Saturday, May 12, 2018

Four tales of Mars by Leigh Brackett

Let's explore yet another of my Fifty Cent Second Story Books finds, my copy of Ace's 1970s edition of The Coming of the Terrans by Leigh Brackett.  There is some mystery over exactly when this edition was published and who produced its cover illustration, but we know that the first edition of The Coming of the Terrans was published in 1967 and had a cover by Gray Morrow.  The collection includes five stories, and we've already read one, "The Last Days of Shandakor," as it also appears in The Best of Leigh Brackett, which we read in its entirety in the summer of last year.  Today we'll tackle the remaining four stories it contains by the celebrated writer of SF adventures, detective stories, and screenplays.

"The Beast-Jewel of Mars" (1948)

"The Beast-Jewel of Mars" was the cover story of the Winter 1948 edition of Planet Stories, where it is advertised as a story of "lost worlds" where beautiful women try to bewitch tall men (how different is that, really, from our own world?)  I like the cover illustration--the principal figures wear suitably and convincingly desperate expressions and the female lead sports a charming little blue number--and the inside pages boast not only the Brackett tale but contributions from two other beloved writers on the fantastical end of the SF spectrum, Ray Bradbury and Frank Belknap Long. 

Captain Burk Winters is a broken man!  He chain smokes Venusian cigarettes!  His hands shake so severely he drops coins all over the place when he pays a cabbie.  What happened to this dude, who was once one of our best space pilots?  He lost his girl to alien drug pushers, that's what!

Jill Leland was a wealthy member of the thrill-seeking classes who spend their leisure time in the solar system's Trade Cities, where the decadent rich of Earth gamble and indulge in elaborate vices!  Such pastimes are sought to relieve the pressure of life in the go go future--here are the kinds of people one sees in the Trade Cities:
Their faces were pallid and effeminate, scored with the marks of life lived under the driving tension of a super-modern age.
Leland's particular vice was the Martian "Shanga."  The Martians are the heirs of the wreckage of an heroic high-tech civilization that collapsed many centuries ago due to nuclear war; even though they can't reproduce much of that old time technology, the Martians can still operate some of the artifacts, and the Shanga crystals are among such artifacts.  In the Shanga parlors in the Trade Cities, Earth people can expose themselves to the Shanga rays, and temporarily feel physically and mentally younger, and live carefree for a few hours.

Brackett explicitly compares the treatment to drug use, and depicts exposure to the rays as a direct stimulant to the human brain's pleasure centers and as quite addictive.  Hard core addicts like Leland soon hear rumors that the Shanga treatment in the Trade Cities is mere kid's stuff compared to the real deal, the Shanga rays available in the desert in the crumbling half-deserted cities of Mars's heyday.  Winters tried to get the Shanga monkey off Jill's back, but to no avail; she disappeared in the Martian desert without a trace, presumed dead!

We learn all this stuff I just told you over the course of the 60-page story, which is structured sort of like a hard-boiled mystery.  The plot of "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" follows Winters as he goes to the Trade City on Mars, Kahora, and then out into the desert in search of his junkie girlfriend.  Winters is a manly man who isn't really interested in Shanga or any of the twisted allures of the Trade Cities, but to pursue his lost love he patronizes their evil trade, posing as a hopeless Shanga addict.  The Martian pushers take him out to the desert, to a lost city on the shore of a dry ocean basin, where they hold him captive and Winters learns the terrible truth.

The Shanga rays, at full power, after repeated doses, don't just roll your biological clock back to childhood, but back down the evolutionary ladder!  One strong dose of the rays turns Winters into a brutish cave man!  Winters recovers from this treatment, but he sees other Earthlings who have received many doses and been turned back to Neanderthals, to "missing links," even to god-damned reptiles and amphibians!  Winters worries that, if he doesn't escape, he'll eventually get turned into an amoeba!

The Martians, who see themselves as a superior race of great wisdom who were building skyscrapers when humans were still living in caves, resent human control of their ancient red planet.  The tribe of Martians in this story, those who run the Shanga parlors, turn Earthers into these evolutionary throwbacks in order to put them into an old amphitheater to torment them and laugh at them, a way of getting a little of their own back and assuaging their humiliation at the hands of us humies.

Our French friends included "Beast-Jewel of
Mars" in this 1975 anthology of stories from
Planet Stories.
Winters finds Jill Leland reduced to the condition of a cave woman--she can't even talk any more!  At night he escapes captivity and sneaks into the room of the leader of this tribe of vengeful Martians, a beautiful woman named Fand who has catlike grace and walks around with her high breasts bare.  (Brackett generally writes stories in which aliens are so biologically similar to Earth people that they are sexually compatible.)  Winters treats Fand the way a New York state prosecutor might treat one of his girlfriends, knocking her unconscious while she sleeps by bashing her in the head and then tying her up and carrying her back to the amphitheater.  When the Martians turn on the Shanga rays as they do every day, Fand gets exposed just like the Earth-creatures, and, because the Martians are an old race with tired genes, she gets devolved way way back, becoming into a disgusting vermiculate monster.  When her tribe realizes what has happened to Fand, chaos ensues, with the Martians fighting hand-to-hand with the Earth creatures in the arena, and Winters escapes with his mute and illiterate girlfriend to alert the human authorities about the menace of the Shanga parlors.       

(The crazy evolution stuff in "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" reminded me of the numerous stories by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton, that feature wild speculations about evolution, and of course the whole plot and theme of the story reminds you of Chinese opium dens and Chinese resentment of Western imperialism.)

When we read two Poul Anderson novels recently we saw they were full of signs of his libertarian attitude--celebrations of private trade, the individual, and rational reason, and denunciations of big government and mysticism.  In "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" we see signs of an old-fashioned conservatism on the part of Brackett.  Modern life, we are told, is too fast and too complicated and drives people batty, and we see that modern wealth and leisure just leave hands idle to do the devil's work.  Interstellar trade hasn't made the life of Terran or Martian better, but corrupted and demeaned them both, giving rise to bitter hatreds as each race abuses or exploits the other at every opportunity.   Brackett also evinces a traditional skepticism of the city and city life:
Winters hated the Trade Cities.  He was used to the elemental honesty of space.  Here the speech, the dress, even the air one breathed, were artificial.
As you might guess, the Trade City on Earth is New York, a famous target for criticism from country folk and conservatives (and not always without reason.)

Not Brackett's best work, but entertaining and interesting.

Scanned from my copy, a brief introductory essay by Brackett and a list of "othe" Ace books
by her, including Alpha Centauri or Die! and Sword of Rhiannon, which I own and have read,
  and Big Jump, another publisher's edition of which I own and have read.

"Mars Minus Bisha" (1954)

Another cover for Brackett, and another Planet Stories in which Brackett shares an issue with Ray Bradbury; this time Bradbury is represented by one of the all-time most famous dinosaur stories and stories about time travel, "A Sound of Thunder."  In "Mars Minus Bisha" Brackett again invites comparisons between the people of Mars and East Asians, this time very directly:
She sat up, a dark and shaggy-haired young person, with eyes the color of topaz, and the customary look of premature age and wisdom that the children of Mars share with the children of the Earthly East.
This is the kind of thing you'd probably think twice about committing to paper today.

Fraser is a scientist living alone in a Quonset hut in the Martian desert, studying Martian diseases.  A woman from a tribe of reptile-riding nomads brings her daughter to him and flees--the shamans of her tribe had declared the seven-year old girl, Bisha, to be cursed, scapegoating her for a plague, and sentenced her to death.  Fraser examines her and finds Bisha to be perfectly healthy, and she moves in with him; soon the little girl is the light of his life, and he plans on bringing her home with him to Earth when his project is complete in a few months.

But it is not to be--this story is a tragedy!  From an ancient race of Martians with tremendous psychic powers Bisha has inherited a recessive genetic trait, an ability to drain the life force of those around her over which she has no control!  If they continue to live alone together, Bisha's autonomic vampiric powers will eventually kill Fraser, but if Fraser lets any Martians see her they will recognize her condition and destroy her.  Fraser's life force is fading--can he get to a human settlement three hundred miles away before he expires and before any natives spot Bisha?  And if not, who will live and who will die?

An effective story, more economical (just 30 pages) and better structured than "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" and with more human feeling, including a sad ending like something out of Somerset Maugham which took me by surprise.

"Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" (1964)

Brackett's name sits at the top of the list on the cover of the 15th Anniversary "All Star" issue of F&SF, right above her husband's.  (We read Hamilton's contribution to this issue, "The Pro," back in June of last year.)  Preceding "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" is a page long bio of Brackett and a description of this story's genesis--it seems that Anthony Boucher, writing about Brackett in F&SF in 1955, made up the slightly goofy name od this story as a sort of parody of the titles of the type of planetary romances she excelled at writing, but some readers didn't realize it was a joke and began asking Brackett where they could find the story.  So, when the opportunity presented itself almost ten years later, Brackett wrote a story to match the title, making real this once fabulous component of her oeuvre.

Harvey Selden (!) has always wanted to go to Mars.  As he looks at the red planet from the observation dome of the starship as it comes in for a landing, Third Officer Bentham, an alcoholic whose career has been stunted by his love for the bottle, invites Selden to have dinner with him on the surface with some Martian friends of his.

Selden is staying at the Kahora Hilton.  Kahora has changed since the days when Jill Leland and Burk Winters frequented the Shanga parlor there; now that "the bad old days of laissez-faire," as Selden calls them, are over, Kahora and the other Trade Cities are under strict government control and all those sinful amusements are just a memory.  Kahora now has seven domes--Bentham takes Selden to the original dome, now a residential district, to meet his friends, including a Martian called Firsa Mak, Firsa Mak's sister and her human husband Altman, and a gorgeous Martian girl who walks around topless and serves the drinks, Lella.

Though this is his first trip to Mars, Selden is an academic expert on Martian culture and history; he came to Mars to take up a position at the Bureau of Interworld Cultural Relations.  He is also one of those liberals who identifies more with the colonized Martians than with his own people, the colonizers, and denigrates the actions of the first human explorers of the red planet, calling them "piratical exploiters."   
...Firsa Mak said with honest curiosity, "Why is it that all you young Earthmen are so ready to cry down the things your own people have done?"
Selden dismisses as nonsense the stories told by those first Earthmen to visit Mars about Martian cults who worshiped evil gods and practiced human sacrifice, but he's in for a surprise, because Bentham the drunk has just delivered him into the hands of people who know how very true those stories are!  Lella has served him a drugged drink and when he wakes up he's bound and gagged in the cold wilderness beyond the domed cities.  Brackett presents starkly the contrast between bookish know-it-all Selden, who in the wilderness proves weak and ineffectual, and adventurous manly men Firsa Mak and Altman, who are perfectly comfortable in harsh conditions and dangerous situations.

This German collection of
Brackett stories includes
"Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon"
Firsa Mak and Altman disguise Selden and drag him to a ritual where cultists pay obeisance to a slumbering Godzilla-sized monster.  The experience is so horrifying that Selden faints.  When he wakes up, Firsa Mak and Altman try to convince Selden to alert the Terran authorities about this cult which sacrifices people twice a year and its dangerous monster, which, they fear, if roused could destroy an entire city.  The government does not believe scruffy adventurers like them, but maybe they will believe a trained academic and member of the establishment like Selden?   

Selden, however, begins to doubt his own senses--Lella drugged him, after all--and worries that spreading rumors about Martian cults and Brobdingnagian monsters will wreck his career.  Instead of reporting the menace to the authorities he abandons his new job with the Bureau and flees to Earth where he undergoes psychotherapy and is relieved to be told he hallucinated the ritual and the monster, the result of drugs working on his unresolved feelings about his mother and his repressed homosexuality.  (We see evidence of Bracket's adherence to traditional ideas about gender roles and sexual mores here as well as in the quote I extracted from "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" above and in her novel Alpha-Centauri or Die!)

"Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" is well-written and I liked it, but at the same time I have to admit I thought the end was a little disappointing, anti-climactic.  A traditional adventure or horror story with a plot like this would end with the protagonist killing the monster and/or the priestess or making a narrow escape.  Instead, this story is a satire of inept intellectual types who look down on the brave men who defend and expand society, and so the main character is a kind of spectator lead around by the nose and kept from danger by the manly adventurer characters.  He is never in real danger and because he is incompetent outside a classroom he never makes any real decisions of consequence, just takes the path of least resistance.  I'm all for goofing on effete liberals and psychoanalytic quacks, but to achieve its full potential I think a story that follows the kind of adventure/horror template that this one follows needs real tension and a real climax--as "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" stands, it is unsatisfying.  (I was hoping all along that Selden himself was going to be sacrificed--this would accomplish the goal of ridiculing the willfully-blind academic types who dismiss the reports of men in the field while at the same time providing a satisfying horror story conclusion.  Of course, then Brackett couldn't work the psychoanalytic angle.)

Another problem I have with the story is the equivocal role of Lella.  We have every reason to believe that the masked woman who leads the ritual, the Purple Priestess, is Lella herself, but at the same time Lella seems to be allied with Firsa Mak and Altman, who are trying to get the government to do away with the cult.  A nagging mystery.

"The Road to Sinharat" (1963)

"The Road to Sinharat" was an Amazing cover story.  isfdb lists it as part of the Eric John Stark series, but Brackett's famous hero does not appear in the tale.  Maybe it is considered part of the Stark series because the city of Sinharat also appears in a Stark story "Queen of the Martian Catacombs," later expanded into the novel The Secret of Sinharat? 

Long ago Mars was a world of oceans and forests; today it is an arid desert.  The men of Earth think they have the technology to restore part of the red planet to its former verdant glory, but the Martians resist the renewal project; they have made peace with their old and tired planet, and don't want to see their canals messed with and their settlements moved.  In fact, the renewal effort is leading to unrest among the natives and even violence against Earthmen.

In 1932 Edmond Hamilton published the short story "Conquest of Two Worlds," a story about Earth imperialism and an Earthman who joined with the natives of Jupiter to oppose Earth oppression.  Brackett considered this one of her husband's best stories--at least she chose it for The Best of Edmond Hamilton, a volume she edited.  I bring this up because "The Road to Sinharat" also features a Terran, Dr. Matthew Carey, who goes against his superiors and risks his life to stand against Earth interference with aliens.

Carey is an archaeologist currently working with the organization planning the renewal project--because the natives oppose the project, so does Carey.  Carey has lived so long among Martians, exploring tombs and even participating in barbarian raids, that he can pass for a Martian desert dweller and capably wield Martian weapons (by which I mean things like axes and daggers--I guess automatic rifles and heat ray pistols aren't among the ancient Martian technologies which have survived.)  He ditches his job to help the natives, and the plot of "The Road to Sinharat" follows Carey and some Martians--the trader Derech, an old friend who accompanied him on his archaeological expeditions years ago, and Arrin, a sexy Martian girl--as they travel via canal barge and then on reptile-back to the forbidden city of Sinharat, to look for some ancient documents which may convince the Terran authorities to abandon their renewal scheme.  They face various obstacles, among them pursuit by a Terran police detective, Howard Wales, and his Martian cops, who is tasked with bringing in the renegade archaeologist on suspicion of fomenting native violence.

Eventually Carey and his friends and Wales and his cops end up trapped together inside Sinharat, under siege by some barbarians who are reluctant to enter the ancient city, which is taboo because it was once the HQ of a tribe of Martian scientists who achieved longevity by kidnapping young people and shifting their consciousnesses into the youth's bodies.  Just as an aircraft comes to rescue the besieged humans and their Martian comrades, Carey finds the records he needs.  They show that the body snatchers of Sinharat, ages ago, launched their own renewal effort, and the memory of its eventual failure lingers in the Martians' cultural consciousness, rendering all such efforts anathema.  These records convince the authorities to abandon their plans.

"The Road to Sinharat" was among the
stories from Amazing and Fantastic
included in this 1968 reprint magazine.
Like "The Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon," "The Road to Sinharat" contrasts academic experts who think they know it all with the men of action in the field who actually do know what's going on, and like "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" doles out some harsh conservative medicine--change is bad, progress is a scam, history is a tragedy, and you shouldn't interfere in other people's business, even if you have the best of intentions.  "The Road to Sinharat" is also reminiscent of Brackett's "Citadel of Lost Ships;" both feature government projects that relocate towns and tinker with water sources, allegedly for the greater good.  (Public policies that destroyed American communities to create reservoirs and dams, like those chronicled here, seem to have struck a chord with Brackett.)

While not bad, this story is another disappointment.  Brackett overstuffs "The Road to Sinharat" with lots of cool material, but because it is confined to a paltry 50 pages the story feels rushed and cramped, almost like a condensed version of a longer piece of work.  All Brackett's ideas and all the many relationships she sets up are dealt with in cursory fashion--she has no room to explore any of them with any depth, so they lack dramatic power.  Derech, Arrin, Wales, and Alan Woodthorpe, head of the renewal project, all have potentially fun and interesting relationships with Carey, in particular Wales and Woodthorpe, because all three of the Earthmen have a strong sense of duty and a determination to do the right thing for the people of Mars, but Carey's thinking is at odds with those of his fellow Earthers, and over the course of the story Carey wins them to see his side.  Unfortunately, Brackett doesn't have room to develop these relationships and chart their evolution in a compelling way.  Arrin is also a lost opportunity--she could have been a sexual interest for Carey, part of a love triangle with Carey and Derech, or given voice to one of the numerous Martian factions (Brackett's Martians are not monolithic, but split into distinct and often competing cultural and political groups who react to the colonizers differently, just like colonized peoples in real life) or all three, but as the story appears, she does very little.

(I often moan that a piece of fiction is too long, but here we have the rare case in which I think a story would have been better at two or even three times the length.)

Another problem with "The Road to Sinharat" is that it lacks the thrilling danger and cathartic (and sexualized) violence of many of Brackett's stories--often in Brackett stories men kill each other with their bare hands and women get beaten or killed (when Fand in "The Beast-Jewel of Mars" got transformed into a 100 lb. slug her lieutenant euthanized her with a sword.)  I don't think anybody gets killed in "The Road to Sinharat"--when the barbarians charge Wales and his men they repel the charge with stun guns.  To be satisfying, an adventure story has to have believable physical or psychological dangers, and "The Road to Sinharat" comes up short in this department. 


"Mars Minus Bisha" is a quite good story of human feeling, while the other pieces we've looked at today are just marginally good or merely acceptable.  "Beast-Jewel of Mars" has some of the violence and passion that bring to life Brackett's best work, like Sword of Rhiannon or "Enchantress of Venus," but lacks their strong characterizations and relationships, while "The Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon" and "The Road to Sinharat" follow an adventure template but lack the danger and violence of a good adventure story and the latter feels underdeveloped.  Fortunately, there are still Brackett stories out there I haven't read, and I can live in the hope that there is another Brackett masterpiece awaiting me.

1 comment:

  1. I've enjoyed most of the Leigh Brackett stories I've read over the years mostly in ACE Books editions.