Friday, September 23, 2016

Black Amazon of Mars by Leigh Brackett

Woe! I don't have a vintage novel on hand to properly review this week, and the reason is that I've been a little short on reading time, which has left me inching through a number of longish novels--The Lord of the Rings, for instance, which I am taking in appreciative nibbles as I have the time for it.

So instead of posting a new review, I trawled through some of my recent Goodreads reviews, and am crossposting this review of Leigh Brackett's Black Amazon of Mars, from January--with apologies to those of you who've already seen it. Enjoy!

Black Amazon of MarsBlack Amazon of Mars by Leigh Brackett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And now for my latest highly philosophical read...a masterpiece of literary fiction, laying bare the soul of Woman as with a scalpel, we have...BLACK AMAZON OF MARS!!! by Leigh Brackett.


So, rewatching a favourite movie, The Empire Strikes Back, recently, reminded me just how little I'd read of the work of legendary scriptwriter and Queen of Space Opera Leigh Brackett. These days Brackett's most well-known for her first-draft work on the second (and only really good) Star Wars movie, and though apparently very little of her work remains in the finished film, her pioneering work as an author of pulp sci-fi well merited the film's being dedicated to her.

Turns out she also recently had a centenary: December 7th, 1915, was her birthday. I nipped off to Project Gutenberg and downloaded (*clears throat*) Black Amazon of Mars!!!

This is really only a novella in length, but it was oodles of fun. Brackett's two main influences here are quite clearly Burroughs's Barsoom/John Carter stories and Howard's Conan the Barbarian. And while the story makes no pretences to either psychological or scientific realism, or to philosophical heft, it was jolly good--better written, possibly, than any but the best of Burroughs's or Howard's work. Brackett tells her tale with a glorious, taut economy of words--and of everything else. This is a very lean, spare story, but the plot and the world-building are both good enough to keep it from feeling like a mere skeleton of a tale. Pulp fiction was all about the plot and the melodramatics; with everything else pared down to the minimum, Brackett's essential artistic talent shines all the more brightly.

From a worldview perspective, I was fascinated to compare Brackett's story with Edgar Rice Burroughs's. Brackett's hero, Eric John Stark, we are regularly told, has only the lightest veneer of civilisation over a caveman core, having been raised by animal tribes on Mercury. As a pulp hero, he is obviously intended to be the coolest, biggest, baddest warrior barbarian ever, and he's all about the primal urges, which is what makes him so cool. That puts him in rather stark (pun not intended) contrast with Burroughs's chivalrous Southern gentleman hero John Carter. What makes John Carter so cool is that as well as being the best swordsman on two worlds and an unstoppable one-man-army, he's also a thorough gentleman, a man of refinement and self-control. Everyone on Barsoom is a barbarian; it takes the Earthman to transcend that, to win the princess's hand through humble service, tame wild beasts through kindness, and become the Totally Awesome Warlord of Barsoom through winning the savage loyalty of his barbaric opponents.

Brackett's story was good. But when it comes to main characters, give me John Carter over Eric John Stark any day.

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