Queen of the Martian Mysteries

An Appreciation of Leigh Brackett

Nonfiction · Reprints · June 13, 2002

Few people of later generations than mine know how influential Leigh Brackett has been on the field of science fiction and fantasy. If you’ve read the odd piece by me or by Ray Bradbury, for instance, you’ll know that we admired her, loved her, learned from her and were encouraged by her, but you might not know that E.C. Tubb’s excellent long-running Dumarest of Terra series, which has been appearing for almost half-a-century, was originally written in conscious and acknowledged imitation of Brackett’s much-admired Eric John Stark stories. I heard her Stark stories quoted long before I actually read them, just as, while hitch-hiking through Germany a few years later, I had Borges retailed to me by a Spanish-reading Swede before Borges ever appeared in English. Ted Tubb could quote chunks of Brackett from memory and invent a fair version of his own on the spot! He wasn’t the only one. I remember sessions with him and some of the other UK sf writers of the 50s, including Ken Bulmer and John Brunner, in which her work was the sole subject of enthusiastic conversation and where we vied with one another to capture that typical, intoxicating style in extemporary round-robins, which is what writers used to do at sf conventions before they started becoming stars. Someone always had a typewriter and you took turns on it. Tubb was brilliant at this. 17-year-old John Brunner’s second novel The Wanton of Argus didn’t come out of nowhere and a strong streak of Brackett ran through all his best early space operas and science fantasies which, with books like Stand on Zanzibar and Shockwave Rider, are now regarded as his best, most vital work.

But, of course, Leigh was also influential in Hollywood. Her contribution to Star Wars wasn’t limited to the script she did for The Empire Strikes Back. When I saw the first Star Wars movie I was disappointed. I had expected something as good as Brackett. What I got was a dilute of Brackett and the Brackett style. Han Solo’s origins lie, it seems to me, in those tough, semi-piratical spacers who took the interplanetary work nobody else would do. I suspect they all looked a bit like Bogart in Leigh’s mind! Which says something for Bogart, I’d say, since Leigh got to know him when she was working with Faulkner on the The Big Sleep. She and Bogie enjoyed each other’s company. They were the same kind of tough-talking romantics. Her spacegoing heroes were not a million miles away from the seagoing Bogart of Key Largo.

I don’t remember her talking about John Wayne much, though she shared his politics more than she did mine. I’d imagine his off-screen antics and language didn’t make him an ideal model, especially when she had known Douglas Fairbanks, for whom she and I shared an undying admiration, though Fairbanks’s wonderful on-screen joie-de-vivre wasn’t something many of our own characters displayed. She tended to prefer people who ran gin joints in Moroccan ports and sacrificed their own happiness for the woman they loved. It was definitely part of her appeal to me when I discovered that there was a kind of sf I did like and it was only rarely found in Astounding—while you found a lot of it in Planet Stories and Startling Stories. Not, as this collection of her earliest work shows so well, that she couldn’t deliver a nifty scientific idea or two when she wanted to. What I found interesting about these stories, many of which I first read in the pulps, was how many of them were actually science fiction rather than the science fantasy with which I mostly identify her. She came up with curious, engaging scientific notions, along with some very sexy warrior queens, hard-bitten interstellar dames, and quite a few attractive, god-like or boy-like super-villains.

It’s readily arguable that without her you would not have got anything like the same New Wave, which changed generic sf so radically from a fundamentally mechanistic realism to a fundamentally humanist romanticism in the 60s and 70s. In a sense 2001 was the magnificent epitaph for that kind of sf. J.G.Ballard, our master of laconic, poetic imagery, much admired in the literary world and almost as influential upon it as Philip K. Dick, came to the field out of an enthusiasm for Ray Bradbury, as did many British imaginative writers. It’s commonly known, because Ray has said so, that Ray Bradbury’s Mars, like Ballard’s Vermillion Sands, is not a million miles from Brackett’s Mars. And before the whole world realised how good he was, Bradbury regularly appeared in the same pulps. Leigh would have credited Edgar Rice Burroughs for everything, but Burroughs lacked her poetic vision, her specific, characteristic talent and in my view her finest Martian adventure stories remain superior to all others.