1963’s Alpha Centauri or Die! brings this series of reviews to an end. Sadly, this fix-up of 1953’s “The Ark of Mars” and 1954’s “Teleportress of Alpha C” is not very good and not all that representative of Brackett’s work.
Tired of the endless cycles of war, the governments of the Solar System have united into one system-wide repressive regime. Every reasonable need is filled, every detail of life closely regimented, and all space travel by humans, halflings, and other intelligent beings is completely forbidden. Silent robot ships provide the trade on which civilization depends. Citizens are supposed to remain in their designated districts and be grateful for what the State allows them.
Not everyone is happy with this arrangement. Former rocket man Kirby, for example.
This collection of Leigh Brackett short stories finally moves out past Mars, into and beyond the Asteroid Belt! It also provides a nice lesson in why I should look over omnibuses carefully before beginning a review series: it would have worked better to ignore the organization of the omnibus and simply review each novel on its own and then write one huge review covering all the short stories. There are only five short stories in this collection, all published between 1941 and 1950, and they’re all fairly slight.
There’s certain measurable chance that the title for this review will be “still stuck on Mars.” To be perfectly frank, I just don’t get the obsession with Mars, not when the Solar System is filled with bodies just as interesting. Leigh Brackett was certainly interested in Mars. This collection of short stories, Martian Quest, is drawn from the many stories she published over her long writing career.
Old-timey planetary romance authors sure loved them some Mars. Not the Mars of science, but the slowly dying Mars of fiction: crisscrossed with ancient canals and full of strange relics and degenerate remnants of once-great civilizations. 1944’s Shadow Over Mars takes us to one of those Old Marses, where we join Earthman Rick Urquhart as he flees through the streets of Ruh, trying to escape the ruthless press gangs of the Terran Exploitations Company.
1949’s Sea-Kings of Mars (also published under the title Sword of Rhiannon) takes us the world most frequently featured in Brackett’s Solar System: the red planet of Mars. In this novel, Mars is an ancient, worn-out world, its peoples and cultures much reduced from their heyday a million years ago. The novel’s protagonist, Matthew Carse, is also much reduced, having fallen from the lofty status of archaeologist to that of criminal. As the book opens, he is merely one of the many disreputable characters lurking in the streets of the Martian city of Jekkara.
In Brackett’s version of the Solar System, Venus, the second world out from the Sun, is not the hellworld scientists now know it to be. Brackett’s Venus, while hostile to human life, is home to a wildly diverse assortment of life forms. Maybe too diverse from the point of view of desperate Terrans and Martians hoping to find new homes on an eternally shrouded, fervid swamp world. As a general rule, if something isn’t trying to eat you on Venus, it’s trying to run you through with a spear.
Brackett’s Mercury is a world sun-baked on its eternally sunward side and frozen on its eternally shadowed side. It is a world isolated from the rest of the Solar System by fierce geomagnetic storms. Most of the planet is uninhabitable, but there are tiny pockets of habitability in the deep valleys of the twilight zone, islands of life where desperate people can hope for riches or at least refuge.
What they will probably find, of course, is death.