Wed
Dec 18 2013 4:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: Leigh Brackett

The Black Amazon of Mars Leigh Brackett

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.

28 comments
Zeugma
2. Zeugma
I am pretty sure that Raymond Chandler wrote "The Big Sleep," unless Brackett wrote a different mystery by the same title.
Zeugma
3. Zeugma
Leigh Brackett is listed with William Faulkner and Jules Furthman as having written the screenplay to the 1946 film adaptation of "The Big Sleep." That's not the same as having written the original mystery.
Colin Bell
4. SchuylerH
@2: Chandler wrote the novel but Brackett did the film adaptation.
Steve Oerkfitz
5. Steve Oerkfitz
Zeugma-Brackett along with some guy named William Faulkner wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep. Otherv than her space operas Brackett also wrote a very good post nuclear war novel called The Long Tomorrow and a few good mysteries. She also wrote the screenplay for Robert Altmans The Long Goodbye, another Chandler novel.
Colin Bell
6. SchuylerH
@3: You can take Faulkner off that if you want: Brackett remembered that he didn't manage to produce anything useable.
Colin Bell
7. SchuylerH
@1: Better late than never! (Do you realise that GRRM co-edited an anthology called Old Mars?) I happen to be the Compleat Brackett Fan: it's really the setting that makes them. I never really managed to suspend disbelief in Almuric or Barsoom as settings but that indirect kind of "future history" meant that Brackett's Solar System will always be a favorite, though I think her best is the classic post-apocalyptic novel The Long Tomorrow.

Have you read C. L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories? They are the 30's progenitors of Brackett's solar system. Smith is the clear Stark forerunner, though not, it seems, quite so competent. There's also a crossover, "Quest of the Starstone", starring Smith and Moore's swords and sorcery heroine Jirel of Joiry. (For that matter, there's Moore's space opera Judgement Night. And, while not directly related, I am fond of her novella "Vintage Season"...)

Brackett substantially improved the writing skill of her husband, Edmond Hamilton. Before their marriage in 1946 he churned out pulp like the Captain Future stories, afterwards he could write stories such as "What's It Like Out There?" and City at World's End.

I might also mention Poul Anderson, whose often uses similar heroes and has a now public-domain story "Duel on Syrtis", set on a Brackettian Mars. Or E. C. Tubb, whose Dumarest series is somewhat derivative and formulaic but rather more fun than it ought to be. But then again, there's Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance...
David Levinson
8. DemetriosX
There really isn't all that much can say about Brackett other than to gush a bit. She managed to write some very, very good stuff, but I think what stands out most about her planetary romances is that she pulled them off so successfully at a time when dying, drying Mars, swampy Venus, and all the rest were so well known to be impossible.

Definitely an invaluable resource for GMs who run Space 1889 and you could rework a lot for Traveller, too.
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
3. Zeugma

Yeah, sorry; I thought that went without saying but that is probably a bad attitude to have & I should have mentioned. Her screenplay for Empire is also by way of George Lucas's story, I'll also add as post-script-- I took both as read, but worth being clear!

7. SchuylerH

Crumbs, I can't remember what C.L. Moore I've read; I think it was a Jirel of Joiry book, though.
Colin Bell
10. SchuylerH
@8: I remember that Ray Bradbury once said the only real SF story he ever wrote was Farenheit 451; the rest were all fantasy. I think the same is true for Brackett with The Long Tomorrow.
Colin Bell
11. SchuylerH
@9: Crack out the Planet Stories! Black God's Kiss has the five Jirel stories while Northwest of Earth includes the complete run of Smith's series: both volumes also include the crossover "Quest of the Starstone". (I'd forgotten that "Nymph of Darkness" was co-written with Forry Ackerman...)
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
12. hoopmanjh
And most of Brackett's stuff is available in eBook form at the Baen Electric Library. Someday I really need to get caught up with her -- I read an old anthology this year (The Giant Anthology of Science Fiction) that had one of her longer stories in it (Enchantress of Venus) and it was one of the highlights quite possibly of my entire reading year.
Zeugma
13. Tehanu
If you haven't read Brackett's The Book of Skaith (The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, The Reavers of Skaith), rush right out to your used bookstore and find a copy -- the SF Book Club might actually still have it around or maybe could be convinced to reissue it. Greatest space opera I've ever read -- the end of Stark's career if I recall right -- and well worth any effort to find it.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
14. hoopmanjh
The Skaith books were also reissued as part of Paizo's (truly excellent, much lamented) Planet Stories line. In fact, I think Brackett had more of a presence in Planet Stories than any other author -- they published Sword of Rhiannon, Secret of Sinharat (the early Eric John Stark stories) and the three Skaith volumes.
Zeugma
15. Eugene R.
Given that Ms. Brackett was married to another popular sf author, Edmond "Captain Future" Hamilton, I was always a bit surprised that they did not collaborate much (save for one crossover story, "Stark and the Star Kings"), unlike their contemporaries Catherine (C.L.) Moore and Henry Kuttner.
Colin Bell
16. SchuylerH
@12 & 14: I got most of my Brackett from there. Phoenix Pick also have The Long Tomorrow and The Big Jump as ebooks (along with The Best of Edmond Hamilton). The rest? Well ... it wasn't easy.

Brackett's five volumes in Planet Stories are indeed the most by a single author in that much-missed line. Gygax himself comes closest with his four from Dangerous Journeys.

@15: Brackett wrote two chapters of Hamilton's fantasy novel The Valley of Creation but it seems that while they tried collaboration early on, their methods of writing (particularly regarding outlines) were so different that it didn't really work for them. I have, however, heard rumours that the later series of Captain Future novelettes might have been at least partly Brackett and that Hamilton contributed to the expansion process behind the first two Stark novels but I can't be sure.
Mordicai Knode
17. mordicai
14. hoopmanjh
&
16. SchuylerH

Yes, the Paizo version was the Sword of Rhiannon I read, with the Nicola Griffith introduction I mentioned. I've got a few knocking around the apartment...along with some semi-humourus futuristic detective stories from Kuttner.
Colin Bell
18. SchuylerH
@17: Robots Have No Tails? I don't collect Kline, Anthony, Cook or Lansdale but I've managed to pick up the rest of the line. Much missed: to think of all the books which could have been included...
Mordicai Knode
19. mordicai
18. SchuylerH

Bingo; a friend who is an ardent admirer of that sort of...post-Wodehouseian humor pressed it into my hands. I enjoyed it but I think you need to read enough to reach a critical mass, you know? Like with Wooster & Jeeves; the more you read, the funnier it gets, as you know the personalities & quirks & quibbles of the character & setting. This is true of basically every piece of serial media, including sitcoms.

Which only makes me think of how everyone should watch Gilmore Girls, but that isn't really SF/F. (Except for how magical Lorelai is.)
Colin Bell
20. SchuylerH
@19: I'm not sure if it's directly Wodehouse since Galloway Gallagher strikes me as Thurberian in his utter ineptitude. I would agree that long-running comedy can work very well if the characters and setting receive enough development: look at Discworld, for example, or Callahan's Crosstime Saloon. Further to that, a lot of long-running series need time to settle into a comfortable pattern before they can start hitting the really good stuff.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
21. hoopmanjh
@20: It's not even books, but look at the difference between Black Adder 1 (when they were still finding their footing) and the later series.
Colin Bell
22. SchuylerH
@21: In particular, the change in Blackadder's character after Ben Elton took over writing duties from Rowan Atkinson in series 2. You need the first series as a proving ground to determine what works and what doesn't.
James Nicoll
23. James Davis Nicoll
Smith is the clear Stark forerunner, though not, it seems, quite so competent.

Smith had one skill: he was adept at getting women to fall for him so they'd sacrifice themselves to save him. The main exceptions were the ones actively trying to kill him and Jirel of Joiry, who'd turned down better than Smith.
Alan Brown
24. AlanBrown
I haven't read Black Amazon of Mars, but I have read a fair amount of Brackett. Very hardboiled stuff, gritty characters in bleak worlds. If I didn't know the author was female, I never would have suspected it from the stories.
When I first saw this article, I thought people would mention the story Shambleau, which I had remembered as a Brackett story. But after reading the discussion here, and poking around Wikipedia, I discovered that Shambleau was a C.L. Moore story.
And, speaking of Northwest Smith, does anyone else think that might have been the inspiration for the name Indiana Jones?
Mordicai Knode
25. mordicai
24. AlanBrown

Alan, have you read any of Nicola Griffith's writing? If you want hardboiled stuff that will defy the stereotypes of gender, she's another great pick; I actually think "The Blue Place" is a good starting point, though it is more noir, & not SF/F; if you want SF/F from Griffith, there is plenty-- "Ammonite" might be where to start. Like Iain Banks, she proposes a bleak world, but a bleak world people can actually, you know, struggle against.
Alan Brown
26. AlanBrown
mordicai, I have heard her name a number of times lately, and am pretty sure Liz Bourke has mentioned her favorably in her Sleeps With Monsters entiries. Thanks for giving me some suggested starting points, I will have to check her out!
Colin Bell
27. SchuylerH
@26: I just want to second Mordicai's recommendation of Griffith, with a note that Slow River shouldn't be neglected but might not be the best starting point.
Mordicai Knode
28. mordicai
26. AlanBrown

Oh yeah, man, now I'm just remembering how totally badass The Blue Place is; yeah.

27. SchuylerH

Agreed; I think of it like a roadmap; there is more than one way to get there, but you pass certain landmarks in certain orders, or you're probably lost.

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