Rhonda Knight is a frequent contributor to WWEnd through her many reviews and her excellent blog series Automata 101 and Outside the Norm. Ronda is an Associate Professor of English at Coker College in Hartsville, SC. She teaches Medieval and Renaissance literature as well as composition courses.
One of the intended or unintended consequences of the WoGF page is that viewers are faced with rows upon rows of authors’ faces, which they don’t always recognize. Often when I see the face of an author that another participant has chosen, I think “What an interesting face? Who is she?” This is the way that I chose my “random read.” As I was trolling along, I saw the face of Leigh Brackett (1915-1978) and thought “She looks interesting.” I was not wrong. The link to her WWE bio hinted that Brackett was a significant foremother for many of the other women whose faces look out at us from the WoGF page.
While I don’t want to turn this into a biography rather than a review of The Ginger Star, I would like to discuss a little of what I learned about Leigh Brackett that makes me award her foremother status. Early in her career, Brackett wrote both science fiction and detective stories for such pulps as Astounding Science Fiction, Thrilling Detective and New Detective. Her first novel was a hard-boiled detective tale, No Good from a Corpse, which has been hailed by critic Bill Pronzini as more like Raymond Chandler’s writing than Chandler’s own. (I have since read this novel and agree that it is a great example of the hard-boiled detective.) This novel served as Brackett’s entrance into Hollywood and scriptwriting. The story goes like this: After reading No Good from a Corpse, the legendary director Howard Hawks said “this guy Brackett–he’d be good to write the screenplay of The Big Sleep with Bill Faulkner.” Although Hawks was surprised that a woman appeared in response to his offer, he hired her and began a long professional relationship with her. She was a screenwriter for many other Hawks directed films, including the John Wayne vehicles, Rio Bravo (1959), Hatari! (1962), El Dorado, (1966), and Rio Lobo (1970). In addition, she wrote the satiric screenplay based on Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye (1973), directed by Robert Altman. She had completed a first draft of The Empire Strikes Back for George Lucas just before she died, and he dedicated the movie to her posthumously. Her version of the movie is here.
Of interest to us here at WWE, Brackett wrote several science fiction novels and many of her stories were later placed into collections. She even served as a mentor and collaborator for younger writer, Ray Bradbury. Leigh Brackett’s career shows her versatility, moving from science fiction, to detective fiction, to westerns as well as moving from short stories to novels to screenplays. She was a real Woman of Genre Fiction.
The Ginger Star is a planetary romance that revives Eric John Stark from an earlier series of works and places him in a new solar system. Stark’s stories first began as a series of novellas in Planet Stories and continued to several novels. A list of Stark stories and novels is here. The Ginger Star is the first of three novels set on the planet Skaith, which revolves around a dying star: “Skaith’s old ginger-colored sun was going down in a senile fury of crimson and molten brass, laying streaks of unhealthy brilliance across the water” (9). Skaith once had technology in transportation and genetic engineering but has reverted to a mixture of medieval and nomadic societies. An inhabitant describes the old world this way:
“Once, when Old Sun was young, all this land was rich and there were great cities. This road served them. Folk didn’t ride on beasts in those days, or drive clumsy wagons. They had machines, bright shining things as swift as the wind. Or if they wanted to they could take wing and rush through the sky like shooting stars. Now we plod, as you see, across the cold corpse of the world.” (98).
On this dying planet, Brackett creates a conflict of power structures. There are sharp class divisions between the privileged classes who don’t work and those that work to support the majority of the population, “a third or more of the population in virtual slavery to supply the rest.” The Lords Protectors, a mysterious group who remain within their Citadel, their agents called the Wandsmen, and the Farers are among the privileged classes. Brackett describes the Farers as “the careless, itinerant children of the Lords Protector, who neither toiled nor spun, but blew lightly with the winds of the world” (10). The third type of inhabitant is the independent, nomadic Northern tribes. These various tribes grudgingly accept the power of the Lords Protector but show contempt for the peoples of the Southern city-states for allowing themselves to be in thrall to the Lords Protector. The novel’s conflict arises when members of these Southern city-states contact the capitol of the Galactic Union seeking permission to emigrate away from Skaith. Simon Ashton, a bureaucrat on the planet Pax, the capitol, journeys to Skaith to investigate the validity of the claim. He is taken prisoner by the Wandsmen, who, of course, do not want the planet’s labor force leaving.
Aston is a significant figure in Stark’s life. Stark’s back-story that presumably emerges in Brackett’s earlier texts tells us that the child Stark was the lone human survivor of an accident in a mining community on the planet Mercury. The indigenous Mercurians, an insectoid race, took him in. Raised as a feral child, he was found by other humans, then caged and displayed as an oddity. Ashton freed Stark from this life and taught him to be “human,” in Stark’s words. Therefore, Stark’s mission as he arrives on Skaith is “rescue or revenge” (13). Brackett creates Stark as a romantic character who is well suited for such a mission: “He was, as the old phrase had it, a wolf’s-head—a totally masterless man in a society where everyone respectable belonged to something. He bestowed his allegiance only where he chose, usually for pay. He was a mercenary by trade, and there were enough little wars going on both in and out of the Union, enough remote people calling on him for the use of his talents, so that he was able to make a reasonable living doing what he did best, Fighting.” (7) This masterless man without any loyalty (except to Aston) arrives in Skaith as a figure of prophecy: the Dark Man who will destroy Skaith.
This prophetic claim, which preceded his arrival, makes him a constant prisoner, as one rival faction after another captures him, usually seizing him from another group. This plot device makes for interesting reading because we are introduced to many of the diverse ethnic groups of Skaith as they capture Stark. Some of these include a matrilineal nocturnal clan, a group of genetically-engineered cave dwellers, and a city of Iron Age magicians. Some groups support emigration and capture him because they think that he will take them away. Others believe that their world should stay the same and want to kill him because he is an agent of change. Stark asks one captor: “But how would your people feel about emigrating.” The man replies: “The land shapes us. We are what we are because of it. If we were in another place, we would be another people. No” (80). However, this group does not capture him because Stark represents change but rather because of their greed. Like this group, many capture him because the Lords Protector have put a price on his head. This reward insures Stark’s movement north to the Citadel, the home of the Lords Protector.
The Howard Hawks story I told above purports that he wanted Brackett for her crisp dialogue, which is certainly apparent in The Ginger Star. However, in my reading of this novel, I’ve been most impressed with her evocative descriptions of the planet and its people. I also enjoyed the anthropological interest that she shows in each new group Stark encounters; for example, “on the forehead of the mask, was the winged-disc sun-symbol, which Stark had found to be almost universal. On the sides of the mask, covering the cheeks, were stylized grain patterns. Stark supposed the man was both chief and high priest. It was strange to find a Corn King here, where no corn had grown for centuries” (106). This book did not seem “pulpy” to me at all. While the plot itself was simple, it was executed in an interesting way; action did not dominate description; and that description was not hackneyed. I will read the two sequels to this novel, The Hounds of Skaith (1974) and The Reavers of Skaith (1976), and I will certainly seek out other Leigh Brackett novels, including her detective works.