When I started reading science fiction, back in 1976, I started with lots of Golden Age of Science Fiction space opera – Jack Williamson, Edmond Hamilton, and Hamilton’s wife, Leigh Brackett.
My schoolmates were reading Isaac Asimov, and yes, I read his books too – as I read all the SF I could lay my hands on.
But those earlier books, often fix-ups or expansions of stories and novellas originally published in pulp magazines, remained with me for a long time.
I read her books in Italian, and later got me copies of the originals, and re-read them in English.
The first Brackett book I read was The Sword of Rhiannon, intrigued by its Mabinogion reference1, and rather surprised when I discovered it was a story set on Mars – and it had been originally published as Sea Kings of Mars… another Mabinogion reference.
Surprise gave way to wonder – and I became a fan.
As soon as possible I got me The Road to Sinharat, another Martian story, actually a fix-up of two novellas, The Secret of Sinharat and Queen of the Martian Catacombs.
Then, of course, I got to the Skaith novels.
And all the rest.
Brackett’s space opera and planetary romances were a curious mix of non-stop action and lyricism.
Bracket was great when it came to action2, but she was able to infuse her landscapes and her lost civilizations with a touch of melancholia and a great sense of time3.
And her imagination, that allowed her to re-imagine “standard” space opera and planetary romance venues like Mars and Venus, updating and deepening settings and situations that were pioneered by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
What has been called “Leigh Brackett’s Solar System” is a strange, ancient place, littered with mysteries, menaces, lost cities and the remains of lost civilizations. It’s an old and tired place, where decadence rules, and swashbuckling heroes rebel against the general sense of ennui and complacency.
It’s sort of a hard boiled sword and planet fiction.
Something that Brackett also injected in the Skaith books.
A cynic said once that Brackett’s characters are all versions of John Wayne, but this is short-sighted: most pulp heroes were very similar, monolithic, tough and ultimately decent. And indeed, compared to many of their contemporaries, Brackett’s characters are much more nuanced and complex.
Today, a lot of Brackett’s works can be found in the Internet Archive, because (or thanks) to the weird copyright status of stories published in the pulps in the ’50s.
Any interested party should probably check those stories out – and in particular
There’s a lot of collections, out there, too – in particular the Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories, by Gollancz, is highly recommended, if hard to get.
But you can find various editions – from de luxe Hefner books to cheap (but worthy) omnibus editions by Baen Books.
Brackett was also an author of crime fiction and westerns, and a Hollywood screenwriter. She was introduced to Howatrd Hawks by William Faulkner, and the two writers worked on the script for Bogart’s The Big Sleep. But she also wrote The Long Goodbye for Robert Altman… and in between she scripted a number of John Wayne westerns. Her last script was The Empire Strikes Back.
The works of Leigh Brackett are one of the strongest argument in support of the fact that pulp fiction, and space opera, can be intelligent, well written and meaningful. Good literature, and great entertainment.
- there was a song by Fleetwood Mac, too, called Rhiannon… and it was because of that song that I discovered Fleetwood Mac. ↩
- and indeed, reading Brackett is a good exercise to learn about action. ↩
- Ray Bradbury’s first published story, The Loreley of the Red Mists, was co-written with Brackett. Bradbury clearly learned a lot. ↩