Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories by Leigh Brackett
As NASA’s Curiosity rover trundles about the surface of Mars today, another page turns on the glories of pulp science fiction. Leigh Brackett’s vision of a land populated with humans and aliens, ancient cities and creatures, long-buried secrets and mysterious deserts fades a shade closer to pale as one desolate desert image after another is beamed back to Earth. But there was a day when her works shone with the hope and possibility of life on the planets beyond Earth. In 2005, Gollancz brought together the best of these stories as part of their Fantasy Masterworks collection. Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories is an imaginatively nostalgic look back to a time when the solar system held more possibilities.
The collection contains five novelettes, five novellas, one short story, and one novel. Though organized chronologically by publishing date, little actually links the stories. A few are set on Venus and a handful feature the character Eric John Stark, but the majority are the plights and travails, adventures and journeys of various men and women across the ancient Martian landscape. All manner of the vividly fantastic and anachronistically technical emerges in their tales; the collection is by default science fantasy, but certainly the motifs and mindset of pulp fantasy fill the book’s cup.
As Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories is Golden Age planetary-adventure-cum-sword-and-sorcery, as Golden Age planetary-adventure-cum-sword-and-sorcery it must be judged. Point blank: Brackett may have written the best of that bunch. This includes the major figureheads of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. Where Burroughs’s stories are continuously over-the-top in terms of rescues, escapes, and male fantasy uber-heroism, Brackett’s stories tell of more everyday heroes who have the most fantastic of events befall them — the plots escalate, but never as absurdly and certainly not as predictably. The Sword of Rhiannon, for example, despite having many opportunities to become an exaggerated hero’s story, prefers to focus on the fantastical elements as its hero bounces around an ancient Mars. Where Howard lost no opportunity to sexualize women in the most atrociously camp prose, Brackett takes a broader approach to gender, balancing physical qualities with personality. Nearly every story features a woman of some confidence, and with their status is an awareness and confidence regarding action to be taken. None among her women have the “Save me! Save me! I’m beautiful but helpless!” quality that Burroughs, and to a lesser degree Howard, portrayed. “The Black Amazon of Mars”, for instance, portrays an iconoclast female role. Further contrary ideas to the “genre masters” threading their way through Brackett’s stories are redemption rather than war, personal demons being as dangerous as external ones, and an emphasis on the group over the individual.
But the collection’s organization is key: the stories are ordered by publishing date. The reader is able to watch Brackett mature as a writer. The transition from 1942 to 1963 sees her honing in on a specific voice and adding deeper layers to the stories. Though the later pieces are still planetary adventure, the prose becomes broader in tone and the interweaving of gender, cultural, historical and otherwise human aspects is more subtle. Comparing the flash and fun of “The Sorcerer of Rhiannon,” the story which opens the collection with telepathy, mind control, and Martian desert adventure, to the more subdued, post-colonial concerns of “The Road to Sinharat,” the story which closes the collection, marks an interesting evolution.
In the end, Sea Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories is an all-star cast of Leigh Brackett’s best fantasy work. A mix of lengths, novel to short story, the pieces collected are not the most ambitious in terms of thematic outlay; solid planetary adventure is the primary aim throughout. But what Brackett is able to do with the material, particularly in comparison to the likes of her predecessors, is notable. Strong female characters, a resolution that questions rather than concedes an inevitable return to barbarism, and a social view that consolidates rather than fragments race and culture, the stories at least move the pulp-era mentality forward a little. But that Brackett is Burroughs’s and Howard’s equal in terms of imagination, imagery and storytelling is what puts her at the peak of pulp fiction. Thus, be aware going in that the stories are not complex, but rather the most complex of the mode.
The following are brief summaries of the twelve pieces selected:
“The Sorcerer of Rhiannon”: Max Brandon, an archeological opportunist (PC term for grave looter), roves the Martian desert searching for water. When an oasis reveals itself to be more tangible than he could hope, he gets a drink — and a whole lot more. There’s a bit much crammed into one story, but it nevertheless crackles with energy.
“The Jewel of Bas”: A harpist and his wife are camping innocently in the foothills of Mount Ben Bathea when a dark shadow sweeps over them Strange aliens take them captive, and they are marched toward the mighty peak. Androids, sleeping regents, a mighty metal tower, and the Stone of Destiny await.
“Terror Out of Space”: A secret policeman is flying with a man deranged by a strange alien over Venusian seas when a storm hits. He is the only survivor of the crash, and his resulting underwater journey and the creatures he discovers there go a long way toward unraveling the mystery of the deranged man. Jules Verne would have been proud of this story featuring underwater societies.
“Lorelei of the Red Mist” (with Ray Bradbury): Hugh Starke is a criminal on the run, and when his ship crashes in the Venusian mountains, he wakens to find a beautiful green woman promising him the world. Waking again some time later, he finds a second surprise: a collar around his neck and people calling him Conan.
“The Moon that Vanished”: Heath, a man who returned from the fringes of Moonfire, has strange powers. In a story that is haunting as much as it is empowering, he reluctantly takes another man on a journey to discover for himself what Moonfire really is.
Sea-Kings of Mars (more commonly known as The Sword of Rhiannon): Matt Carse, a freeloader, has the opportunity of a lifetime one night when presented the Sword of Rhiannon by a fellow shady character. Greed gets the better of him, and he’s cast backwards in time to a Martian era much different from his own. He is caught as an outsider and handed an oar in the king’s navy, and it isn’t long before rebellion is in the wings. The sword, however, weaves its interest, and before the tale is done, the great sorcerer Rhiannon himself has a say in how things turn out. Great imagery and classic planetary adventure, plain and simple — the latter terms meant both figuratively and literally.
“Queen of the Martian Catacombs”: Caught escaping across the desert, Eric John Stark agrees to join forces with the police and go undercover rather than be taken to prison. After infiltrating the target band of mercenaries, he witnesses what seems an amazing act: the mind of an old man is transferred into a boy’s body. A mysterious woman is waiting in the wings, and it’s not long before all manner of physical and psychological intrigue descends on Stark.
“Enchantress of Venus”: After getting into a disagreement with a ship captain, Stark leaps off into a strange, morose city. The haze of Venus makes matters murkier, and gradually he finds himself entangled in a strange slavery plot.
“Black Amazon of Mars”: The last and best Eric John Stark story in the collection. After being bequeathed a strange talisman by a friend on his deathbed, Stark is picked up by a desert army led by a strange, masked man. The tale is dynamic, colorful, flowing — Stark’s haunted personality has no time to brood until the end of his fantastical adventure.
“The Last Days of Shandakor”: A story elven and liminal, it tells of a man stumbling across a hushed, phantom Martian Venice in the middle of the desert. Imbuing the reader with a certain yearning for what the heart knows not, this is the best piece in the collection.
“The Tweener”: In this unique story, a father takes a trip to Mars and brings home a cute little Martian pet as a gift to his wife and children. Somewhere between a rabbit and a monkey, the little guy has trouble adapting, and strangely enough, so too does the father.
“The Road to Sinharat”: a fugitive archeologist tries to protect an ancient Martian site from developers. Looking at post-colonial issues in simple form, this may be the most contemporary story in the collection.