The Best of Planet Stories, #1: A marvelous collection from an underappreciated pulp magazine

The Best of Planet Stories, #1: edited by Leigh BrackettThe Best of Planet Stories, #1: edited by Leigh Brackett

Beginning in 1937 and continuing on for a good dozen years, the pulp magazine Astounding Science-Fiction, under the editorship of John W. Campbell, was the most dominant and influential publication in its field. But that is hardly to say that it didn’t have competition for readers’ attention (and their 20 cents) at the newsstands. Planet Stories, which published its first issue in 1939 and folded in ’55 after 71 issues, was one such, but whereas Campbell’s magazine specialized in seemingly realistic tales with an emphasis on technology and hard science, Planet Stories‘ main stock in trade was unabashed space opera; melodramatic adventure stories of lost civilizations, stalwart heroes, beautiful princesses and suchlike. Not for nothing does The Science Fiction Encyclopedia call the magazine “the epitome of pulp sf.” In 1975, Leigh Brackett — whose career had been practically jump-started in the pages of Planet Stories beginning in 1940, and who would later be referred to as the “Queen of Space Opera” — was asked by the folks at Ballantine to edit a series of books that spotlighted this wonderful old pulp. Brackett would get to pick her favorite tales, with one proviso: that one of her own stories from the magazine would always be included. The result was The Best of Planet Stories, #1, a terrific collection that gathers together seven splendid pieces, with an informative introduction by Brackett herself. Sadly, the book’s title was something of a misnomer, as this was the sole Planet Stories collection to appear; Ballantine, for some strange reason, never chose to release a #2 (although it DID release The Best of Leigh Brackett, and 20 other classic “Best of” volumes, a few years later). All the more reason to treasure this single representative of what seems a truly entertaining pulp magazine.

The collection kicks off in a very big way with “Lorelei of the Red Mist,” a novella (a story of 17,500 to 40,000 words) that Brackett wrote in collaboration with a friend, some fella named Ray Bradbury, and which appeared in the Summer ’46 issue. A great deal of confusion had apparently existed for years as to who wrote what in this longish tale, and Brackett clears up that confusion very neatly in her intro. It seems that she had written a little more than half of the story before getting called to Hollywood by director Howard Hawks, to write the screenplay for The Big Sleep. She tells us that Bradbury jumped in and finished the story, and even tells us the sentence where Bradbury picked up, without which the reader would never know where one writer ends and the other begins, so perfectly does Bradbury mimic Brackett’s florid, robust style. Brackett accepted her friend’s finished work without changing a word. As for the story itself, it concerns a scrawny thief named Hugh Starke (a very different character than Brackett’s most famous character, Eric John Stark, who would make his first appearance three years later), who, after a payroll robbery, crash-lands on Venus and is killed … but not before the green-haired, female ruler of Falga, Rann, transfers his spirit into the body of Conan, a mighty warrior of Falga’s enemy state, Crom Dhu. (Brackett tells us in her intro that she later regretted these homages to author Robert E. Howard.) Rann is now able to control Conan as her cat’s-paw to do her evil bidding. Ultimately, Starke/Conan regains a measure of control and leads the beleaguered Crom Dhu, and its beautiful warrior leader Beudag, in battle against Rann and her armies. Not only does the tale give us a character named Starke, but the gaseous Red Sea of Venus is also prominently featured here, as it would be in the Eric John Stark adventure “Enchantress of Venus” in 1949. And “Lorelei” also features a diminutive harp player, bringing to mind the short-of-stature, harp-playing troubadour Ciaran, in Brackett’s 1944 story “The Jewel of Bas.” Bradbury’s contribution to the tale pushes matters into the realm of the macabre, as a third group utilizes an energy source in the Red Sea to reanimate the dead bodies of both warring sides, and Brackett admits that Bradbury managed to wrap up her story better than she ever could have. In all, a wonderfully colorful, imaginative, fast-moving and, surprisingly, sexually frank piece of work from these two legendary writers, working together for the first and only time.

Up next we have what might be the cutest, most charming short story in all of sci-fi (as well as one of the funniest): Fredric Brown’s “The Star-Mouse,” from the Spring ’42 issue. Here, an absentminded German scientist, Herr Oberburger, takes a mouse that he finds in his Connecticut home and shoots it into outer space aboard his new rocket prototype. Mitkey, as the little guy has been dubbed, never makes it to the rocket’s programmed destination, the Moon, but is rather captured by the 1/2-inch-tall residents of the asteroid Prxl! Mitkey’s intelligence is boosted by the tiny beings there and he is sent back to the professor, leading to Mitkey’s dream of the world’s mice taking over Australia and renaming it Moustralia, with its capital not Sidney, but rather Disney! Trust me, this is one of the sweetest little sci-fi tales imaginable. I first read this story in Ballantine’s The Best of Fredric Brown almost 40 years ago and had never forgotten it.

Raymond Z. Gallun’s “Return of a Legend” (March ’52) is another story that I’d read around 40 years back, in Ballantine’s The Best of Raymond Z. Gallun, but I had no recollection of this one whatsoever. This tale gives us a glimpse at Frank Terry, his 7-year-old son Will, and the other assorted types who make up the Earth outpost Port Laribee on the dying world of Mars, and makes the reader ponder how long an Earthman (or -woman) can remain on the Red Planet without becoming a genuine Martian in fact. A beautifully written, most impressive piece of work.

In Basil Wells’ “Quest of Thig” (Fall ’42), the alien Thig, a “powerfully muscled” denizen of the hive-mind world of Ortha, arrives with two others to scout out Earth’s possibilities as a planet for conquest. He abducts a Long Island writer named Lew Terry (another Terry?), who unfortunately dies during an operation in which his knowledge is placed into Thig’s body; further plastic surgery enables the Orthan to take the place of the original. Thig lives with Terry’s family and encounters, for the first time, warm and human emotions, which naturally cause the Orthan some internal conflict and jeopardize his mission. A winning tale, to be sure, from a writer who I’d not previously encountered.

Up next we have a novella with the memorable title “The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears” (Spring ’50), written by Keith Bennett, an author who I know nothing about, and who is not even mentioned in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia; a pity, as “Rocketeers” is a marvelous piece of work, and one that fans of James Cameron’s 1986 masterpiece Aliens should just eat up. Here, an expeditionary force of 32 assorted scientists and gunners crash-lands on Venus, 500 miles away from their base ship, and is forced to slog through the intervening rain forest to effect their return. The men encounter giant spiders, poisonous snakes, blowgun-wielding lizard men, a dinosaur, a giant beetle, monstrous storms, sentient vines, incessant heat and humidity, insect swarms, and the threat of madness as their march extends over many months. This is an exciting, gung-ho account of a group of very brave men, told in realistic fashion. Indeed, Hague, the young lieutenant who, by dint of constant attrition (the story has a VERY high body count), becomes the leader of the dwindling group, constantly worries about his ability to stay strong and hold things together. This story of the Rocketeers’ Ground Expeditionary Patrol One would make for a terrific blockbuster film one day; it is the stuff of pulp heaven, and a perfect example of “military sci-fi,” from an author who obviously did some kind of armed forces service himself.

Brackett’s collection next offers up a tale by Ross Rocklynne, an author who managed to also place any number of stories in Astounding Science-Fiction. Here, in “The Diversifal” (Winter ’45), we are given a tale that might make some recall Cameron’s 1984 masterpiece The Terminator. In this one, Bryan Barrett is visited by a time traveler named Entore from the year 800,000 A.D. Barrett learns that he is a “diversifal”; a person whose actions will significantly affect the time flow of the future. Barrett agrees to abide by Entore’s dictates for a 10-year period, so that he never encounters the woman he would one day marry and have a history-altering son with; a mutant whose own actions would eventually lead to mankind’s downfall. Rocklynne’s story, a bit confusing at first, ultimately leads to an ending of some considerable emotional weight.

Finally, to bring this collection to a close, we have the great Poul Anderson‘s “Duel on Syrtis” (March ’51), in which big-game hunter Riordan sets out to bag another trophy for his rec room. Illegally, he sets out to shoot and stuff a desert-dwelling Martian named Kreega, and the battle of wits that transpires between these two desperate beings is a very tense and exciting one indeed. This short story contains quite a bit of gripping action, some sharp characterizations, nice Martian color, and a memorable ending … a very impressive display, from an author at the earliest stages of his career.

So there you have it … seven very satisfying stories from a pulp magazine whose 16-year history assuredly deserves to be brought back into the spotlight again for modern-day readers. Editors of the world, hear me: It is never to late to issue a much-belated Best of Planet Stories, #2!


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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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