Leigh Brackett’s “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” is the guilty pleasure reading you’ve always wanted without quite knowing you wanted it. Incredibly, it effortlessly combines many awesome things together at once in a way that would be impossible to imagine without actually reading it:
- Savagery that explodes off the page just like in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan.
- Contempt for decadent civilizations that explodes off the page just like in Robert E. Howard’s Conan.
- Scintillating femme fatales and genuinely appealing feminine foils that explode off the page just like in A. Merritt’s best novels.
It is AWESOME.
And it even packs in the sort of “you’re my only hope moment” that would energize the opening act of Star Wars. That’s not much of a surprise coming from the woman that would ultimately be tapped to write a script for The Empire Strikes Back.
What is surprising is seeing the manifold layers of scheming, betrayal, and intrigue that most people associate with Frank Herbert’s Dune. Combined with a “He shall know your ways as if born to them” story beat, and it really is a shock how little Frank Herbert would have had to add to the admixture you find here in order to produce a critically acclaimed science fiction masterwork. Yes, he had to indulge in expansive, ponderous description of the sort you find in, oh, I dunno… The Lord of the Rings, yes. Yes, he had to have a gay bad guy, exploited Palestinian types, and some SRS BSNS maunderings about ecology.
But look at what really holds his signature work together: the skeleton of what is really nothing more than a typical entry in a run of the mill issue of Planet Stories. You know what I’m talking about. The type of adventure where the guy is on an alien planet and he has to confront a hysterically evil bad guy while fomenting a slave revolt as a distraction? That Dune is both critically and popularly considered to be one of the greatest works of science fiction of all time with a plot that was that done to death during the forties is pretty danged funny!
What’s even more interesting is how weak Herbert’s plotting became when his story sprawled beyond the confines of standard outlines of heroic fantasy. I admit, I rather enjoyed that part. Herbert’s blasphemous messiah in a world of patchwork faiths and supersciences? There was nowhere for him to go after conquering the universe, so he was reduced to bring some madman prophet with his eyes put out, wandering the desert…. And that was followed by a truly boring millennia-long reign of a gigantic worm-man who has nothing better to do than to repeatedly resurrect a bit character from a classic novel that almost could have been an intriguing pulp hero patterned after the sort of thing you’d read in any randomly selected issue of Planet Stories.
Who has time for that stuff?! Well hey, some people like it, sure. And some people just pretend to like it. But there is another way to go about doing fantasy and science fiction than the fashion that gets all the attention, critical acclaim, and big time awards. And this different way of doing things is– in the hands of a grandmaster of Brackett’s magnitude– awesomely and addictively readable.
But I will say one word on genre here that has been belabored elsewhere. A touchstone of pre-Campbellian science fiction and pre-Tolkien fantasy is that the lines between fantasy and science fiction get pretty darned blurry. Case in point, some H. P. Lovecraft’s most famous stories were straight ahead science fiction tales that got published in Astounding before Campbell took it over. Later on, his visage would grace the World FANTASY Award.
What genre does “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” fall under? Well it is pure “Planetary Romance” in the tradition of John Carter of Mars. Can you really call that “science fiction” when most people assume that that’s going to be more about getting the details right with regards to stuff like Space Stewardesses on Space Planes serving Space Ice Cream while walking around in Velcro boots as classical music blares in the background..? Maybe not.
People that demand that their science fiction be heavy on dry, tedious science “fact” are going to look right past the work of Leigh Brackett as if it never existed– as if it’s not a first class element of the field. They will also look at her brilliant depictions of heroics and heroism and dismiss them wholesale as if they are pure fantasy.
And that highlights the most interesting thing about Leigh Brackett and why she is so revered by fans of old style fantasy and science fiction. Yes, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” did come out in 1949, a good ten years after John W. Campbell pulled off the coup that would see science fiction “year zeroed” and the true golden age of the field memory holed. That’s five years before the publication of the Lord of the Rings which would gradually go on to have a very similar effect on fantasy within a few decades.
But pundits with an ax to grind really want to paint Brackett as a pioneer and an innovator. They really want to put her in some sort of narrative where everything is progressing to some grand culmination of social evolution. But that’s really not her. And the only way you can get to something like that is by either forgetting or diminishing the men and women she emulated.
Leigh Brackett wrote like Burroughs and Merritt and Howard even when it wasn’t cool. And she did it so well, it is impossible to mention their names today without also invoking hers. Planet Stories magazine was one of her main stomping grounds during her career as a pulp writer and one thing will be patently clear to anyone that spends some time reading the actual magazines: she wrote squarely within not only its overall editorial vision, but also the framework of its most derivative sort of stories. That she could do so while making it all seem fresh and exciting and new is really the soul of her genius.
And heck yeah, her tales of adventure and derring-do sure enough hold up to this day!
Do note, you don’t have to mess around with digging through PDF’s of moldy old pulp magazines to read this science fiction masterwork. Thanks to the mastermind behind Cirsova magazine, you can now hold in your hands all-new fully illustrated editions of Leigh Brackett’s seminal Stark stories.
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