The Coming of the Terrans by Leigh Brackett
Just recently, I reviewed The Best of Leigh Brackett, a big, 400+-page affair from Ballantine Books that was first released in 1977. But this collection was not the first to gather the older works of Leigh Brackett, the so-called “Queen of Space Opera” into a nice, compact collection. That honor, it seems, goes to the volume entitled The Coming of the Terrans, which was released by Ace in 1967. The Best of book was a deluxe affair, with a foreword by Brackett’s husband, Edmond Hamilton, an afterword by Brackett herself, fan maps of Brackett’s Mars, and 10 stories and novellas ranging from 1944 – ’57, with settings on Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and beyond; the book enjoyed several reprintings. The Coming of the Terrans, on the other hand, is a no-frills affair consisting of a mere five novellas and novelettes; only 157 pages, no maps or introductions, and with a single setting: the Red Planet. The book was never reprinted … a shame, really, as the five stories that it contains are all doozies, scanning the period from 1948 – ’64. And happily, for this reader, there is but one instance of overlapping between the two books. The Coming of the Terrans, it would seem, presents itself as a history of mankind’s early ventures on Mars, and the story titles in the Table of Contents are followed by the year in which they supposedly occur … dates not at all provided in the original stories themselves!
By the way, when I refer to “novellas” and “novelettes” here, I am going by the guidelines set down by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, which state that a short story contains under 7,500 words; a novelette, 7,500 to 17,500; a novella, 17,500 to 40,000; and a novel, 40,000 words or more.
The collection kicks off in a big way with the novella entitled “The Beast-Jewel of Mars,” which originally appeared in the Winter ’48 edition of the pulp magazine Planet Stories, the periodical in which so many of Brackett’s earliest tales first appeared. Here, a starship captain, grieving over the death of his lady love, who was an addict of shanga radiation, decides to seek out the most powerful form of shanga himself. (Shanga, which atavistically reverts its users to a temporary bestial state, with more permanent effects with longer use, was later used as a plot device in Brackett’s first Eric John Stark story, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” in the Summer ’49 Planet Stories; the story was expanded to novel form in 1964 as The Secret of Sinharat.) Captain Winters ultimately finds his woman alive, a captive of the depraved rulers of the evil Martian city of Valkis; along with many other Earthlings, she is being subjected to nightly doses of shanga as an amphitheater entertainment for the Valkis rulers. Winters’s attempt to free his Jill, fighting off both the Martians and the devolved shanga brutes, makes up the bulk of this exciting, colorful and pulpy tale, in which the horrors of shanga addiction act as an analogue for more terrestrial drug dependencies. The story is at times wonderfully written — “Her hair was the color of night after moonset” — and strangely, features a character named Halk … but a different Halk as would figure in Brackett’s SKAITH TRILOGY of the 1970s.
In the novelette “Mars Minus Bisha” (Planet Stories, 1/54), a young Earthling doctor, working alone in the Martian desert, is left with an unexpected bundle one evening: a 7-year-old Martian girl, whose mother and entire tribe shun and deem unfit to live with. Dr. Fraser performs tests on the young girl, Bisha, and finds her to be perfectly healthy. Bisha lives with Fraser in his Quonset hut for months, and the two grow close. But then, why does the good doctor begin to suffer comatose blackouts, and an increasing lethargy? This is a comparatively sweet tale from author Brackett, albeit one leading to a tragic and moving conclusion.
“The Last Days of Shandakor” (Startling Stories, 4/52) represents the one bit of overlap with The Best of Leigh Brackett. As I said in my earlier review of this novelette, here, a “planetary anthropologist” from Earth explores the ruins of the dead titular city and learns that it is peopled by the specters of its past … and by a few actual survivors. He falls in love with Duani, a young (living) Shandakor girl, leading to an unfortunate end for the entire populace. As Hamilton wrote in his intro, this was “the last, finest, and saddest of all her Mars stories … a summing-up, a valedictory, of the Brackett Mars.” But Mr. Hamilton, this was hardly Brackett’s “last” Mars story, as will be shown momentarily! Anyway, suitably elegiac in tone, this truly is a lovely piece of storytelling.
Next up, we have a novelette bearing the wonderfully pulpy title “Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon” (from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 10/64). Here, a young, naïve Earthling, an expert on Martian relics and artifacts, arrives at the capital city of Kahora. He is quickly kidnapped and brought to another Martian city with an evil reputation, Jekkara, to witness an ancient rite. True to its title, this tale features as pulpy a monstrosity as ever shambled forth from the pages of Robert E. Howard or H.P. Lovecraft … one that Brackett never shows clearly, but rather only subtly hints at. Good fun, this one, with still more wonderful verbiage from the author, as in “A chain of time-eaten mountains, barren as the fossil vertebrae of some forgotten monster, curved across the northern horizon.” I love it!
To close the collection, we have the novelette “The Road to Sinharat” (Amazing Stories, 5/63). Here, a seasoned Earthman, Matt Carey, an historian and member of the Rehabilitation Project for Mars, goes rogue. With the aid of an old Martian friend and a Martian woman named Arrin, he flees both Interpol and his fellows on the Project to search for the legendary desert city of Sinharat — a derelict metropolis sitting atop an island of coral in a dried-up ocean bed — where he believes lost records will convince his fellow Earthmen that the redevelopment of the dying planet is a very bad idea. Sinharat, and the reason for its evil reputation, had naturally been delved into in that “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” story 14 years earlier; numerous references to that earlier work are made here. The city of Sinharat itself, where the winds moan eternally amongst the coral block that supports it, is the star of the show here, and it is wonderful to be back in this eerie and haunted area of Mars. As in Brackett’s 1948 masterpiece “The Moon That Vanished,” here, an Earthman goes on a near-impossible quest, accompanied by a Martian couple; as in the earlier Sinharat story, here, all the tribes of the Drylands of the planet are about to rebel against the Earthling occupiers. An object lesson in the inadvisability of uninformed humanitarianism, “The Road to Sinharat” is at once exciting and evocative; another bravura piece of work from this wonderful author.
You will note that I have only given The Coming of the Terrans 4 ½ stars out of a possible 5 here. Well, my only reason for docking this terrific little collection a ½ star is because the book IS a tad on the slender side, and I have learned long ago that with the “Queen of Space Opera,” more is always better than less. Still, what we DO have here is some pretty dynamite stuff; a must-read for all lovers of Golden Age sci-fi…
Looks like I made another boo-boo. That second book cover, shown above, demonstrates that “The Coming of the Terrans” DID enjoy a single reprint edition, after all!
I assume that second cover is inspired by Jill in the throes of shanga addiction?
Thanks for reminding me again of how much I love Leigh Brackett — and that I must set aside some time to reread some of her work.
And I’d love to cosplay as the “Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon.” Unless, wait a minute, that’s *her* on the second cover. If so, that’s definitely out of my range.
I suppose that might be Jill on the second cover, Marion. The first (top) cover is almost certainly a reverted Captain Winters in his bestial state. Shanga is no picnic; good luck on that cosplaying!
I think my cosplaying might be better described as “Purple Librarian of the Mad Moon.”
Works for me, Marion! I’d certainly be interested in taking a look at that!