Thursday, December 5, 2013

Space Gypsies

Gee whiz, but our real-life solar system is BORING!

 Okay, it's really not--it is, in fact, often quite fascinating and efforts to explore it (the Cassini probe around Saturn; the Mars Rover crawling about the Red Planet, etc) send back a myriad of beautiful images to continually awe us.

Venus in real life. Not a swamp or a dinosaur to be found. Sigh.

But there's a part of me that's always a little disappointed with all that. We recently looked at the Mars and Venus novels of Otis Aldelbert Kline, which presented those planets were inhabitable, full of savage people, strange aliens and hungry monsters.  Edgar Rice Burroughs did the same thing with those two planets and threw in a race of skeleton people from Jupiter as well.

Now THAT'S the Solar System I want. After all, the Solar System is a big place. We can fit in a few alien races and a horde of monsters and still have plenty of room left over for us puny humans, can't we?

The science fiction pulps gave us many different versions of that Solar System. Many of these appeared in Planet Stories, a pulp magazine that holds a very special place in my heart.

Hard science fiction (another genre I love) was also birthed in the pulps. John Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, demanded scientific verisimilitude from his writers, mentoring guys like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. To quote a brilliant writer (well, me actually), accurate science in SF:

"...was an important part of the maturation of the genre, and many SF stories require this sort of accuracy to work dramatically. But over in the pages of Planet Stories, readers were being reminded that hard science wasn't as important as good writing and real human emotions... In Planet Stories, it didn't matter if it was possible. It just has to seem real to the reader." (Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics and Radio, pg. 76)

A writer who really understood that--and who gave us perhaps the most extensive and detailed "history" of a life-filled Solar System--was Leigh Brackett (the wife of Edmund Hamilton, another of my favorite pulp SF writers.)

Between 1940 and 1964, Brackett wrote at least 35 stories set within a version of our Solar System in which Mercury, Venus, Mars and several moons orbiting Jupiter or Saturn were all at least partially habitable. Many of these worlds were the homes of several intelligent races--some human and others more alien. It's a dangerous place to live, but in terms of providing a platform for great adventure stories, it scores a 9.8 on the Karloff/Bogart Coolness Scale.

The March 1943 issue of Planet Stories gave us "The Citadel of Lost Ships" (available online HERE). The main character is a human hijacker named Roy Campbell, a criminal successful enough to be one of the most wanted men in the system.

When the story opens, he's in the swamps of Venus, hiding out with a race called the Kraylens. These are a people who once befriended him and saved his life. But now its the Kraylens who are in trouble. Valuable minerals have been discovered on their land and they are going to be forcibly displaced by the industrialized forces of the Terra-Venusian Coalition Government.

Well, Campbell might be able to help them. He knows there's a rather odd ship near Venus at the moment--a large ship that's actually made up of scrap and the hulks of older ships. These are the Romany--the various alien races who have also been displaced by the advance of civilization. Now they wander about the system, trading for the materials they need to survive.

Maybe the Romany can also take in the Kraylens. But when Campbell tries to arrange this, he walks right into the middle of a civil war aboard the Romany ship. Determined to still help the only people who ever helped him, Campbell takes on the responsibility of helping one side win the war so that the Romany ship can retain its freedom. He also needs to spring the Kraylens from a detention camp while he's at it. Helping him out are a female human rebel, a Martian with a hook-hand, and two Outer Planet natives with unusual psionic abilities.

He might be able to pull this off, but how much of his own freedom is he willing to lose in order to succeed?

It's a great story, full of action, plot twists and strong characterizations.

And, darn it, why ISN'T the real solar system more like that? Space gypsies, man--SPACE GYPSIES. There's really no excuse for us not having a band of space gypsies plying the vacuum between our planets, is there?

Well, obviously between Kline's novels and this, I'm geeking out on Sword-and-Planet stories right now--which means I must force the rest of you to suffer for it.

The stories Brackett wrote set in her Solar System were not written with any particular chronological order in mind and there's no established time line for them. So I'm going to pick out a few stories based on location rather than time frames. We will be taking a look at the four stories Brackett wrote set on Mercury--picking these particular tales pretty much because I recently bought an ebook which collects them. Because of the lack of an internal chronology, I won't make it part of the "In Order" series. Instead, it'll be a occasional series also appearing on Thursdays, much like the series on certain Robert E. Howard stories I did over the last year. So keep your sword and your ray gun handy. You'll be needing them.

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