Forgotten Queen of Mars

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series is a brilliant guide to the genre for confused outsiders, and plays an important role in resurrecting long-time out of print classics for a new generation. But I begin to wonder whether it hasn’t begun to get just a little sloppy. A while back I purchased a second-hand copy of their epic 800 page anthology of Rudyard Kipling’s fantasy and horror stories for grown-ups. It’s a pretty decent collection – racist and pro-imperialist in places, of course, but that’s because Kipling’s Indian fiction concerns itself primarily wih the British colonial authorities in India as opposed to the locals, and funnily enough the administrators of imperial colonies tend to a) be kind of pro-colonial and pro-imperialism in their views and b) have little-to-know understanding of the culture they are dealing with, and as a result tend to be a little afraid of it.

No, the big problem with The Mark of the Beast isn’t that Kipling’s political views were sometimes unpleasant – as Neil Gaiman points out in the introduction, if we refused to read books by people we didn’t agree with we’d be poorer people – it’s that the editing stinks. Stephen Jones, who appears to have become the curator of Fantasy Masterworks, really isn’t very good at it. A frankly ridiculous number of glaring typos have been allowed to slip through (I don’t think there was a single story which didn’t have a few), and his maddening tendency to append uninsightful biographical essays (which tend to contain little that can’t be found out from a quick glance at wikipedia) to the end of the anthologies he edits is allowed full reign in the Kipling volume; why waste pages which could be used to fit in one more story? These faults – the typos in particular – make The Mark of the Beast seem less like a definitive collection of Kipling’s supernatural fiction and more like a cheap knock-off, like the bootlegs that circulated in Kipling’s day.

It breaks my heart, then, to see Jones making the same mistakes – although to a lesser extent – with Sea-Kings of Mars, a compilation of the best science fantasy short stories and novellas by Leigh Brackett. In the 1940s Brackett was one of the first female authors, along with C.L. Moore, to write fantasy and science fiction for the pulp magazines, at a time when SF was considered to be the preserve of men. Whereas Moore tackled the conventions of the genre by creating Jirel of Joiry, a sword and sorcery heroine (who tended to wear perfectly sensible armour, to boot) who could kick ass with the best of them, Brackett took a different approach: she simply wrote the same sort of story as the men did, stories about rugged heroes who defy the odds to win the day, and doing it better than many of her contemporaries and influences.

In fact, in doing so she went a long way to defining her own genre, referred to as “planetary romance”. (That’s romance as in chivalric romance, not romance as in bodice-ripping.) Brackett’s stories usually revolve around a physically and mentally strong (although ethically troubled) male protagonist, who ends up finding some weird little enclave tucked away on some planet in the Solar System (just about all of which have their own native pseudohuman inhabitants) and getting into trouble. This trouble will usually (but not always) involve a strange remnant of the planet’s impossibly distant past surviving to the modern day to make mischief (if it’s set in the deserts of the dried-out husk of a planet which is Mars, this is a nigh-certainty). There will usually be a hissingly evil villain which the reader is inspired to hate. Sometimes this villain will be female; in these cases, the hero will almost always fall in love with them, or at least have to suffer a seduction attempt. (OK, so perhaps there is a certain dimension of bodice-ripping).

This formula proves surprisingly versatile, and allows Brackett to occasionally explore ideas which are actually quite highbrow for pulp adventure fiction. For example, Eric John Stark is the protagonist of three of the stories in this collection, and is an Earthman who was raised by the natives of Mercury. He is black, almost uniquely for sword and sorcery heroes in the 1940s – but he’s black as a result of the searing, burning sun of Mercury, and as a result his actual ethnicity is completely unknown. This might have been a clever dodge on the part of Brackett to slip a black protagonist past her editors, but I prefer to interpret it as a deliberate point she’s trying to make about culture and ethnicity and how race is a socially-constructed concept: in the future she depicts, people from Earth are just people from Earth, and racial tensions tend to exist along planetary lines, so while in this future culture Eric’s ethnicity isn’t especially relevant, his cultural upbringing amongst the nomads of Mercury makes him an outsider, regarded as a backwater savage by others (mainly villains). What’s more, his personal history – he becomes a guerilla warrior in the name of native populations all over the Solar System after his tribe is exterminated by the corporate forces of Terra-Venus Metals (and isn’t that a decidely cyberpunk concept for an author writing in 1949 to come up with?) – places him as a hero of independence and self-determination fighting both colonial powers and the opportunistic tyrants who would use the native populace’s desire for freedom to enslave them.

They’re smart, they’re exciting, they’re well-written and they prove that, at her best, Leigh Brackett could beat the likes of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith or Fritz Leiber at their own game. They deserve the best treatment possible (they deserve to be constantly in print, and it’s a crying shame that they fell out-of-print in the first place). It’s completely unacceptable, then, that Jones has allowed glaring typos to creep through in this volume as well. (Even more irritatingly, this time his biographical essay – we’re not interested, Stephen – repeats almost verbatim details that Brackett’s own introduction (written in 1969, presumably for a different anthology or something) provides. Pull yourself together and edit, Stephen.)

This flaw aside, Sea-Kings of Mars is a long-overdue return to print for these classic stories and short novels. Most people only know Leigh Brackett’s work through the screenplays she wrote – including The Big Sleep and the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, which unfortunately was her last work, but she deserves better than that. And she deserves better editors than Stephen Jones.

2 thoughts on “Forgotten Queen of Mars

  1. Pingback: An Anthology Series So Good Even Stephen Jones Can’t Ruin It – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: Dissecting Lovecraft Part 8: Supernatural Horror In Biography – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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