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.
“Martian Quest” • (1940) • short story
Young Martin Drake struggles to prove that he’s not just an appendage of his sneering uncle, that he’s not just the weakling that the other Martian settlers believe him to be. Can he prove himself by overcoming savage mars-lizards using only Science!?
I did feel a little sorry for Drake but I suspect that his rant about his hard life:
You can judge me, you people!” he burst out at them. “You weren’t born owing your life, food, clothing and the schooling you had, to someone else. My uncle took me; I had nothing when my parents died. I’ve never had anything. Since I was old enough to talk, I’ve been paying my uncle back what I owed him.
“He had me taught chemistry, not because I liked it, but because he thought I’d be the most use to him in the laboratories.”
was not entirely convincing to the ears of fellow colonists who didn’t have reliable sources of food, clothing, or education, higher or otherwise.
Not a memorable story in any way, except for one thing: the animals that are causing so much havoc are entirely herbivorous. None of that “leaf-eaters are naturally timid” stuff for Brackett.
“The Treasure of Ptakuth” • (1940) • short story
Terry Shane is racing against Venusian adventurer Thaldrek of Ved to discover the Lost City of Ptakuth. He encounters a complication in the form of a beautiful woman claiming to be half-god, plus her fierce and loyal worshipers. Even if Shane and his rival can escape the savage Martians, can they survive a treasure that killed an entire city?
The old Martians had quite an interest in various forms of immortality and it never worked out for them. As it turns out, the people of Ptakuth stumbled over something pretty obvious:
The cyclotron fired hydrogen bullets against a screen of yttrium. Using rubidium filters, the scientists of Ptakuth generated a ray with a wonderful property; the property of making the human bloodstream radio-active with a gamma-principle. This gamma element in the blood gave a power of regeneration to the body cells, but most of all, being in itself a germ-destroying element, it made the human body immune to all disease. You can see how this would extend the life span.
I am amazed this is not available in every corner pharmacy.
Shane and Thaldrek have an Indiana Jones/Rene Belloq dynamic, in that Shane is the charismatic but careless hero with whom the reader is supposed to identify and Belloq is the one who actually bothers to do his research before heading out to do fieldwork..
“Water Pirate” • (1941) • short story
Jaffa Grey is investigating the mystery of the Water Pirate who has brought trans-solar water shipments to a halt. By a marvelous concatenation of events, he is forced into the service of the Water Pirate who has brought trans-solar water shipments to a halt. Much to Jaffa‘s surprise, he discovers that he holds the fate of an entire people in his hands!
It’s not entirely coincidental that the Water Pirate goes after Jaffa; not only does Jaffa have useful technical skills, he has significant hostage value.
One of the running themes in this book, along with “you might manage to become immortal, but if you do you will regret it,” is a strange tendency for the hero to look for non-genocidal solutions to conflicts with other civilizations. If I’ve learned anything from E. E. “Doc” Smith, it’s that such conflicts are best handled with incredibly powerful bombs or planet-obliterating collisions with carefully aimed planetoids.
The Sorcerer of Rhiannon • (1942) • novelette
Max Brandon, adventurer/archaeologist (or grave-robber/looter, if you ask the cops) uncovers one Martian treasure too many and becomes entangled in a deadly struggle between the last two representatives of two Martian cultures. The fact that both representatives are long dead, as are their cultures, should be a serious impediment for continued conflict, but the old Martians were creative. Death hasn’t slowed these two enemies down as much as you would expect.
What I like about this story is that not only does Brandon manage to use words and logic to convince the ghosts to stop fighting, he manages to snag what amounts to diplomatic immunity for himself in the process.
The Veil of Astellar • [The Asteroid Belt] • (1944) • novelette
A chance encounter causes a space vampire (or perhaps space Renfield) to repent his dreadful ways.
Old time SF writers were completely, totally unafraid of using outrageous coincidence to make the wheels on their plots spin round.
The Beast-Jewel of Mars • (1948) • novella
Burk Winters seems to be just another pitiful addict, in thrall to the mysterious thingummy the Martians call Shanga — but in truth he’s playing a deeper game, a game on which the lives of his true love and others like her depend!
Brackett’s Mars has been inhabited continuously for over a million years, giving the inhabitants more than enough time to come up with some very bad ideas. Just say no to Shanga!
The Last Days of Shandakor • (1952) • novelette
The inhabitants of lost Shandakor face what appears to be a lingering but inescapable extinction. Thanks to the efforts of the human to whom they grudgingly give refuge, what had been a drawn out process is speeded up considerably.
There may be a few of Brackett’s stories that could be summed up with “what these Martians need is a Terran!” … but this particular story isn’t one of them.
“Mars Minus Bisha” • (1954) • short story
Sensible Fraser adopts Bisha, an unfortunate Martian girl whose tribe blames her for a series of calamities. Unfortunately for Fraser, the Martians actually know what they are talking about.
One of the more important lessons of SF is “the girl always goes out the airlock.”
Earthmen might prefer to view Martians as degenerate savages, but more often than what sounds like superstition to Terrans turns out to be fact.
The Road to Sinharat • (1963) • novelette
A Terran researcher struggles to convince his colleagues that their new irrigation techniques will be a disaster. They will squander in a few short decades resources that might otherwise have lasted millennia. Luckily, Mars is old and almost everything that can happen, has happened before.
I would have guessed that this “helping people will only make their lives worse” story would have been pitched to Analog. Nope, this was first published in Amazing. I expect people living around what used to be the Aral Sea would find elements of this story very familiar.
“Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon” • (1964) • short story
Harvey Selden, an earnest liberal academic from Earth, discovers that there is a vast gap between theoretical knowledge and personal experience. He also learns the dreadful truth behind what he took to be mere native superstition.
Brackett presents a not entirely sympathetic view of well-meaning social worker types in this story. Even after he sees what he sees, Selden tries hard to rationalize it away:
Back on Earth, he went at once to his analyst. He was quite honest with him, and the analyst was able to show him exactly what had happened. The whole affair had been a sex fantasy induced by drugs, with the Priestess a mother-image. The Eye which had looked at him then and which still peered unwinking out of his recurring dreams was symbolic of the female generative principle, and the feeling of horror it aroused in him was due to the guilt complex he had because he was a latent homosexual. Selden was enormously comforted.
Not that this does him any good.
Brackett is mocking the sort of earnest social-worker type who apologizes for the behavior of previous generations. Brackett is being a little hard on poor Selden here, because many of the early visitors from Earth were just as bad as Selden paints them. Readers of previous reviews may recall one of the early Terran organizations on Mars was an outfit that reveled in its malevolence by adopting the following corporate name: Terran Exploitations Company.
Where Selden does go wrong is typically Terran: he also looks down on what he sees as native superstitions. Mars is filled to the brim with weird-ass stuff, ranging from relics of dead civilizations to intrusions from other dimensions. If a Martian claims some eldritch and horrific entity is at work, it is best to accept that at face value.
The earliest stories aren’t that well written (the chemist versus the Mars lizards is particularly dire, as is the mopey space Renfield one), but they do get better as Brackett learns her craft. That said, I wasn’t really all that keen on any of them. Even the final story is pretty unsubtle in making its point about naïve ivory tower types.
I picked this up from a publisher I don’t steer people to any longer.