For the reading of Leigh Brackett’s short fiction

At some point in the 1960s, science fiction finally realized how big and interesting a topic gender and social change could be. Ursula Le Guin was the first woman to win a Hugo for Best Novel in 1970 for The Left Hand of Darkness, and then female authors won the award 4 times in the following 10 years. The late 1960s was when lots of female authors started breaking through, like Anne McCaffrey and James Tiptree, Jr.. Even more than the increasing prominence of female authors, gender became part of science fiction itself—compare the extremely dated traditional gender roles in Robert Heinlein’s “Red Planet” (1949) with his “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” (1966). There were important female writers before the 1960s, of course, and contemporary publishers have done great work to bring the works of such sword-and-sorcery writers as C.L. Moore.

But it astonishes me how much of Leigh Brackett‘s swashbuckling planetary science fiction is out of print. Leigh Brackett was one of the most prolific female authors working in science fiction prior to the New Wave. Leigh Brackett was a well-published and well-regarded pulp science fiction and film writer in the 1940s and 1950s. Cinephiles will recall many of her film credits, and Charlie Jane Anders had a great post on her script contributions to “The Empire Strikes Back”, with a link to Brackett’s original script. Yet Brackett’s Eric John Stark and Skaith novels are nearly her only works in print, novels that came at the end of her writing career. There have been anthologies of her earlier stories published once or twice over the last few decades, but these are currently out of print and with exorbitant prices on the used market on Amazon. But…there are eBooks these days! There’s no reason for old books to not be in print! It boggles my mind.

I’ve only read the novel Black Amazon of Mars, thanks to the public domain; it’s available from Project Gutenberg and LibriVox. One of the most striking things about it, besides its anachronistic and adventure-filled view of the solar system, is how well-developed its fictional universe is, full of references to alien societies developed over more than a decade or writing. It’s the original stories that established and developed the Brackettverse that are not in print. Certainly, the science in these stories is dated—Mercury, Venus, and Mars all have native biospheres teeming with dangerous creatures and alien civilizations that threaten settlers and adventurers. But what I read the pulps are not their hard-science portrayal of extraterrestrial life, but their weird monsters, lurid societies, and general craziness. We still re-read Edgar Rice Burroughs not for Mars, but for Barsoom—for the Tharks, kaldanes, rykors, and jetan. I expect the Brackettverse will be worth reading for some of the same reasons the Barsoomverse is.

Fortunately a lot of the pulps have been digitized and put online. For many of these stories, there’s no need to wait for an anthology to be reprinted. I love reading projects: reading every Hugo-winning novel, reading Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon stories in publication order, or reading every Earthsea book in 2019. Here’s a list of Leigh Brackett’s planetary stories in publication order (from her Wikipedia page), tagged with information from her ISFD page. Maybe eventually someone will go ahead and bring these to the wider reading public, but hopefully I’ll have time over the next year(s) to read and review these.

It’s interesting how often Leigh Brackett got top billing in these magazines, how many of the ads targeted women, and how metal some of these covers are.


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