Monday, May 16, 2016

The Long Goodbye

Properly speaking, the genre of Sword & Sorcery is a part of the history of the pulps, because it grew out of the pulps and in many ways still embodies them. “Pulp” is a broad and rather nebulous label, originally applied just because of cheap paper, it later came to exemplify a certain style: tough, lurid, action-oriented, and sensual. Pulp stories did not join in with the restraint and subtlety of mainstream or literary fiction, pulp stories gave you exactly what you wanted to see. In the pulps all the heroes were tough, all the heroines were beautiful, all the violence was bloody and all the mysteries were real.

The label covered and intersected with a multitude of other genres: crime, adventure, Science Fiction and Fantasy. As S&S was a distillation of elements from all of these, it should be no surprise it was perhaps the pulpiest of them all.

One of the great subgenres of the day – now sadly all but vanished – was Planetary Romance, or Sword & Planet. As the name implies, it shares more than a few characteristics with Sword & Sorcery, especially when written by the woman who was in her lifetime the queen of the genre: Leigh Brackett.

Leigh Douglass Brackett was born in Los Angeles in 1915, sold her first story at 25, and had an indelible effect upon the genre of adventure stories. Today she is most often mentioned for her contributions to the script for The Empire Strikes Back, but by then she was already a master of the Space Opera, though her other works are little read these days. If you have not read her “Planet Stories”, then you should, because there you will find stories that are S&S in all but name.

Brackett wrote about lost and dying civilizations on Mars or Venus and the interactions Earthmen had with them. But like Ray Bradbury, she was not really concerned with anything resembling facts. In fact, aside from the use of the names of real planets, her stories were Lost Race tales set in fantastical landscapes populated by ancient ruins, lost secrets of dead races, and super-science that is functionally identical to magic.

It could be argued that this makes her not a Sword & Sorcery author, rather a pulp writer more in line with Edgar Rice Burroughs. But Brackett was not really working in the essentially Victorian tradition of Burroughs or Merritt. She wrote about a morally ambiguous world with heroes who were not often really heroes, but who existed in shades of ethical gray. Her other great love was crime fiction and noir, after all, and her screenwriting credits include The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.

So unlike a lot of the optimistic hacks of the adventure fiction realm, her world had no underlying absolute right or wrong, and her heroes were frequently conflicted and questionable. Stories like "Black Amazon of Mars" are genuine S&S classics despite their supposed SF pedigree, and Brackett’s fascination with fallen empires and the colorful lyricism of her prose fit her squarely in the tradition.

Like all the best Sword & Sorcery writers, her work traded in exotic settings, inner conflicts, spectacular action, and a brooding sense of antiquity and doom. She lived a quiet life, was respected and rather successful, and left behind her a dazzling body of work that is largely forgotten now. She remains one of the most polished and versatile writers of the pulp era, no matter that she long outlived it.

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