Space Tarzan, and in The Black Amazon of Mars, he’s Space Tarzan on Robert E. Howard’s Barsoom. It really is quite the love letter to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, but it isn’t just a pastiche; Brackett brings her own worldbuilding to bear on it. In fact, I’d say her “Solar System” is quite the campaign setting; stories might have different plots or histories or characters, but the planets and the key flora and fauna remain the same. I admire that, personally; I think the best thing about a well-developed setting is the verisimilitude that a cogent world brings, and that frees you to tell modular stories, tales in a world I accept as real but that don’t necessarily need to be linked by a single saga. Iain M. Bank’s Culture novels are sort of the same way. Another trick Brackett uses to good effect is to take the details of the world for granted; to describe not by exposition but by singular detail. I don’t know what they ride on Mars, but I know they are hissing reptiles with a cockscomb, because I pay attention to context clues.
Speaking of context clues, here’s a neat thing: Eric John Stark is a dark-skinned hero, a native of sun-burnt Mercury. Oh sure, illustrators of the time tended to assume he was a blonde white guy, but there it is, right in the text. Nice to have a little diversity on the list! Not only that, but Leigh Brackett’s novels are ones of culture clash, of imperialist and the colonized, and her protagonists tend to side with the latter. I’ve talked a lot about the unexamined legacy of colonialism on fantasy fiction, but that just makes me all the more voracious for examined colonialism. Not that I really picked the best ones to showcase it: Sword of Rhiannon is a story about an archeologist, thrust back in time by MacGuffiny shenanigans, captured by a slaver-queen like an unredeemable Bêlit, while The Black Amazon of Mars is about a civilized man with a savage past out in the wilderness of Mars—where it is still feudal—who gets caught up with a femme Conan. He is...a bit of a scoundrel, you might say. I get the impression Brackett likes scoundrels. It also feature hideous ice monsters very reminiscent of George R.R. Martin’s Others, his White Walkers. I think it is probably a coincidence, but who can say...especially when the protagonist’s name is Stark?
Both stories feature strange presences, haunting figures from the past, which is a trick I personally like to use in my game: the flashback, the possession. Focus on one player, give the other ones note cards with a couple of quick NPCs with easy goals to strive for, and play out a quick vignette. I don’t know, maybe that is just me? But when Stark puts the jewel to his head and is filled with an alien mind, I got the impression that the author knew just what I mean. There are plenty of other flourishes that likely enchanted Gary Gygax. Brackett is very liberal with the obscure vocabulary; I don’t even mean “relatively” obscure, I mean she goes all out. She stumped me a couple of times, and I bet she’d stump you, too. Then there are the few pseudo-scientific pieces of techno-magic—a cold sphere and a heat sphere that are half based on microwaves and half based on, I don’t know, oppositional elementalism—that have a very “dungeon logic” feel. There is a vast ice dungeon, accessible via a ruined tower...doesn’t that sound Dungeons and Dragons?
Mordicai Knode is all about the ruins of Mars and polar ice caps. He’s all about it. Tim is all about the jungles of Venus. At least, Mordicai assumes so, since he didn’t see him out on the red sand, black canals or white ice.