To Tower Against The Sky
By Christopher M. Chupik
(The author wishes to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Deuce Richardson)
A piece of news was brought to my attention recently:
As a big fan of Leigh Brackett, this was great news, but it made me wonder. This year marks the 100th anniversary of her birth, one that has been largely unheralded. The 2015 Hugo Awards failed to acknowledge her centennial, though I suppose that’s to be expected. After all, they had much more important things to worry about, like distributing wooden asterisks.
Despite being an inspiration to such writers as Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock and E. C. Tubb, Brackett seems to have fallen into a curious limbo. Feminists like to invoke her name in lists of female SF authors, but there seems to be a curious reluctance to speak of the woman or her work. A female writer who held her own in a male-dominated field long before the women’s liberation movement would seem to be the kind of role model modern feminists would want to celebrate, right?
Wrong. Nowadays, she’s mostly known for having written the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, very little of which made it to the screen. And this is often portrayed as the crowning achievement of her career. It’s a bit like remembering Shakespeare solely on the basis of The Two Noble Kinsmen.
To understand how this happened, it’s important to understand Leigh Brackett.
Born December 7, 1915, Leigh Brackett was a tomboy, raised in a family of women. A fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett was unapologetic in her love of old-fashioned interplanetary adventure. Despite some success with her detective novel No Good From A Corpse (which earned her a screenwriting job on the movie adaptation of The Big Sleep), she turned down higher-paying markets to keep writing for lower-paying pulp venues like Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder Tales. As Brackett wrote for the introduction to The Best of Planet Stories:
“Planet unashamedly, published ‘space opera’. Space opera, as every reader doubtless knows, is a pejorative term often applied to a story that has an element of adventure. Over the decades, brilliant and talented new writers appear, receiving great acclaim, and each and every one of them can be expected to write at least one article stating flatly that the day of space opera is over and done, thank goodness, and that henceforth these crude tales of interplanetary nonsense will be replaced by whatever type of story that writer happens to favor — closet dramas, psychological dramas, sex dramas, etc., but by God important dramas, containing nothing but Big Thinks. Ten years late, the writer in question may or may not still be around, but the space opera can be found right where it always was, sturdily driving its dark trade in heroes.”
To put this in perspective, she said that in 1975, two years before I was born. And she could just as easily been talking about the current situation in the SF genre.
Her work may have been labeled Space Opera, but it blended elements of Sword and Sorcery with a hardboiled sensibility, creating something unique. Her Mars was like Barsoom seen through the cynical eye of Chandler, peopled with characters out of Robert E. Howard. Her prose was lean, with a harsh poetry that invoked dying worlds, dangerous men and mysterious women. Here she introduces Matt Carse, the tomb-robbing protagonist of her novel The Sword of Rhiannon:
“Carse walked beside the still black waters in their ancient channel, cut in the dead sea-bottom. He watched the dry wind shake the torches that never went out and listened to the broken music of the harps that were never stilled. Lean lithe men and women passed him in the shadowy streets, silent as cats except for the chime and whisper of the tiny bells the women wear, a sound as delicate as rain, distillate of all the sweet wickedness of the world.
They paid no attention to Carse, though despite his Martian dress he was obviously an Earthman and though an Earthman’s life is usually thought of as less than the light of a snuffed candle along the Low Canals, Carse was one of them. The men of Jekkara and Valkis and Barrakesh are the aristocracy of thieves and they admire skill and respect knowledge and know a gentleman when they meet one.”
Brackett was drawn to writing strong male protagonists (“I’ve always been bent on masculine things,” she once said). Combined with her ambiguous first name (keep in mind names like “Leigh” and “Marion” were unisex in those days), many readers assumed she was male. That’s not to say she couldn’t create female characters as fierce as her men. “People of the Talisman”, which first appeared in Planet Stories under the gloriously pulpish title of “Black Amazon of Mars”, features Ciaran, a female warlord in male guise who is revealed to her army and the readers thus:
“The woman wheeled her mount. Bending low, she caught the axe from where it had fallen and faced her chieftains and her warriors, who were as dazed as Stark.
‘I have led you well,” she said. “I have taken you Kushat. Will any man dispute me?’
They knew the axe, if they did not know her. They looked from side to side uneasily, completely at a loss. Stark, lying on the ground, saw her through a wavering haze. She seemed to tower against the sky in her black mail, with her dark hair blowing. And he felt a strange pang deep within him, a kind of chill foreknowledge, and the smell of blood rose thick and strong from the stones.”
It’s hard not to imagine Brackett feeling a bit like Ciaran herself. It is interesting to note that Brackett never felt discriminated against as a female author in a male-dominated field. She held her own without complaint.
With the ‘70s, the genre was changing. Heroes were out, anti-heroes were in. SF was becoming increasingly bleak and experimental. The Venera and Mariner probes had relegated the romantic vision of Mars and Venus to legend. But Brackett would not bend to the conventions of her time. In her last three novels, The Ginger Star, Hounds of Skaith and Reavers of Skaith, Brackett took her most popular hero, Eric John Stark (a sort of Tarzan-meets-Conan of the spaceways) beyond the Solar System to the dying world of Skaith. Skaith is ruled by the Lord-Protectors and their servants, the Wandsmen, who keep the Skaithians from leaving for the stars. The Wandsmen in turn command the Farers, a hedonistic mob the people of Skaith are obligated by law to provide for. Such is the skill of Brackett that this never devolves into a lecture, but there is a definitely a feeling she was criticising the counterculture and the increasing anti-science bent of the early ‘70s.
And here, I suspect, we come to the real reason the feminists have marginalized Brackett: she was a conservative.
I had to dig a bit to confirm this. I had a suspicion based on her work that her opinions were not quite in tune with modern leftist orthodoxy. Brackett, along with her husband Edmond Hamilton, were signatories to the pro-Vietnam War petition that appeared in the June 1968 issue of Galaxy. Combine that with her disinterest in feminism, and it becomes very clear why Brackett has been allowed to drift towards obscurity.
Now, the other side assures us that there is absolutely no leftward bias to the SF community. After all, George R. R. Martin lost to Jerry Pournelle forty years ago! Pardon me, my eyes just rolled right out of their sockets. (And yes, I do know that GRRM is a Brackett fan and I appreciate the fact that he has promoted her work. I just find his assertion that the community now is the same as the idealized one of his memory is naïve at best.) While I realize that the Vietnam War is now long behind us, people have a long memory for political vendettas. After all, Hollywood is still making movies about the Blacklist, in 2015.
I’m not saying this is some sinister conspiracy, heavens no. Systemic closure is more than sufficient to explain it. Brackett was always an independent spirit. She wrote the characters she loved in the type of stories she loved, standing defiantly outside the mainstream. In short, she wasn’t part of the clique. If not for her connection to the cultural juggernaut that is Star Wars, she might have slipped off the radar altogether.
But Leigh Brackett wouldn’t want to be a trophy on feminism’s shelf, collecting praise and dust. For those who rediscover her work, she remains the Queen of the Planet Pulps, plying her dark trade in heroes. For ultimately, neither her politics nor her sex are the defining characteristics of her life. The works she left behind are. Let Leigh Brackett be remembered for her accomplishments. Let her works inspire a new generation. Let her stand, towering against the sky, once more.