James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Leigh Brackett’s Mercury

Mercury’s Light  (Leigh Brackett’s Solar System, book 1)

By Leigh Brackett 

2 Apr, 2015

Leigh Brackett's Solar System

0 comments

Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

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.


The Demons of Darkside” • (1941) • short story

Fugitive Barry Garth’s only hope to clear himself and his beloved Alice Webster of murder charges is to track down the state’s main witness, Wilsey Stevens, and force him to admit that he framed the two lovers. Garth had better be quick because while he managed to go on the lam, Alice was not so lucky; she was arrested, tried, convicted, and faces the death penalty in just three weeks. When word comes that Stevens has crash-landed on Mercury’s Darkside, Garth commandeers a handy ship and heads out to Mercury to confront the rascally villain!

The only problem is, lots of people have landed on Darkside but none of them have ever returned. And the reason for that is waiting for Garth.

It’s interesting to see that the only way to clear my name of this felony for which I have been wrongfully convicted is to commit a string of felonies which probably carry fairly impressive sentences” has been a perennial authorial favorite for over seventy years. We also note the familiar there’s no way a court system could possibly doubt a confession that was beaten out of their star witness!” [1] angle, and the ever-popular luckily, this minor supporting character can provide the proof Plan A probably would have failed to provide.” The classics are always fun.

As it turns out, Garth’s plan is pretty stupid but it’s also mostly irrelevant, thanks to what happens on the Darkside of Mercury. 

A World Is Born” • (1941) • short story

An embittered Mel Gray has been unjustly jailed and sentenced to do time on Mercury. His faith in humanity has been shattered by years of war, as well as by the abuses veterans like him faced after the war ended. He is offered a chance to escape. His defection will doom the Moulton Project (which is aimed at creating a place for the myriad of men left unemployed and then jailed after the War) but Gray is okay with that. One lesson the War taught him is every man for himself.” But he cannot be sure that he can trust Caron of Mars, the grasping, amoral plutocrat who is behind the plot to prevent Mercury from becoming a full, productive member of the League of Worlds. 

And then there’s the matter of project head Moulton’s beautiful and idealistic-without-being soft-headed daughter Jill.…

The first story in this collection involved a couple who were wrongfully convicted of a crime that at least had occurred, even if they didn’t do it. In this story, we discover that the prisons are filled with veterans, because tossing the vets into jail was an easy way to consign the unemployed veterans to oblivion. 

Although Brackett isn’t particularly obsessive about scientific verisimilitude, it is interesting that the method she proposes for generating power on Mercury — wrapping the planet in conductors and letting the interaction between the wires and the magnetic field through which Mercury orbits generate current — is one that has been proposed for some of Jupiter’s innermost moons.

Cube from Space • (1942) • novelette

Red, a lifelong criminal who has known nothing but abuse and exploitation since he was born and then abandoned on a tramp freighter, is fleeing from the agents of the law — into the deadly asteroid belt and beyond, into the powerful gravity field of Jupiter itself! Only the chance that places a drifting alien ship in his path saves him from certain doom.

Unfortunately for poor Red, the ship is the last refuge of the imperialistic and cruel Rakshi, highly advanced aliens who see in Red a guide who can take them to some refuge in the Solar System. There the Rakshi can rebuild, recover, and expand to conquer an unsuspecting Solar System. 

And then there’s the dame, the first person to treat Red as though he was a person.…

In Brackett’s Solar System, the habitable worlds of the Solar System (Mercury aside) each have native human races, as well as other kinds of thinking beings. Apparently convergent evolution works very effectively in this universe, because the various humans seem to be interfertile, despite having evolved separately. 

Other stellar systems also have their own, native, human races. Colonization is usually a zero-sum game in this setting. 

An interesting minor point: the Rakshi have a human prisoner, the man who drove them out of the last system they tried to invade. Since the prisoner’s name is Crom and given that someone named Conan turned up in the Venus book [2], I wonder if Brackett was making deliberate references to Howard. Perhaps it’s just a meaningless coincidence. 

Shannach • The Last • (1952) • novella

A hapless sun-stone prospector discovers that the isolated valley in which he has been prospecting is not uninhabited (as he had assumed). It has been home to a small community of humans, descendents of castaways trapped on Mercury, for three centuries. It’s bad enough that he found the locals; what turns out to be much worse is that they discover him.

The original population included convicts sent as labourers, convicts who took advantage of the crash landing to take control. A pocket kingdom of slaves ruled over by cruel masters would be bad enough but as it turns out the masters are not in fact the rulers. The entity that is truly in charge is far scarier than any human could be.

This story has a romantic hypotenuse who is utterly and completely doomed, even more utterly than is usual for doomed romantic hypotenuses.

~oOo~

Brackett’s women are never totally helpless but they’re also never the protagonists, at least not in this collection. In this collection, they spend an awful lot of time being used as hostages, often by the protagonist.

It’s impossible to miss the influence of detective stories on the works in this collection. The background is exotic, but most of the characters would be comfortable on the pages of Black Mask. Brackett seems to be particularly fond of antiheroes who would prefer to look out for number one if only their hearts would let them do so. 

In at least one of these stories, suddenly embracing the cause of good probably gets the character killed, so it’s not as if putting on a white hat guarantees survival. 

Mercury’s Light can be acquired here.

1: Granted, beating confessions out of people was acceptable practice for the cops at the time this story was written.

2: I read the books in the wrong order.