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Leigh Brackett’s Venus

The Swamps of Venus  (Leigh Brackett’s Solar System, volume 2)

By Leigh Brackett 

9 Apr, 2015

Leigh Brackett's Solar System


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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.

Unless otherwise indicated, all of the stories in this are by Leigh Brackett alone.

The Stellar Legion” • (1940) • short story

The Legion (like the French Foreign Legion, but interplanetary: the scum of many worlds) struggles daily against the aggrieved natives of Venus. The reptilian Nahali in particular are in no way happy to see Terrans, Martians, and others colonizing Venus. Close to being overwhelmed by a Nahali horde, an isolated fort dispatches a desperate scouting mission. 

But one of the men is a double-agent working for the Nahali.…

While Commandant Lehn seems solid enough, the rest of his scouting team are best described as the scum of many worlds” referenced above: McIan is a disgraced officer, whose mistakes killed thousands of his soldiers; Theckla is a simple murderer; Bhak strangles anyone who laughs at his offers of friendship or romance. One of the four is also a traitor to the Legion, but his motivation is more tragic than venal. Indeed, Brackett makes all of her damaged characters somewhat sympathetic, (even serial-killer Bhak is as pathetic as he is malevolent). At the same time, she makes it clear these aren’t good people serving a great cause. 

Although Brackett’s Solar System is consistent-ish, Brackett isn’t fanatical about not contradicting earlier stories. Unlike the System described in the Mercury stories, this volume’s Solar System includes bodies beyond the asteroid belt that are both accessible and inhabited. 

The plot depends on one of the peculiarities of the Nahali metabolism. They break water into O2 and H2, then metabolize the O2 while treating H2 as a waste product. That raises interesting questions about Venusian ecology and biochemistry; what possible reaction could they be using that that liberates more energy than it uses?

Interplanetary Reporter” • (1941) • short story

Embittered interplanetary war correspondent Chris Barton finds new purpose in life when he discovers that there is a lot more behind the Venus-Jupiter War than simple rivalry between two irreconcilable worlds. Whether he can stay alive long enough to share what he learned is an open question.

While Barton is a grumpy, jaded idealist, the various great powers — Venus, Jupiter, one I won’t mention — are portrayed as acting purely out of pride and self-interest. 

The Dragon-Queen of Venus” • (1941) • short story

Two men struggle desperately to save their settlement from furious natives.

Once again the author bases her plot on the same implausible biochemistry found in the Nahali. The natives use a variety of living weapons; among them is a dehydrating organism that cracks any water it encounters into oxygen and hydrogen.

While all the protagonists are men, there are more women with agency in this collection than in the last one. In this story, the powerful woman is a ferocious and cunning warlord, the Dragon-Queen of the title.

Citadel of Lost Ships •(1943) • novelette

Career criminal Roy Campbell discovers that the Kraylen, the Venusian tribe who offered him refuge, are slated to be cast into camps so that their land can be expropriated and exploited by the colonial authorities. He knows of one group who might offer the Kraylen a refuge: the migratory city of outcasts and refugees known as the Romany! But in a Solar System increasingly under the control of a few jealous Great Powers, the Romany, long the last hope of the weak and the small, may itself be a doomed relic of the anarchic past.

Terror Out of Space • (1944) • novelette

What dreadful secret lies behind the Presence that drives! men! mad!?

A failed-first-contact scenario, more or less. Not much overt malice here, just a set of unfortunate circumstances.

The Vanishing Venusians • (1945) • novelette

A community of desperate Terrans embraces Venus as their new home, only to discover there is no place on Venus that does not already have current owners who do not exactly welcome ragtag colonists from another world. One final refuge offers itself … if the current inhabitants can somehow be removed.

One of the essential characteristics of Brackett’s Solar System is that any place that can be inhabited, already is. Some authors might try for an Old West Without Those Darn Natives to Ruin the Fun angle but not Brackett. While it’s true that the colonists’ … ah … final solution for the beings who are in their way isn’t quite as overtly malevolent as a cavalry massacre or a forced march into desolation, it still doesn’t leave the natives any less dead.

The title of this story is a reference to the 1925 silent film The Vanishing American. The film examined relations between American Indians and the whites who had conquered the West. It did not present a sympathetic view of the whites. 

Peaceful immigration” doesn’t seem to be a thing in Brackett’s Solar System. Or even peaceful coexistence. Granted, it wasn’t really a thing in the 1940s; not only had the US largely closed its borders to immigration a generation earlier, it was in the midst of rounding up Americans deemed insufficiently white and summarily ejecting them. Or just sticking them in camps. Not to mention there was a certain level of unpleasantness going on in the Old World at this time.

Lorelei of the Red Mist • (1946) • novella by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury

Hugh Starke’s flight from justice takes him across the mysterious Mountains of White Cloud and ends in a flyer wreck that leaves his body broken and dying. This would have been the end of Starke if a Venusian sorceress hadn’t found a use for a human mind in a broken body. She will place this mind in a healthy but mindless body, a body she fully intends to use as her cat’s paw in a deadly three-sided battle.

But the late Hugh Starke has his own agenda.…

The fellow whose body Hugh gets to inhabit is a giant barbarian named Conan. Conan isn’t all that uncommon a name, but I rather suspect that the choice of name was a deliberate reference to a certain famous Cimmerian as written by fellow Weird Tales alum Robert E. Howard. 

The Moon that Vanished • (1948) • novelette

A brush with the Moonfire, the secret power that lurks in the wilds of Venus, leaves David Heath a broken man. The forbidden knowledge he has gained makes him a target for the murderous Children of the Moon. Health is reluctantly coerced into playing guide for two Venusians determined to reach the Moonfire, even though he knows that a second encounter with the Moonfire may bring godhood. Or death!


I feel that I am not using a sufficient number of exclamation marks in these reviews. Brackett’s Venusian setting and narrative veer between intense depression and forests of !!!!, without too much in between.

While Brackett’s Solar System is friendlier to terrestrial life than the real-life one we know today, it isn’t that friendly. Once you get off Earth, the choice are the tiny oases of Mercury, the lethal jungles of Venus, and (educated guess, as I haven’t read that volume yet) the arid deserts of Mars. No idea what is beyond the Asteroid Belt, although Jupiter and Titan both seem to be inhabited. All in all, Terrans are probably better off on Earth — or they would be if Earth itself didn’t seem to be run by rival oligarchs with no concern for the little guy.

I couldn’t say where you could acquire this particular volume but I would imagine that older Brackett collections are available on ABE Books. Or Bookfinder.