Thursday, December 5, 2019

Alpha Centauri Or Die!

Alpha Centauri Or Die!, by Leigh Brackett
No month stated, 1964  Ace Books

Here we have another Leigh Brackett novel which started life in the pulps, a decade before; Alpha Centauri Or Die! collects “The Ark Of Mars” (Planet Stories, September 1953) and “The Teleportress Of Alpha C” (Planet Stories, Winter 1954-1955), Brackett presumably tinkering with the narrative to make the two stories into one longish tale. I have the original pulp stories but haven’t read them – I glanced through them, though, and found that for the most part they were basically the same as what’s printed in this paperback. In other words, Brackett didn’t weld together two unrelated stories; the two Planet Stories novellas did indeed feature the same characters in a continnuing storyline.

In this regard Kirby, the ruggedly virile protagonist of Alpha Centauri Or Die! is similar to Brackett’s more famous creation Eric John Stark in that he was a recurring character. However, Kirby’s era appears to be much further in the future than Stark’s. While this tale occurs in Brackett’s familiar populated solar system, with ancient Martians and whatnot, it’s later in the chronology than the Stark yarns, and more in the timeline of the latter stories collected in The Coming Of The Terrans. We know this because “Earthmen” have not only pretty much taken over Mars in this novel, with the frontier-esque outposts of Stark’s time now bustling hive cities, but also because the same overbearing galactic government is here, as seen in very early Brackett stories like “Child Of The Sun.”

Whereas the Stark-era stories feature an almost Wild West Mars and Venus, in that rugged individualists can strike out for themselves in alien territory, the era of Alpha Centauri Or Die! is well after these individualists have been replaced by a totalitarian gloablist government which has straightjacketed man’s individualism and liberty – like her contemporary George Orwell, Brackett seemed to understand the unfortunate direction Western society was headed in. The government of this novel’s setting has so curtailed man’s freedoms that space travel is banned, only robot spaceships allowed to travel the stars.

The book clearly shows its age with this resentment toward automation. Kirby at one point rails at all the things man has become reliant upon – including even time-setting ovens – and his sentiments are hard to understand in our modern era. I mean you wonder what this guy would have to say about smart phones. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t read Brackett or any other vintage sci-fi to judge what the author got right or wrong about the future, I just want to be entertained by the story, but in this regard Alpha Centauri Or Die! certainly seems like the product of an earlier time: the hunter-killer robot ship which is ultimately sent against Kirby and crew is seen as an almost supernatural force, mostly because it can pilot itself.

Kirby’s similar to most other Brackett protagonists in that he’s a brawny, taciturn individualist who just wants to forge his own way. But he’s different in one key element: he’s already married. His wife is Shari, a Martian native who unfortunately is only minimally described; we know she’s pretty, at least, and early in the book she’s topless, “per the Martian way.” Otherwise I believe we learn she has black hair, but that’s it. Brackett’s usually-rich word painting is toned down here, meaning that the novel lacks the typical memorable images of prime Brackett. But by the same token, the novel itself lacks the memorable setpieces of prime Brackett, coming off as rather low-key in the entertainment area as well – though thankfully it’s nowhere as dire as The Ginger Star.

The first half of the novel (ie the first novella) goes a bit into Kirby’s past: he was born on Earth, raised on Mars, and had a previous wife who must’ve been a miserable shrew. She’s dead now and Kirby appears to be much better for it. We never learn how old he is exactly, but he’s old enough to remember a time when there were still human spaceship pilots. But now all those pilots are too old to fly, and Kirby is literally the only guy on Mars who still could take a shot at flying a rocketship into space. We meet him as he and a colleague have stolen some gear from the factory in which they work – a factory near Kahora, a recurring port ciy in Brackett’s Mars – and head home, knowing they’ve crossed the line into full-on rebellion.

Brackett plays it out via the narrative instead of info-dumping at the start, but long story short, Kirby and some fellow individualists have managed to get hold of a ship and they are going to fly it, illegally, all the way to Alpha Centauri, where they’ve learned there’s a habitable planet. There they plan to live out their lives free of the yoke of the government. Oh, and none of the other guys have told their wives and kids – they’re just going to bring them along at the last minute! For a six-year journey in space!

So clearly the setup is hard to buy. But as mentioned Brackett just relays the info to us so that we learn it as the other characters do. Even Shari has been kept in the dark, or at least Kirby thinks she has been. Unfortunately, the lady is a psychic, one of the few Martians with this skill. I can’t recall if any other Brackett yarns make this claim, but so far as this one’s concerned, the odd Martian can read minds, and Shari happens to be one of them. She’s not only aware of the secret Kirby’s been keeping from her, but determined to join him in his quest, even if she’ll be leaving native Mars. She even gives Kirby a gun, something so rare in this era that Kirby has a hard time believing he’s actually holding one in his hands.

He’ll use it in one of the few action scenes in the novel, as some government thugs come to round him up. One of them’s his ex brother-in-law, and there’s no love lost between the two. Brackett here seems to be setting up a subplot – I figured this guy would be coming after Kirby later on – but she doesn’t follow through with it. Instead Kirby shoots one of the government soldiers and then he and Shari commandeer a flyer and escape, chased by one of the government patrols. This leads to one of the more illogical escapes in pulp history; they fly right above the treeline of the area in which they’ve hidden the rocket, and then simply jump out of their flyer to the ground below!

But then this first novella/first half of the novel is illogical throughout. As mentioned these other guys bring along their families with no prior warning for a six-year space voyage, and it’s laughable how unbelievable this is. But then, it’s a man’s world in Brackett’s future, so the guys call the shots…even if they’re gonna get nagged about it throughout an interstellar journey. Brackett also doesn’t much describe the spaceship (the “Lucy B. Davenport”) Kirby and crew have gotten hold of, but it appears to be of the rocket design of the ‘50s, with the storage section converted into a living space. They take off immediately, headed for this unknown planet orbitting far-off Alpha Centauri; Kirby has seen the secret reports from a robot ship that passed the planet, reports which indicated this planet was safe for human habitation.

The first half of the novel climaxes with an R-1 seek-and-destroy robot ship chasing after them. This is probably the highlight of the novel as Kirby, Shari, and a few others suit up, leave their ship, and go out into space to destroy the silent and sleek pursuing craft. They think of the ship as an almost alien presence, but again in our era of drones and the like it’s hard to understand their unease. Shari’s ESP is put to use in a novel way as she tries to communicate with the cold, inhuman mind of the R-1 drone. The colorful cover painting illustrates this sequence, as Kirby et al get into the core of the R-1 and Shari basically makes it go insane; Brackett is a bit prescient here with intimations that the R-1 has artificial intelligence.

The cutover to the next novella occurs on page 64; suddenly it’s six years later and this “reluctant space ark,” which has been travelling “something under the speed of light” is now a mere two hours away from landing. The novella nature of the original stories has robbed the novel of any potential for character building or even world-building; the Lucy B. Davenport is filled with families, including children and babies, but Brackett doesn’t put the spotlight on anyone other than Kirby or Shari (who have no children). While the novel prefigures the generation ship motif Heinlein and others would use, Brackett doesn’t much exploit it. The other characters are almost incidental, and we learn in passing that a few of them died during the long journey through black space.

And we’re even robbed of the tale of the journey itself. Six years in space on a “space ark” could make for a novel itself, a long novel, but the journey happens between chapters and we don’t even get any of Brackett’s typical word painting on the cosmos or anything. Well anyway, they arrive at the destination planet, Kirby after some nervous jitters manages to land the rocket without much fuss, and soon enough they’re all out running around on the verdant fields of this Earth-like planet. Then Shari feels some sort of evil presence in the distant mountains and wants to return to the ship, and doesn’t want to talk about it.

We’re now in the second novella, the hyperbolically-titled “Teleportress of Alpha C,” a title that is a lot more promising than the story Brackett actually delivers. It’s almost a prefigure of Predator, only without the action, suspense, or one-liners, as Kirby and crew slowly realize something is hunting them in this alien jungle. After they’ve been here some weeks, building a little village and working on the land – and Brackett again displays her lack of word-painting with hardly any description of this planet’s flora or fauna – Kirby decides to finally head into those mountains from which Shari picked up bad vibes.

From here it’s more of a suspense thriller as one of Kirby’s crew vanishes, then abruptly reappears, covered in mud and confused about the whole ordeal. Brackett keeps building up the suspense, with a gruff Kirby almost slapping around his men for “acting like girls’ in their growing fright. There’s also the added tension of the government contacting them and stating that an R-3 ship is on the way to pick them up and return them to Earth, where the president vows they will not be imprisoned; he claims that Kirby didn’t read the full report on this planet, and it was indeed deemed unsuitable for human life. Shari’s already picked up some strange hints from the presence she sensed, like that it can see into things down to the atom, so it almost starts to seem that some invisible demonic presence is afoot.

But folks what a copout. Skip this paragraph if you don’t want the surprise reveal of a 65 year-old pulp story to be ruined. Well basically, the presence Shari was sensing was the collective mentality of these baby animals, “stupid” ones at that! In fact their stupidity is so often mentioned by Shari and Kirby that I started to feel sorry for the damn things. But they’re just little dumb animals with psychic powers and have only been reacting to Kirby and the others due to the innate animal fear of anything new. Shari, who is zapped away by one of these animals, spends a few days communing with them, thus info-dumps what’s been going on to Kirby when he finally finds her after trekking through the jungle in his panic to find her. The creatures even use their mass ESP to send back the R-3 that comes to collect Kirby’s crew!

And this is where Alpha Centauri Or Die! ends, Kirby and Shari happily reunited and about to start their presumably idyllic life here on this new world along with a colony of pioneers. Plus they plan to put these ESP animals to work in some fashion. At least it’s a satisfying conclusion to the novel, but there’s no denying that the second half (ie the second novella) just seems to be cut from a completely different cloth than the first. Too bad Brackett didn’t wholly rewrite the second half to be a more satisfying resolution to the first novella, perhaps even with a payoff on the subplot about Kirby’s former brother-in-law. Instead we get like the ‘50s pulp sci-fi version of Lost, complete with even the same sort of unsatisfying cop-out of an ending!

Overall this wasn’t nearly one of Brackett’s best, but then it wasn’t one of her worst, either. Her writing, always of a high caliber, seems a bit subdued, with precious little of the memorable dialog or scene-setting she gave her other work. And Kirby seems less like a rugged individualist than he does a dick; he spends the entire second novella bitching at his crew and calling them “girls” and the like. Shari is much more memorable, but even she is a pale reflection of the typical Brackett female protagonist, so ultimately I’d just recommend Alpha Centauri Or Die! for the Leigh Brackett die hards.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

I remember this one as lesser Brackett. Her strongest books were Sword of Rhiannon and The Best of Leigh Brackett.