As a big Leigh Brackett fan I’ve naturally been snapping up the Haffner omnibuses that promise to collect all the “planetary romances” (i.e. space operas, not kissing-in-space, although there is some of that) by the greatest practitioner of that form. (The Haffner website may not inspire confidence, but they produce beautiful, carefully made, carefully edited books.) The first of these was the fascinating but somewhat uneven volume Martian Quest: The Early Brackett, collecting her first three years of sf-ish stories. The second book in the series was really a half-book, assembling Brackett’s stories about Eric John Stark along with her spouse Edmond Hamilton’s Star King novels. The reason for the joint collection was that they wrote a collaboration which put Brackett’s Stark into the future of Hamilton’s Star Kings (originally for Harlan Ellison’s legendary if not absolutely mythical anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions). The latest (but not the last) Haffner omnibus is Lorelei of the Red Mist: Planetary Romances.
The first two Haffner collections are well worth owning, despite their hefty pricetag. (I’m sure the same will be true of LDV, should it ever see the light of day.) Martian Quest has some relatively weak stories in it–inevitable in any series that strives for completeness–but there are some real gems here, including the title story, and another early entry in her Martian mythos, “Sorcerer of Rhiannon.” (Both of these were published in Campbell’s Astounding, by the way, a fact which rather freaked me out. I think of Brackett as the antithesis of a Campbell writer, but he did publish her first. The young Theodore Sturgeon was also heavily supported by Campbell. He really was a great editor, before his obsessions got the upper hand of him.) But even in her least stories Brackett is intent on telling a tale, and perfecting that radiant pulpy style of hers. Here’s a spaceship taking off from Venus in her minor tale, “Interplanetary Reporter”: “it shot up through the rain, past the miles-thick layers of steaming clouds, out into the star-shot black of space.” The sentence is as luminous, swift and vivid as the event it describes.
Stark and the Star Kings I bought primarily for the eponymous tale, but also to have all the Stark stories in a single volume. Three surprises awaited me. The first, an unpleasant one, was that the title story was a dud–one of these talky outlines rather than a realstory. Hamilton/Brackett, unlike Kuttner/Moore, do not seem to have collaborated well together.
The second surprise, more pleasant, was that the Hamilton stuff was not mere filler. The first Star Kings novel is a space opera in Hamilton’s dopiest vein, making the Captain Future books look in comparison like something by Le Guin. We have the displaced American hero in a far-future democratic star-empire with a hereditary ruling class and secret prisons (these are the good guys, by the way); check. We have ostensibly cunning intrigues as transparent as a child’s first lie; check. We have a set of stalwart heroes as dumb as ever darkened the pages of pulp fiction, one of whom is the inevitable space princess; check and double-check. My copy is now riddled with marginal notations like this one on page 59: “A fairly obvious ploy, which EH’s fatheaded characters will fall straight into.” (And they did, too.) Still, it’s all good: a beautiful example of a completely formalized type of storytelling. The sequel, Return to the Stars, written twenty-some years later, is something else again. It’s still a space opera with hairbreadth escapes and treacheries and adventures. But the style is more controlled, the characterization is more adept, EH’s characters are not infallible but now they can at least see the obvious after it smashes into their foreheads, sometimes even before it does. He was pushing sixty when the sequel was published, but he hadn’t stopped learning about writing. Apparently he never did. (For a counter-example, look at the rather crotchety work done by E.E. “Doc” Smith published in the fifties and sixties. But only if you have a high tolerance for anti-politician and anti-union hysteria.)
The third surprise was that I hadn’t really read a couple of Brackett’s Eric John Stark stories before; I just thought I had. Some uncredited (and less-skilled) hand apparently altered these stories for their first paperback publication (when “Black Amazon of Mars” became Secret of Sinharat and “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” became People of the Talisman), and these mutilated versions are the ones which have seen print since then. The originals (especially “Black Amazon”) seem to me much superior.
So both the earlier Haffner collections were great, but Lorelei of the Red Mist is, I think, better than both of them. Every story is a classic of the sub-genre. The weakest story may be the title one, where a character named both Starke (sic) and Conan (sic) swashbuckles across the sea of red mist on Venus (a venue Brackett would return to in “Enchantress of Venus”). If that sounds pretty damn cool, I have to admit that it is pretty damn cool; it’s just that the book is swimming in stories that are even cooler: like “Thralls of Endless Night” (about the distant descendants of space-crash survivors, struggling to adapt and survive in an intolerable environment) or “The Jewel of Bas” (maybe my favorite of all her stories; I won’t describe it further) or… As I say, every one is golden.
One thing I noticed (while looking over the three collections to write this post) was that Brackett’s earlier weaker stories were also shorter. There are 20 stories in Martian Quest, averaging just under 24 pages per story. Lorelei… contains only 12 stories but they are all longer, averaging 38 pages per story. The three Brackett solo-stories from Stark and the Star Kings are longer still, averaging nearly 71 pages. (The format of all three books is identical, so it’s not a question of font or page size either.)
Part of this may be due to the fact that, as Brackett got more experienced and better known, editors were willing to take longer stories from her. But I think that, for some sub-genres, it’s hard for a story to be better without being longer. You can’t introduce a new planet, a new species, a new type of plot-predicament, without deployingsome extra words. And even more words may be necessary to make vivid something the reader has seen before: it’s difficult for a dragon to really spread its wings within the Draconian limits of modern word-counts.
The health (or unhealth) of the modern genre market for short-fiction is a perennial topic that has just come up again. But if some perceive a decline in the scope and impact of modern genre fiction in the short form (and some, not all, do), part of the answer may lie in how very short it tends to be. And, as short fiction moves toward an era which is post-print and post-professional (the former is coming; the latter is already here: no one makes a living writing short fiction), I see less and less reason for these length restrictions.
“Tell us something we don’t know,” mutter the readers who’ve waded through the above verbiage.
Anyway, the short version is, in Max Beerbohm‘s classic formulation, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”