Saturday, May 27, 2017

Three stories by Leigh Brackett published during WWII

The hardcover edition of the collection,
cover by Jack Woolhiser
In our last episode we looked at four stories by Edmond Hamilton, published in the 1920s and 1930s and selected by his wife Leigh Brackett for inclusion in 1977's The Best of Edmond Hamilton.  Today the tables are turned--here are three stories by Brackett, first published during World War II and chosen for 1977's The Best of Leigh Brackett by Hamilton.  I'm reading them in my paperback edition from Ballantine-Del Rey with the Boris Vallejo cover, a celebration of the human body and stone surfaces.  This book also includes a very charming intro by Hamilton, which provides insight into Hamilton's and Brackett's quite different work habits and careers and their personal relationships (their friendship with Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, for example.)  It also enthusiastically informs us of their collaborative novel, Stark and the Star Kings, which was scheduled to appear in Harlan Ellison's abortive Last Dangerous Visions.

"The Jewel of Bas" (1944)

"The Jewel of Bas" first appeared in Planet Stories, where it was billed as an "Off-Trail Novel" of "Fascinating Power." I don't know what "Off-Trail" means, but it reminds me of those hipsters who tell you that when they go to London and Paris they don't want to see Trafalgar Square or the Eiffel Tower like a damned tourist, but "experience the real Europe," I guess getting punched or groped by an authentic drunk or pickpocket in some dingy street in a lower-class neighborhood or something. Anyway, this issue of Planet Stories is available for free at the internet archive; fans of EC Comics will perhaps be interested to see the illustrations for "The Jewel of Bas" done by Graham Ingels--Ingels also did the cover for this issue of Planet Stories.

(I know you come to MPorcius Fiction Log for my boundless optimism, unflappable good nature and "get along" attitude, but I have to say that I have never liked Ingels' drawing or painting, even his famous EC work, and his cover of Planet Stories is probably the least polished and least exciting of the scores of Planet Stories covers you can see there at the internet archive.)

"The Jewel of Bas" also appears in Gollancz's Fantasy Masterworks #46, a copy of which I own
When I started this story I found it much better written than I had expected it to be, the setting and characters deeper and richer, more "real," than in Brackett stories I have read in the past.  Our protagonists aren't Tarzan or John Carter-like heroes, but poor people on the fringes of society, Ciaran, a sort of wandering minstrel or bard, and Mouse, a small skinny female thief, and they have a sort of semi-dysfunctional relationship, the kind we see in down-and-outers and artistic types in real life--they rely on each other, but also have endless disagreements which readily erupt into violence.  Ciaran and Mouse live on an alien planet with multiple suns which don't move in the sky, but the traditional songs Ciaran sings include clues that tell the reader that their ancestors came from Earth.  These songs also describe the powerful man, Bas the Immortal, who used an amazing artifact (his Jewel or Stone) to bring humans, and aliens (the short goblin- or kobold-like Kalds, who served as his evil army), to this world, as well as to build androids.  At the start of the story Ciaran doesn't believe the old songs, but over the course of the tale, which takes place in a forbidding desert far from civilization, Ciaran and Mouse have an adventure which reveals to them the truth behind those songs.

The plot is largely the usual adventure stuff.  Kalds who have been raiding border towns and enslaving humans add Ciaran and Mouse to their haul, but they use their musician and thief skills to lead an escape.  They sneak around the base of Bas the Immortal, observing the hypnotized human slaves building some tremendous machine at the direction of the androids; Ciaran does some eavesdropping and starts learning thereby what is going on.  Mouse is recaptured, but Ciaran finds his way to the ankh-shaped couch where sleeps Immortal Bas, who has the body of a child even though he is thousands of years old--he got his immortality powers by mischance when he was just a kid on Atlantis, back on Earth.  Ciaran alerts Bas that the androids are rebelling against him, and Bas eliminates the androids and Kalds, liberating Mouse and the rest of the humans.

"Jewel of Bas" includes one of those revelations of how the universe really works that we see in so much SF--Ciarn and Mouse's world is in fact an artificial construct inside a tenth solar planet, the "suns" and everything else powered by the Jewel--as well as a revolution or paradigm shift, another thing we see in SF all the time--not only is the slave operation of the androids and Kalds overthrown, but the Jewel is running out of power; fortunately the androids' great machine turns out to be a generator of replacing the Jewel, and Ciaran triggered Bas' wrath just after it was finished.  Bas goes back to sleep, retreating into a perfect dream world he has created because he is sexually frustrated in his child's body--in his dreams he has an adult body and can experience adult physical and emotional relationships.

With Bas's dream world I think maybe Brackett is setting up a contrast between childish masturbatory fantasies which are "perfect" but sterile, and real life sexual relationships like that of Ciaran and Mouse, which are messy and difficult, but fundamentally more satisfying and productive.  "Jewel of Bas" may also be a sort of camouflaged attack or expression of skepticism of religion.  (Keep in mind that, in his intro to The Best of Leigh Brackett, Hamilton tells us that the book that turned Brackett on to genre fiction and fired her desire to be a writer herself was Edgar Rice Burroughs' Gods of Mars, in which John Carter exposes the religion of Barsoom to be an exploitative and murderous scam.)  In addition to the fact that the childish and selfish Bas is often described as a god (and even sleeps on a cross), Brackett includes a minor human character who is a hypocritical religious fanatic who impedes the humans as they try to escape the menacing androids and Kalds.

Perhaps also worthy of note are Brackett's mentions of Atlantis, Dagon, Cimmeria and Hyperborea, I suspect Brackett hearkening back to the Weird Tales tradition of which H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard are the most famous exponents, and of which her husband Hamilton and her friend Henry Kuttner were also a part.  The Best of Leigh Brackett is actually dedicated "To the Memory of Henry Kuttner."        

"The Jewel of Bas" is a good story full of interesting stuff, but I can't help but feel the second half isn't as good as the first half.  Because Mouse gets captured, the compelling relationship between Ciaran and Mouse plays no role in this second half of the story.  (In 1990 Karen Haber wrote a prequel to "The Jewel of Bas" called "Thieves' Carnival," and I wonder if she was inspired to write it by a desire to explore or expand upon the Ciaran-Mouse relationship.)  The fact that Ciaran isn't a traditional muscular sword or gun slinging hero sort of weakens the climax--Bas effortlessly resolves the plot with his invincible powers while Ciaran just sort of watches.  (One of my pet peeves is stories in which the main character is a spectator instead of the driver of the action.)  To be fair, Ciaran plays his harp to lead the hypnotized humans to safety pied-piper-style, but in my opinion this is weak sauce.


"The Vanishing Venusians" (1945)

"The Vanishing Venusians," first seen in Planet Stories, was selected by Isaac Asimov (and/or prolific anthologist Martin H. Greenberg) for inclusion in Volume 7 of Isaac Asimov Presents The Great Science Fiction Stories.  You can read the 1945 version for free and check out the accompanying illustration by a Crane (if you know this artist's first name please let us know in the comments) at the internet archive.

Twelve ships (with sails!) drift across the Venerian ocean, carrying over three thousand people who have long been searching for a place to land and start a new settlement.  All their earlier land falls were met by hostile natives or disease, and Earth immigrant Matt Harker is so pessimistic that he tells fellow human Rory McLaren that it would be better if McLaren's pregnant Venerian wife, Viki, died than if she and their child lived to face any more hardships and disappointments!  Forgive Matt for being such a downer--when he sleeps he dreams of the snows of Earth, and when he's awake he can remember that "I saw our first settlement burned by the Cloud People, and my mother and father crucified in their own vineyard."  Venus is a tough place for an Earther!


When land is finally spotted, Harker, McLaren and a big black guy, Sim, volunteer to climb a cliff to scout out a plateau.  The Earthers have long run out of ammo for their blasters, so when the three scouts have to fight half-plant, half-animal monsters in a tunnel they use knives and spears.  Sim sacrifices himself to save the white men, singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" inhis last moments as he holds off the Venerian hordes long enough for Harker and McLaren can make it out of the tunnel.

Atop the cliff is a paradise inhabited by birds, butterflies, and beautiful telepathic nudists.  Unfortunately these nudists consider sick or injured people to be unacceptably ugly, and when Harker falls asleep they cart McLaren, who is recovering from a wound received in the fight in the tunnel, over to the local trash pile to die, like they do all their sick and aged relatives!  Harker rescues McLaren from the refuse pit, then, confident that the nudists have no souls, has no moral compunctions about redirecting a river to flood their home and exterminate them.  Harker dies in the deluge, but McLaren survives, the paradise dries, and McLaren summons the three thousand wanders to start a settlement in this, their new home.

This is a competent if unexceptional adventure story.  Maybe the religious overtones (sympathetic to religion this time, unlike in "Jewel of Bas") and portrayal of a black character and of interracial marriage make it more interesting?  Should we applaud the inclusion of a black hero and of a human who is having a child with his nonhuman wife, or decry them as condescending tokenism, the exoticization of the "other," and a celebration of white sexual imperialism?  I'm willing to give Brackett the benefit of the doubt, but I'm also not the kind of cutting-edge thinker who thinks white women shouldn't sell burritos, so don't quote me to your humanities professor!

"The Veil of Astellar" (1944)

First appearing in Thrilling Wonder Stories (check it out at the internet archive), "The Veil of Astellar" would later be included by Terry Carr in a 1976 anthology of space operas, Planets of Wonder, and by Stephen Haffner of the great Haffner Press in a 2010 anthology celebrating Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett Day.

While there are space ships and blasters in "The Veil of Astellar," in many ways this is more like a weird or gothic horror piece than what I think of as space opera--it is about callous parasitic aliens from another dimension and a human who becomes an immortal vampire and then fears the punishment that awaits him in Hell should he ever die.  The hardbitten and regretful narrator who has to choose between a sexy dame and doing the right thing also reminded me of noirish detective stories--Brackett of course famously wrote fiction and screenplays in the hard-boiled detective genre.


The main text of the story is a document sent to the "Space Authority headquarters on Mars," the confession of one Steve Vance that explains the mystery of the bizarre disappearance of so many space ships in a glowing cloud over the last few centuries. As we read the document we learn, in dribs and drabs, out of chronological order, Vance's astonishing biography and the inside skinny about that glowing cloud that has bedeviled spacemen for so long.  I'll just give you the main outline in a straightforward fashion, like I'm handing you a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces already put together.

Three hundred years ago Vance was a pioneering astronaut, the first man to reach Jupiter.  History records that he crashed and died but in reality he was captured by vampires from another universe!  Because Vance was such a fine specimen, their leader, sexy Shirina (if you think chicks with antennae are sexy!) took him as her lover and gifted him many vampire powers.  Shirina took Vance to see the amazing sights and sample the sensual pleasures of many other universes, including the home base of the raiders, Astellar.  In return for all these boons Vance periodically moves among ordinary humans, getting work on ships as a spaceman, and then guiding these ships into the death trap that is the vampires' glowing "Veil."  The Veil brings the ships to Astellar, where the aliens devour the life force of the captured humans--Vance shares in the feast, a cannibal as well as a traitor!

Like the two other Brackett stories we have talked about today there is a lot of religion in "The Veil of Astellar."  There are references to "Satan," "Lucifer," and, in particular, "Judas" (Vance is like a Judas goat), one normal human who suspects Vance is a vampire tries to kill him with silver crosses, and one of Vance's vampire bodies is said repeatedly to have no soul.  Vance recognizes that what he is doing is evil, but one reason he keeps committing these crimes is that if he stops devouring other people's life force he will die, and he fears the punishment that awaits him in the afterlife.

Before Vance left for Jupiter three centuries ago, he had a wife, and one day on Mars he encounters a pretty young woman who resembles his wife; he realizes she is one of his and his wife's descendants.  This woman is a passenger on a ship he is going to guide into the Veil, and the prospect of murdering and devouring the soul of his own descendant shocks him into abandoning his three-century-long career of evil.  He battles it out with his alien lover and various vampiric friends using blasters, mental powers and his fists, wiping out the monsters and escaping in a lifeboat.  Knowing death is just around the corner for him, he pens this confession and sends it to the human government in hopes that someone will read the account and pray for his soul! At the same time, Vance is plagued by second thoughts--why did he turn his back on eternal life and the love of the gorgeous Shirina, when, compared to the immortal and beautiful people of Astellar, ordinary humans seem no better than cattle!

Pretty good, Brackett's plot and style are compelling.  Telling the story from the point of view of the villain, rationing out info one little piece at a time, and all the religious, moral and psychological stuff about who you should be loyal to and what rules should you follow make for an engaging story.

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Michael Moorcock is a big fan of Brackett's work, and has called her a major influence on his own writing and a sort of inspiration to the people who lead the New Wave. While I have long enjoyed Brackett, I always found Moorcock's praise a little exaggerated or overblown, based on what I had read of her work.  But reading "The Jewel of Bas" and "The Veil of Astellar" has made Moorcock's praise more comprehensible; the somewhat complex and strange sexual relationships depicted in the stories perhaps do remind one of the New Wave, and the importance of travelling between dimensions in "The Veil of Astellar" are reminiscent of the importance of travel among the different aspects of "the Multiverse" in Moorcock's voluminous Eternal Champion output.  The religious components of all three of these stories also add a layer of interest--these tales have given me a greater appreciation of Brackett and her work, and I can only hope I will enjoy the next batch of Brackett stories I read as much as I did these.  But first, back to Brackett's husband Edmond Hamilton for four stories from the 1930s.

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