Monday, December 7, 2015

Leigh Brackett - Queen of Space Opera

Leigh Brackett
(from Amazing Stories July 1941)
I confess: I am a big fan of old-style space operas, planetary adventure romances, and so-called science fantasy.

While I rarely if ever write that sort of science fiction, I can gobble up some of the old classics in one sitting and it's by no means difficult to understand why: these stories are pure fun.

Still, they're challenging, and it's not hard to understand why some people look down on them.  While the basic rule is "there are no rules" and scientific facts can go out the window when the story demands it, to be truly successful these sorts of stories do have to meet three touchstones:

1. The characters have to draw on key archetypes that resonate with the reader.

2. The settings must be internally consistent.

3. While deus ex machina events and "rule changes" can occur, it can't be haphazard: they must be dramatically consistent.

These kinds of stories were huge in early science fiction, and maintained a strong following even through the "hard" era of the 50s and 60s (when the market for new work in her style seemed to dry up) and as New Wave style came on the scene in the 60s and 70s. And the queen of space opera and planetary romance was Leigh Brackett, who was born 100 years ago today!

Brackett's impact still echoes in science fiction today: she entered the pulp markets near the end of their decades-long ferment of experimentation, took a genre that had been largely dismissed and sneered at, and elevated the space opera and planetary romance subgenres to an artform.  Just as we were learning how little like Burroughs' vision Mars and Venus were, she was building an intricate universe around the touchstones that make this kind of "science fantasy" not just readable but un-put-downable even in the face of obvious scientific impossibilities.

But she was by no means only a science fiction author - in fact although her first sales were SF short fiction (her first story appears to have been "Martian Quest" published in Astounding Science Fiction Feb 1940) she published other pulp genres as well and her first full novel was a hard-boiled crime novel No Good From a Corpse , which led to a series of other hard-boiled and noir works, including a number of screen plays.  Ultimately, though, she was best known for her SF stories and novels, especially those set in her version of our solar system.

Brackett's Mars and Venus started with the image painted by earlier authors like ERB - Mars as a marginal desert world of ancient and decaying civilization, Venus a wet and tropical world peopled by brash hunters - but her solar system was intricately interconnected, and many of her stories dealt with themes like the conquest of the frontier and the interplay of cultures, including the impact of colonization.  Her stories and novels sold well right up into the mid-50s, when the "harder" styles dominated and led to the death of many "sword and planet" and science fantasy venues, but she was still looked to for excellence in her chosen sub-genres.  She mastered the art of internal consistency and resonant archetype characters in a way that draws readers in.  So powerful was her mastery of these epic settings and archetype characters that L. Sprague de Camp famously bemoaned the fact that he had gone to Lin Carter first to co-author new Conan stories, saying that in retrospect Brackett's mastery of gloriously barbaric characters would have been a better fit.

After a decade writing mainly for film and TV, Brackett returned to her planetary romances in the mid-60s, and produced sporadically for the next decade until her death at the age of 62 in 1977 - in the midst of working on the screenplay for the film most often chosen as the best Star Wars episode: The Empire Strikes Back.

The debt modern SFF owes to writers like Brackett is huge, and yet she languishes largely forgotten - sadly, between The Great Culling of backlist titles in the 80s and the dominance of gritty, grimdark sorts of science fiction in the decades since she simply hasn't had the time in the limelight that is her due.

But what about now?  Perhaps the idea of ancient, decadent civilizations on Mars and solar system spanning intrigue and adventure seems a little quaint in a market that swallows up hard science fiction films like Gravity and The Martian, but then look at the resurgence of popularity for television shows like Doctor Who.  Perhaps the time has come to dust off the old space operas, perhaps re-tune them for a more modern sensibility, and let the sheer spectacle wow us again.

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