The Best of Leigh Brackett: A wonderful collection from the “Queen of Space Opera”

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The Best of Leigh Brackett by Leigh BrackettThe Best of Leigh Brackett by Leigh Brackett

Back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Ballantine Books had a wonderful thing going with its “Best of” anthology series: 21 generously packed books celebrating 21 of the most influential authors of science fiction’s Golden Age, all reasonably priced at $1.95 (I refer here to the paperback editions, all of which I managed to collect) and all featuring beautiful cover art and informative introductions by a distinguished sci-fi author or critic. I loved every one of the “Best of” collections back when (OK, I wasn’t overly fond of The Best of John W. Campbell), and found them all to be perfect introductions to the 21 writers involved. But of all those many volumes, one of my favorites of the bunch was The Best of Leigh Brackett (1977), and just recently, in my continuing celebration of the centennial of the so-called “Queen of Space Opera,” I decided to reread this 400+-page affair for the first time in … can it be 35 years? And I am so glad that I did. Comprised of 10 short stories and novellas, with an introduction by Brackett’s husband, pulpmaster Edmond “the World Wrecker” Hamilton, and an afterword by Brackett herself — not to mention two maps of the author’s Mars by fan Margaret Howes — this volume truly is a must-read for anyone with an abiding interest in Golden Age sci-fi.

Unlike many of the other “Best of” collections, however, The Best of Leigh Brackett does not begin with its strongest pieces, and for a logical reason: The stories here are presented in strict chronological order, and Brackett’s abilities as a wordsmith continued to evolve and improve (as would be expected, I suppose) as she went along. Still, the first two stories DO manage to entertain. In “The Jewel of Bas” (from the Spring ’44 issue of Planet Stories, the pulp magazine in which so many of Brackett’s early tales first appeared), the reader makes the acquaintance of a newlywed couple, the troubadour Ciaran and his wife, Mouse, who live on a red-skied planet that most readers seem to conclude is Mars — even the book’s back cover refers to them as “Martian lovers” — although the story itself never tells us that (and indeed, it mentions that the action is set on the 10th planet of this solar system!). This cute, bickering couple gets into some big trouble when they are enslaved by the gray-skinned Kalds and brought to an underground installation lorded over by two scheming androids. Ultimately, the story manages to conflate a slumbering, immortal youth, Cimmeria, Dagon, Hyperborea AND Atlantis into its 53-page length; a charming novella, to be fair, but one that would perhaps have worked better as a more fully developed novel.

In “The Vanishing Venusians” (startlingly, also from the Spring ’44 Planet Stories), three men depart from the 3,800 colonists who have been roaming the seas of Venus, looking for a suitable place to make a home. The trio explores a high plateau area and encounters two different species of warring anthropomorphic plant life, one with the powers of telepathy and telekinesis. This is a rousing, exciting tale, told in true pulp fashion, and one with a surprisingly high body count, to boot, whose one major problem is some geographical descriptions that are a tad difficult to envision.

After these two stories, The Best of Leigh Brackett kicks into high gear and delivers at least a half dozen pieces in a row that this reader deems minor masterpieces. “The Veil of Astellar” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Spring ’44) gives us the tale of a spaceman from Earth who betrayed his people, thus enabling the residents of the dying world of Astellar to kidnap entire starships, and shows how he later tried to undo his terrible crimes. It is a beautifully written piece of work, unusually structured, with a story line that is at first bewildering but that eventually makes perfect sense. (I love it when Brackett tells us that one of these starship’s female passengers, gazing out a porthole at the galaxy beyond, is “starry-eyed.”)

“The Moon That Vanished” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, 10/48) is perhaps the greatest story in this collection. Here, an Earthman explorer, a wreck of a man since approaching the fringes of the mutating Moonfire (a giant, crash-landed chunk of Venus’ long-gone lunar neighbor), agrees to escort a Venusian barbarian and a temple girl into the very heart of the zone, in the hopes of acquiring godlike powers. The three embark on a journey across the minidragon-infested Sea of Morning Opals, all the while evading the killer priests known as the Children of the Moon, and ultimately arrive at their fateful destination. I really can’t say enough about this story. It is at once exciting, suspenseful, colorful, hyper-imaginative and beautifully written, concluding with one incredible sequence in the heart of the Moonfire itself. Some truly brilliant work by Brackett here, in a story a bit reminiscent of her mentor Henry Kuttner’s 1946 classic Valley of the Flame. Brackett often wrote like a man, by the way (don’t jump on me, ladies — that’s Hamilton talking, also), and never more so than when depicting scenes of carnage … and in this description of temple girl Alor: “Her body was everything a woman’s body ought to be … which was wide shouldered and leggy…”

Up next in the collection is “Enchantress of Venus” (Planet Stories, Fall ’49), the second story that Leigh wrote featuring her most famous character, Eric John Stark. I have already written at some length regarding this superb novella under a separate heading here on FanLit, so will just say now again that this is still another great wonder of Golden Age sci-fi; a bravura piece of work.

“The Woman from Altair” (Startling Stories, 7/51) brings us to planet Earth for the first time in this collection. It is the tale of a space explorer, David McQuarrie, who brings his new lavender-haired bride, Ahrian from you-know-where, back to his family in the NYC area. But when the family dog and David’s kid sister both go berserk and are killed under mysterious circumstances, David’s older brother and his fiancée start to do some snooping into their new sister-in-law’s exotic background. This is a story of gradually escalating paranoia, and a wholly satisfying one.

Next, we have the only tale in this bunch that is unequivocally set on the Red Planet: “The Last Days of Shandakor” (from the 4/52 issue of Startling Stories). In this one, a “planetary anthropologist” from Earth explores the ruins of the dead titular city and discovers that it is populated by the ghosts of its past … and by a few actual survivors. He falls in love with Duani, a young Shandakor girl, leading to a tragic end for the entire population. As Hamilton tells us in his intro, this was “the last, finest, and saddest of all her Mars stories … a summing-up, a valedictory, of the Brackett Mars.” Suitably elegiac in tone, it really is a beautiful piece of storytelling.

The collection’s next masterpiece, “Shannach – The Last” (Planet Stories, 11/52), finds us in the desolate and forbidding Twilight Belt on Mercury, where Eric John Stark was raised. In this novella, a man looking for superprecious sun-stones comes upon an enslaved people in thrall to a dying alien intelligence, one that beat Star Trek’s “the Horta” to the silicic punch by a good 15 years. In this tale’s harrowing opening sequence, our intrepid miner is trapped deep beneath the planet’s surface in an ever-narrowing cave system … a sequence that I well remembered from 35 years back, and one that should prove a rough ride for all claustrophobics! Flying lizard hawks, telepathy, a mountain hike above the limits of the Mercurian atmosphere, and an alien who truly is alien are all melded by Brackett into one tasty stew here.

To wrap up The Best of Leigh Brackett, we have two more stories that transpire right here on good ol’ Mother Earth. In “The Tweener” (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 2/55), a spaceman returns from Mars with a most unique souvenir for his young niece and nephew: a “tweener,” so called because it resembles something between a rabbit and a groundhog. (In a tip of the hat to the Edgar Rice Burroughs books that so influenced Brackett as a child, the author has the kids name the tweener … John Carter!) This is another tale of escalating paranoia, and a good object lesson for anyone prone to a little xenophobia.

Finally, “The Queer Ones” (Venture Science Fiction, 3/57) gives us the story of a 2 ½-year-old mountain boy who is discovered to have marked physical abnormalities, as well as a blood type that nobody has ever seen before. In fact, he is of an entirely new species entirely, and for good reason, as it turns out: He is the love child of a hillbilly girl and a visitor from the planet Hrylliannu! And before long, newspaperman Hank Temple learns that many TV sets in the small town of Newhale have been oddly tampered with, that green lightnings have begun to slay, and that a conflagration at the local hospital has been deliberately started, all pointing to … a possible invasion from the stars? “The Queer Ones” brings this wonderful collection to a most appropriate close, engendering as it does a true sense of cosmic wonder.

So there you have it … 10 marvelous pieces from the woman who surely did earn her crown as the “Queen of Space Opera,” every one of which would make for a terrific sci-fi film. I so enjoyed reacquainting myself with The Best of Leigh Brackett, as a matter of fact, that I am now considering rereading those other 20 books in the classic Ballantine series. Stay tuned…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough’s finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a “misspent youth” of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship — although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century — and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror… but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle “ferbs54.” Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club….

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4 comments

  1. sandy ferber /

    JUST ONE NOTE OF CORRECTION: “The Vanishing Venusians” Did NOT appear in the same Spring ’44 issue of “Planet Stories” as “The Jewel of Bas” after all. I was using the info supplied in this “Best of” book itself, which in this one case happens to be wrong. As the link below will show, “The Vanishing Venusians” rather appeared in the Spring ’45 issue. Sorry about the confusion…. http://i1.wp.com/adventuresfantastic.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/planet_spring45.jpg

  2. sandy ferber /

    You can’t always trust what you read, Jana…with the exception of my FanLit commentaries, of course! LOL!

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