Monday, January 11, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Black Amazon of Mars

The evocatively named "Black Amazon of Mars" is a short story by Leigh Brackett, first published in the March 1951 issue of Planet Stories and later revised and expanded in 1964 under the title People of the Talisman (under which title it's included in Paizo's The Secret of Sinharat trade paperback). It's a tale of Mercurian mercenary fighting man Eric John Stark, who's the protagonist of many of Brackett's science fiction tales published during the 1940s and 50s. Originally set within a version of our solar system based on the science of the 30s and 40s, Stark's adventures eventually moved to another solar system in order to accommodate a shift in popular taste toward more "realistic" SF stories that were in tune with later developments in planetary science.

Part of Brackett's earlier cycle, "Black Amazon of Mars" is set on the fourth planet of our solar system, as one might expect from its title. In it, Stark is on Mars, traveling in the company of a thief named Camar. Camar is mortally wounded and he asks Stark to take him to his home city before he dies of his injury. The thief also confesses that he has stolen a holy talisman believed to keep the city safe and he begs Stark to see it returned, no matter what happens. A man who keeps his promises, Stark then proceeds on an adventure that takes him to several different locales near the Martian north pole, encountering numerous allies and foes, including the character after whom the short story is named. Along the way, he must deal with not only ordinary obstacles but also mysterious visions of a place to which he's never been and that may hold the key to his quest.

Like all of Brackett's stories of Stark, "Black Amazon of Mars" could be called science fantasy, but that's probably unfair. Certainly its vision of Mars is more in line with that of Burroughs and other early writers than with what we now know about the Red Planet. At the time the Stark stories began, though, it was still possible to imagine an inhabited Mars, even if it was increasingly implausible. In any case, Brackett didn't intend her stories to be read as fantasies and, if one can leave aside the outdated science, they don't read as such. Furthermore, Brackett's solar system is a cosmopolitan place, filled with inhabited worlds to which travelers journey by regular rocket flights. Stark may be an unusual man because of his personality and outlook but he's not unique in being a space traveler. He's no John Carter or Esau Cairn; in short, he's not a sword-and-planet hero. Rather, he's closer to an interplanetary revolutionary, fighting against colonialist oppression in a solar system that treats commerce and competition as the highest virtues -- a hero very much unlike other SF protagonists of his day.

"Black Amazon of Mars" is well written and fast paced. It may not appeal to all tastes, particularly those used to more modern takes on science fiction. Nevertheless, it's a terrific example of SF from its time, filled with memorable characters and occasional insights that set it apart from rank and file space opera. Gary Gygax noted Leigh Brackett as an influence on Dungeons & Dragons without specifying any particular stories he considered most significant. I find it unlikely that he was not referencing the stories of John Eric Stark, which are, above all, superb adventure takes. That they have additional depth beyond that is merely icing on a very sweet cake.


  1. Great review. I've not ever heard of this series.

    This one's got a great cover too!

  2. Worth noting that Fantasy Masterworks have done a large volume of her stories.

    Also, George Lukas lists her as a major influence...

  3. Well, she did write the early drafts of The Empire Strikes Back.

    And Michael Moorcock cites her as one of the godmother's of the New Wave of science fiction.

    The early Stark stories are great--there like Tarzan meets Barsoom, as appearing in Black Mask.

  4. Long been by favourite PS cover of all. Never got a copy of it, though.

  5. Great review, James. The pulp this story originally appeared in was part of my grandfather's collection that was passed on to me. Definitely one of my favorite Planet Stories covers.

  6. I don't know if it's that farfetched. Mars is essentially in the same orbit. Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe.

  7. Wow, that chainmail costume is spectacular. I'll have to save that for later homage.

  8. I only recently got around to reading Brackett and am still kicking myself for having waited so long.

    Although I think The Secret of Sinharat is the better of the two in that Planet Stories volume, they're both very good.

  9. Thanks to everyone who has checked out the Paizo/Planet Stories edition of this book, and thanks especially to James for mentioning it here on Grognardia!

    For those of you who don't have it yet, you can learn a bit more info and order the book here:

    --Erik Mona
    Paizo Publishing

  10. @Sean -- Just now got the Dan Quayle reference.