Leigh Brackett Solar System
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Although Brackett's stories do not form a series with a consistent chronology and causally-connected incidents, more than half of them are recognizably set in the same universe: a Solar System of the near future, with space travel and distinctive alien and human cultures on Mercury, Venus, Mars, the Asteroids, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The stories of the Brackett Universe are bound together by shared terminology, place-names, "facts" about biology and culture, and occasionally shared characters. For instance, Brackett's Mercury is a nightmare world of extremes, where powerful storms rack a narrow habitable twilight belt; her Venus is a place where the liha-trees grow in the swamps around embattled outworld cities; and Mars is a place where you can drink thil at Madame Kan's in Jekkara of the Low Canals, or wander among barbarian warriors in the northern Drylands of Kesh and Shun.
Brackett's earlier works set in this universe frequently concern the struggle of settlers, from Earth or elsewhere in the solar system, against the harsh environments of their new worlds and against the hostility of the planets' native peoples. In later works, Brackett shows greater sympathy to the planetary aborigines, and the stories describe their conflict with well-intentioned but destructive individuals and bureaucracies.
Brackett's stories in this universe were written over a period of twenty-four years, from 1940 to 1964 (with, however, only two stories in the last decade of this period). Her first two stories, set on Mars, are only tenuously related to the others; however, her third published story, The Stellar Legion introduces a large number of themes which were afterwards characteristic of Brackett's Solar System stories. Brackett's cessation of writing new stories in this universe coincides with the missions of the Mariner space probes, whose data made her visions of Venus and Mars no longer even remotely plausible.
The Worlds of Leigh Brackett
Brackett's writing, in common with much of the science fiction written from the 1920s to 1950s, was based on the most optimistic interpretations of the planetary astronomy of the day. In Brackett's solar system, there are habitable worlds in every planetary orbit from Mercury to Saturn.
The time at which the stories in the Brackett Solar System is set is uncertain, and may vary by centuries from story to story. Actual dates are rarely provided, and range from the late 20th century to the 26th century.
The Inner Worlds
Mercury is the primary setting for four of Brackett's stories. In agreement with the best astronomy of the day (down to 1965), Brackett's Mercury is tidally locked to the Sun, having periods of rotation and orbital revolution that were equally of 88 days. Brackett's Mercury therefore has one side that always faces the sun and is extremely hot (Sunside) and another that never faces the sun and is extremely cold (Darkside). Between them lies a tiny habitable zone that circles Mercury from pole to pole, where the Sun wanders back and forth over the horizon; this is called the Twilight Belt.
Mercury is the home of a few intrepid colonists from Earth, some of whom have reverted to savagery. Its extreme conditions make it very unattractive to most visitors. Fewer still have ever gone inside the orbit of Mercury, where the Sun is an eternal danger. Mercury's port to the outside world is the Trade City of Sun City.
The Triangle The three worlds of Venus, Earth, and Mars are colloquially known as "The Triangle". These planets have the largest populations and highest degree of civilization, and were the first to receive the enduring imprint of Terran colonization. They have, at different times in their histories, had their own governments or come under various forms of interplanetary authority.
The astronomical Venus is a world with a very slow retrograde rotation (twenty days longer than its 225-day year), 500° heat, and sulfuric acid clouds, devoid of all life. Brackett's Venus, however -- the setting for seven of her stories -- is a lush, tropical, savage world, in which almost everything is alive and dangerous.
Venus appears to have a length of day only slightly longer than Earth's. Its surface is partially covered by oceans, and partly by land-masses which are for the most part low-lying and swampy. The rarer terrain of the High Plateaus (or Uplands) is highly desirable, and so, of course, mostly claimed. Much of the land mass of Venus lies behind the dangerous Mountains of White Cloud, and is largely unexplored.
Venus is inhabited by a large number of intelligent species. The most common are the pale-skinned, white-haired Venusian humans, who are evidently of the same species as Earth humans, though the historical relationship between the two is unclear. There are also many inhuman species, such as the Kraylens of the swamp borders, and the reptilian Nahali of the deep swamps. The Uplands also house some intelligent plant species, who are however totally alien to the human way of thinking.
Terran contact with Venus was initially blundering, hostile, and aggressive, and resulted in many conflicts with the native Venusians. Once Terrans had a foothold on Venus, they began systematic exploitation of its mineral resources, particularly coal from the swamps. Attempts to "civilize" Venusian tribes were poorly received. In later centuries, however, the Venusian humans at least accustomed themselves to new ways of life, and Venusians were commonly seen on the spaceways.
To outsiders, the best known city on Venus is its Trade City, Vhia. The rest of Venus is largely non-urbanized, discounting isolated frontier forts and settlements.
Only one of the stories -- The Halfling -- in Brackett's solar system is set on Earth. However, judging from this story and references in stories set elsewhere, Earth in the future is much like Earth at present: very populous, highly urbanized, rich in comparison to the other worlds of the System. Earth has only one intelligent species, Earth humans, which it lavishly exports to other worlds.
Earth's only satellite, the Moon, plays no very significant role in these stories, but is shown to have some native underground life. It also serves as a prison colony.
Fourteen of Brackett's stories are set at least partly upon Mars, making it her favoured venue. Like the astronomical Mars, Brackett's Mars is a dry, desiccated desert world; however, it is warm enough, and has a thick enough atmosphere to support life.
The major intelligent species on Mars is one of dark-skinned, yellow- or green-eyed humanoids, outwardly very similar to Earth humans though perhaps of entirely different origins. They can be divided into two main groups: the Low-canallers and the Drylanders.
- Low Canals
The Low-canallers are the inheritors of the very ancient Martian civilization, which dates back to a past, tens of thousands of years earlier, in which Mars still had oceans and was ruled by Sea-Kings. The drying up of Mars left their descendants much impoverished, with the last remnants of their water confined to canals which are the sole remains of the ancient seas. They inhabit cities such as Jekkara, Valkis, and Barrakesh, engaging in all manner of iniquitous activity: gambling, drug traffic, prostitution, slave trade, and vices even more profound. There have been efforts by the planetary authorities to tame and civilize these low-canal cities, but their efforts have not countered the persistence of ancient but unspeakable superstitions among the Low-canallers.
Much of northern and equatorial Mars consists of the desert Drylands, inhabited by barbarian tribes, such as those of Kesh and Shun, whose primary business is warfare. The Drylanders hold themselves apart from the decadent Low-canallers, but can sometimes be convinced to join forces with them against the planetary authorities, leading to the possibility of planet-wide rebellion. In late years, some Drylanders have taken to spacefaring as easily as to thak and vaard.
As might be expected from so old a planet, Mars also hides remnant civilizations, even older than the humanoid races of Mars, in out-of-the-way corners of the planet; on lost islands of the dried-up seas, or near the unexplored regions of the polar caps.
The latest but possibly most dangerous addition to the Martian landscape are the Terrans, whose Trade City is Kahora, but who have extensively interfered all over Mars, sometimes for outright exploitation, but sometimes in a well-meaning attempt to regulate what they see as the backward ways of the Martians. This interference extends to the lives of the human colonists as well. In the 1953 novel Alpha Centauri or Die, the overly regulated government on Mars has become so stifling that a small group of men secretly restore an old spaceship and go with their families to a habitable planet of Alpha Centauri, where they can govern themselves.
The Outer Worlds
Interplanetary commerce was restricted to the Triangle at first, and only later spread out into the asteroids and the planets beyond.
- The Belt
The Main Asteroid belt – often simply called The Belt – is a haven for the lawless of the System, and all others who wish not to be noticed by the interplanetary authorities. It includes a vast number of tiny worlds, many of which have been made habitable; they include Sark, once a refuge for thieves and pirates, Circe the pleasure world, and mysterious Astellar.
The stories No Man's Land in Space and The Veil of Astellar take place wholly or partly in the Belt.
- Jupiter – The gas giant Jupiter, as in the astronomical Solar System, is uninhabitable, massive and surfaceless; however, all four of its largest moons have life on them. At some point, probably late in their history, the Jovians came under a common administration and fought a war with Venus.
- Io – not known to harbor any intelligent life, though quags are found here, as well as the unique compound Jovium. It is the setting for the story Outpost on Io.
- Europa – has at least two intelligent species, one winged and one multi-legged and tentacular.
- Ganymede – the volcanic activity of Ganymede keeps it warm and allows for the growth of luxuriant jungles. Cities like Komar occur on the plateaus that rise above the jungles. Ganymede has at least two intelligent species, one small and lemur-like, one human. The story Dancing Girl of Ganymede is set here.
- Callisto – also has at least two intelligent species, both humanoid, one with feline characteristics.
- Saturn The ringed planet, far from the Sun, has some rather obscure life forms.
- Titan – Saturn's largest moon is home to the Baraki; however, descendants of a Terran colony also hail from this moon.
- Tethys – This small moon of Saturn produced an alien species, longer-lived than humans.
- 10th Planet A tenth planet of the sun is described somewhat perfunctorily in The Jewel of Bas although the time-frame in which it takes place is unknown, and its relationships with the other planets of the Leigh Brackett solar system seems to be nil. This planet has an artificially maintained environment on the inner surface of a round world, maintained by ancient androids, and the inhabitants, originally of Earth-stock, are not even aware of the sky, or space around them.
Stories in the Brackett Solar System
The following stories belong to the Brackett Solar System. They are grouped by location and in order of publication:
- Brackett's Mercury Stories
- The Demons of Darkside
- A World Is Born
- Cube From Space
- Shannach – the Last
- Brackett's Venus Stories
- The Stellar Legion
- Interplanetary Reporter
- The Dragon-Queen of Venus (aka The Dragon-Queen of Jupiter)
- The Citadel of Lost Ships
- The Blue Behemoth
- Terror Out of Space
- The Vanishing Venusians
- Lorelei of the Red Mist
- The Moon That Vanished
- Enchantress of Venus (aka City of the Lost Ones)
- Brackett's Mars Stories
- Martian Quest
- The Treasure of Ptakuth
- Water Pirate
- The Sorcerer of Rhiannon
- The Veil of Astellar
- Shadow Over Mars (aka The Nemesis from Terra)
- The Beast-Jewel of Mars
- Quest of the Starhope
- Queen of the Martian Catacombs (exp. to The Secret of Sinharat)
- Sea-Kings of Mars (exp. to The Sword of Rhiannon)
- Black Amazon of Mars (exp. to People of the Talisman)
- The Last Days of Shandakor
- Mars Minus Bisha
- The Road to Sinharat
- Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon
- Alpha Centauri or Die
- Other Stories set in the Brackett Universe
- No Man's Land in Space
- Child of the Green Light
- Outpost on Io
- The Halfling
- The Dancing Girl of Ganymede
- Unrelated and dubious stories
The Lake of the Gone Forever and Thralls of the Endless Night take place on asteroids in the solar system, but both lack the explicit markers that tag most of Brackett's stories in this universe. Child of the Sun and Retreat to the Stars both take place in the solar system, but apparently in an alternative reality where an all-powerful interplanetary government is hounding the last few rebels to the brink of extinction. The Ark of Mars begins on what is recognizably Brackett's Mars, though apparently at a distant future time; however, it soon leaves it. The Skaith trilogy, although intentionally linked to the Solar System stories through the person of Eric John Stark, takes place in a world in which humans seem to have had interstellar travel for some time -- which is not at all the case for the other Solar System stories. The Jewel of Bas does not contradict anything in the other Leigh Brackett solar system stories, but has little to no relationship with them as well--its proper inclusion in the setting is difficult to verify.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to provide a fixed chronology for the Solar System stories; they were not, of course, written at first with the intention of being parts of a coherent universe, but rather reflect an accumulating re-use of detail and scene from one story to the next, until a universe with common characteristics had been built up after the fact.
However, some generalizations about the relative order of some of the stories can be made, which may help improve one's appreciation of them; some of the differences in tone and treatment of the story backgrounds can be justified as reflecting changes that have taken place in the universe over time.
Only two of the stories contain internal dates: Water Pirate is given the date 2418, and Interplanetary Reporter is set sometime in the early 26th century (i.e., about a hundred years later).
The table of contents and story headers in the collection The Coming of the Terrans provides dates for five of the Martian stories. They are:
- 1998 The Beast-Jewel of Mars
- 2016 Mars Minus Bisha
- 2024 The Last Days of Shandakor
- 2031 Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon
- 2038 The Road to Sinharat
There are some grounds for doubting whether these dates can be taken very seriously as part of a consistent future chronology. First, none of the dates appears within the stories themselves, or was associated with the stories as first published in various science fiction magazines. Second, the dates stretch credibility as to the rapidity of progress in exploring the planets; according to Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon, Earth people founded the Trade City of Kahora fifty years before the date of the story, but 1981 is only 14 years after 1967, when The Coming of the Terrans was published; the dates are now, of course, impossible. Third, the technological milieu described, and sometimes named, in these stories and others of the same time-period is consistent with the milieu of other stories that are set at least 300 years in the future. Even if it is not possible to take these dates at face value, however, it is still possible that they represent Brackett's intentions as to the relative chronology and spacing of the stories.
The three Eric John Stark stories have an internal chronology which shows their proper order to be Queen of the Martian Catacombs/The Secret of Sinharat, Black Amazon of Mars/People of the Talisman (a short space of time after the previous story), and Enchantress of Venus. Queen of the Martian Catacombs clearly takes place within the same time-frame as The Coming of the Terrans; Queen of the Martian Catacombs explicitly refers back to The Beast-Jewel of Mars (in the first published version; the expanded book version is more obscure on this point), while The Road to Sinharat refers back to Queen of the Martian Catacombs, and appears to take place many years later. The revised version, The Secret of Sinharat, in turn incorporates details from The Road to Sinharat.
The five stories in The Coming of the Terrans and the two Martian Stark stories constitute one large group among Brackett's Mars stories. Another group seems to take place at least a few decades later, when the Terran presence on Mars is greater, even in formerly closed Martian cities like Jekkara -- which has now acquired an interplanetary spaceport. This group includes Sea-Kings of Mars/The Sword of Rhiannon, Shadow Over Mars/The Nemesis from Terra, and The Veil of Astellar. All three of these stories (and, among the Venus stories, The Stellar Legion) share references to the disreputable Jekkaran vice den called Madam(e) Kan's, although the proprietress herself is only briefly mentioned in The Veil of Astellar. The last-named story has one internal date, though not a specific one; it takes place 300 years after the first trip from Mars to Jupiter. It may be noted that in Queen of the Martian Catacombs, colonies on Jupiter's moons seem to have been established for some time.
The earlier stories, The Treasure of Ptakuth, Water Pirate, (which introduce the tribes of Shun and Kesh) and The Sorcerer of Rhiannon could fit in almost anywhere. Martian Quest, the least closely linked of these stories, seems to come from a later period of wider settlement by humans from Earth and Venus.
The Venus stories have even fewer internal indications of time than the Martian ones. The companion pieces Lorelei of the Red Mist and Enchantress of Venus synchronize with the Martian Stark stories; The Stellar Legion with the "Madam Kan" stories. Other stories (The Vanishing Venusians, Terror Out of Space, Dragon-Queen of Venus and The Moon that Vanished) reflect a chaotic period of settlement and conflict with native Venusian peoples, human and non-human, which fits with the setting of The Stellar Legion. The Citadel of Lost Ships seems to be later in date, showing a more dominant Terran presence, reorganizing the administration of Venusian lands. Interplanetary Reporter takes place on a Venus of a later date (ostensibly the early 26th century). Several other stories not set on Venus feature native Venusians as soldiers, settlers, and spacemen working off their own planet.
The Mercury stories are even harder to put in order. Cube from Space, evidently the earliest, takes place at a time when humans have not yet reached Jupiter, and the space around it is an empty zone. Shannach — the Last is much later, 300 years after colonization of Mercury began. The Demons of Darkside and A World Is Born are unplaceable; the latter refers to a "Second Interplanetary War", but that war is unplaceable.
In addition to Cube from Space, Quest of the Starhope also reflects a world in which travel beyond the asteroids has not taken place. In most other stories, however, Jupiter and Saturn are sites of human colonies (e.g. The Secret of Sinharat, Enchantress of Venus, The Stellar Legion, The Citadel of Lost Ships) or are wild frontier regions, still being explored (Shadow Over Mars). In some stories, however, Jupiter is a united state of its own, capable of making war on the Inner Worlds; these stories are Outpost on Io and Interplanetary Reporter, which together with No Man's Land In Space form a group of space operas that seem to take place at a later date than most of the other stories. They reflect a time when Mars and Venus are well-integrated into an interplanetary order, while most of Brackett's stories describe an earlier period of exploration and conflict on still wild planets.