Friday, January 14, 2011

Leigh Brackettt - Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont

"Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont, “Leigh Brackett (1915-1978),” Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction, Mark Bould et al., eds. (Routledge: 2009), 37-41."

"Leigh Brackett was one of a handful of women associated with early American sf. She is one of the only ones remembered for writing space opera, which she began doing for the pulp magazines in the early 1940s, when it was popular but looked down upon by many writers and editors. The tenacity and volume of her writing in this subgenre led to her being given the title the "Queen" of space opera. A consummate science-fantasist, she is remembered for her very visual picture of Mars and Venus and for Eric John Stark, the maverick, part-native hero she created to wander the solar system. Through the repackaging of her classic science fantasy, especially her Stark stories of the 1950s, Brackett contributed to the new traditions in, and revival of, space opera in the 1970s, though she was at odds with emerging feminist approaches to sf.
Brackett grew up in California. Her diverse and prolific career spanned from the 1940s, her period of greatest activity in the sf magazines, until her death. Her first story, the realistic "Martian Quest" (1940), was written for Astounding Science-Fiction, but she moved on to writing space opera for the pulp magazines Planet Stories, Startling Stories, and limiting Wonder Stories, scripts for Hollywood thrillers and westerns (notably for Howard Hawks), hard-boiled detective stories and novels, television scripts, and updating her Stark stories for 1970s audiences. At the time of her death, she had drafted the screenplay for Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner 1980), for which she posthumously received a Hugo in 1981. She is often (perhaps overly) discussed in the context of her marriage to Edmond Hamilton, a popular author of classic space opera.
Brackett's rendering of Mars was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs's Mars stories, of which she was a voracious reader, and to a lesser
extent by Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, and A. Merritt. Like Burroughs, Brackett drew from American frontier mythology to represent Mars as a far more ancient planet than Earth, a planet whose "civilized" period had long since passed. First appearing in Planet Stories in 1949, Brackett's Stark is a forerunner to the morally ambivalent frontier heroes of westerns in the 1960s. Whereas Burroughs's John Carter embodies unambiguously American cultural superiority over the declining civilization of Barsoom (Mars), Stark is introduced as a mercenary with ambiguous allegiances. A human raised by the indigenes of Mercury in a semi-savage state, Stark is captured while still a child by human colonists who display him in a cage like a zoo animal, before he is rescued and civilized by Simon Ashton, who works for an agency implicated in the administration of Earth's interplanetary empire. With his allegiances thus divided between his savage adopted tribe and his civilizing foster-father, Stark is as likely to take the side of the indigenous inhabitants of Mars and Venus as that of the colonizers. For example, in "Queen of the Martian Catacombs" (1949), Stark exposes the plot of a Martian chieftain to install himself in a puppet government propped up by colonial "outlanders." In "The Enchantress of Venus" (1949), Stark searches for a friend who has disappeared and finds himself entangled in the attempts of the declining ruling class to maintain their tyrannical hold over the people of Shuruun. In both cases, Stark is offered the opportunity to rule at the side of a conniving princess if he will only prop up her rule, and he refuses.
Stark is a complex character, haunted by his primitive upbringing and suffering from frequent flashbacks to his childhood, when, as N'Chaka, he lived in a state of constant vigilance. Civilization has not completely supplanted the primitive part of his character, which surfaces during moments of threat. Stark frequently feels fear, a sensation linked to his primitivity - but one which gives him an advantage by enabling him to respond to threats with the instinctive speed of an agile, wild animal. Brackett further figures Stark as racially mixed, his skin burnt "dark" by the hot sun of his home planet Mercury.
Martian romantic exotica also flourished in Brackett's "Black Amazon of Mars" (1951), "The Last Days of Shandakor" (1952), and "The Arc of Mars" (1953), at a time when most sf visions of Mars moved away from romance to take on new, realistic overtones as a result of scientific investigations. Brackett's sf and her hero Stark had already expanded into other worlds - mainly Venus, notably in "Lorelei of the Red Mist" (1946, with Ray Bradbury), "The Moon that Vanished" (1948), and "Enchantress of Venus."
Contrary to the common view that she moved away from the genre after the 1950s, Brackett continued to publish and reprint sf and science fantasy for the rest of her life. She always claimed that she wrote what she loved to read. Sf alone, she said, allowed a "soaring freedom of the imagination," but for money, she added, she wrote in other fields (Mallardi and Bowers 1969: 19-20).
In the 1940s and 1950s the reception of Brackett's space opera was mixed; it was praised for its rich settings and imaginative fantasy, but also found derivative and simplistic. Anxious to legitimize a disreputable pulp genre, sf critics have long deployed space opera and science fantasy as the "other" of sf, constructing a canon purportedly based on scientific accuracy. By these standards, the big winner for Brackett was her postapocalyptic, non-space-opera "legitimate" sf epic The Long Tomorrow (1955), which received rave reviews - for its realism, serious subject matter, and literary quality - from major critics such as Damon Knight and Anthony Boucher, and more recently John Clute and Brian Stableford. It also garnered Brackett a Hugo nomination. Set a couple of generations after a nuclear apocalypse, it depicts a future America under the sway of Mennonite principles. The Mennonites, a Christian sect that eschews technological development, find themselves in a position of power when technological civilization has been all but destroyed. Blamed for the nuclear apocalypse, advanced technology of all kinds is forbidden. A complex and subtle exploration of the relationship between the technological and the social, The Long Tomorrow enabled Brackett to explore issues that the short, sensational pulp format could not comfortably accommodate. It would be a mistake, however, to characterize Brackett as a "serious" writer trapped in the pulps, for she was a lifelong avid fan and defender of the popular.
Brackett revived her Stark series in the 1970s — this time in interstellar space, with The Ginger Star (1974), Vie Hounds of Skaith (1974), and The Reavers of Skaith (1976) — to good reviews. Paul A. Carter described Skaith as a prime example of the dying planet archetype, and Frederick Patten compared Skaith to J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle- earth. Whereas the earliest Stark tales depicted the Earth-led galactic empire as exploitative of the worlds in its path, the Skaith trilogy shifted away from the critique of empire, casting the Galactic Union as liberators. This mirrors the cultural climate in which Brackett was writing, which was in transition from the counterculturalism of the 1960s and polarized by US involvement in Vietnam.
The praise of male editors and critics of the 1970s notwithstanding, Brackett's sf understandably came under the scrutiny of feminist sf critics and anthologists of that decade. In interviews, Brackett spokewarmly about the sf community and denied that gender was an obstacle for her. Tellingly, she once remarked that if she was going to include a woman in one of her stories, she has to be doing something,
suggesting that Brackett was critical of conventions of female passivity in space opera. If so, she did not convert these conventions, but chose to focus on male-centered adventure stories and maverick heroes such as Stark, in which the most prominent female characters tend to be exotic alien queens or princesses. Not easily fitting the mold of the emerging feminist sf of the 1970s, Brackett (and space opera) were criticized by the likes of Joanna Russ and excluded from Pamela
Sargent’s groundbreaking Women ry Wonder (1975) anthology.
Although Brackett’s work made it into Sargent’s More Women of Wonder (1976), her masculine style and aggressive heroes were emphasized as characteristic of her style and the fact that it did not seem to matter to readers that she was a woman was noted (Sargent 1976: xix). In later decades, however, Brackett was reconsidered by feminist critics such as Sargent, who praised her strong female characters.
Despite Brackett’s intentionally hard-boiled approach in her sf writing, she capitalizes upon the classic identification between the categories of the alien, the primitive, and the land, which in Western culture have along tradition of identification with the feminine, to create alien beings and landscapes that function as less obvious, yet potent, sites of identity subversion. For example, “The Woman from Altair" (1951) is told by a man but centered around an alien woman who appears, but turns out to be far from, frail. Similarly, feminine psychic
power - the ability to empathize with and assimilate foreign subjects, whether human or alien - is a futuristic manifestation of traditional feminine influence. Psychic or empathetic female characters appear in Brackett's “Mars Minus Bisha” (1954) and Alpha Centauri - or Die! (1963). In Alpha Centauri, Brackett also describes the chaotic atmosphere aboard a ship, focusing in particular on domesticity in outer
space and depicting a woman-led mutiny against the ship’s captain.
Yet, despite her impressive accomplishments, Brackett’s long, media-spanning career garnered her no sf awards in her lifetime (though she did win the 1957 jules Verne Fantasy Award and the 1963 Western Writers of America Golden Spur Award). Perhaps she
was not in the end appreciated in sf circles; no critical studies of her work exist and only one anthology of her sf stories not edited by herself was published during her lifetime: Edmond Hamilton’s The Best of Leigh Brackett (1977). There are, however, signs that Brackett's reputation is undergoing a revival. Michael Moorcock in an anthology of her early stories listed a “who’s who” of male sf authors who would count her as an important influence, including himself (Moorcock 2002: xi-xvi). ln 2005 she was awarded the Cordwainer Smith Foundation Rediscovery Award. In their 2006 examination of the space opera “renaissance,” David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer remind us that Brackett’s contribution to the Star Wars franchise
established a link between space opera and commercial success.
Brackett is also beginning to receive attention as a pioneer of women's sf it is clear that Leigh Brackett was a prolific, versatile, and thoughtful writer whose space opera and science fantasy stories and books continue to lend themselves to reinterpretation."

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