Shadow Over Mars: The author is better than the book

Shadow Over Mars by Leigh BrackettShadow Over Mars by Leigh BrackettShadow Over Mars by Leigh Brackett

Shadow Over Mars (1944), also sometimes reprinted as The Nemesis from Terra, was the first full-length novel by space opera author Leigh Brackett. (“Full-length” is relative here, though, as Shadow Over Mars is quite short, only 145 pages in the edition I read.) It is currently in the running for a 2020 Retro Hugo for Best Novel.

The book begins with the hero, Rick, running through a Martian city, trying to evade the agents of the Terran Exploitations Company, who want to press him into slavery in their mines. He ducks into the home of an old woman, who prophesies that she has seen his “shadow over Mars,” and then promptly tries to kill him. The prophecy, which is interpreted to mean that Rick will become the planet’s ruler, makes him a threat to both the colonizing Company and the moribund Martian royal family.

Racism rears its ugly head early on. The Company’s goons are black apelike creatures, rumored to have degenerated from human beings, and colloquially called the “black boys.” Yuck. After meeting these fellows, it’s almost a relief to encounter the dangerous Jaffa Storm, who is also described as black. Sure, he’s the villain, but at least he’s a human, and an intelligent one. (Side note: Storm is said to have been burned black by the sun on Mercury. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to take this literally — if Storm is actually a white guy who just got that sunburned — or if it’s a metaphor for how people evolve with darker skins in sunnier climates. I think it might be the former, based on the little I know about her later hero Eric John Stark.)

As for Rick, his full name is Richard Gunn Urquhart. This is repeated many, many times, and apparently there is a part of me that is 12 years old, because I never quite got over the fact that the guy’s name is basically Dick Gun. The only way to make him more macho would be to surname him Axebodyspray. And oh, is Rick macho. He bulls his way through the action-packed plot by being super tough, both in combat and in endurance of pain. (Not to mention what starts to seem like his signature move, jumping out of moving vehicles.) Two different “dames” fall madly in love with him shortly after meeting him. Very, very macho.

Shadow Over Mars by Leigh BrackettI found myself in the strange position of rooting for him as a person, to escape slavery and stick it to the Company, but not particularly wanting him to end up ruling Mars. He doesn’t have any idea what he’d do with that power if he had it. And is the toughest guy on a planet necessarily the best person to lead it? Somewhere in the second half of Shadow Over Mars, it started to feel like Brackett was asking this same question. The ending, which I thought was perfect and true to the character, seems to support that.

The setting is sparsely described, until it’s not. Let me explain. Brackett’s Mars, especially in the early going, is so light on description that I wondered if there were certain assumptions that a 1944 reader would bring to the book to fill all that in. The answer is yes! (I looked it up.) There was at that time a “consensus Mars” (also a consensus Venus), somewhat based on what the scientific community believed back then, and a reader picking up a book about Mars would already “know” what to imagine. But then Brackett will sometimes drop a really striking image into the story, painting a vivid picture in few words — such as an ancient castle, now crumbling and surrounded by desert, slowly filling up with sand.

Around the time I first noticed “Dick Gun,” I amused myself by imagining that Brackett was actually parodying the uber-macho adventure story. I don’t think that’s literally true, but what I do think is possible is that she had to write something conventional and “masculine” in order to break into the male-dominated SF market at the time, and once she did, she was more free to write what she wanted. Sandy’s and Jesse’s reviews of her later work suggest a Brackett who developed both men and women beyond gender stereotypes, at least more than was common at the time; questioned violence as a universal solution; and wrote in an elegiac way about dead or dying civilizations.

These elements lurk beneath Shadow Over Mars, or maybe occasionally bubble to the surface, and give the impression of an author who was better than this particular book. Shadow Over Mars itself is kind of cheesy (and has some jarring racism in it), but I would be interested in reading some of Brackett’s later work to see how she developed as a writer. As for the Retro Hugo, I think Sandy made a pretty good case for Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius. (I’m glad he read it and not me, though, because I think I’d probably cry.)

Published in 1944. Nemesis From Terra. Rick Urquhart was going to conquer the turmoil-ridden planet of Mars. He was penniless and unknown, but there could be no doubt that he would rule the Red Planet-the ancient Martian mystic had made the prophecy, there was no way fate could cheat him of his prize. But there were powerful interests on both Earth and Mars who didn’t believe in prophecies-and they were going to undo Rick’s future before it had a chance to begin…

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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2 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    Well done, Kelly! I got some nice chuckles out of this review. “Axebodyspray,” indeed! I was surprised to hear that Brackett’s descriptions of the Red Planet were a bit scanty in this book, as in her later Mars books and stories, that is hardly a problem. Like any writer, I suppose that she improved with age. Anyway, thanks for this fun review of a book that I really do need to read one day, as a Brackett completist….

  2. Jana Nyman /

    “The author is better than the book” — so true! I think your guess that Brackett was writing for a certain market/mindset in order to get her foot in the door is the most likely explanation.

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