The Essence of Legendary Mars

This map outlines the essentials of Leigh Brackett’s fantastic Mars. Heinlein’s poem below explains what that world is like.

And you find more of my thoughts on the subject in a series of posts here — link >>>


As Time and Space come bending back to shape this star-specked scene,
The tranquil tears of tragic joy still spread their silver sheen;
Along the Grand Canal still soar the fragile Towers of Truth;
Their fairy grace defends this place of Beauty, calm and couth.
Bone-tired the race that raised the Towers, forgotten are their lores;
Long gone the gods who shed the tears that lap these crystal shores.
Slow beats the time-worn heart of Mars beneath this icy sky;
The thin air whispers voicelessly that all who live must die —
Yet still the lacy Spires of Truth sing Beauty’s madrigal
And she herself will ever dwell along the Grand Canal!

By Robert Heinlein

“Dusk and Dawn”: an Oasis Stronghold

Today I continue with the Patchwork World theme that started in the previous post, but now we go elsewhere in that multifaceted setting.

I am currently in the final stages of writing Dusk and Dawn novella, the third Patchwork World story. It is a stand-alone sequel to the published short-stories “Dust” and “The Road” (link >>> ). Much of its action occurs in the arid Flatlands, a region that has been inspired by the Martian deserts portrayed in many of Leigh Brackett’s stories.

Here is a place that could be a fortified oasis settlement in the Flatlands, located at an ancient dead canal. Click on the picture for a larger version.

Artist: Adam Kuczek on DeviantArt

The Roots of Our Favourite Genre

Words of wisdom by Leigh Brackett, maestra of space opera shortstories and western movie scripts:

Leigh Brackett as an adventurous teenager, circa 1930

The tale of adventure — of great courage and daring, of battle against the forces of darkness and the unknown — has been with the human race since it first learned to talk. It began as a part of the primitive survival technique, interwoven with magic and ritual, to explain and propitiate the vast forces of nature with which man could not cope in any other fashion. The tales grew into religions. They became myth and legend. They became the Mabinogion and the Ulster Cycle and the Voluspa. They became Arthur and Robin Hood, and Tarzan of the Apes. The so-called space opera is the folk-tale, the hero-tale, of our particular niche in history.

Leigh Brackett’s 100 years

Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton. Two successful pulp writers, married to one another, in a sci-fi cosmos a long time ago.

One of my favourite science fiction authors, pulp queen Leigh Brackett, was born one hundred years ago on December 7, 1915. She wrote interplanetary adventures in a dramatic solar system: canals and ancient horrors on Mars, jungles and dark science on Venus, and so on. Her stories frequently moved in the borderland between SF and fantasy, because the genre boundaries were less clearcut in those days.

The fantastic Mars she created has been close to my heart since my first visit to it in my late teens. Check my review of her Sea-kings of Mars novella here — link >>>

Leigh Brackett’s final feat was the manuscript to Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, which so far is my favorite in the Skywalker Saga. Unfortunately she died before the completion of the movie.

Here is an article commemorating her centenary — link >>>

The Music of Lost Mars?

When I strive to envision the lost fantastic Mars, I want more than red deserts, languid canals and decaying terracotta cities. I want sounds, smells, and tastes that transport my mind to that Red Planet. It is not so easy, unfortunately, because even though being a prolific wordsmith, I have little talent for drawing, music and cooking. However, once in a while serendipity comes my way.

Musicologist Stef Connor, instrument maker Andy Lowing and sound technician Mark Harmer have recreated the music and instruments of the Akkadian, Hurrite and Sumerian cities in Mesopotamia more than four millennia ago. Their sources are clay tablets, with cuneiform song texts and musical notations, and instruments unearthed by archaeologists.

I have no idea how accurate their recreations are — that is a matter for scholars to debate — but I found the music unexpectedly haunting. Yes, this is something I think Leigh Brackett‘s fictional archaeologist Matt Carse heard in the torchlit nights in the ancient city of Jekkara by the Low Canals.

Carse walked beside the still black waters in their ancient channel, cut in the dead sea-bottom. He watched the dry wind shake the torches that never went out and listened to the broken music of the harps that were never stilled. Lean lithe men and women passed him in the shadowy streets, silent as cats except for the chime and whisper of the tiny bells the women wear, a sound as delicate as rain, distillate of all the sweet wickedness of the world.

The Flood, a song by the trio, located on Soundcloud — link >>>

The trio presents their work on a Vimeo video — link >>>

An article about the trio’s work — link >>>

Stef Conner’s web site — link >>>

Andy Lowing’s project to reconstruct an Akkadian lyre — link >>>

The Year Is 1896 and the Place Is … Mars

In 1989, the now defunct American game publisher GDW produced an odd role-playing game called Space 1889. A mix of ideas from Jules Verne, HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett and Percival Lowell: Earth-built ethercraft exploring the solar system, whose planets are as they should be in classic adventure fiction, that is Mars with canals and decaying civilizations, Venus with jungles, etcetera.

During the 1990s my game group ran on and off a lengthy campaign taking the adventurers to odd corners of the solar system, including a Doyle-ish London, an Oscarian Stockholm and a Tolstoyan Odessa. It was the most amusing RPG experience the gang has ever had. But when my kids started to arrive around the turn of the millennium, my priorities changed, I ceased to be gamemaster and the campaign went into limbo.

This December it has been resurrected. It is currently 10 November 1896 and the Czar’s cousin Grand Duchess Alexandra Ivanovna arrives at the Red Planet. Duke Gorklimskii (Иван Карлович Горклимский), Russian resident-commissioner in the occupied city of Gorklimsk, hosts a splendid reception for his distant relative. Old enemies lurk in nearby cities and we fear that the rabble-rouser Madwaan will ignite another Martian revolt against the hated Earthmen. This promises to be an exciting winter.

My Mars (3)

The Mars of wonders ceased to be an active literary trope in the early 1960s, when Leigh Brackett published her last shortstories of that type. They aptly described how Mars was transformed by the arrival of Terran technology: its dramatic era ended and the red planet became a part of an interplanetary civilization dominated by its blue sibling. Real-world astronomy had simply advanced too far for the fiction to be viable for the readers. Later, a few writers experimented with books in the genre, but then only as deliberate pastiches (e.g. Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter and S M Stirling).

On the other hand, there have been several gameworlds published with wonderous Mars as the venue: GURPS Mars, Space 1889 and other. Some designers go for the Burroughsian “high” style, whereas e.g. GURPS Mars is more suitable for the Brackettian “low” style. When I wrote the Red Sand (Röd Sand) campaign world for Saga Games and the Fenix magazine a few years ago, I deliberately aimed for the low style, because that gives better openings for adventures. I also adhered to the D-list of components that I introduced in my previous blog post.

Three years ago, on September 2, 2008, I flew from New Delhi to Kabul. I had gotten a six-months contract as a civilian press officer in a EU mission in war-torn Afghanistan. When the jetliner crossed the Hindukush mountains, I looked out at a landscape that was utterly alien: desiccated brown mountains, peak after peak, as far as the eye could reach. When the plane approached Kabul and descended towards the ground, I spotted ruins and scars of war around the city. To me it was like seeing a shadow of the Mars of my dreams. Half-way there, so to speak. Well, at the ground level, today’s Kabul was very much an terrestrial city with Nokia cellphones, Toyota cars and Kalashnikov-toting policemen and soldiers.

But still, that impression from high above the ground remains in my heart. Then what to do with it? I cannot make Brackettian pastiches, because they would not ring true — I do not write hardboiled pulp prose. Planet Mars is another thing today, too, the abode of the hard science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson et al. So instead, I will have to find another way of putting my dreams to paper. I am working on that.

Addendum: One of Leigh Brackett’s gritty Martian stories from Project Gutenberg (link >>>)

My Mars (2)

There are different ways of depicting the oldstyle wondrous Mars. Here are two well-known examples:

Edgar Rice Burroughs invoked the “high” mood of fairytales with patrician adventurers in palaces, True Love™, honour before reason, etc. “And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life. She did not see me at first, but just as she was disappearing through the portal of the building which was to be her prison she turned, and her eyes met mine. Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure.”

Leigh Brackett wrote in the gritty “low” tradition of pulp action with plebeian adventurers in grimy taverns, roguish endeavours, questionable motives, etc. Carse walked beside the still black waters in their ancient channel, cut in the dead sea-bottom. He watched the dry wind shake the torches that never went out and listened to the broken music of the harps that were never stilled. Lean lithe men and women passed him in the shadowy streets, silent as cats except for the chime and whisper of the tiny bells the women wear, a sound as delicate as rain, distillate of all the sweet wickedness of the world.

I prefer the pulp-ish approach: Mars as a grim place with rugged people who get sand in their boots. It should contain the following elements:

Deserts: Yes, this is an arid place, where water is a commodity of great value. (Canals are optional, whereas caravan routes, oasis towns and waterwells are mandatory.)
Doom: Mars is dying slowly and most people know that. It will yet last for many generations, but the downwards curve is obvious.
Dilapidation: “Here be Ruins.” A lot of ancient ones. Caused by a changing climate, warfare and natural calamities.
Diversity: There have been other human species than Homo sapiens on Earth, like the Neaderthals and the “hobbits” of Flores, but they went extinct during the last ice age. On Mars, the situations is the opposite: several sapient species compete for the scarce resources.
Devolution: This is the opposite of progress and evolution. Mars’s many societies were far more advanced in the past. For ages they have been regressing by losing technology, skills and knowledge one piece at a time.
Danger: Life is hard on Mars. This is a place with little mercy for the weak.

Continue to part 3 — link >>>

My Mars (1)

The Italian astronomer Schiaparelli and his American “successor” Lowell badly misread their telescope observations of Mars more than 100 years ago. Their astronomy books on the Red Planet convinced a lot of people that it was a populated world with a decaying hi-tech civilisation, thereby creating a subset of science fiction dealing with a dying desert world full of high adventure. Writers from many countries* gradually established a common vision of what that imaginary place is — or ought to be — like: ancient ruins, dry ocean beds, decaying and decadent cities older than Babylon.

I encountered this Mars for the first time during a summer vacation when I was about ten years old (late 1960s) and my favourite uncle lent me his Swedish pulp magazines and cheap boys’ adventure novels from the late 1940s. I don’t remember the name of the book’s author (some long-forgotten Swedish hack writer) nor its title. It was a ripoff on C-quality SF from the United States: intrepid engineers built a back-yard spaceship in our northern wilderness and flew to the red planet, where they had pulpish adventures among the dying world’s noble humanoids and savage wildmen. The novel was bad, really bad, but it was a part of that particular tradition of the fictional Mars. And I immediately fell in love with the concept.

And that love affair still remains 40+ years later. Since 1988, I am a great fan of the Space 1889 “steampunk on Mars” role-playing game, in which our Swedish scientists travel along the canals, thwarting the diabolical schemes of the Stench Abyss cult and furthering the interests of king Oscar. My own game version of this Mars is more pulpish, less Victorian (link to a Swedish PDF >>>).

Continue to part 2 — link >>>

*Americans like Leigh Brackett, Robert Heinlein, Edgar Rice Burroughs; British like Michael Moorcock, W E Johns; Swedes like Sven Wernström.