Leigh Brackett, The Coming Of The Terrans (1964)

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The Coming Of The Terrans collects five stories from Leigh Brackett’s Mars setting, a planet closer to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter books than of reality, with its time-worn cities, dead seas, crumbling wharves, ancient canal-ways and wind-blasted mountains; a shabby and sandblasted land populated by bandits, caravans, tomb robbers, femme fatales, and iron-willed protagonists. This fantasy land is as implausible as it is fun. I will briefly outline the plots of each of the five stories along with their thematic preoccupations.

In the opening novella The Beast-Jewel Of Mars (1954), the tough Earthman protagonist seeks the secret of ‘Shanga,’ a process by which men revert back to the primitive state, back to ape and lizard, a process his girlfriend had begun before disappearing. The reverting properties of the Beast-Jewel allows some primordial Lovecraft and Howard-like spectacles, and a barbaric/civilised dichotomy. The latter is a common thread throughout this collection, where different Martian and Earth cultures come together.

Mars Minus Misha (1948) is a change of tone from the adventurous to the tragic, a tale of an outcast Martian child who enters the care of an Earthman scientist at his isolated research outpost. Here, the man of science is pitted against old Martian axioms and superstition. Of note are some descriptions of Martian culture and the importance of the canals, which are indicative of the quality of writing of the whole book. Here, Brackett depicts an impoverished Martian culture which places religiously the upkeep of their prehistoric canals before all else.

The Last Days Of Shandakor (1952) is the highlight of the book, a first person narrative where an anthropologist witnesses the last days of a dying Martian race in their advanced city of wonder while barbarians give siege outside the gates. In an intriguing twist, these are open. What begins in a rough-and-tumble tavern scene (not far from being Mos Eisley) ends in an elegiac story of Martian pride in tension with a will to survive, where an enlightened and proud race seek life and death on their own terms.

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Purple Priestess Of The Mad Moon (1963) contrasts the cosmopolitan trade cities with an older and more iniquitous parts of Mars, where an urbane protagonist is whisked away to a city of thieves to witness an ancient pagan rite. In common with many of these stories, a civilised, cynical, and educated Earthman is thrown into beguiling and eye-opening Martian ways.

Lastly, The Road To Sinharat (1964) is a relic hunting story with aspects of a travelogue, where a small party elude the authorities on their way to an abandoned city of immortals by way of several dens of iniquity, along old canal-ways and dried seabeds. As well as fisticuffs and adventure there is an environmental subtext, where a sustainable Martian subsistence is staunchly advocated in favour of a more transient Earth-derived prosperity.

Overall, these are wonderfully imaginative and exotic tales, well told. Throughout, Brackett evokes a sense of shabby romance, long faded glories, and the pathos of a proud, spiritual and self dependent race in its death throes, as they lose influence to an emergent culture of Earthmen materialists. Each of these stories are born out of this contrast, as cultural tensions play out in sensual narratives of high adventure, where the thin air is full of sand, spices, and the rustling bells of alluring and occasionally dangerous women. Brackett is foremost an entertainer and crowd pleaser who writes in style which is a marriage of the likes of Dashiell Hammett, C.L. Moore, and Robert Howard. Her writing has the broad and approachable appeal to be expected of a woman who would go on to write scripts for Howard Hawks and George Lucas. There is much here to enjoy, not only for science fiction enthusiasts.  4/5

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