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Brackett, Leigh

Entry updated 11 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1915-1978) US scriptwriter and author, for most of her career deeply involved in the writing of fantasy and sf, for which she perhaps remains best known, though her detective novels and her 16 film and television scenarios have been justly praised. Her film work includes screenplays for The Vampire's Ghost (1945) and The Long Goodbye (1973); and for Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1958), novelizing her own script as Rio Bravo (1959). Hawks had been impressed by her first novel, the detective thriller No Good from a Corpse (1944), and famously (as a Hollywood tale puts it) told his secretary to locate "this guy Brackett" (Hawks, noted for his filming competent women coping with slightly less competent men, was undismayed when Brackett turned out to be female). Her last film work, a draft scenario for Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980), for which she posthumously received a 1981 Hugo, was not typical of her efforts in this field, though she clearly felt at home with the Western-derived elements in the overall story; the original script was published as The Empire Strikes Back (1978; exp vt The Empire Strikes Back: The Complete, Fully Illustrated Script 1999) with Larry Kasdan. None of her television work is in the fields of the fantastic. In 1946 she married Edmond Hamilton, who had been active as an sf writer from the 1920s; her influence may have affected his writing, which improved markedly in the late 1940s.

Brackett began publishing stories of genre interest in February 1940 with "Martian Quest" for Astounding, beginning her period of greatest activity in the sf magazines; most of the forty or so stories of genre interest published in her first decade as a professional writer were assembled as Martian Quest: The Early Brackett (coll dated 2002 but 2003) and Lorelei of the Red Mist: Planetary Romances (coll 2007). The title story of the second collection – Lorelei of the Red Mist (Summer 1946 Planet Stories; rev Fall 1953 Tops in Science Fiction; original text 2017 dos) – was written in collaboration with Ray Bradbury, who introduced the volume. Her work appeared mostly in Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories and others that offered space for what rapidly became her speciality: swashbuckling but literate Planetary Romances, usually set on a Mars not dissimilar to Edgar Rice Burroughs's pioneering creation of a romantic venue out of the speculations of Percival Lowell and others about the possibility of canals – and hence civilizations, presumably ancient – on that planet. Brackett used something like Burroughs's Mars in much of her work, though there is only an occasional geographical or "historical" continuity linking her various venues.

From the mid-1940s she tended to move into somewhat longer forms; non-series novels set on Mars include Shadow over Mars (Fall 1944 Startling; 1951; vt The Nemesis from Terra 1961 dos) and, perhaps the finest of them all, The Sword of Rhiannon (June 1949 Thrilling Wonder as "Sea-Kings of Mars"; 1953 dos). Understood in conjunction with the connected "The Sorcerer of Rhiannon" (February 1942 Astounding), this concisely and eloquently written novel admirably combines adventure with a strongly romantic vision of an ancient sea-girt Martian civilization, which is described with a remarkable combination of freshness and nostalgia (see Time Abyss). Where Burroughs's Mars had been characterized by naive barbaric energy, Brackett's represents – without unctuousness – the last gasp of a Decadence endlessly nostalgic for the even more remote past. Some further stories of this sort are assembled in The Coming of the Terrans (coll of linked stories 1967), though these tales are less intense than the Mars-based tales at the heart of her Eric John Stark series: The Secret of Sinharat (Summer 1949 Planet Stories as "Queen of the Martian Catacombs"; rev 1964 dos), People of the Talisman (March 1951 Planet Stories as Black Amazon of Mars [2010 ebook]; rev 1964 dos) – both reportedly expanded for book publication by Edmond Hamilton, the latter of the two being significantly changed from its magazine version; both being later assembled as Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars (omni 1982) – plus Enchantress of Venus (Fall 1949 Planet Stories; vt "City of the Lost Ones" in The Giant Anthology of Science Fiction, anth 1954, ed Oscar J Friend & Leo Margulies; 2011 dos), this last title being collected in The Halfling and Other Stories (coll 1973). Stark concentrates all the virtues of the sword-and-sorcery hero in his lean figure, rather like Robert E Howard's Conan, though Stark – an orphan of advanced civilization raised by aboriginals of Mercury – is considerably more complex than his mentor; dozens of snarling, indomitable mesomorphs, in many subsequent series by later authors, attempt to emulate Stark's brooding fortitude. The fullest assembly of early Eric John Stark tales is Sea-Kings of Mars and Other Worldly Stories (2005), which incorporates all three Stark novels, plus other material. In the 1970s Brackett revived Stark, the new series being conveniently transferred to an interstellar venue (as Mars and Venus were no longer readily usable as venues for the Planetary Romance); it comprises The Ginger Star (1974), The Hounds of Skaith (1974) and The Reavers of Skaith (1976), all three being assembled as The Book of Skaith (omni 1976). Stark makes a final appearance in Stark and the Star Kings (coll 2008) with Edmond Hamilton, the title story of this collection – which was originally written for «The Last Dangerous Visions» (see Dangerous Visions) – being the only credited collaboration between Brackett and Hamilton. The latter revealed in "An Interview with Leigh Brackett & Edmond Hamilton" (Summer 1976 Tangent #5) that Brackett, uncredited, had also written three chapters of his well-regarded novel The Valley of Creation (July 1948 Startling; rev 1964).

By the 1950s, Brackett was beginning to concentrate more on interstellar space operas, including The Starmen (1952; cut vt The Galactic Breed 1955 dos; text restored vt The Starmen of Llyrdis 1976), The Big Jump (1955 dos) and Alpha Centauri – or Die! (main story September 1953 Planet Stories as "The Ark of Mars"; fixup 1963 dos). All three are efficient but seem somewhat routine when set beside Brackett's best single pure-sf work, The Long Tomorrow (1955), which is set in a strictly controlled, technophobic, Ruined-Earth USA, many years after the destruction of the Cities and of the Technology that brought mankind to ruin. It is the slow, impressively warm and detailed epic of two boys and their finally successful attempts to find Bartorstown, where people are secretly reestablishing science and Technology. It was a best novel finalist for the 1956 Hugo awards, in a strong year; Brackett was the first woman novelist to be so recognized. Twenty-first-century readers of the book may be less hopeful than its author about Bartorstown's aspirations, but on its own terms the novel is a glowing success.

After 1955, Brackett generally preferred to work in Cinema and Television, though several of her late tales are both assured and bleak – an example being "All the Colors of the Rainbow" (November 1957 Venture Science Fiction), where an Alien woman, part of a Galactic Centre team engaged in a Weather Control exercise on Earth, is raped by citizens of a southern American town who think of her as a "nigger" (see Race in SF). Brackett was a highly professional writer, working with extreme competence within generic moulds that she occasionally stretched to their limits. The Long Tomorrow and her film scripts for Howard Hawks did suggest broader horizons for her work; but her production of shorter fiction tapered off. A summatory collection, edited by her husband, The Best of Leigh Brackett (coll 1977), confirms the muscular panache of her work and its haunting refusal to transcend her ample competence; as do the non-Mars stories assembled in Shannach – The Last: Farewell to Mars (coll 2011), which contains all her late short work. Although advertised as forthcoming in 2015, the two titles «The Book of Stark» and «The Leigh Brackett Centennial» were never published.

She was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2014. [JC]

see also: Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Colonization of Other Worlds; Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award; Fantasy; Galactic Empires; Generation Starships; Jupiter; Mercury; Mythology; Pastoral; Spaceships; Ultrawave; Women SF Writers.

Leigh Douglass Brackett

born Los Angeles, California: 7 December 1915

died Lancaster, California: 18 March 1978




Mars: Stark

Skaith: Stark

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about the author


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