Although Leigh Brackett (1915–1978) wrote planetary adventures during the Golden Age of Science Fiction and was married to Edmond Hamilton, one of the Golden Age’s most praised masters, she seems to, well, bracket the era rather than belong to it. Her stories set on fantastical versions of Mars and Venus are indebted to Edgar Rice Burroughs, while her dark emotional intensity looked forward to New Wave SF of the ‘60s. In his introduction to Martian Quest: The Early Brackett, Michael Moorcock wrote that “It’s readily arguable that without her you would not have gotten anything like the same New Wave … echoes of Leigh can be heard in Delany, Zelazny and that whole school of writers who expanded sf’s limits and left us with some visionary extravaganzas.”
The cocktail of Leigh Brackett’s style — mixing ERB and Robert E. Howard (Brackett could’ve written fantastic straight sword-and-sorcery) with the influences that shaped authors like Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance — is what makes her explode off the page in a way many of her Golden Age contemporaries no longer do. She feels startlingly fresh even when her stories occur in an impossible solar system. All the data NASA has brought back from the other planets cannot dampen Leigh Brackett’s power.
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What I’ve learned from my still inadequate reading of pulp science-fiction legend Edmond Hamilton is his mastery of pushing his stories in expected directions but in unexpected ways. I’ve developed enough of a sense of how Hamilton viewed his characters and his attitude toward humanity that I can anticipate the direction he’ll flip a tale in the middle — but I’ll never anticipate how he’ll do it. Almost every time, he exceeds expectations by taking the most daring path, both for his narrative and his prose.
The 1948 novel The Valley of Creation follows a theme the author explored in his cliché-battering short story “A Conquest of Two Worlds” (Wonder Stories, 1932), where a human turns against the colonial tyranny of his own race to side with oppressed aliens. Hamilton often used a cynical, bleak approach in his short fiction, turning to a lighter adventure mode for his novels. The Valley of Creation falls into this pattern. It challenges readers with a protagonist who discovers he’s on the wrong side of a conflict — the side of racial supremacists — and switches allegiance. But it’s done as a science-fantasy adventure with the zip expected of the pulps and a heavy dose of A. Merritt’s “Lost World of Super Science!” explorations.
The Valley of Creation was published in Startling Stories for the July 1948 issue, sharing a table of contents with stories from Jack Vance and Henry Kuttner. Lancer published the paperback version in 1964, a time when the paperback market was mining for the gold spread throughout the pulp era that might otherwise have flaked away with the rough paper. Hamilton did revisions for the ‘64 version, updating the timeline so its protagonist, mercenary Eric Nelson, is a veteran of the Korean War.
At the opening of the novel, Nelson is in the position of many characters from noir movies and books of the late ‘40 and ‘50s: a disaffected military man who’s seen too much and has now lost his way. Nelson and his four mercenary partners are stranded in Central Asia at the end of their tether after their Chinese warlord employer is killed. They then receive a strange offer from a man named Shan Kar — he’ll pay them in platinum if they come to his valley of L’Lan and fight “the enemy of his people.”
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James McGlothin has been providing excellent continuing coverage on Black Gate of Del Rey’s famous “The Best Of…” anthologies that shaped many SF readers in the 1970s. He was kind enough to allow me to take a pile of notes I’d assembled for Del Rey’s The Best of Edmond Hamilton (1976) and do an entry in the series. I also sought the blessing of our editor John O’Neill because Edmond Hamilton is his favorite pulp author and I wanted to feel sure I wasn’t intruding too far into another’s territory. Both James and John are welcome to trash Edgar Rice Burroughs and Godzilla as much as they want after this.
I’ll admit to having absorbed less Edmond Hamilton than I should. I’ve read some of his short fiction, but only one of his novels, The Star Kings (1947), a science-fiction variant on The Prisoner of Zenda that’s about as thrilling as Golden Age space opera gets. (Because John O’Neill will ask, I read the original magazine version of The Star Kings, not the later book revision with the sequel-friendly ending.) I’m more familiar with the work of Hamilton’s wife, Leigh Brackett, one of the great science-fiction writers and one of my favorite authors of all time. Their marriage didn’t lead to frequent collaborations, as the marriage of C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner did. I’m glad Hamilton and Brackett maintained separate writer identities, and the feeling became sharper after reading this selection of what Brackett thought was her husband’s finest short fiction.
I’ve read many of the Del Rey “Best Of…” volumes, but few that I’ve enjoyed as consistently as this one. It’s not only because Hamilton was a superb writer — all the authors in the series were first-rank SF masters — but because of two specific factors.
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