Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Good Old Stuff The Last Days Of Shandakor Introduction - Gardner Dozois

This is from the late nineties:

"For some unknown reason--they don't grow up with a "boy's adventure" tradition of Young Adult literature to inspire them, perhaps? They're more thoughtful and/or emotionally mature than the men are? Market forces (i.e male editors) discourage them from writing it? Sunspot cycles?--straightforward adventure SF, especially the space adventure tale--and especially Space Opera--has been largely a male domain.

There were exceptions then (C. L. Moore, Katherine MacLean, Andre Norton) and there are exception s now (C. J. Cherryh, Eleanor Arnason, Janet Kagan, Lois McMaster Bujold), but it remains more true than not; certainly male would be the way to bet if you were uncertain of the gender of a particular Space Opera writer. Even today, when some of the Biggest Names in mainline science fiction are women, there are far
more men writing that specialized sub-variety known as Space Opera than there are women--and the situation was even more lopsided in the '40s and '50s.

One of the most obvious "exceptions" to the rule was the late Leigh Brackett. Even in the male-dominated world of the adventure pulps of the '40s and '50s, testosterone-drenched venues such as Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Startling Stories, where it was taken for granted that the reading audience was primarily composed of equally testosterone-drenched teenage boys, and even in an era where women were expected to stay safely in the kitchen and away from the typewriter
keys, nobody could doubt that Leigh Bracket had earned the right to sit at the high-stakes table with The Men. In fact, her stuff was more popular with the readers than the work of most of her male compatriots, and ultimately more influential than almost anything else that appeared in those adventure pulps, with the possible exception of the work of Ray Bradbury and Jack Vance. There is little doubt that she was the Queen of the Planetary Romance during this period, especially as, by the mid-'40s, C. L. Moore--her major competitor for the title, whose
work for magazines such as Weird Tales in the '30s had always had one foot in the horror genre anyway--had moved away from the adventure pulps and into more respectable mainline science fiction work for Astounding (except f or the occasional collaboration with her husband Henry Kuttner, where her contribution was often hidden by the work appearing under his solo byline).

Brackett sold her first story in 1940, and by the late '40s and 'early '50s had become one of the mainstays of magazines such as Planet Stories, Startling Stories, Astonishing Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories, particularly Planet Stories, where much of her best work appeared. Although her best novel by a considerable margin is the mature, thoughtful The Long Tomorrow, one of the best SF novels of any
sort of the '50s, that was an atypical work for her. More typical of her output, and more popular, were her series of stories about the savage, swashbuckling, half-feral Eric John Stark--a sort of Conan of the Spaceways, with a touch of Tarzan of Mercury thrown in--that appeared in the magazines and were later expanded into books such as The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman. Other novels in a
similar richly romantic vein included The Sword of Rhiannon and The Nemesis from Terra. She also wrote more standard interstellar Space Operas, including The Starmen of Llyrdis, The Big Jump, and Alpha Centauri--or Die!, which are competent, but lack the extravagant color and lush romanticism of her sword-and-planet work.

Brackett's autumnal vision of a decadent, dying Mars, the abode of Lost Cities and attenuated, hypercivilized Elder Races on the brink of extinction, is one of the three most influential conceptualizations of the Red Planet in science fiction, ranking only behind Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom and the Mars of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. (Burroughs's Mars strongly influenced both Brackett and Bradbury, but although their visions of Mars are clearly similar--close cousins at least, if not blood brothers--it's an open question how much influence was swapped between Brackett and Bradbury, or who influenced whom--they were close working colleagues, critiquing each others stories, as early as 1941, and their Martian stories were published roughly contemporaneously, often in the same magazines.) It's hard to sort out whether later influences on the Martian story are coming from
Burroughs, Brackett, or Bradbury, and any such judgments must remain subjective to some degree, but I think I can see the influence of Brackett's Mars in particular on Roger Zelazny's famous story "A Rose for Ecclesiastes," and perhaps even on Robert A.

Heinlein's Mars in Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land. Her influence on Ursula K. Le Guin is clear, as well as on writers of the '70s such as John Varley and George R. R. Martin and Elizabeth A. Lynn, and has probably continued on down to the '90s in the work of later writers such as Eleanor Arnason (although, with writers of newer generations, you have to take in to consideration the possibility that that influence is filtered through Le Guin's work, which had an immense
impact, rather than directly derived).

Brackett's vision of Mars was never expressed in any clearer or more concentrated form than in the intense, brooding, melancholy story that follows, in which a well-meaning Earthman inadvertently ushers in the last days of an immensely ancient civilization...

By the mid 1950s, Brackett had drifted away from science fiction and into crime novels, which subsequently led to her writing scripts for television and for movies such as Rio Bravo, El Dorado, Hatari!, Rio Lobo, and The Long Goodbye. (Legend has it that after reading her novel No Good From a Corpse, Howard Hawks told an assistant to "get me that guy Brackett" to work with William Faulkner on her first major film, the 1946 classic The Big Sleep). In the mid-1970s, she briefly returned to science fiction with an attempt to revive her old series hero, Eric John Stark, in the novels The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, and The Reavers of Skaith, but by then space probes had determined that none of the planets in the solar system were likely abodes for life, and she felt constrained to abandon the Mars, Venus,
and Mercury that had been the settings for her earlier stories and set Stark's new adventures on the planets of distant stars instead.

Somehow it was just not the same; the innocent exuberance of her earlier work was gone, and the series faltered and died after three volumes. At about the same time, she edited an anthology of stories drawn from Planet Stories magazine, The Best of Planet Stories No. 1, which, as the name implies, was supposed to be the first in a series of similar anthologies, but that series died as well, never reaching a
second volume. Her last work with any significant impact on science fiction was the screenplay for the immensely successful movie The Empire Strikes Back, for which she received in 1980 a posthumous Hugo, her only major award. Her many short stories, which is where she did most of her best work (with the significant exception of The Long Tomorrow) have been assembled in the collections The Coming of the Terrans, The Halfling and Other Stories, and, most recently (1977), The Best of Leigh Brackett. Almost all of Brackett's work is out-of-print."

Note: 10 years later and a whole lot of Brackett is back in print.

4 out of 5

No comments:

Post a Comment