[EDITOR’S NOTE: Guest reviewer Fred Kiesche is the one of the bloggers extraordinaire at Texas Best Grok]
REVIEW SUMMARY: Space opera from the Golden Age of science fiction at its best!
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Two shorter installments (both expanded from even shorter original appearances) in the saga of Eric John Stark, rogue, mercenary, thief, and man of honor. Stark gets caught up in two wars fought among the tribes Mars; trying to prevent a war from spreading in the first and trying to restore a friend’s honor in the second.
PROS: Leigh Brackett, who not only turned out endless reams of foolscap that were turned into endless pages of pulp did turn out the occasional jewel. The tales of Eric John Stark are among them. Dead sea-bottoms, exotic women, decaying cities, strange artifacts…all that and more!
CONS: The cover art is somewhat crude, especially when compared to the beautiful cover on the recent publication of Loreli of the Red Mists by Brackett. This might turn off part of the audience that would read such a classic.
BOTTOM LINE: When you get through this one and find yourself enchanted with these tales of Old Mars, you’ll probably want to seek out more of Brackett’s tales. Lucky for you, we seem to be in a bit of a Brackett revival so take a look at Haffner Press and their high-quality small-press hardcovers covering Brackett’s early works (if you don’t mind the price) or Baen Books‘ bargain bundle of electronic books (which contains these two tales and others).
The volume is made up of two tales of Eric John Stark and is part of Paizo’s Planet Stories ongoing revival of classic pulp from the Golden Age. Stark was raised as a wild child in the twilight belt of Mercury. Many of his adventures take place on Mars, among the dry sea bottoms and ruined cities where Stark is caught up in wars, treasure searches, freedom fights and other events; eventually in books such as The Ginger Star, he moves out of our solar system.
Leigh Brackett churned out a lot of works for the various pulp shops such as Planet Stories, Weird Tales, Astounding Science Fiction and others. Many of these are interchangeable either in terms of plot or in terms of genre (you could easily set the basic plot in a space opera or a horse opera). Some efforts in detective fiction led to her being hired by Howard Hawks (who, famously, wanted “this guy Brackett”) to help on The Big Sleep, launching her on a parallel writing career which eventually led to her working on The Empire Strikes Back (the best of the Star Wars films, in my own humble opinion). Her career moved between written fiction and filmed fiction for the rest of her life.
(As a side note, like another famous science fiction couple from the Golden Age – C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner – Brackett was married to Edmond “World Wrecker” Hamilton. Unlike Moore and Kuttner, I am not sure if Brackett and Hamilton ever worked so closely on stories together that it became difficult to determine where one’s efforts ended and the other’s efforts started, but their marriage also resulted in one good crossover tale when Eric John Stark ends up in the universe of the Star Kings, in Stark and the Star Kings.)
In the first story, The Secret of Sinharat, Stark gets involved in a revolution of the various Martian tribes against the oppressors of the solar system. One of the revolutionaries claims to have discovered an ancient device that allows one to transfer your essence into a new body and offers to share this in return for the support of the masses (what happens when they run out of fresh young bodies to transfer to is not really touched upon!). Muddying the picture are a trio of mysterious strangers who are much more than they seem to be.
In the second story, The People of the Talisman, Stark is traveling to the northern polar region of Mars in order to help a exiled comrade back to his home city before he dies. It turns out that the comrade stole an artifact from the city and wishes to restore it. Stark takes up his burden, encounters a large raiding party lead by a mysterious champion that plans to attack the city, and in the process of escaping from them, nearly loses his life. He makes it to the city where his warnings are disbelieved, except by members of the lower class. When the attack comes, he leads the survivors in a desperate search past the Gates of Death to try and find the mysterious power that will turn back the attack.
These are tales from the Golden Age. Every planet was inhabitable in the stories that Brackett wrote; even asteroids could possess a breathable atmosphere. Every planet also had aliens that were very human (Star Trek did not invent inter-species mating!). Two-fisted, hard-bitten spacemen, burned black by the Sun under the alien skies, wore their worn leathers easily, blasters at the side, watching for treasure or trouble.
Mars is clearly derived from the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, just as Ray Bradbury took the atmosphere from both Burroughs and Brackett and even two that helped to shape the New Wave dipped their toes into this literary tradition: Michael Moorcock in his tales of Kane of Old Mars and Roger Zelazny in his excellent short work “A Rose For Ecclesiastes”. Substitute Mars for the Middle East or the American West and you get the idea. All of this has been superseded by what “reality”. But…ignore all of that…
Ignore the fact that we can’t breathe on Mars, that there are no ruins and mysterious artifacts. That Mars isn’t warm enough for beautiful alien women to go around half-dressed. That lizard-like riding beasts carry you into battle against the dwellers from the low canals. Brackett, despite turning out “pulp” excels at description. She excels at pace, and at plot. These are brief tales, but you will be carried away to a wonderous place. Both these tales are examples of how good storytelling and timeless characters can overcome obsolete “facts” and settings. Highly recommended!