Friday, December 7, 2018

Birthday Review: The Big Jump, plus other shorter stories, by Leigh Brackett

Birthday Review: Leigh Brackett's The Big Jump (plus several of her shorter works)

For Leigh Brackett's birthday I decided to do one of my short story review compilations, but in her case I had to go back to my "Retro-Reviews" of old SF magazines. So these are the stories of hers I have reviewed in the original issues of the magazines they appeared in. These include one of her novels, The Big Jump, which first appeared in a single issue of the pulp Space Stories.

Space Stories, February 1953

(Cover by Jeff Jones)
The novel in the February 1953 issue is "The Big Jump", by Leigh Brackett. This too is "officially" a novel, at some 42,000 words. (As far as I can tell from a quick glance at my Ace edition of the novel, it's the same story.) It's a curious sort of book, spending much of its length in Brackett's "hard-boiled" mode, and for that portion it's not very successful. But right toward the end it effectively switches to her high-romantic mode, and that brief portion is rather nice.

Arch Comyn is a spaceship construction worker. He hears that somebody has completed "the Big Jump" -- travelled to another star. He learns that his close friend Paul Rogers was on the crew. However, details about the expedition have been suppressed. Comyn hears a rumor that the survivors are hidden in a hospital on Mars owned by the Cochrane Company (which built the spaceship involved). Comyn makes his way to Mars and rather implausibly barges into the Cochrane complex, and finds the hospital room with the one survivor, Captain Ballantyne. Ballantyne is dying, but Comyn hears him say just a bit -- a hint about "transuranics". Then Ballantyne dies, and Comyn is in the custody of the Cochrane Company, who try to beat his secret out of him. Eventually they let him go, and he heads back to Earth, concerned that the secret of what Ballantyne found on a planet of Barnard's Star will be of altogether too much interest to several parties. And indeed, Comyn detects a tail -- but then he sees Cochrane heiress Sydna Cochrane on TV, making a toast to Ballantyne and hinting that a visit from Comyn would be welcome.

Soon Comyn is confronting Sydna, though not before shaking two separate tails, one of whom tries to kill him. Sydna, who is 100% pure Lauren Bacall (remember, this is Brackett in her "tough guy thriller" mode), convinces Comyn to follow her to the Cochrane complex on Luna. Once there, Comyn to his horror sees what's left of Ballantyne -- even though he is dead, his body somehow still lives mindlessly. Before long, Comyn is a) having an affair with Sydna, and b) pushing to join the second expedition to Barnard's Star. After some more hijinks (another assassination attempt), Comyn and a few Cochranes (and some redshirts) are on their way to Barnard's Star. One of the "Cochranes" is William Stanley, a weaselly cousin-by-marriage who lusts after Sydna despite his married state. Stanley reveals that he has stolen the lost logs of the Ballantyne expedition, and he uses this vital knowledge to negotiate controlling interest in the prospective Transuranic company.
(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)

Then they arrive at Barnard's Star, and the novel changes tone entirely, to something transcendental, much more reminiscent of the best of Brackett's planetary romances. The other members of the first expedition are found, living in a primitive state with the presumptive natives of the planet. (Natives who seem to be fully humanoid for no reason at all!) Comyn finds his friend Paul Rogers, who refuses to return to Earth. It seems that beings called the Transuranae, composed of transuranic elements, have conferred immortality and freedom from conflict and want on the inhabitants of this planet. So once again we confront the choice -- intellect, striving, knowledge vs. bliss and contentment. (Cf. countless other SF stories, such as "The Milk of Paradise" by Tiptree.) It's no surprise what Comyn chooses (or has chosen for him), but Brackett presents the alternatives in her most evocative style, and really this final section is quite effective.

It's not one of Brackett's best works, but in the end it's decent stuff. The first part, however, is full of plot holes and implausibilities. As well as plain silly stuff like the horror everyone feels at seeing the quasi-living Ballantyne -- still twitching after his death. Spooky, maybe, but not the stuff of Lovecraftian horror as Brackett would have us believe.

Planet Stories, March 1955

Recently in one of the back issues of Planet Stories I have bought (indeed, it was the very last issue of Planet Stories ever published) I read a story called "Teleportress of Alpha C" by Leigh Brackett.  It was the story of a spaceship which had escaped from a regimented, risk-averse, solar system to make it across the years and light-years to Alpha Centauri, and the difficulties they overcame to establish a colony there.  From context it was obvious that it was a sequel, and when I saw a used copy of an Ace Double with Alpha Centauri or Die! by Brackett on one side I figured that would be the whole story, and I was right.  The story I had read is the second half of Alpha Centauri or Die!, while the first half, which appeared as a novella in Planet Stories, is the story of how the spaceship was stolen, and how the band of colonists escaped from the rather Williamsonian robots controlling the Solar System.  It's not Brackett at her best, but it's decent entertainment.

Venture, March 1957

I really liked Leigh Brackett’s “The Queer Ones”, but then I tend to really like Brackett. A newspaperman in a mountain town gets hints of a story – one of the mountain girls brought her boy into the doctor, and x-rays showed he was really strange. The girl swears she’s going to marry the handsome man who knocked her up – but he seems to have run off. But then he’s back, and so is his exotic sister, who makes a connection with the protagonist … It’s clear enough what’s going on, though Brackett runs a couple of nice variations on it, and it ends with classical Brackettian regret.

Venture, November 1957

Leigh Brackett's "All the Colors of the Rainbow" is on the one hand a pretty straightforward piece about the ugliness of racial prejudice, expressed as the residents of a small town beat up and rape an alien couple. But it has a curious colonialist side to it as well. The story is told from the POV of Flin, an reprensentative of the Galactic Federation, on his first posting to a newly encountered world, Earth. He is accompanied by his new wife, Ruvi. They are very humanoid except for their pointy ears and green skin. (Yes, they are Vulcans! Almost.) The Federation is providing great benefits to Earth via their advance technology, and they are also trying to civilize humanity. But in the small town Flin and Ruvi are posted to, the locals are essentially unanimously resentful of the alien presence, and they are very hostile to Flin and Ruvi. The whole thing culminates in a horrible scene in which a group of young toughs stop their car, beat up Flin, and rape Ruvi. And then the local justice system refuses to prosecute. The resolution is that Flin and Ruvi leave Earth -- but not before Flin, a weather control expert, takes a terrible revenge against that town. And he is forced to confront the fact that his career is over -- he's no longer civilized either. It's a decent and wrenching story, though far from subtle, and a bit overprogrammed.

There's an Edmond Hamilton story ("No Earthman I") in the same issue, in which Earth colonists have been trying to improve the lot of the aliens on a planet, but the aliens resent that rise up and murder the colonists, to drive them out. The end matter to the magazine includes a note from Brackett saying that one area in which she disagreed with Hamilton was that he was pro-colonialism -- and indeed his story in this issue reads a bit like, say, Jack Vance's The Gray Prince (or like the caricatured (though not entirely wrong) view many people have of Kipling) in its insistence that the aliens are fools for not accepting the kindly guidance of Earthmen. Brackett seems to be saying that her story has the opposite message. Only -- it doesn't. It sends the exact same message -- the locals in her story are fools for resenting the benevolent guidance of the Federation. The only difference is that the locals in this case are Earthmen, and the colonialists are aliens.

Amazing, May 1963

"The Road to Sinharat" is not a Stark story, though its Sinharat is the same as the Sinharat of The Secret of Sinharat, and both stories also mention the city of Valkis, and conflict between the Martians of the city states and those of the Drylands. The hero of this story is Dr. Carey, a Terran scientist, expert on Mars, who is wanted by the United Worlds Committee because of his opposition to the UW's plans to Rehabilitate Mars (i.e., terraform it to some degree), which he believes will be an ecological disaster, particularly for those who live in the Drylands. Carey comes to an Derech, a Martian who owes him for a past deed, a Low Canal resident, and Derech hides him from his pursuers, then agrees to help him make his way to the dangerous abandoned city, Sinharat, where Carey believes there is evidence that will convince the Terrans of their mistakes. The rest of the story follows Carey and Derech and Derech's girlfriend Arrin, by canal and then by land, to Sinharat. It's great fun, pure Brackett to my mind (some have wondered if Hamilton also had a hand in this story, presumably written about when he was working on The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman, but I think this is all Brackett). It's got the Brackett romantic touches, and an ecological and anti-Colonial theme that is well argued, I think, and plenty of excitement as well. It hasn't been neglected (it was reprinted in her collection The Coming of the Terrans) but it seems less well-known than it might be.

F&SF, October 1964

Leigh Brackett is, with Bradbury, one of the SF writers most associated with the Red Planet. Her only F&SF story set on Mars is "Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon", a fine story in which an anthropologist confronts real Martians, and has a hard time fitting them into his scientific worldview. Brackett's story is one of the last which could straightforwardly present the "traditional" SFnal Mars of canals and decaying ancient races.

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