Is Our Writers Learning? The Coming of the Terrans

Leigh Brackett’s THE COMING OF THE TERRANS collects five of her Martian stories written from 1948 (Beast Jewel of Mars) to the early 1960s (The Road to Sinharat and the luridly titled Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon). They suit my love of pulp perfectly, and I think there’s enough of interest to make them worth a blog post of its own (obviously)

The stories are set on Brackett’s decadent, dying Mars, starting in 1998 with Beast Jewel (the story doesn’t include a date so I’m guessing either Brackett or the editor assigned dates for the book). Said jewel is part of the ritual of Shanga, which a Martian cult uses to regress humans, allowing them the chance to slip the bonds of civilized behavior and act out their fantasies of sex or violence without inhibition. Burk’s lover became addicted to Shanga and vanished into the cult; Burk now follows her. This has its risks because he’s experienced the addiction himself. And after a certain point, Shanga followers begin to devolve into their ancestral forms. The Martians, an ancient race who despise their human occupiers, take great joy in this.

The final story, set 40 years later, is Road to Sinharat. While the title lost city is certainly a great pulp invention, the story itself seems more in tune with the mood of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when colonies were declaring independence right and left. Earth is determined to take over Mars’ slim water resources for the Martians’ own good, bringing the best of Earth’s technology to bear. As the protagonist struggles to prove, this has happened before, and it didn’t work well.

Brackett’s Mars is a good example of how to borrow from another writer without ripping them off. Her Mars is clearly shaped by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planetary adventures, which Brackett freely acknowledged. Like Burroughs’ Barsoom, Brackett’s Mars is a once great world, now dried up and dying. But ERB’s Martians were stoic, proud, passionate warriors. While Brackett’s Martian barbarians fit that mold, city dwellers are corrupt, decadent, frequently malicious but in small petty ways (rather than duel, they’d knife you in the back). Coupled with Brackett’s lusher style of writing (she’s definitely the better wordsmith)it feels very different.

The stories also show that amazing worldbuilding isn’t necessarily necessary for a good story (I include the modifier because I know a lot of readers value detailed worldbuilding more than I do). Brackett’s Mars isn’t all that alien; the stories of sinister cults, lost cities and ancient super-science aren’t that different from the stories other pulp writers told about the Third World. Mars could almost be Egypt under British imperial control: we have the sinister ancient cults, the angry resentment of the natives, the decadence, the secret ancient wisdom — standard pulp portrayals of far-off lands. But that doesn’t bother me much (YMMV of course); the stories are still good, and Brackett doesn’t make it feel as if it’s “just” the colonized Middle East (the dead seas, the dwindling canals, they all give it an alien feel).

But I think that also shows why so many people do find specfic from the olden days so distasteful. Mars isn’t the British Empire but the tropes are there; I know some people who don’t like them used for the Third World don’t feel they’re improved by giving other planets the same treatment. The hero of Sinharat is a “white savior” doing for the natives what they can’t do for themselves. I still like the stories, but I can understand if someone else took issue with them. But for me, the charms outweigh the flaws.

#SFWApro. Cover art is uncredited, all rights remain with current holder.

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Filed under Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading, Writing

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