Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Coming Of The Terrans

The Coming Of The Terrans, by Leigh Brackett
No month stated, 1967  Ace Books

A few years after Ace published The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman and The Sword Of Rhiannon, they published this fine collection of Leigh Brackett stories that had originally appeared in various pulp sci-fi mags. This book collects both early and later Brackett, the tales spanning from 1948 to 1963 – in fact the sole two sci-fi stories Brackett wrote in the ‘60s are collected here, and I wonder if writing them is what inspired her to go back and revise “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” and “Black Amazon of Mars” for their Ace Double expansions.

All of the stories collected in The Coming Of The Terrans have an anti-Earthman, anti-colonialism vibe, more so than any other Brackett tales I’ve yet read. The “Terrans” are either foolish interlopers, well-meaning incompetents, or rugged individualists out to help the Martians. All of them, that is, save for the hero of the first yarn, Captain Burk Winters; but then, “Beast-Jewel of Mars” has a different vibe than the other stories collected here, and is more along the lines of the sci-fi action tales of Eric John Stark. Winters is even reminiscent of Stark (who actually hadn’t been created by Brackett yet, so maybe it should be vice versa), with sun-darkened skin; however he has sun-bleached, almost white hair. This one’s my favorite tale here, mixing sci-fi, action, and even nightmarish body-horror straight out of Island Of Lost Souls.

“Beast-Jewel of Mars” is from the Winter, 1948 issue of Planet Stories (I’ll link to the Internet Archive where scans of the magazines are available for free download). This is a great opening to the anthology, and it’s prime Brackett. One thing added to this Ace anthology is a date for each story, something unstated in the original pulp versions – we’re informed that “Beast-Jewel of Mars” takes place in 1998. Good grief, in the real 1998 I was barely making a living, driving a beaten-up Volkswagen Rabbit, but damn if I don’t look back on those pre-marriage/pre-responsibility days with nostalgia. Anyway, in the 1998 of Leigh Brackett – and I wonder if the dates for each story were arbitrarily determined by Ace, and not Brackett herself – space exploration is rampant and humans have ingratiated themselved onto all the already-populated planets.

When we meet him Burk Winters is landing in the spaceport of Kahora, one of the few places on Mars where Terrans are allowed. It’s a domed city straight out of Logan’s Run, with all the comforts of home. As the tales in the collection progress, we will see how Kahora grows and prospers, but in this earliest-set tale it’s more of a waystation. Winters has come here on a mission, one for which he’s apparently given up his commission. His fiance, Jill, supposedly died in a “flier” crash in the Martian desert, but Winters suspects there was foul play, as Jill had become involved with the Martian drug Shanga – so memorably featured in “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” with a bit more detail about it in The Secret Of Sinharat. In fact, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” featured a reference to this very story, though the reference was edited out in the Ace Double expansion.

Shanga, known as “the going-back,” is a drug that makes its user regress down through the phases of evolution. Sounds horrific, but apparently it evokes feelings of euphoria in the user. Speaking of drugs, Winters enjoys calming his nerves with “Venusian cigarettes,” which we’re informed have a sedative effect. (Part of me believes – wants to believe – that noted sci-fi geek Jimi Hendrix had this paperback in his collection.) He contacts a Martian named Kor Hal who runs the local Shanga operation, but learns that the Shanga of Kahora, used only by visiting Earthmen, is a pale reflection of the real thing, which Kor Hal says was created by the people of Caer Dhu, 500,000 years ago. Readers of The Sword of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings of Mars will recall Caer Dhu was the domain of the Serpent Men, the Dhuvians, but that was a million years before…so one suspects regular ol’ Martians must’ve moved in afterwards.

Winters plunks down heavy cash and is taken by flier to Valkis, Low Canal city that’s been in other Brackett tales. Here he sees real Shanga, which the Martians don’t touch – it wiped out the people of Caer Dhu in a single generation. It’s run via giant prisms that harness celestial light or somesuch, and Winters is taken up in the “magnificent, unholy sensation” of Shanga. He regresses to beast, and then is challenged by a regal, bare-breasted woman (the Martian and Venusian women are always bare-breasted in Brackett, by the way – it’s like the eternal style on these planets). Still in beast form, “Burk,” as Brackett refers to our hero when a beast, is chased through the streets of Valkis, the angry Martians herding him up to the ruins of Old Valkis, which once loomed over the now-vanished sea. 

The Terran-hatred is strongest in this story, and thus it could use a more proactive Earthman hero. Winters though, back in normal form, is locked in an arena with other Shanga sufferers, some of them so regressed that they’re so hideous they can’t bear description. And here Winters discovers Jill, still alive, but regressed almost permanently into an almost missing link sort of thing. The Martian lady who challenged Winters is the Lady Fand, who rules Old Valkis, bringing the Terran Shanga-sufferers out each night for the amusement of the locals. Using his wiles – not to mention the unbelievable lack of security – Winters is able to sneak out, catch Fand, and put her under the Shanga lights, that night – and we see why the Martians forever swore off Shanga. Features a rushed but bloody ending in which the Shanga freaks wreak vengeance on the Martians, and Winters escapes with Jill, to alert Terran authorities – per the sidenote in “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” he was successful, and Lady Fand’s Shanga ring was crushed.

“Mars Minus Bisha” follows, and immediately we detect a different vibe. This one’s a heartbreaker, folks – who’d expect such an emotional tale from an old sci-fi pulp mag? Originally appearing in the January, 1954 issue of Planet Stories, this one lacks the action and violence of “Beast-Jewel of Mars” but makes up for it with characters you grow to care about. In earlier yarns Brackett’s protagonists were almost ciphers, but here we have Fraser, a doctor who has come here to Mars to study viruses. He’s sequestered in a Quonset hut in the desert, almost forbidden from contact with the locals. The year given in this Ace edition – but not the original story – is 2016.

One day a Martian desert woman storms up to the hut on one of those “lizardlike mounts” the Martians are always riding, and dumps off her daughter, whom she says is sick. Then the mother takes off. The child is named Bisha and she’s around seven. Gradually Fraser will learn that Bisha has affected her tribe with a sleeping sickness, reminiscent of the one in Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude, to the point that the entire tribe was in such jeopardy that the child was ordered to be put to death – the Martians having none of the “humanity” of Terrans in such matters.

But the mother instead snuck Bisha off to Fraser, hoping this strange Terran doctor might cure her…and apparently raise her, as the mom isn’t coming back. Thus begins a compelling drama between Fraser and his new charge, with Brackett subtly hitting all the right notes, like when Fraser realizes belatedly that he’s just gotten a family. Soon he’s talking to the brooding young Bisha about Earth and the home they’ll share when he takes her back with him. But then Fraser begins blacking out, going into minor comas for several hours at stretch. When he tells a local about it, the local instantly knows Bisha is with him, thus setting off a tense finale in which the two attempt to escape across the desert via “trac-car” before Bisha’s former tribesmen can stop them. Be prepared to have your heart ripped out and stomped on.

Next up is “The Last Days of Shandakor,” from the January, 1952 issue of Startling Stories.  The book gives the date as 2024. This one’s unique, at least so far as the other Brackett stories I’ve read, in that it’s in first-person. Our narrator is John Ross, a “planetary anthropologist” who knows more about Mars than most Martians do. Then one day in a Barrakesh tavern he sees a strange native in a billowing cloak with coal-black eyes – eyes like no Martian Ross has ever seen – and realizes he’s looking at a “new” Martian race. The fact that the other Martians give this dude wide berth, almost pretending he’s not there, only adds to the mystery.

The strange Martian’s name is Corin (Brackett did love her Celtic names), and he claims to be from the lost city of Shandakor, which is dying. Ross talks Corin into letting him tag along on the journey back, knowing that Corin plans to kill him – which he does, though Ross defends himself. Afterwards Corin kills himself, refusing to take a Terran into Shandakor. Ross looks for the first time at Corin’s uncovered face, and it is almost reptillian. Ross, thirsty and alone, is jumped by a pair of hulking barbarians; turns out a barbarian army has surrounded Shandakor, refusing to go inside, even though the ciy appears to be unguarded. They take Ross’s money and push him into the city, telling him the people of Shandakor are rich, with water to spare.

Ross finds a literal ghost town, populated with the usual human-type Martians and other Martians such as he’s never seen, walking around, doing business, etc. But there is absolutely no sound, and no one sees him. Brackett mentions that some of these beings have wings, and others have the snakelike features of Corin; she doesn’t elaborate, only stating these are “the lost races of Mars.” My suspicion is we are to assume the people of Shandakor are the descendants of the “Halflings” which proliferated in the time of The Sword Of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings Of Mars, and this is where they segregated themselves from the human-stock Martians who gradually took control of the planet. 

Eventually Ross learns that these “ghosts” are recordings pulled from the very stones of Shandakor, a sort of bizarre security device to keep away the superstitious barbarians. In truth Shandakor is peopled by a few thousand survivors, all of them with similar features as Corin. One of them is a “girl-child” named Duani who wants to keep Ross almost as a pet, claiming she’s never seen a real Terran before. Ross is enslaved, his job to clean the gears of the strange machine that runs the holograms. He learns about Shandakor and falls in love with Duani; this is the second tale in which a Terran protagonist plans to take a Martian girl back to Earth with him, though here it’s a different sort of love, Ross belatedly realizing how damn hot Duani is (plus her being topless all the time doesn’t hurt).

But prepare to be gutted, once again – Brackett it appears went more for emotional, poignant finales in her later yarns, and this one’s no exception. The people of Shandakor know their time is limited, and thus willingly go to the Place of Sleep, which is like a euthenasia center or something. When it’s Duani’s turn, Ross freaks and smashes the hologram machinery, so that the barbarians can come in – and a devastated Duani is glad Ross is only a human, so he will never know how horrible his actions were. Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton deemed this “the last and best” of Brackett’s Martian tales, but I disagree – it’s great and all, but I prefer the more action-centric tales.

“Purple Priestess of Mars” follows, and it really is the last of Brackett’s Martian tales, the last story she published to occur on the Red Planet. It’s from the October, 1964 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and it’s the shortest tale collected here, not to mention the most Lovecraftian. It also has a different vibe, in that the Terran “hero” is a liberal academic Brackett clearly dislikes. I read somewhere that Leigh Brackett hated liberalism (I also read somewhere online that her mid-‘70s The Book of Skaith trilogy was like an anti-liberalism diatribe), and that’s very apparent here.

For, like the typical uber-liberal, our “hero,” a government social worker named Harvey Seldon, is a sanctimonious know-nothing know-it-all, the kind of guy who thinks he knows what the Martians need more than the Martians themselves do, even though he’s never even been to Mars. This is his first time, coming into the Kahora spaceport, which we learn is now a city of eight vast domes. Also, humans have more so integrated with the Martians, the date for this story being given as 2031. Seldon even looks down on the crewmember of the transport ship that’s brought him here to Mars, but accepts the man’s offer to hang out with some real, live Martians that night. Seldon practices some positive reinforcement antics to groove himself up; Brackett really had the nascent liberal movement figured out.

That night Seldon goes out of his way to apologize for the previous Terran “exploitation” of Mars (you could even say it’s the first stop of his Martian Apology Tour), even correcting the natives that there was never any “human sacrifice” in the “mad moon” religion of yore. Despite the fact that the locals insist there was. But as we’ll recall, Seldon knows better than everyone, and insists that the legends that there was once a cult that worshipped a supposedly-lost race on Mars’s moon Phobos, referred to as Denedron by the Martians (Deimos is called “Vashna,” by the way), is all make believe courtesy the first Terrans who came to Mars, lying “adventurers” all of them.

Then he’s drugged and these Martians sneak Seldon through the streets and the desert to Jekkara, the anything-goes Low Canal city from previous Brackett joints which is still forbidden to Terrans even at this late date. Here he is thrust into a religious ceremony, given a drink that is possibly drugged, and sees a lovely native gal named Lella, wearing a silver mask like the gal on the cover painting, leading a group of worshippers. Then a demonic “eye” opens, and Seldon loses his marbles – could this “mad moon” demon really exist, and demand a regular sacrifice? The Martians take Seldon back to Kahora, claiming that this was “the only way” they could get him to see the reality of this bloodthirsty religion, which can only be found in the hills outside Jekkara; they plead with him to tell his superiors about it, so it can be stamped out and the demon destroyed. No one else has believed their story, but they figured if an actual government employee saw it for himself, something could be done.

Instead, Seldon flees back to Earth and convinces himself it was all a drug trip. As if her wit couldn’t get any more acidic, Brackett delivers a finale in which a psychoanalyst listens to Seldon’s story and tells him it was all a manifestation of his mind, the demonic eye he thought he saw merely a sign from his subconscious that he needs to accept the fact that he is a “latent homosexual.” All this is exactly what Seldon needs to hear, the supernatural explained away in a fashion he can accept, and thus he can get back to being a sanctimonious jerk. And then a letter arrives from Mars, telling him Lella awaits him at the next moon…

The final tale is “The Road To Sinharat,” from the May, 1963 issue of Amazing Stories. This one gets back to the novella length of the other tales, and also somewhat has the vibe of the more action-centric yarns. It also seems to have served Brackett with some inspiration for The Secret Of Sinharat, mostly in the details of the titular location; in that 1964 Ace expansion, we learn that a constant wind in Sinharat has the sound of ghostly screaming, something I don’t believe was mentioned in the original “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” version of the story. The year given is 2038.

We’re back to the third-person narration, and our hero is Dr. Matthew Carey, who is so reminiscent of Matt Carse of The Sword Of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings Of Mars, from the similar name to the same occupation, that you wonder why Brackett didn’t just make it the same character. Like Carse, Carey’s a rugged archeologist, very much in the Indiana Jones mold, and he’s been at it for a while, his hair getting touches of gray. When we meet him Carey’s run afoul of the United Worlds Planetary Assistance Committee, yet another Terran government body of liberal do-gooders who think they know what’s best for Mars. In this case the Committee, led by one Winthorpe, plan to use science to transform the deserts of Mars into oceans and forests. They care little that the Martians themselves do not want this to happen – the humans know better. But they want to arrest Carey on grounds that they believe he’s so stirred up the natives to the point of revolution.

Carey though recalls something like this happened in Mars’s dim past. Brackett skillfully divulges Carey’s plan as the narrative progresses, to the point that we don’t even initially know why he wants to go to mythical Sinharat, ancient abode of the Ramas, those Martians who used their own science to gain immortality. Carey evades the police (for some reason, Interpol is after him – even operating here on Mars – led by a bloodhound of an agent named Waters), and hooks up with an old tomb-raiding Martian pal named Derrech. Along with them comes Derrech’s sexy sister Arrin, who you won’t be surprised to know traipses around in that traditional Martian garb of kilt and no top – however it appears that Martian women are mostly all small-breasted, as Brackett seems to consistently use that description for them.

The action starts in Jekkara, and we get references to barbarian leader Kynon, from “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” which Brackett would soon expand as The Secret Of Sinharat. Carey refers to this as the last time Sinharat reached the public conscious, but he knows that there might be something in the Rama archives that can stop the so-called Rehabilitation Project from terraforming Mars. Carey also makes the interesting comment that he knows, from “a pretty good authority,” that there is a water well hidden in Sinharat. Could that “authority” be none other than Eric John Stark? 

So begins a journey across the Low Canals of southern Mars, heading up north to the Drylands of the barbarians of Kesh and Shun, the group travelling in a barge that’s pulled along the dried-out canals by those lizard beasts. There’s sporadic action, like when in Valkis a group of barbarians storm the barge while Derech and his crew are off in the city; they’re no doubt muscle paid for by Waters, who knows Derech is secretly transporting the fugitive Matthew Carey. But as mentioned Carey’s no wimp, and, naked, he hefts a war axe and starts screaming at them, having learned long ago how to “go Martian” and fool people into thinking he’s a Dryland barbarian. Brackett uses the phrase “go Martian” in the same connotation as “go postal,” a phrase that wouldn’t even be coined for a few more decades.

Soon Carey’s going all the way with it, wearing a leather armor kilt and harness – ie, just as depicted on Gray Morrow’s great cover art, which you might have noticed from my overlong writeup actually depicts characters and incidents from the book, which is cool. When Carey and friends arrive in Sinharat, they find the warriors of Kesh and Shun surrounding the place, and Interpol agent Waters hiding within the city – Waters having guessed where Carey was headed. But Brackett doesn’t give us a bloodthirsty finale, instead having our heroes trick their way into Sinharat, and Carey finding the material he wants, visually recorded on ancient Rama technology.

Instead, the finale is more on the lines of drama, with Carey presenting the recordings to the Committee, he and his comrades having been safely flown out of Sinharat before the barbarians could close in. Here we get the humorous note that a Committee translator speaks in Esperanto! Well, I guess that seemed “futuristic” in 1963. But we see that the Ramas tried to terraform Mars long in the past, only with disastrous results – to the point that the Committee determines that they will not in fact bring water to the Martians. Thus, revolution is averted.

Brackett’s writing throughout is strong as ever: concise, evocative, and poetic. Special mention must be made of her brief Preface, in which she discusses how science has now confirmed that there is not and has never been life on Mars – but she still vouches for the truth of these stories. “After all, I was there.” But I have to say, it would be a damn shame if this is why Brackett’s work fell out of favor, and was out of print for so long – who cares if there isn’t life on Mars, or any of the other planets in the solar system? That doesn’t detract from the enjoyment value of Brackett’s work; the stories collected here are the very definition of escapism. And I think Leigh Brackett has become my new favorite writer.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

I remember the Coming of the Terrans as a decent anthology. Brackett's best collection was, well, The Best of Leigh Brackett. Another good collection is The Halfling. The title story is about an interplanetary circus and has a real noir vibe to it.

Brackett's Skaith Trilogy certainly takes shots at liberals but it is mostly an action-adventure story. The third book runs low on steam though. Brackett was certainly on the right but one of her stories in The Halfling is pretty searing attack on racism and segregation.

If you want something similar you might want to try C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories. Smith may have been an inspiration for Han Solo, though the stories have more in common with Lovecraft than Star Wars.