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The Best Of Leigh Brackett (1986)

The Best of Leigh Brackett (1986)
Rating
3.93 of 5 Votes: 2
ISBN
0345259548 (ISBN13: 9780345259547)
languge
English
publisher
del rey ballantine
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The Best Of Leigh Brackett (1986)
The Best Of Leigh Brackett (1986)

About book: I didn't realize quite how good this collection would turn out to be. There is a literary quality to the writing that shines through even when the stories themselves are rather preposterous. These are all shorter works, most seem novella length, and Brackett wrote these during the golden age of science fiction pulps. There was a period in my life when I loved reading stuff like this and which I have mostly outgrown. It was still fun to read these. Here's a listing of the stories and the dates:The Jewel of Bas • (1944) • novelette The Vanishing Venusians • (1945) • novelette The Veil of Astellar • (1944) • novelette The Moon That Vanished • (1948) • novelette Enchantress of Venus • Eric John Stark • (1949) • novella The Woman from Altair • (1951) • novelette The Last Days of Shandakor • (1952) • novelette Shannach - The Last • (1952) • novella The Tweener • (1955) • shortstory The Queer Ones • (1957) • noveletteThis book was one of a series published by the Science Fiction Book club in the 1970's as "Best of", putting together some excellent collections in the process. Del Rey soon after published paperback versions of these collections with different cover artwork. I doubt I would have ever read a single one of these stories without this collection. The book includes an excellent introduction by Edmond Hamilton (Leigh Brackett's husband) as well as a very good afterword by Brackett. The collection was published in July 1977, just in the nick of time. Hamilton would pass away in January 1977 before this reached print. Brackett would die too young soon after from cancer in March 1978. Despite being married for 30+ years and both being writers they had never officially collaborated on a story. Brackett was active a number of years as a screenwriter on some very big movies; I recently watched the John Wayne-Robert Mitchum flick "El Dorado" in the midst of reading this book and in the opening credits saw "screenplay by Leigh Brackett." You'll also find her credited on the second Star Wars film "The Empire Strikes Back. Hamilton reveals in the introduction (dated July 7, 1976) that they had finally written a story together (to be published the following year) for Harlan Ellison's anthology "Last Dangerous Visions." The story was titled "Stark and the Star Kings". Ellison's notorious and infamous final anthology was never published. The story would possibly have never been published at all but it somehow managed to appear in a combined omnibus of Brackett and Hamilton in 2005. The intro also notes that after writing some of these stories Brackett collaborated with William Faulkner on the screenplay for "The Big Sleep" with Humphrey Bogart. Her husband opines that one of the stories in here has a very Bogart character in it and he doesn't think it a coincidence.I didn't read these stories all at once. I spread several of them out in between other books over many months. I enjoyed each of these stories, even the somewhat weaker ones. The writing, in my opinion, is very good for the era. On the other hand, these old science fantasies aren't really the sort of stories I want to gulp down. Despite being written by a woman, these stories tend to portray women in a very old fashioned way, nurturing women or femme fatale sorts, inherently fragile with fainting and screams and such. There are a few strong female characters that don't fit these types scattered throughout but they are not the norm.A few comments:When I started the first story, 'The Jewel of Bas' I briefly thought I had stepped into some cutesy fantasy - but the story drew me in and although I thought it stretched out, it is one of the better ones. Most of these stories have interesting well developed characters and they vary quite a bit. I'd recommend this as one of the better examples of older science fiction for those who enjoy reading that era. These stories at their core are fun adventure stories. Although they have science fictional and/or fantasy settings many could just as easily be westerns or mysteries or horror stories or crime potboilers or other fictions with a few changes to settings and storyline.I generally like to name at least a favorite story or two from collections such as this, but sometimes that isn't the easiest thing to do if there isn't a real standout. I think "The Veil of Astellar" from the Spring 1944 issue of "Thrilling Wonder Stories" is one of those favorites. It is told in such an old-fashioned way, and it reveals itself slowly for what it is. I think this might be the story with the Bogart character that Hamilton referred to in the introduction. Inventive story!Another favorite of the collection is "Enchantress of Venus." The writing here is very good and the imagery wonderfully vivid. The story opens with Stark crossing the Red Sea of Venus, a gaseous sea that metal boats can float on and his destination is Shuruun. There is much attention to detail in the storytelling. Stark goes there to find a friend, but the piratical closed society hides secrets and Stark is captured to become a slave. There is a nasty ruling class out and Stark very quickly finds out. Eventually he becomes a pawn in a power play of the elite but not an entirely unwilling pawn. This is something of a dark story, and I thought it didn't quite live up to the initial promise. I don't believe I have read one of Brackett's "Stark" stories before. I will have to try more of them. He's an interesting character.The story that followed, "The Woman From Altair," was a very different piece where a spacer returns from Altair with something like a war bride/trophy wife combo and it turns out that nothing is as it seems. I really enjoyed this one.Brackett is very good at story beginnings. "The Last Days of Shandakor" is one of the middling stories I'd say, a dying race of Mars story, but still it pulls you right into it from the start. Here's how it begins: "He came alone into the wineshop, wrapped in a dark red cloak, with the cowl drawn over his head. He stood for a moment by the doorway and one of the slim dark predatory women who live in those places went to him, with a silvery chiming from the little bells that were almost all she wore." "Shannach - The Last" was probably my least favorite story. Kind of a twisted tale set on Mercury with an ancient intelligence controlling a colony of stranded humans. "The Tweener" and "The Queer Ones" that finish the collection are very different types of stories than the earlier adventure stories. No more planetary adventures and romance here. Fear and paranoia is an element in several of the stories, but the prime one in "The Tweener." Uncle Fred brings back a small rabbit-like mammal from Mars - the kids name him John Carter. John Carter of Mars. Cute. Is John Carter harmless? "The Queer Ones" is a queer one, confusing at first, set around a small Appalachian area. X-files precursor.Overall very good stuff.

The Best of Leigh Brackett gets five stars precisely because it is imperfect.The collection spans Ms. Brackett's entire corpus of science fiction, and as such the early pieces are rough, shot through with pacing problems and hobbled by limited vocabulary (count the number of times "opal" or "opalescent" is used in the first three stories).Despite this, the early stories show the looming future greatness of Ms. Brackett's writing. By turn beautiful and terrifying, with realistic characters, high action, gorgeous landscapes and often terrible consequences, Ms. Brackett's Mars, Venus, and Mercury each pulse with unique life.I am unsure as to which story in the collection is my favorite. Perhaps the eerie "Veil of Astellar" or "The Moon that Disappeared" or the distinctly Twilight Zone "Tweener" or "The Queer Ones". Perhaps the dark and violent "Woman from Altair." They;re all outstanding.I intended to only read this collection, but now I'll probably go through and read her longer science fiction pieces.
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Reviews
Bill Kerwin
While reading our author's first hardboiled mystery, film director Howard Hawks was so impressed with its toughness that he told an assistant, “Get me this guy Brackett!” not knowing that “Leigh” was really a woman. Thus began a twenty-five year association that lead to her writing five good sceenplays for him, three of which--”The Big Sleep,” “Rio Bravo,” and “Eldorado”--resulted in classic films.Although her work as a screenwriter was extraordinarily successful, it was also intermittent, and science fiction/ fantasy remained Brackett's main gig. The money wasn't as good as Hollywood, but the work was steady; besides, unlike the Tinseltown commissions, her fiction--what to write and when--remained in her complete control. What she primarily decided to write were "planetary romances": ostensibly science fiction, such works were really sword and sorcery tales, usually set on improbable versions of our neighboring planets. Brackett inherited the dying cities, dangerous villains, mighty warriors and beautiful women of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars, but she rejected his dualism and the moribund Victorian morality that came with it. Unlike Burroughs', her cities are not merely dying but decadent, her villains not simply evil but selfish and deluded, her harsh heroes—if they are noble—keep quiet about it, and her women not only speak up when they choose but know how to take care of themselves.This anthology, edited by her husband Edmund Hamilton, is an excellent introduction to Brackett. Her early story "The Jewel of Bas" (1944) is innovative and surprising, featuring non-traditional heroes, an android demiurge, and a plot so elemental it seems more like myth than fantasy. Like most of the other stories here, it is set on another planet, and I believe such planetary romances are Brackett's best work. Particularly noteworthy of these are "The Veil of Asteller," a nuanced variation on the vampire trope, "The Moon that Vanished," a vivid questing tale, the novella "The Enchantress of Venus," an effective adventure involving Brackett's flinty hero Eric John Stark, and the two powerful but very different imaginings of dying civilizations, "The Last Days of Shandakor" and "Shannach the Last." In addition to the these, the anthology also contains three tales of alien visits to Earth, notable for their complete lack of xenophobia--in spite of the fact that they were penned in the paranoid fifties.Brackett's fiction occupies an awkward position between science fiction and fantasy, and for that reason, is often neglected by readers who otherwise would delight in her work. Don't let yourself be--as I was until recently--one of those unlucky, oblivious ones.
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