The Big Jump by Leigh Brackett
Toward the end of 2015, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the so-called “Queen of Space Opera,” Leigh Brackett, I decided to read (and, in several cases, reread) 10 of this great author’s works, both novels and short-story collections. One of Brackett’s books that I did not read at the time, for the simple reason that a reader’s copy was not then in my possession, was her fourth novel out of an eventual 10, an oversight that I was happy to rectify just this week. And I am so glad that I did, as the book in question, The Big Jump, has just revealed itself to me to be still another wonderful creation from this beloved writer.
The Big Jump initially appeared in the February 1953 issue of Space Stories, a short-lived, 25-cent pulp magazine that only came out with five issues (from October 1952 to June 1953) before folding; Brackett was 37 years old at the time. This initial publication of The Big Jump featured interior artwork by the great Virgil Finlay that I would love to see someday. Two years later, the novel would appear as one-half of one of those cute little “Ace doubles” (D-103, for all you collectors), backed with the novel Solar Lottery, written by some first-time novelist fella named Philip K. Dick. (Full disclosure: I do happen to own that 35-cent Ace rarity, and it is one of my most prized books; a museum-piece treasure that I don’t even like taking out of its plastic bag, let alone subject to a thorough read.) Another 12 years would elapse before Ace rereleased The Big Jump, now in its own stand-alone paperback, and it is that 50-cent edition from 1967 that I was thrilled to acquire and experience recently. The book saw still another Ace incarnation in 1976 that sold for $1.50 – it’s always interesting to me to note how any book’s cover price steadily climbs over the years – followed by three more iterations from other publishers. I believe the most recent release was in 2011, from an outfit called Phoenix Pick. Bottom line: The Big Jump should pose no problem whatsoever for the potential buyer to locate today. And that is a very fortunate thing indeed, as this short novel will surely please anyone who sits down with it.
As Brackett’s book opens, the world is agog that Earth’s first mission to another star has been successfully completed. Employing his brand-new faster-than-light (FTL) drive, a man named Ballantyne, as well as four others, had traveled to one of the worlds orbiting Barnard’s Star, a mere six light-years away, and then returned! But soon, rumors begin to circulate to the effect that only Ballantyne has come back, his fellow crewmen unaccounted for. In a bravura opening set piece, we see a man named Arch Comyn, a worker employed by Inter-World Engineering, break into the high-security space field on Mars run by the Cochrane Company, the ruthless family concern that holds a virtual monopoly on all solar-system space travel and that had financed Ballantyne’s mission. Comyn, as it turns out, is a close personal friend of Paul Rogers, one of those four missing crewmen, and he is desperate to interview the hospitalized Ballantyne. Sadly, after a violent forced breakin, Comyn finds Ballantyne in no condition to talk, and the quivering and haunted space explorer can only whisper some words involving desolation, loneliness, and something called “the Transuranae” before he screams out and dies. Following this wonderful introduction, Brackett’s book can be roughly divided into four sections.
In the first, Comyn is brutally interrogated by the Cochrane family before being released. Back in NYC, our engineer hero realizes that he is being tailed by two different groups, and meets the loveliest of the Cochrane clan, the willful and hard-drinking Sydna. In the next section, Sydna brings Cochrane to the family’s palatial estate on the Moon, perched atop the Mare Imbrium and encased in its protective and transparent hemispherical dome. Here, Comyn meets the aged patriarch of the family, Jonas, as well as Sydna’s cutthroat relatives, and gets to see the remains of Ballantyne, which are being studied by the Cochrane doctors and scientists. For Ballantyne, though dead, is yet full of jittery motion, his body energized by the unknown transuranic elements that have suffused it. (Hence, the blurb on the 1955 and 1967 Ace covers: “One man had come back – but he was neither dead nor alive.”) The Cochrane family wastes little time in outfitting another spaceship with the Ballantyne drive, and Comyn manages to finagle his way into this return expedition to Barnard-2 that will both search for survivors and (much more important to the Cochrane weasels) locate the source of those superrare – and supervaluable – unknown transuranic elements.
Thus, after a claustrophobic and nerve-racking transit that comprises the book’s third section, Comyn and the small crew do indeed land on Barnard’s second planet, and in the concluding section, discover what has happened to Ballantyne’s missing men, why Ballantyne was turned into a living dead person, and just what those blessed “Transuranae” are all about. And that final discovery is one that will have lifelong repercussions for all concerned…
The Big Jump, as you may have discerned, is both compact and fast moving, with one colorful and exciting set piece after another. Among the book’s outstanding sequences must be included Comyn’s early infiltration of the Cochrane spaceport and his first glimpse of the dying Ballantyne; Comyn’s meeting with the Cochrane clan on Luna; the three murder attempts that are made on Comyn’s life by an unknown enemy (one in the men’s room of a NYC bar, one in those ornate gardens on the Moon, and one en route to Barnard’s Star); and the experience with the Transuranae on Barnard-2. And just what are those Transuranae? I wouldn’t dream of telling, and ruining the fun of finding out for yourself, but let’s just say that Brackett might easily have revisited them in a sequel to this book, had she so chose. And The Big Jump is filled with all sorts of interesting little touches, such as the Rocket Room where Comyn first meets Sydna – a NYC nightclub with a space-window instead of a mirror, and genuine pilot seats at the bar – as well as the Cochrane gardens on Luna, perfect for a romantic stroll beneath the Earthlight.
At this late date, nobody should be surprised at how well written and compulsively readable any novel or short story by Leigh Brackett is, and The Big Jump is surely no exception. Dare I say it, this one is even poetically written at times, such as when Brackett, describing the surface of Mars, tells us “The wind blew, laggard, wandering, sad, like an old man searching in the wilderness for the cities of his youth, the bright cities that had been and now were not…” The characters here are finely drawn, while the dialogue that emerges from their mouths is often reminiscent of the tough-guy patter that is so often encountered in the film noir movies of the 1940s and ‘50s. And these hard-boiled conversations will surely remind many that Leigh Brackett was indeed the co-screenwriter of one of the toughest – and most incomprehensible – film noirs ever made, 1946’s The Big Sleep. I am surely not the first to have entertained the thought that Brackett often writes like a man … not just as regards the tough talk, but as pertains to the violent goings-on, as well. And yes, The Big Jump is often fairly violent, such as when Comyn is brutally questioned by the Cochranes early on, not to mention those three murder attempts.
And Brackett, brilliant writer that she was, demonstrates a sure hand here at making the reader feel what is going on. Thus, we experience, along with Comyn and the others, the terror of being on a spaceship zipping through the freezing void. We sense the claustrophobic conditions aboard the smallish ship, and sympathize with Comyn’s panic as he wonders what will happen if the ship’s FTL drive somehow refuses to turn itself off, as well as the horrible vertigo effects he suffers when it does. FTL space travel, in The Big Jump, is surely not the thing of ease and comfort as portrayed aboard Star Trek’s Enterprise! And Brackett makes the reader feel how strange and awesome and frightening it must be to step foot on another world. As Peter Cochrane, one of the more decent members of the clan, puts it, after a fluting call is heard on Barnard-2, “Take that, for instance. What is it – bird, beast, something with no name at all? Who knows?” In this book, thus, space travel and planetary exploration are hardly things of glamorized adventure, but rather torturous and frazzling affairs that will surely test the mettle of the sturdiest. And again, Brackett makes us internalize it all.
Now, having said that, I must also add that The Big Jump is also peppered with pleasing bits of humor of the driest kind … so dry, indeed, that one might not even notice. For example, when Comyn is forcefully interrogating the assassin who had just tried to kill him in that NYC men’s room, what does he get? As the author puts it, “Three short unhelpful words.” Yes, and I have a pretty good idea what those three words might have been! And when somebody asks Comyn, on the surface of Barnard-2, if he is scared, Comyn replies, “Yes … there used to be a dirty saying for just how scared I am.” You’ve gotta love it!
But despite being, at heart, an exciting and colorful space adventure, The Big Jump does also provide some real food for thought. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that Brackett asks us to consider whether it is preferable to remain a human being, with all the attendant grubbiness and sordidness that are part and parcel of the condition, or if it is better to attain to some altered, nonhuman, and perhaps more blissful state. It is a conundrum that the visitors to Barnard-2 are compelled to ponder during the course of Brackett’s fascinating book.
So yes, those readers looking for a finely written space novel with great bursts of action, real imagination, colorful set pieces, alien wonder, and something to think about after the final page is turned could certainly do a lot worse than Leigh Brackett’s The Big Jump … unquestionably, another glittering gem in the crown of The Queen of Space Opera. As for me, there are only two more Brackett novels that I have thus far not experienced – 1961’s The Nemesis From Terra and 1963’s Alpha Centauri Or Die! – and I do hope to be laying my hands on those volumes very shortly. Stay tuned…