Leigh Brackett’s Alpha Centauri
Alpha Centauri or Die! (Leigh Brackett’s Solar System, volume 7)
By Leigh Brackett
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.
Kirby and men like him chafe under the benign authoritarianism of the state and dream of the days when men (and such women as they chose to drag along with them) could ply the space lanes. Aware that if they wait too long, every man with knowledge of rocket piloting will die of old age, Kirby has joined a conspiracy. They will use a mothballed rocket ship in a desperate bid to reach a recently discovered habitable world orbiting Alpha Centauri.
Of course, there are unforeseen complications. Somehow, Kirby’s telepathic Martian girlfriend Shari works out what he is up to. Worse, so does the state. Shari is willing to go anywhere that her man wants to do (even if it means abandoning the home her family has lived in for ages unreckoned) but the police, in particular Kirby’s bitter former brother-in-law, are determined to put a stop to the interstellar voyage before it begins.
Escaping the Mars authorities will not be enough. The state’s reach extends across the Solar System. Worse yet, the robot ships are perfectly capable of reaching Alpha Centauri; after all, it was a robot ship that discovered the terrestrial world in that system. Because they do not need to cater to fragile humans, the robots could outpace Kirby’s ship. The voyagers find themselves en route but all too aware that their mechanical hunters may catch them long before they reach Alpha Centauri.
Even if they manage to evade pursuit, there’s a reason why the government never tried to exploit Alpha C’s habitable world. The robot scout ship found something there, something inexplicable to robot and human alike. Something whose intentions towards the colonists cannot be predicted.
Generally, Brackett doesn’t have a lot of interesting women in her stories. This novel verges on misogynistic. With the notable exception of Shari, the women in this are a dismal lot, who have ventured out into space only because their men dragged them there. They are afraid of every strange sound, and likely to betray the whole mission in the name of safety. And they’re mean to Shari.
Shari is the exception because she is in space willingly. It’s not that she cannot imagine a life without a husband; she prefers a life with Kirby. Shari plays a decisive, active role in ensuring that the expedition makes it to Alpha C. and once there, survives the encounter with its inhabitants. It seems possible that the other women are terrible so that Shari will look better by contrast — but surely an experienced writer like Brackett had better methods at her disposal.
I cannot recommend this book, but I am nonetheless glad I read it. It’s interesting as a possible influence on other authors. Many details differ, but the general shape of the plot looks very similar to Norton’s August 1954 publication, The Stars are Ours! The first half of this Brackett is a fix-up of her September 1953 “The Ark of Mars” so if there was any influence going on, it was from Brackett to Norton.
I also see hints of influence in the plot of Nourse’s 1954 Trouble on Titan, which was also published after Alpha Centauri or Die! It’s not so much that the plot is the same, as that Nourse must have realized that an off-the-shelf rocket should not be able to get to Alpha Centauri in just five years and then mulled over the implications of that fact.
Otherwise, this is an unremarkable novel about the first trip to another star, interesting for Brackett completists but otherwise not noteworthy. I think the issue was lack of space; developed in more detail, perhaps the result would have been more memorable.