Friday, 12 June 2009

Sea-Kings Of Mars and Otherworldly Stories - Leigh Brackett

This is a wonderful collection of the best, not just of Leigh Brackett's work, but also of any work in the science fantasy genre. More specifically, of scientific romances set on Mars and Venus. This is a huge sub-genre, and much of it is truly awful. Some of it is sublime.

I have always been fascinated by these stories even though, from an early interest in astronomy, I knew the worlds were fantasies. Mars in particular seems to lend itself perfectly as a setting. Close to Earth, yet wholly alien with an aura of ancient times and of something now lost forever.

This aura has been exploited to the full by Brackett. To begin with, she is a superb writer. Her style suits the subject matter to perfection. In any other genre it would be florid to the point of Imperial Purple, but in this context it is suitably exotic. One gets a sense of otherness, of other cultures and strange scents and sights. But Brackett did something else with the genre that raised her stories well above most of the others. Because, underlying the exotic nature of science fantasy, she introduced a bedrock of Chandleresque realism. Her central characters would not have been out of place as private investigators or adventurers in 30s and 40s California (and she wrote the screenplays for The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye). They are flawed outsiders living by their own moral codes, losing just as readily as winning. That noirish sensibility works superbly in the sumptuous setting of a Mars long past its prime.

Furthermore, the stories are unpretentious. Brackett may have introduced a touch of realism and dealt with certain moral issues in her work, but above all she was producing entertainments. Vivid, lively, fun, and engrossing. And she succeeded in a way that many writers do not. If science fantasy is your thing, these are the sturdy roots of what has become a turgid and bloated genre. They are well worth visiting for their freshness and for showing us all how it should be done.