Monday, 27 January 2020

Retro Review: "The Jewel of Bas" by Leigh Brackett



"The Jewel of Bas" by Leigh Brackett is a science fiction novella, which appeared in the spring 1944 issue of Planet Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found here.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!

The protagonists of "The Jewel of Bas" are two newlyweds, Ciaran (a name Brackett would reuse for the 1951 Eric John Stark story "Black Amazon of Mars") and Mouse. Ciaran and Mouse are drifters. Ciaran is a wandering balladeer who carries a harp and sings songs about the old legends of his planet, while Mouse is primarily a pickpocket and petty thief. Both these skills will serve them well in the adventure to come. Ciaran and Mouse call themselves gypsies, a term which is considered offensive now, but was still in common use in 1944. Ciaran and Mouse are not even the only self-proclaimed Romani in Leigh Brackett's planetary romances of the 1940s. "The Citadel of Lost Ships", a finalist for the 1944 Retro Hugo, features an entire space station full of intergalactic drifters who refer to themselves by the g-word. Uncommon for the time, Leigh Brackett has a lot of sympathy for her Romani protagonists.

Unlike Isaac Asimov, Leigh Brackett does give us pretty detailed descriptions of her characters. And so we learn that both Ciaran and Mouse are fairly short and skinny, probably due to not always having had sufficient food, and Ciaran has bent legs, too. Ciaran has a scar on his lip and is missing a tooth, Mouse has curly dark hair and a brand between her eyes that marks her as a thief. Both Ciaran and Mouse have brown skin, so here we have a golden age story with two unambiguous protagonists of colour.

Ciaran and Mouse are more typical characters for a Leigh Brackett story than Lundy from "Terror Out of Space". For most of Brackett's protagonists are outsiders who live on the margins of their respective societies. Many are thieves or criminals of sorts and quite a few are people of colour, including what is probably Leigh Brackett's most famous character, Eric John Stark. But unlike Eric John Stark and other Brackett protagonists, Ciaran and Mouse are not physically impressive. And though we are never given their age, but Ciaran and Mouse feel young, late teens or early twenties. Younger than most other Brackett protagonists, at any rate. Their relationship is volatile and they quarrel a lot, occasionally escalating into violence, even though they clearly love each other.

In fact, the story starts with Ciaran and Mouse quarrelling, as they are having dinner on a ledge overlooking an area called the Forbidden Plains. Mouse is scared, because she has never been outside the city before. And besides, there are rumours about people going missing near the Forbidden Plains. But Ciaran assures her that the shortcut they took is perfectly safe, even if it passes by the Forbidden Plains. While he's at it, Ciaran also gives us a handy introduction to the old legends of his world, which he uses as fodder for his ballads, such as the story of Bas the Immortal who lives inside Ben Beatha, the Mountain of Life which overlooks the Forbidden Plains, with his android servants and a non-human slave race called the Kald. Bas the Immortal owns the Stone of Destiny, a powerful jewel that allows him to rule the world. Ciaran assures Mouse that those are just legends, stories to frighten children with, though he also dreams of climbing Ben Beatha and getting his hands on the jewel one day. He will get his wish.

Mouse and Ciaran's dinner is interrupted by a shadow falling onto the ledge where they're resting. They are frightened, for their world knows no night. By now, we are wondering just where exactly "The Jewel of Bas" is set. Leigh Brackett normally set her planetary romances in pre-spaceflight consensus version of our solar system that never was with Mars and Venus being particularly popular settings. However, the world of "The Jewel of Bas" with its sun balls and permanent daylight doesn't match Brackett's version of Mars or Venus or Mercury or indeed any other planet of the solar system. So did Leigh Brackett actually write a story set on an extrasolar world, thirty years before the Skaith trilogy? Or is something else going on here? It's a mystery that will be resolved by the end of the story.

Soon after the incident with the shadow, Ciaran and Mouse find themselves in even worse trouble, when they are attacked and kidnapped by vaguely humanoid creatures with grey skin and pink eyes. Before he is knocked out, Ciaran recognises their attackers as Kalds, the non-human servants of Bas the Immortal. So if that part of the legend is true, maybe the rest is true as well?

When Ciaran comes to again, he and Mouse find themselves chained together with other people abducted by the Kalds and herded across the Forbidden Plains towards Ben Beatha. However, Mouse's unconventional upbringing has also given her some mean lockpicking skills, which she uses to free herself, Ciaran and several other prisoners from their chains. The prisoners revolt and attack the Kalds, when another shadow falls onto a world that doesn't know darkness. Ciaran and Mouse manage to escape in the ensuing chaos. The join forces with some of their fellow escapees, a big red-haired, nearly naked hunter, a wild-eyed hermit who appears to be insane and a dark-skinned trapper named Ram, whose wife and son were also abducted by the Kalds.

Because the Kalds have closed off all other escape routes, Ciaran, Mouse and their comrades have no choice but to head further towards Ben Beatha. Ram is killed in a fight with the Kalds, though not before finding his wife and son dead by the wayside. Meanwhile, Ciaran, Mouse, the hunter and the hermit sneak into a cave at the foot of Ben Beatha and find themselves staring into a pit, wherein a huge machine is being built. The human prisoners are used as slave labour to build the machine. They also seem to be drugged or hypnotised, not caring whether they live or die. And in fact, several slaves drop dead from exhaustion right in front of the eyes of Ciaran and his companions.

Ciaran and friends make it to the bottom of the pit undetected. Here, Ciaran finds proof that yet more of the old legends he used to sing about are true, for they witness one of the androids of Bas the Immortal hypnotising the new prisoners via some kind of mesmerising light. Mouse and the hermit are also affected by the light – only Ciaran and the hunter manage to escape, though not before overhearing that the androids are worried about something failing and that the machine will not be finished in time. They also overhear that the androids are planning to overthrow Bas the Immortal and rule the world themselves.

During their escape, Ciaran and the hunter are separated. Ciaran knows that the slaves are being worked to death and that things will only get worse with the androids in charge. Desperate to save Mouse from that fate, he decides to climb Ben Beatha to find Bas the Immortal and enlist his help against the androids. While he is climbing, Ciaran also notes that the sunballs which provide his world with light and warmth are dimmer than they used to be.

Ciaran eventually reaches an outcropping near the top of the mountain, which turns out to be a balcony leading to the quarters of Bas. He ventures inside and gets the surprise of his life, when he finally finds Bas, asleep on a bed which is shaped like an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life (though Brackett uses the Latin term "crux ansata" for the symbol). For Bas is not the ancient and godlike immortal Ciaran has envisioned. Instead, he is a teenaged boy, perpetually young due to his immortality. At this point, Ciaran also remembers another legend, older than most, about the Shining Youth from Beyond, a boy who never grows old. So that legend is true as well.

Ciaran tries to wake Bas, only to be thwarted by the curtain of light that surrounds Bas and his ankh-shaped bed. When the curtain of light flickers out due to a convenient power failure (The frequent power failures in the story are timed very conveniently, even though there is an in-story reason for them), Ciaran still cannot get Bas to wake up. Desperate, Ciaran finally sits down on Bas' bed and begins to play sad songs on his harp, which does the trick. Bas is awake at last, though not exactly happy about it.

We now get a brief rundown of the long history of Bas the Immortal. Bas, we learn, was a fisherman's son from Atlantis. He gained his immortality as well as the Stone of Destiny from a meteor strike. Now Bas had eternal life and the powers of a god, but because of his youth he was never respected, only hated. Eventually, he left Earth with his androids and the Stone of Destiny and settled on the tenth planet of the solar system. Inside the hollow tenth planet, Bas built a world of his own, lit by sunballs and powered by the Stone of Destiny, and populated it with humans imported from Earth as well as the alien Kalds. But the people of this world also quickly came to hate Bas and so he went to sleep to live in his own dream world and left the androids in charge of the world he had created.

This conversation occurs in the penultimate chapter of the novella and finally clarifies where exactly the story is set, namely on or rather inside a hypothetical tenth planet of our solar system (Pluto was still considered the ninth planet back then). In fact, I wonder why Leigh Brackett didn't simply use Pluto instead, especially since hardly anything was known about Pluto a mere fourteen years after its discovery. But then, hypothetical trans-Neptunian planets are very common in science fiction well into the twenty-first century, almost as common as real trans-Neptunian objects.

But though the revelation of where exactly the story is set only happens towards the end, Brackett weaves in hints regarding the nature of this world throughout the story such as the sunballs or the fact that neither Ciaran nor Mouse have ever experienced darkness before and are terrified by it as well as a moment early on where Ciaran recalls one of the legends surrounding Bas the Immortal, according to which Bas was born on a world with only one big sunball, where the sky changes from light to dark "like a woman's fancy" and where the horizon curves down. So yes, the clues to the nature of this world are there from the beginning, even though I completely managed to miss them upon first reading.

The world of Ciaran, Mouse and Bas is also highly reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar (which is eligible for the 1945 Best Series Retro Hugo), for Pellucidar also has a horizon that curves upwards, is also lit by a sunball and also knows no night. And considering Leigh Brackett has stated that she was a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and that Burroughs' Tarzan was a big influence on Eric John Stark, it's very likely that she read the Pellucidar novels. However, Burroughs places his Pellucidar "At the Earth's Core", whereas Brackett places her world on a planet beyond Neptune. It's certainly a fascinating world and I wonder why Leigh Brackett never revisited it in future stories like she kept revisiting her versions of Mars and Venus.

However, Ciaran and Bas don't have much time to dwell on the exact nature of their world. For the Stone of Destiny, which powers the sunballs and keeps the world habitable, is failing. Once it does fail, everybody in this world except for Bas and his androids will die. And life won't exactly be pleasant for Bas and the androids either, considering they will be trapped on a frozen rock in space. Ciaran also deduces that this is why the androids are using the human slaves to build the gigantic machine he saw earlier, as a replacement power source for the failing Stone of Destiny.

Ciaran has the hardest time convincing Bas, the solar system's oldest emo teenager, to help, since the fatalistic Bas declares that thousands of people dying is no big deal, since human lifespans are so short anyway. And besides, he'd much rather sleep. It's only when Bas realises that the androids plan to do away with him as well that he agrees to help.

Together, Bas and Ciaran set out to confront the androids, just as the machine the slaves built starts up. The androids try to hold Ciaran and Bas back by siccing the Kalds on them. But the Kalds succumb to Bas' telepathy, so the androids have the hypnotised human slaves block the way. Bas cannot see a way past the slaves without hurting or killing anybody. So Ciaran draws the human slaves away with his harp, pied piper style, while Bas turns the last bits of power in the Stone of Destiny against the androids, destroying them. The slaves are freed and the world is saved.

Ciaran and Mouse try to persuade Bas to stay with the people he saved, but Bas won't hear anything about that. Sooner or later, in a couple of generations, they'll only hate him again, he says fatalistically and goes back to sleep to live in his dream world with his perfect dream girl. Ciaran and Mouse bid him good-bye and realise that even if their lives are limited, they are much happier than Bas the Immortal will ever be.


"The Jewel of Bas" is a glorious pulpy adventure story that manages to offer up plenty of twists and turns, whether it's the revelation where the story is set or Bas the legendary Immortal turning out to be a sullen emo teenager whose initial response to the impending end of his world is a shrug and "Whatever". Bas only appears in the final three chapters of the novella, but he is certainly a memorable character, both a tragic figure and an annoying brat.

Dying worlds, mysterious relics and ancient legends that turn out to contain considerably more than a kernel of truth are common themes in Leigh Brackett's work and "The Jewel of Bas" has all of them in spades. Leigh Brackett's stories often inhabit the borderland between science fiction and fantasy. "The Jewel of Bas" tilts further towards fantasy than most. Yes, the story is set on another planet, there is a mysterious machine and there are androids, but Leigh Brackett isn't particularly concerned about how any of this works. If this novella had been published in Astounding, we would have been treated to pages of technobabble about how the machine powering the planet works and how the androids were built. Leigh Brackett, however, isn't interested in the details of her wholly imaginary technology. We get a few lines that the machine is powered by the rotation of the planet and by vibration, before we get back to the adventure and the crisis at hand. And the androids are no Asimovian robots with positronic brains and careful programming, they're just a monster to fight and an obstacle to be overcome. Indeed, the story would have worked just as well, if Leigh Brackett had simply waved her hand and said "magic", when asked how exactly the imaginary technology works. And indeed, the Stone of Destiny is pretty much magic. "The Jewel of Bas" is wallpaper science fiction, but it is also an excellent example why wallpaper science fiction often endures long after harder science fiction has become hopelessly dated.

Leigh Brackett's planetary romances are exactly what the term "sword and planet" as an analogue to sword and sorcery was invented to describe. In fact, Adventures Fantastic notes in their review of "The Jewel of Bas" that the story not only feels like a sword and sorcery tale, but that it also pays homage to several popular sword and sorcery works. And so Ciaran plays a tune played at the funerals of Cimmerian chieftains at one point and mentions an ancient legend from the forests of Hyperborea at another, paying homage to both Robert E. Howard's Conan (who hails from Cimmeria and visits Hyperborea) and Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborean Cycle. And we know that Leigh Brackett was a fan of Robert E. Howard's work and even named a character in "Lorelei of the Red Mist", her 1946 collaboration with Ray Bradbury, Conan after Howard's barbarian, a decision she later regretted when the Conan stories were reprinted to huge success in the 1960s and the name became forever associated with the Cimmerian barbarian.

Adventures Fantastic also points out that the red-headed hunter who aids Ciaran and Mouse during their escape is reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's red-headed barbarian Fafhrd. In this case, the link is more tenuous than in the previous example, but the interactions between Ciaran and the hunter are a little reminiscent of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser down to the hunter calling Ciaran "little man", which is how Fafhrd often refers to the Mouser. Though Fafhrd is the bard in that legendary partnership. Furthermore, it's also notable that there is a character, albeit a female one, called Mouse in "The Jewel of Bas", considering that Mouse was the Gray Mouser's original name, before he decided to rebrand himself. Though this little tidbit would not be revealed until the novelette "The Unholy Grail" in 1962, i.e. eighteen years after "The Jewel of Bas". Though it is pretty obvious that the various SFF authors of the golden age were all reading each other's work, even if they didn't know each other personally, and so occasionally dropped little Easter eggs into their stories.


The stereotypical protagonist of golden age science fiction is the competent man (and it is almost always a man, the occasional Susan Calvin notwithstanding) who uses his brains and his specialist knowledge to solve the problem at hand. Astounding was the realm of that particular breed of competent man, even though there were many stories published in Astounding that don't match that stereotype at all. Leigh Brackett's protagonists are certainly all competent, though they couldn't be any more different from the heroic engineers and scientists found in the pages of Astounding. Instead, Leigh Brackett's protagonists are usually outsiders living on the margins of their respective societies. Many are borderline or outright criminals. And while these marginalised outsiders do apply their specialist skills to the problem at hand, these specialist skills usually have very little to do with superior scientific knowledge.

Instead, Eric John Stark survives thanks to the instincts he acquired as a child growing up with a tribe of semi-primitive aliens on Mercury. Matt Carse from the 1949 novel The Sword of Rhiannon uses his knowledge of Martian history and legends to save the day, as does Carey from the 1963 story "The Road to Sinharat". Meanwhile, Ciaran uses both his knowledge of the old legends of his world and his skills as a musician to save himself, his beloved Mouse and his world. SFF does have its share of heroic bards and balladeers from Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd via Tom Bombadil and Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John to Jaskier/Dandelion/insert flower name here from Andrzej Sapkowski's The Witcher and the eponymous TV series. Ciaran, however, is one of the earliest examples of this character type – only Fafhrd (and if one counts his first appearance in a poem, Tom Bombadil) predates him.

As for Mouse, all of Leigh Brackett's female characters are as competent as their male counterparts. Scrappy little Mouse, though far from a typical female Leigh Brackett character (Brackett tended to go for femme fatales rather than tomboys), is no exception. After all, the initial escape wouldn't even have been possible without the lockpicking skills she acquired in her past as a thief.

"The Jewel of Bas" is a great example of the kind of grand planetary adventure that Leigh Brackett specialised in and just as exciting and enjoyable as it was seventy-five years ago.

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