Birthday Reviews: Brackett

I only have one author to cover this week but the story is a great novelette in a series of tales by the mistress of Martian magic.


Leigh Brackett (1915-12-07/1978-03-18)

“The Last Days of Shandakor” (Startling Stories, April 1952)

John Ross, the anthropologist, is on Mars, in a wine shop in Barrakesh, when a stranger enters. Based on the odd reactions of others in the shop to the stranger and the odd appearance of the mostly shrouded man, JonRoss (as the Martians call him) goes to meet the stranger. He learns the stranger has fled from his dying city of Shandakor and now regrets it. With the prospect of discovering an unknown city and achieving fortune and fame, Ross convinces the stranger to return and take Ross with him. Even the feeling that the stranger intends to kill him before they reach Shandakor doesn’t deter him. Along the way, he is indeed forced to fight the stranger whom he has come to know as Corin and then discovers that Corin is not human. Now very afraid but compelled to head towards Shandakor due to a lack of water for a return, he goes forward, only to be waylaid by Martian humans[1] encamped outside the city. They take all his belongings and, when he begs for water, they mockingly tell him he can get water inside. Suspecting he will be killed by the natives of the city, but having no choice, he enters. Despite Corin telling him the city was nearly dead, he finds himself in a sort of “City of Dreadful Night” in which he sees a large population of splendor and power going about their business but can hear nothing except strange laughter and can feel nothing of these apparitions but only stones striking him from out of nowhere. Running wildly, having come to accept the ghosts as given, he’s shocked when he runs into solid beings and is first taken prisoner and then sentenced to death. However, his laughing, rock-throwing tormentor becomes his savior when she pleads for his life and saves her stray dog for the time being. For Ross learns that Shandakor is populated by an ancient race who once ruled Mars. However, they are dying and the barbarian humans outside have cut the city’s water supply. When that runs out, they will commit suicide rather than suffer death at the hands of others. Either way, Ross feels he is doomed. What he continues to learn and his relationship with Duani, the girl who “saved” him, takes up the remainder of the tale.

One of the best things about this tale is the style, which is vigorous and plain, with its abundance of conjunctions and paucity of contractions giving it a stateliness which dovetails with another of the best things about it, which is its powerful sense of time and place. The use of words like “serai” (a Turkish/Persian word) and expressions like “so be it” (a sort of secular “inshallah”) reinforce the Arabian and/or Egyptian feel of this Mars (which may have inspired Cherryh’s wonderful Faded Sun trilogy), though Shandakor is also described as being as beautiful as Athens. More good things include the almost fable-like theme of the delicately proud citizens with their technological fig leaf and the ambitious, avaricious, Pyrrhic protagonist. It might have been better if it had managed in some way to have a more implicit and less explicit conclusion but it’s still strong and the memory of the city, the flight through the silent visions, and the final actions last.

There is one final thing I want to quote in full from this story as a sort of postscript because, reading it, it seemed to have even more resonance than it did the first time I read it. I couldn’t help but think that the humans on Earth in 2016-22 have much in common with the humans on Mars in 2024. Ross is talking with the most prominent citizen of Shandakor and wonders how his people had developed such a powerful society that had lasted for so long. The non-human Martian replies:

“We developed the faculty of reason.”

For a moment I thought he was joking. “Come,” I said, “man is a reasoning being–on Earth the only reasoning being.”

“I do not know of Earth,” he answered courteously. “But on Mars man has always said, ‘I reason. I am above the beasts because I reason.’ And he has been very proud of himself because he could reason. It is the mark of his humanity. Being convinced that reason operates automatically within him he orders his life and his government upon emotion and superstition.

“He hates and fears and believes, not with reason but because he is told to by other men or by tradition. He does one thing and says another and his reason teaches him no difference between fact and falsehood. His bloodiest wars are fought for the merest whim–and that is why we did not give him weapons. His greatest follies appear to him the highest wisdom, his basest betrayals become noble acts–and that is why we could not teach him justice. We learned to reason. Man only learned to talk.”

[1] I can’t remember if these spring from panspermia, convergent evolution, varieties of secret history, or what, but there were or are both ancient races of humans and others on Mars and the younger human race on Earth.

3 thoughts on “Birthday Reviews: Brackett

  1. The only thing of hers I read were the Skaith novels, and I didn’t like them very much. There were some ideas and some images that I liked, but, overall, I felt she did too many things that punctured my suspension of disbelief.

    That said, I read them almost 50 years ago, yet I still remember them–in sharp contrast to things I’ve read more recently that were utterly forgettable.


    • Yeah, she’s not going to make the hard SF fan in us happy (she uses, but abuses, the photoelectric effect in this one) but she’s such a colorful writer with such a tough sensibility (it’s easy to see how she got to writing hard-boiled detective and western stuff) that I enjoy most everything she’s written. I didn’t like Alpha Centauri or Die or The Nemesis from Terra (I think it was) but that’s about it. But I can understand how the disbelief would outweigh the ideas and images.


  2. Pingback: Birthday Reviews: Complete Linked Index to Authors and Stories | Featured Futures

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