Monday, February 25, 2013

The Amazing Leigh Brackett

I'll admit it: I'm calling Leigh Brackett "amazing" on the strength of half of one novel, The Ginger Star. I cannot put it down. Knowing my fondness for the "sword and planet" and "dying earth" sub-genres, Andrew at Pulp Fiction recommended Brackett's novels about Eric John Stark. I picked up The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith and The Reavers of Skaith from Paizo's Planet Stories Library, and I have, overnight, become a huge Leigh Brackett fan.

As for The Ginger Star, it has been a wild ride. Yesterday was one of those lazy Sundays where you wake up, start to read, and then realize it's time for bed. All day, I was enthralled with the fast-paced yet subtly philosophical adventures of Stark, who, despite being raised (Tarzan-like) by primitive aliens, is one of the more human heroes of swords & sorcery. I've always enjoyed the blending of sci-fi and fantasy, and this is a great example of it (Stark arrives on the planet Skaith via spaceship; it has a spaceport; outside of the main city, though, it's essentially a medieval fantasy world). A junta that controls the world won't let anyone emigrate off of it; Stark becomes embroiled in a revolution on Skaith, as the subject of a prophecy of a "dark man" who will "open the star-roads." Interestingly, the hero, Stark, has brown skin, which illustrators mostly ignored back in the old days when his adventures were first published. He originally adventured in our own solar system; in the 1970s, Brackett transported him to Skaith, returning to speculative fiction after a long time punching up noteworthy screenplays. 

The more I learn about Brackett, the more I like her. If anyone wants to have flat-out fun while reading, I don't think it gets much better. I guess I'll withhold final judgment until I read more of her books, but right now I have a pretty strong literary crush going.

I was surprised to learn how strong the influence of women has been on speculative fiction from the very beginning. Many were not obviously women, using male pseudonyms, or initials (like C.L. Moore, who I'll write about later). Leigh Brackett just happened to have a unisex name, and most readers thought she was a man. She was equally well known for writing hard-boiled mysteries and detective fiction. Her writing is what I call "rat-a-tat-tat;" it speeds along and doesn't waste words but has an aggressive poetic rhythm to it that begs to be read aloud. I've read that Brackett was known for bringing a more action-packed, breezy style derived from pulp crime stories into the sci-fi/fantasy genre.

Paizo proudly bills these novels on the covers as "by the author of The Empire Strikes Back," but if you read the wikipedia article I linked to above, you'll see that's not exactly true. However, reading her novels, her influence on George Lucas - an avowed fan, who writes the intro to one of the Skaith novels - is clearly evident. 

All in all, Brackett (so far) gives me a nice feeling of familiarity while I'm reading: I feel like I've been gaming these stories - or ones a lot like them, in similar settings - for 25 years. I read her with a sense of admiration and validation. In other words, it has a "yeah, that!" quality.

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