Visions of Paradise

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Leigh Brackett

One of the staples of the science fiction and fantasy genres is sword-and-sorcery. Its swashbuckling characters race through frenzied plots which are often little more than an endless series of colorful adventures, daring rescues, and exciting sword fights. This sub-genre's major influences include Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels, Robert E. Howard's tales of Conan the Barbarian, C.S. Forrester's Horatio Hornblower novels, and Leigh Brackett's tales of Eric John Stark.

Although Leigh Brackett's first genre publication was in Astounding Stories in 1940, she soon switched to Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, two publications where her exciting “science fantasies” were a more natural fit. In 1949 she began her colorful Eric John Stark series set on fantastic versions of Mars and Venus similar to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ images of those planets. Her original novellas, such as The Secret of Sinharat, Enchantress of Venus, and People of the Talisman were colorful adventures much more literate than anything written by Burroughs. Brackett was also a master of imagery, immersing the reader in the feel of exotic, wondrous worlds. When she resumed the series in 1974, scientific plausibility made it impossible to continue it on those same two planets. Instead she set The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, and The Reavers of Skaith on the imaginary planet Skaith.

Leigh Brackett was a major influence on at least two other important science fiction writers. In 1941 she met the young Ray Bradbury. She soon became his advisor and teacher, helping him immensely in his fledgling writing career. In 1946 their collaborative story, "Lorelei of the Red Mist," was published in Planet Stories, one of the finest stories ever published in that magazine. It has since been reprinted in The Best of Planet Stories, edited by Brackett in 1975.

In 1946 Brackett married science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton, which influenced both their writing. One tangible result was that Hamilton expanded The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman into novels which were published together in one volume as Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars.

Perhaps Brackett’s best works were published in the late 1940s and early 1950s when she released her most successful novels, the space opera The Sword of Rhiannon, and the optimistic post-holocaust novel The Long Tomorrow. Much of her best short fiction was published in The Best of Leigh Brackett in 1977.

However, by the mid-1950s Leigh Brackett became a victim of her own versatility. Her first published novel had been a hard-boiled detective novel No Good From A Corpse, published in 1943. It led to a screenwriting role, which became her major writing career for the next twenty-five years. She authored or co-authored screenplays for such acclaimed movies as The Big Sleep (1946 with William Faulkner), Rio Bravo (1958), Hatari! (1962), The Long Goodbye (1973), and The Empire Strikes Back (1979). By 1955 Brackett’s screenwriting commitments took up so much of her writing time that she did little science fiction afterwards, until she returned to Eric John Stark in the 1970s.

Leigh Brackett was one of the most multi-talented writers to work in the science fiction genre. She wrote successful space operas, swashbucklers, detective novels, screenplays, even a western novel. Her death in 1978 was a stunning blow and a major loss for the genre. A major retrospective of her finest work is long overdue from one of the sf specialty publishers.


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