In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Leigh Brackett was undoubtedly one of the most entertaining science fiction authors of the 20th century; while other authors shied away from the action and adventure that marked the pulp origins of the genre, she embraced those qualities. And late in her life, she returned to her roots and brought back one of her greatest heroes—in fact, one of the great protagonists of the entire planetary romance sub-genre—Eric John Stark. This wandering hero, raised by a primitive tribe and shaped by a lifetime of combat, might suffer setbacks and injuries, but remains a force of nature whose adventures never fail to entertain the reader.
The Ginger Star, the first in a new series of books, was reportedly begun when the screenwriters of the Writers Guild of America went on strike in 1973. While the strike ended up lasting only three and a half months, it temporarily turned Brackett’s attention from screenwriting back to science fiction. Brackett took advantage of the enforced idleness to go back to one of her favorite planetary romance characters, Eric John Stark, whose previous adventures had all been shorter works appearing in the 1940s and 1950s. The Ginger Star was serialized in If magazine in 1974, and issued in book form the same year. There were indications that the next volume would be titled “The Legion of Skaith,” but the series ended up as a trilogy, with the second book, The Hounds of Skaith, appearing in 1974, and third book The Reavers of Skaith appearing in 1976. There were further Stark books planned, set on another new world, but Brackett died before any were published.
I am pretty sure that this book, written when I was in college, was my first exposure to Stark, and possibly my introduction to the work of Leigh Brackett, and I was not disappointed. The paperback cover, by Jim Steranko, is probably the best visual interpretation of the character I have ever seen: dark, brooding, and powerful. I had previously encountered Steranko as a comic book artist (he drew some of my favorite issues of Captain America and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.), but was impressed at his skill as a painter as well.
About the Author
Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) was a highly respected science fiction writer and screenwriter, perhaps best known today for one of her last works, the first draft of the script for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I’ve reviewed Brackett’s work before—the omnibus edition Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars, the novel The Sword of Rhiannon, the novelette “Lorelei of the Red Mist” in the collection, Three Times Infinity, the short story “Citadel of Lost Ships” in the collection, Swords Against Tomorrow, and the collection The Best of Leigh Brackett—and you can find more biographical information in those reviews. And I’m going to share a link again that I shared the first time I reviewed her work, a link to a crackerjack of an article about Brackett written by Charlie Jane Anders for io9 (that article has a broken link to a great interview of Brackett and her husband Edmund Hamilton, which you will actually find here).
Like many authors whose careers started in the early 20th century, you can find a number of Brackett’s stories and novels on Project Gutenberg.
A New Planet to Explore
By the 1970s, writers of planetary romance could no longer ignore the fact that space probes and astronomy had obliterated any chance the consensus solar system in which their stories were set had ever existed—there were no misty oceans of Venus, nor windswept canals of Mars. So, when Leigh Brackett decided to bring back the adventurer Eric John Stark, she set his adventures on a new, fictional planet, called Skaith. Surprisingly, she kept the setting of Stark’s origin on the planet Mercury, although it would have been easy, and more plausible, to set it on an unnamed colony world. In the new stories, Stark is still the son of miners who died in Mercury’s Twilight Belt, leaving him to be raised by a tribe of Mercurian aboriginals who gave him the name of N’Chaka. And as in the original tales, when that tribe was slaughtered, it was a government official named Simon Ashton who rescued the young man from captivity and raised him.
It is here the origin story changes: Instead of being an official of a government that oversaw our Solar System, Ashton was now portrayed as a representative of the Galactic Union, a massive organization based in the city that covers the surface of the planet Pax, which orbits the star Vega. And Stark’s adventures as a wandering mercenary have taken him far beyond our Solar System. As this story begins, Simon Ashton has disappeared while visiting a planet that orbited a dying red star, “a ginger star somewhere at the back of beyond, out in the Orion Spur. A newly discovered, newly opened world called Skaith that hardly anyone had ever heard of…”
Now unconstrained by the real-world physical parameters of Venus or Mars, where most of Stark’s earlier stories took place, Brackett was able to design a planet suitable for Stark’s future adventures. Skaith does share some similarities to her earlier descriptions of old Mars, as a habitable but dying planet whose inhabitants live among the ruins of a greater civilization. There are people with telepathic and telekinetic powers that have the appearance of magic, and also characters who have the ability to foresee future events. There is no gunpowder, and the inhabitants fight with bows, spears, and swords. The book only explores a small part of the planet, and finds the inhabitants divided into warring tribes, and even warring human-like sub-species. There are strange beasts, exotic locales, and hints that relics from the ancient civilizations still exist. In other words, the planet provides plenty of opportunities for adventure.
The Ginger Star also depicts what science fiction refers to as a First Contact situation (as described in this article from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction). As has happened so many times in Earth’s own history, the contact between a more advanced culture with a less advanced culture has an adverse impact on that less advanced culture. While the newly arrived Galactic Union has no designs to conquer or invade Skaith, and only wants to open trade and free travel, their mere presence has already roiled the political situation on the planet. Governments that have been unchallenged for decades (or longer) are now threatened by this new presence, and people who previously had no alternative but compliance are excited by new possibilities. It is this fear of the unknown that drives local warlords to capture Simon Ashton, thereby setting the plot of the book in motion.
The Ginger Star
After gathering all the information he can on the capital planet of Pax, Stark leaves for Skaith in order to rescue Ashton. This being planetary romance and not space opera, the uneventful trip only takes up a few sentences. Stark finds Skaith poor and backwards; people travel mainly in open carts, and commerce is conducted in open markets. The inhabitants are mostly human in appearance, though with more variety in racial types than on other planets. The days on the planet are tinged with the coppery red of the dying sun, and the moonless nights are lit by the Three Ladies, bright star clusters that ensure the planet is never in total darkness.
One of the first things Stark notices is crowds of people known as Farers, indigent wanderers who rely on dole from the planet-ruling Lords Protector, and wander here and there without much purpose (these seem to be analogs to the hippies who were dropping out of American society in the decade before the book was written—people with attitudes that may have seemed offensive to someone like Brackett, who came to adulthood during the Great Depression). Stark runs into the Wandsmen, the Lords Protector’s enforcers, who also use the Farers as mobs to intimidate those who step out of line. In his usual direct approach, Stark stirs up trouble by dropping the name of a city, Irnan, whose people have expressed an interest in emigrating off-planet, something that threatens the power structure that supports the Lords Protector.
Stark is summoned to an out-of-the-way spot on the waterfront to meet the Chief Wandsman, Gelmar. Stark is guided by a young Farer woman, who wonders if he might be the Dark Man who was subject of a recent prophecy. Gelmar orders a group of Farers to kill him, but Stark grabs Gelmar and pushes him into the water. Stark knows that the water is inhabited by the Children of the Sea-our-Mother, deadly humanoid sea creatures. He refuses to let go of Gelmar until he confirms two things: that Ashton is alive, and that he is being held by the Lords Protector in their northern Citadel. Stark lets Gelmar go, and is then attacked by one of the Children. Any other man might be overpowered, but not Stark, who meets his attacker head on and defeats it. When he crawls out of the water, Stark meets Yarrod, a revolutionary from the city of Irnan, traveling undercover with a band posing as a “pod,” a group of people who have grown so close that they think as one. They are searching for the Dark Man of prophecy, and want to bring Stark to a seer in Irnan who might confirm that he is the person they seek. Because Irnan is on the way to the Citadel, Stark agrees to head north with the group.
This headlong rush of strange new customs, creatures, and rapid-fire action, delivered in short, staccato chapters, is typical of Brackett’s approach to storytelling. By her own accounts, she preferred to follow her nose as she wrote, without plotting in advance. The approach gives her stories a stream-of-consciousness feel that might not work in other hands. But her characters are interesting, her descriptions evocative, and her action scenes intense, all of which keeps the reader fully engaged with the story.
The “pod” meets Gelmar and his Farers again at a ford, but Stark hides, and they are able to pass. Further along, they are captured by Mordach, Chief Wandsman of Irnan, and Stark is brought to the city in chains. He and his companions are presented to Gerrith, the seer whose mother prophesized the Dark Man. When Gerrith confirms that Stark is the Dark Man, she is mocked and abused, and Mordach condemns them both to death. But the city, which had been chafing under the Wandsmen’s control, rises up against its oppressors and kills Mordach and his minions. Before long, Stark, Gerrith, and a handful of others decide to continue north to face their destiny—a destiny that Gerrith prophecies will change the face of Skaith forever. They will encounter mysterious cities filled with of strange people, cults, creatures, and criminals. And while Stark does not believe in prophecy, before the tale ends, he will not be able to deny its power.
Because the mystery of what comes next is part of the allure of this book, I will leave my recap here—and if you haven’t already read it, I encourage you to seek it out for yourself.
Leigh Brackett was a master of adventure tales, and even though this book dates from the latter part of her career, it contains all the energy and excitement of her earlier work. Eric John Stark is a dark but compelling hero, and the planet Skaith is perfectly designed as a setting for his adventures. As is often the case, Stark charges into a situation without much of a plan, depending on his fighting skills and indomitable will to carry the day. This might not be a formula for success in the real world, but it certainly makes for exciting reading—I fully recommend this book to any fan of planetary romance who hasn’t yet encountered it.
Now I’d like to hear your thoughts: If you’ve read the book, what did you think of it? And if there are other stories in the same vein you would recommend, I’d be interested in your suggestions.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.