Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Works of Leigh Brackett

Gollancz cover illustration by Les Edwards

This afternoon, the Second Foundation Reading Group gathered to conclude its discussion of the works of Anne Leckie, and begin its discussion of the works of Leigh Brackett. Best known as the author of a screenplay for the Empire Strikes Back, which you can download here, Brackett in fact was the writer behind a number of classic Hollywood films such as the The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and The Long Goodbye.

I have read some of the Skaith novels in the past - one or two quite recently, thanks to Paizo's late, lamented Planet Stories imprint - and for this session I read two of the Eric John Stark novellas set on Mars: "Queen of the Martian Catacombs" and "Black Amazon of Mars". Both were quite good, with a strong classic planetary romance feel and some interesting female supporting characters and adversaries.

I am sure that Brackett's Mars was very much influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs, with its city-states scattered among deserts and ruins, and exotic cultures that have seen better days. Oddly enough, the native peoples of Brackett's Mars have a lot of Irish names, and there are even Martians with red hair. "Red Planet, Red Hair" as one member of the reading group quipped!

But the differences go a little deeper than that. You won't see a spaceport on any maps of Barsoom, but you do find them on Stark's Mars and the other worlds in Brackett's solar system. Earth has commercial interests on Mercury, Venus, and Mars, and Leigh Brackett's most memorable character, Eric John Stark is in fact a human orphan who was raised by the non-human natives of Mercury. He was something of a feral child until discovered and "civilized" by an agent of Earth. Thereafter Stark has a series of adventures: some on his own, some as a not-always-willing agent of meddlesome Earth interests.

In the course of reading Brackett's Mars stories I discovered a few things that made me go hummm. There is a "Seven Kingdoms" on Brackett's Mars. There is an ice wall in the far north and a city just south of the Wall which guards the Gates of Death. Then there is Eric John Stark himself. In the Skaith novels, he is described as a wolf's head (meaning an outlaw), and of course today we know another Jon Stark, I mean Snow, who also has a wolf's head (the sign of his father's House, and the the decoration on the pommel of his sword). And there are great hounds on Skaith. So I wouldn't be surprised at all if Leigh Brackett was an influence on George R. R. Martin.

The next gathering of the Second Foundation is Sunday, August 9, from 2-4 PM at Merlin's Rest in Minneapolis. We're going to continue our discussion of the works of Leigh Brackett, and begin to discuss the 1960s SF of Samuel R. Delaney (my favorite SF author). I'll be reading more of Leigh Brackett's pulp SF work for that session, as well as her novel The Long Tomorrow which I have heard is very good.

Reading more Brackett will also be good preparation for Diversicon in late July, where Leigh Brackett will be one of our posthumous guests of honor along with Gene L. Coon and Sun Ra.  I plan to run a pulp SF RPG scenario there called Princesses of Mars; Or, the Search for Stark. All the PCs will be female characters, each with a connection to Stark. I'm working on some clever scene titles for the scenario, including:
  • A Game of Starks
  • Devils in the Dark
  • Mothership  
As far as Delaney, I may re-read Nova and Babel-17, as well as read The Fall of the Towers trilogy, which I have taken a couple of stabs at recently. All of this should make for great summer reading.


  1. Interesting GRRM-Brackett connections! There's an article abouts positing Brackett's Mars as Barsoom in a later era (perhaps in the era of ERB's The Moon Maid--thought it seems the sequel has been avoided). To me, it's much easier to reconcile Moore's Mars with Brackett's, if we've got to put things in the same world.

  2. I think you could very easily combine Moore's and Brackett's Mars! They both have Earth colonialism going on, and the resulting seediness that you get with colonialism and imperialism. So it takes us beyond the Orientalism of "ancient decadent civilizations" that we see with Barsoon. One of these days I need to read The Moon Maid. There's a copy of the edition with the hallucinatory Mahlon Blaine cover just a mile from where I work.