Monday, March 15, 2010

The Ginger Star

Many years ago--in fact, so many years ago that it predates this blog, and belongs to the archive section of my other, older blog--I decided to embark on an "academic" exploration of the sword & planet genre. At the time, I was really just discovering that there were guys out there other than Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was just for the first time introduced to some of Lin Carter's writing, or Otis Adelbert Kline, and Alan Burt Akers, and others. Read some pastiche work by authors who've since gone on to bigger and better things, like Mike Resnick, Michael Moorcock, and Gardner F. Fox.

Actually, some of that experiment is still lingering, technically. I've had a few books from my rash of purchases that have still hung around unread until now. It wasn't that many months ago that I reviewed Thief of Llarn for example, and I've still got a copy of Transit to Scorpio on my to-read list.

Part of the reason--in fact, the main reason--that "academic" project fizzled was because practically none of the sword & planet books I was reading were really any good at all. In fact, several of them were so bad that they're strong contenders for the worst genre fiction I've ever read. You know you're in bad company when you're rubbing shoulders with Rose Estes' infamous Greyhawk fiction, or the exploration of Piers Anthony's bizarre fetishes through science fiction.

Of course, there were a few that stood out from that pack. Many times, this was because they did something truly unusual, or at least felt comfortable enough to break from the strict subgenre conventions. One such writer, and the character with which she did so, was Leigh Brackett, and the character was Erik John Stark.

Leigh Brackett is famous today largely for her screenplay work. She co-wrote The Big Sleep for instance (with William Faulkner, of all people) and the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back (she wrote the first draft, and then died (she was quite old at the time), Lawrence Kasdan took over from there). She also wrote the screenplay to another of my personal favorite movies, Hatari!, which is a Howard Hawks film starring John Wayne and Elsa Martinelli. Mrowr on Elsa Martinelli, by the way. Or at least on Elsa Martinella circa 1961 when she was filming this movie. They don't make movie stars like they used to. Up and coming (at the time) German actor Hardy Krüger, Red Buttons, Gérard Blain, and Bruce Cabot (of the original King Kong fame; much older in this movie, obviously) also starred. It probably would have been rude not to invite Krüger to take a role, since the movie was largely filmed on a ranch that he owned near Arusha in what was the country that changed its name from German East Africa to Tanganyika during filming.

Anyway... despite Leigh Brackett's career as a writer for film, of which obviously I'm a fan of (Empire Strikes Back was my "favorite" movie for years before I finally decided to let Raiders of the Lost Ark pass it up. None of which would matter much if I didn't have kids always trying to get me to define my favorites) she's also very famous as the writer of a bunch of pulp era science fiction, largely from the 40s, and her magazine of choice was Planet Stories. Her mileu was a typical one, in many ways, for 40s science fiction. She supposed that human life was common, and in fact native, on Venus, Mars, Calliso and Ganymede, and non-human life is also common on Mercury, Io, Europa, Titan and Tethys.

Eric John Stark was probably her most enduring character, to come from this pulpy mileu. A kind of spacefaring Tarzan or Mowgli, Stark was orphaned as a child and raised by rock-apes on Mercury. His adoptive family was later killed by Earthmen miners who wanted the land that the rock-apes live in, and Stark himself was kept as a kind of curio in a cage until he was rescued and re-raised as a human by Simon Ashton, a kind of planetary sheriff. Because of his unique background, Stark's animalistic upbringing is an incredibly important part of his character, and his bestial "alter-ego" if you will, N'Chaka, the Man-With-No-Tribe, comes to the forefront many times.

Stark figured in some important stories, including short stories that were later lengthened and adapted into novellas, named The Secret of Sinharat and The People of the Talisman as well as several other short stories: "Enchantress of Venus", "The Road to Sinharat" and probably a few others that I'm forgetting.

Although his character, on the surface, seems like a planet-hopping Tarzan, in reality he's a very different kind of character, and Brackett cultivates a very different kind of tone. Her husband, Edmond Hamilton (himself a pulp writer of space opera) said of her ouvre that she frequently wrote of strong men who pursued lofty goals only to have the story end unexpectedly, the plots transform into something darker and more serious, and the "heroes" left with nothing but a handful of ashes for their goals.
This is certainly true of The Ginger Star, the book that I'm reviewing in this post, now that I've finally gotten around to it. The picture I'm using here is from Paizo's Planet Stories line, but that's not the copy that I have. Prior to Paizo republishing this story, I had found and read the first two Skaith books from the library via interlibrary loan. I may have also read them as a kid, although I'm not 100% certain. I never did read the third and final novel in the series, so when I saw all three of them in a used bookstore for, I think, $2 each with the original Steranko covers, I didn't mind picking them all up again (not to get distracted again, but Steranko also did the pre-production artwork for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Good stuff.) This was now several years ago, and when I made my list of "books that I own but have not yet read" so I could make sure I actually did read them all, I added The Ginger Star and The Hounds of Skaith to the list, even though technically it wasn't true. I had read them, just not the copy that I own now.

Anyway, after that extremely lengthy background and introduction, I'm not sure that I've got a lot to say about The Ginger Star itself. It's a short novel, and was on the tail-end of that style of science fiction novels--less than 200 pages and roaring along at a good clip without enough in the way of character development or description, with a focus instead on plot. This, of course, means that almost all of the characters are in fact poorly developed, thin, and often uninteresting. Other than Stark himself, most of them feel like patsies, thrown up to meet the needs of the plot, and little else.

Plotwise, the story is also often frustrating in that Stark spends almost the entire book a passive character, prisoner to no fewer than four characters, who drag him along in an attempt to make him meet some prophecy or other. Tarzan never played such a passive role.

Despite that, the novel has some obvious attractions. The setting is very interesting. I tried to find confirmation for it online, and I couldn't, but I believe these might have originally been short stories, or at least set in the regular Brackett solar system setting, even if they were never published as short stories. The rumor goes that the Skaith stories were originally set on, respectively, Mercury, Mars and Venus, and were adapted into a single world, Skaith, when planetary science advanced to the point where the optimistic 40s type space opera proved that there was no way in the world that life could exist on any of those planets. Skaith as a setting also has strong elements of the Dying Earth subgenre, at least thematically, although Brackett approached those themes from a darker perspective than Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance ever did.

All in all, I found the approach to be interesting from an artistic perspective. Although the Skaith books may not be the most rollicking of adventures (despite what the cover blurbs said, Eric John Stark is not a swashbuckling space hero, he's an altogether different kind of character appearing in altogether different kinds of stories), the bleak and melancholic approach to space opera, or sword & planet (although I think this falls just shy of meeting the subgenre criteria there) is an unusual one. Besides Brackett herself, the only author I know who approached that type of setting with a similar mindframe was C. L. Moore, another atypically female early pulp writer of space opera. Her character Northwest Smith could almost be a contemporary of Stark, and although some of the details of the settings are not exactly the same, in broad strokes, they're so similar that I could almost see the two of them interacting; Stark as a mercenary for aboriginal peoples against colonial Earth corporations, and Smith smuggling them the arms they need for their dirty guerilla war.

In addition, the flaws of the Skaith books are not so crippling as to make the books unreadable, and given the short nature of them (all three of them together are still only a moderately long fantasy novel in today's terms, and would only be little more than half the length of a Robert Jordan or Steven Erikson novel) means that they're easy to check out for what they offer, and it's equally easy to overlook the flat characters and somewhat passive, cliched plot to see what Brackett brings that's unusual to the genre in terms of setting, tone and themes.


Anonymous said...

Did your academic research ever lead you to Brackett's "THE SWORD OF RHIANNON" (originally SEA KINGS OF MARS")? It's in some ways better than the Stark material, and should be a part of your analysis. I guarantee it's better than Otis Adelbert Kline or Ralph Milne Farley or the rest.

And it's also available from Planet Stories. ;)

--Erik Mona
Paizo Publishing/Planet Stories

Joshua said...

I did quit before I ever got around to reading that one, but I've heard very consistently that it's quite good.

My biggest "gripe" with Paizo's planet stories line is that I've mostly already got the books that I'm interested in from older printings.


I guess that's a good problem to have. But the Sword of Rhiannon (and the Kuttner and C. L. Moore books) were nice to have back in print, and with fancy new artwork to boot.