Saturday, June 10, 2017

"The Last Days of Shandakor" and "Shannach--The Last" by Leigh Brackett

It seems that 1952 was a big year for Leigh Brackett, at least in the eyes of her husband, Edmond Hamilton.  For the 1977 volume The Best of Leigh Brackett, Hamilton selected two stories first published in SF magazines that year, "The Last Days of Shandakor" (heralded by the people at Startling Stories as "A Novelet of Ancient Mars") and "Shannach--The Last" (promoted by the editors of Planet Stories as a "Strange World Novel.")  You can read these stories (and check out the Alex Schomburg and Ed Emshwiller illustrations featuring creepy aliens and sexy ladies) for free at the internet archive.  You have no excuses this time for reading my spoilertastic blog post about the stories before actually experiencing them yourself firsthand!  

This cover suggests there are reasons to visit alien worlds
 which have nothing to do with dating up purple-haired
beauties; also, there is a planet very close by
that I don't know about
"The Last Days of Shandakor" 

This moody piece about a doomed race of superior beings living in a lost city is narrated by Jon Ross, Earthborn anthropologist, an expert on the ethnography of Martians.  When Earthlings first got to Mars, the red planet's dominant race was a form of humans only slightly different from Earth humans, and Ross's studies have been of the differences between the various Martian human groups. As the story begins Ross gets a big surprise when he meets a nonhuman Martian, a man with a sort of reptilian cast to his golden skin, pointy ears and "narrow and arched" skull.  When Ross learns that this joker comes from a city the human Martians know about but have kept a secret from Earthers, a city named Shandakor, he realizes that he has stumbled on an opportunity to do original research that will make him an academic star!  If he can get to the city and back to Earth with the data maybe he'll even get his own Chair!

Shandakor is not easy to get to, being on the other side of a desert and a mountain range where water is scarce, but Ross makes it, just barely.  He finds that the people of Shandakor are on the brink of extinction; once these reptile-people were the highest race on Mars, ruling half of the planet with their superior technology and making humans their slaves, but now they number only a few thousand and their fortified town is under siege by barbaric humans who hope to loot the city when the last Shandakorian dies of thirst.  The barbarians don't storm the city because they fear the Shandakor, whom they believe to be wizards.  Buttressing this superstitious belief is the fact that the reptile-people have a sort of holographic projector which makes the city appear to be as vibrant and as densely populated as it was centuries ago.  This device can interperet the record of ancient days etched by photons into the walls and streets of the city and recreate the long dead inhabitants and their daily lives as moving three-dimensional images.  (We saw this same idea in Kuttner and Moore's "Private Eye" of 1949.)

Even though the Shandakorians are inhuman reptile people who arrogantly insist they are better than humans, Ross manages to fall in love with one, a "girl-child with slender thighs and little pointed breasts" named Duani, after Duani, Pocahontas-style, convinces the rulers of the doomed city to let Ross live.  Ross tries to convince Duani to sneak out of town with him instead of participating in the planned mass suicide that is scheduled to begin when Shandakor runs out of water. He even breaks the holographic projector, hoping to force the issue, but the girl refuses, killing herself along with the rest of her people just before the barbarian hordes, emboldened to attack by the disappearance of the "ghosts," descend on the town.  Ross gets that Chair back at his university, but he always regrets his role in the destruction of the people of Shandakor, and wishes he had committed suicide along with his scaly girlfriend.  

One of the interesting things about "The Last Days of Shandakor" is how it is full of elements we see all the time in fantasy stories and romantic adventure-style SF. (Notably, the editor of Startling, Samuel Mines, in his gushing assessment of Brackett in this issue, concedes that this story is not "real" science fiction.)  There's the elf-like race of haughty people who are more sophisticated than us crummy humans but who are in decline and soon to be supplanted by us humies--the elves in Tolkien and the Melniboneans and Eldren in Moorcock are like this.  (Moorcock even has a high tech city of elves under siege by human barbarians and a human who comes to identify with the elves instead of his own people in The Eternal Champion.  And isn't it revealed in The Sailor on the Seas of Fate that the Melniboneans are descended from lizard men?  Hmmm.)  There's the atmosphere of decay and impending calamity, like in Vance's Dying Earth stories, and fading memories of a nobler Mars, like in Burroughs and Bradbury.  (All this sad decay and impending doom stuff is, I guess, also what people like about the tremendously hyped Viriconium books by M. John Harrison, the first of which I found pedestrian and derivative, remarkable mainly for being cloyingly overwritten.)    

Click or squint to read this message from the editor of Startling Stories
While all those connections are interesting, suggesting that Brackett is an influential component of a literary tradition, they don't necessarily make the story entertaining. "The Last Days of Shandakor" isn't bad, but I have to admit I found it disappointing. The way the characters act doesn't feel natural, doesn't make a lot of sense (for example, the people of Shandakor enslave Ross, a human, and put him in charge of maintenance of the holographic projector, which is their main defense from the human barbarian hordes) or at least isn't suitably explained, and you have to overlook problems in the plot (like, how did a city surrounded by a besieging army go unnoticed by Earth spacecraft and aircraft for year after year?)

Despite my lukewarm reaction, "The Last Days of Shandakor" has enjoyed an enduring popularity, evidenced by its inclusion in numerous multi-author anthologies and Brackett collections, including four I own (The Coming of the Terrans, The Best of Leigh Brackett, The Sea-Kings of Mars, and Martian Quest) and a quite recent anthology of SF by women, Women of Futures Past.

"Shannach--The Last"

Trevor is a prospector who has been searching Mercury for sun-stones for years.  A single sun-stone could make him rich--these rare crystals are used back on Earth to make super-electronics because they are unbreakable can resonate to the faintest transmissions, even human thought! His resources nearly exhausted, he sets out on his last trip, and faces total disaster when an earthquake ("Mercury-quake"?) buries his space ship, supplies, and equipment, trapping him in a desolate valley.  Desperately, he crawls through a series of caves under an impassable mountain with the dim hope of getting to the other side and finding a place with food and water. He makes it, just barely, and finds a lost city no Earther has ever heard about!

Most Mercurians are inhuman stone age savages, but in this city live the human Korins, who have a sort of medieval culture and technology.  The Korins keep as hunting dogs vicious flying reptiles, and keep as slaves the descendants of Earth colonists whose space ship crashed in this inaccessible and fertile valley some three hundred years ago.  This is all pretty surprising, but most surprising of all is the fact that the Korins and their hawk-lizards have sun-stones embedded in their skulls!

Trevor hooks up with some escaped slaves living in a cave.  He learns that the Korins are also descendants of Earthlings--their ancestors were exiled convicts who were on the same ship as the colonists and enslaved the colonists after the disaster.  Via the sun-stones the Korins can see and hear through the eyes and ears of the flying lizards and issue them commands.

"Shannach--The Last" is the title story of one
of Haffner Press's volumes of Brackett stories--
if I had any money I would buy every book
the Haffner people put out
When Trevor pulls a boner and accidentally guides the Korins to the refugees' cave (oops) he is captured and taken to the Korin city, where he learns the amazing truth--the Korins themselves are enslaved by a Mercurian monster named Shannach who commands them through the sun-stones. The city is built not to human scale but to the scale of the monster, who is humanoid but twenty feet tall! Shannach is the last of his kind, and Trevor is dragged to the catacombs where he lives among the scores of his mummified fellows!

Shannach has his minions install a sun-stone in Trevor's own forehead, and sends Trevor to the 300-year-old spaceship wreck.  Will Trevor repair the vessel so Shannach can spread his tyranny to the rest of Mercury?  Or is Trevor strong-minded enough to resist Shannach's control and use the old ship's equipment to liberate the human slaves?

(One of the themes of this series of blog posts about Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton has been possible influences from Brackett on Michael Moorcock, and--mein gott!--as tarbandu recently reminded us, one of Moorcock's major characters has a jewel with psychic powers embedded in his skull by the villains!)

"Shannach--The Last" does not seem to have struck the chord with editors and the SF reading public that "The Last Days of Shandakor" did, never appearing in any multiple author anthologies or foreign translations.  (The German edition of The Best of Leigh Brackett is abridged, and "Shannach--The Last" is one of the deleted pieces.) But I think I enjoyed it more than "The Last Days of Shandakor."  (I'm a rebel!) Everybody's motivations make sense, and Brackett provides plausible explanations for things like why no spaceship has ever spotted the Korin city.  And I like ideas like a city built by giants who are now hideous mummies and a monster who psionically dominates a bunch of jerks and flying reptiles more than how sad it is that arrogant elves who used to lord it over us are finally getting their comeuppance.  (I'm a pro-human chauvinist!)


It seems like "The Last Days of Shandakor" is important, but I think you get more for your entertainment dollar from "Shannach--The Last."  Both stories are well worth reading, however.

Stories by Edmond Hamilton in our next episode as our trip through 1977's The Best of Edmond Hamilton and The Best of Leigh Brackett continues!

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