The Starmen of Llyrdis: A small but perfect gem from “The Queen of Space Opera”

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Starmen of Llyrdis by Leigh Brackett science fiction book reviewsThe Starmen of Llyrdis by Leigh Brackett

For fans of sci-fi’s Golden Age, it has been a sort of literary guessing game to riddle out which stories were written by Henry Kuttner and which by his wife, C.L. Moore. And this has proved to be no easy task, as the two, as legend goes, were so in rapport that one could pick up in mid-paragraph where the other had left off. But for several reasons, no such difficulty could ever be presented by Golden Age stalwart Edmond “The World Wrecker” Hamilton and his wife, “The Queen of Space Opera,” Leigh Brackett. For one thing, their writing styles were so very different that they hardly ever collaborated. Hamilton, who I love, and who was 11 years older than Leigh, tended to a cruder, pulpier style, while Brackett was more lyrical, more polished, and certainly a better wordsmith. A recent side-by-side reading of Hamilton’s classic space opera The Star Kings (1949) and Brackett’s lesser-known The Starmen of Llyrdis has amply demonstrated — for me, anyway — that Leigh was clearly the greater talent of the two. And in this belief, I am not alone. Writing of her 1955 novel The Long Tomorrow in his excellent overview volume Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, Scottish sci-fi critic David Pringle remarks that “she was a vastly superior writer to Hamilton.”

As for the work in question, The Starmen of Llyrdis (Brackett’s second novel, after 1951’s Shadow Over Mars), it has a somewhat complicated publishing history. It originally appeared in the March ’51 issue of Startling Stories, when Leigh was 35 (Hamilton’s Captain Future “novelet” Earthmen No More was in that same issue, which had a cover price of… 25 cents), and in 1952 appeared in hardcover under the title The Starmen. In 1955, a revised and abridged version of the novel, entitled The Galactic Breed, appeared as one-half of one of those cute little “Ace doubles” (D-99, for all you collectors, backed with Robert Moore Williams’ Conquest of the Space Sea). And finally, Ballantine brought the book out again, in 1976, and under its original title… the edition that I was fortunate enough to lately acquire.

In the book, the reader meets a 30-ish American male named Michael Trehearne, who, when we first encounter him in the Brittany region of France, is in the middle of trying to track down his family origins after a lifetime of feeling that he just does not quite fit in anywhere. And, as it turns out, for good reason! Trehearne soon comes upon a group of people there who he resembles, and who call themselves Vardda. Michael soon learns that the Vardda are actually a civilization of star-roving traders from the planet Llyrdis, which orbits the giant orange star Aldebaran, 65 light-years from Earth! Trehearne’s Earthling mother had mated with a Vardda years before, it seems, resulting in a hybrid child. The Vardda, due to a genetic mutation engineered by the legendary scientist Orthis a millennium earlier, are the only race in the entire galaxy whose bodies can withstand the faster-than-light speeds requisite for any kind of reasonable interstellar travel. They have, thus, over the past 1,000 years, set up a monopoly in galactic trade, over which all the other worlds are understandably jealous. Trehearne is allowed to accompany the Vardda back to Llyrdis, and surprises everyone by NOT dying en route. Once on Llyrdis, he is allowed to become a full-fledged crewman on a space-going trader ship. However, he has by now aroused the enmity of Kerrel, of the Llyrdis Council; has become the target of several assassination attempts; has entered into a rather combustible affair with a Varddan woman named Shairn; and is soon tempted to become an Orthist: those renegade revolutionaries who feel that star travel should be for all races, and who search for Orthis’ 1,000-year-old lost spaceship, and the secret of the mutation process that it might contain…

Boasting colorful descriptions of numerous alien planets and peoples, finely drawn characters and several marvelously done action set pieces, Brackett’s book turns out to be a real winner; indeed, it is remarkable that it does not enjoy a greater renown. That elusive “sense of wonder” deemed so paramount for Golden Age sci-fi is present here in great abundance, and Trehearne never fails to be awed by the wonders that he is privy to as a star-roaming Vardda. Thus, just before his first touchdown on Llyrdis, he marvels that

…presently, he would stand on the soil of a strange world, in the light of an alien sun, and the winds that blew would come from far peaks nameless to him, and off of unknown oceans…

The scenes in which Trehearne is attacked by an unknown assailant on a fungoid planet, is beset by weasel-like killer hounds on another, and, along with several others, explores the long-lost ship of Orthis on a dead world, orbiting a dark star at the galaxy’s edge, are quite thrilling, as well as highly atmospheric. It really is quite impressive just how much color, history, incident and sweep Brackett manages to cram into a book of only 164 pages, all while keeping things highly literate. “Way above the typical space opera of the period,” the sci-fi fanzine Locus later reported, and correctly so! But this should come as no surprise to Brackett’s legion of fans, who perhaps have been thrilled by the exploits of her most popular literary creation, Eric John Stark, in both short stories and novels, or perhaps have been impressed by her co-writer credits on such diverse films as The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye, and a little something called The Empire Strikes Back. Much like the stones that bedeck Trehearne’s Vardda belt, The Starmen of Llyrdis turns out to be, to my great delight, a small but perfect gem…

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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  1. I have the 1980 reprint of this book, and also 2 of the 1960’s Ace Dbl books. She was an amazing author.

    Sandy if you use Book Collector you can browse my collection online.

  2. sandy ferber /

    Never heard of that site. Thanks for the hedzup, N-A!

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