Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Retro Review: "Terror Out of Space" by Leigh Brackett


This scene does not actually appear in the story.

"Terror Out of Space" by Leigh Brackett is a science fiction novelette, which appeared in the summer 1944 issue of Planet Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. You can find the story online here.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!

The story starts with the protagonist, an officer of the Tri-Worlds Police, Special Branch called Lundy (no first name given), in a fistful of trouble. He's flying solo through the clouds of Venus, desperate to deliver his cargo to a destination he will never reach.

Gradually, we learn that a mysterious alien lifeform has crash-landed on Venus and caused a wave of madness. For this mysterious alien lifeform is telepathic and appears to every heterosexual male as the most desirable woman ever. However, no one has ever looked into her eyes and lived to tell the tale. Apparently, the alien has zero interest in heterosexual women or gay people of any gender. Lundy and his partner Jackie Smith have been tasked with capturing one of those alien lifeforms and delivering it to a group of scientists for analysis. They got lucky and managed to apprehend both the creature as well as its latest victim, a man named Farrell.

At the beginning of the story, the creature is locked in a safe aboard Lundy's ship. Lundy also drugged and strapped down its victim, though not before Farrell managed to knock out Jackie Smith. And so Lundy is flying solo, while Smith is unconscious and Farrell is screaming his lungs out in the hold.

When Farrell falls suspiciously silent, Lundy goes to check on him and finds that the man has torn himself loose from his restraints, the straps cutting his flesh to the bone. The gravely injured Farrell demands that Lundy let the creature out of the strongbox, because "she" is afraid of the dark. Lundy refuses only to find himself looking into the barrel of Jackie Smith's gun, for Smith has also fallen under the creature's spell.

The resulting fight causes the craft to crash into the Venusian ocean. Only Lundy survives – Farrell succumbs to his injuries and Smith drowns, an expression of horror frozen on his face. The safe is open, the creature gone.

So Lundy puts on a pressure suit, grabs some meds and oxygen tanks and decides to walk across the Venusian ocean floor to the destination he was trying to reach. This trek across the ocean floor is a highlight of the story. Atmospheric descriptions of alien worlds are one of Leigh Brackett's great strengths as a writer and she employs it to the fullest here, offering up vivid and nigh psychedelic depictions of the Venusian ocean floor, complete with ruined underwater cities and flesh-eating monster flowers. On the way to one the former, Lundy nearly succumbs to the latter, but just as the flowers are about to devour him, he is rescued by a group of telepathic Venusian kelp people.

The friendly kelp people tell Lundy that they live in a nearby ruined city. The kelp people are all female, because the males abandoned their partners to follow a mysterious women who passed through. Lundy recognises the creature's handiwork at once. The kelp women ask Lundy for help to rescue their menfolk, because the kelp people are periodically besieged by creatures they call the Others who prey on them. The women know how to keep themselves and their seedlings safe, but the men are so besotted by "her" that they are sitting ducks.

Lundy, being a heroic type, at once promises to help the kelp people. Besides, he sees a chance to finally apprehend the creature, which has caused so much pain and misery. However – and this is something you would never find in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction – Lundy also has doubts whether he is up to the task, whether he will be able to resist the creature, when Jackie Smith, Farrell and the kelp men all succumbed to "her". Just as Lundy is scared much of the time during his trek across the ocean floor and his pursuit of 'her". Nonetheless, he is going to bring "her" in or die trying.

Things come to a head, when Lundy tracks the kelp men and the creature to the heart of the ruined city. He manages to catch the creature inside a net and promptly finds himself assaulted by the kelp men who are desperate to free "her". But lacking human hands, they cannot. At the same time, the Others – also kelp beings, but vicious, cannibalistic ones – attack. Leigh Brackett is not the first author who comes to mind when thinking of aliens who are truly alien – she was simply more interested in humans than aliens. The kelp people, the creature and the Others are some of the more interesting alien beings in Brackett's fiction.

Lundy knows that the kelp men are so focussed on freeing the creature from the net that they are easy prey for the Others. So Lundy does the very thing he'd been terrified to do, he telepathically communicates with the creature, telling her that he is the only one who can free her, but that he won't, unless she lets the kelp men go.

The creature obeys and just in time, too, for the Others are almost upon them. The kelp men escape. Lundy tries to hold off the Others with his blaster and finally hides in one of the ruined houses. He finds himself trapped in a Venusian execution chamber together with the creature, while the Others are swarming outside. Worse, Lundy's oxygen supply is getting low.

The creature tries to persuade Lundy to let her go, but he lets her know in no uncertain terms that he will never let her go after what she has done to Jackie Smith and Farrell and so many others. Now Lundy – and the reader – finally gets to see "her" in the form of a small, naked and angelically perfect woman. Her eyes, however, remain hidden for now. In many ways, "she" reminded me of the alien angel from Edgar Pangborn's debut story "Angel's Egg", which appeared seven years after "Terror Out of Space".

Though exhausted and high on stimulants, Lundy still manages to resist "her" and asks the creature at one point why precisely she drives men crazy and eventually kills them. The creature does not understand. The men worship her and it's nice to be worshipped. Nor does she understand the meaning of death, because in deep space, where her species lives, there is no such thing as death. On Venus, however, the creature is not immortal, because she cannot withstand the gravity. Sooner or later, it is going to crush her.

Once Lundy understands the creature's motivations, he makes a deal with "her". Lundy will make sure that everybody knows her story and that she will be remembered and yes, worshipped, as a hero, if she leads the Others away from Lundy and the kelp people into a convenient nearby undersea volcano. The creature agrees because dying while being worshipped and remembered is better than dying in a net and forgotten.

So Lundy lets her go free and she goes off to fulfil her part of the deal. However, Lundy makes one fatal mistake. He asks her to let him look into her eyes. And once he does, he finally understands why Jackie Smith died with an expression of pure horror frozen on his face. Because behind her eyes, there is nothing.


I encountered "Terror Out of Space" in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks collection "Sea Kings of Mars and Other Stories".

"Terror Out of Space" is a fairly uncommon Leigh Brackett story. Her talent at writing action scenes and evocative descriptions of alien landscapes is evident here, but both protagonist and plot are quite unlike Brackett's usual work. For starters, Leigh Brackett's protagonists tend to be outsiders and even outlaws, people living on the margins of the future society she depicts. Lundy, on the other hand, is an officer of the Tri-Worlds Police, Special Branch. Interplanetary police officers occasionally show up in Brackett's stories, but mostly they are faceless antagonists who pursue her outlaw heroes. Lundy is one of only two sympathetic representatives of the official authorities of the solar system I have ever encountered in Leigh Brackett's fiction. The other is Eric John Stark's mentor and surrogate father Simon Ashton, who appears briefly at the beginning of "Queen of the Martian Catacombs" in 1948 and less briefly in the Skaith trilogy of the 1970s.

Regarding the plot, "Terror Out of Space" is very much a hunt for an alien monster tale, which is not a type of science fiction story that Leigh Brackett wrote very often. There is something almost Lovecraftian about the idea of a mysterious creature that drives men (and only men) mad. But whereas the creature would have remained unknowable in a Lovecraft story, while the protagonist succumbs to madness, Lundy remains sane long enough to negotiate with the creature and learn about her real motives. "Terror Out of Space" certainly has its share of moments of horror – Farrell, who cuts himself to the bone trying to escape and bleeds to death, the dead Jackie Smith with an expression of nameless horror frozen on his face, the alien plantlife trying to devour Lundy and of course the beautiful woman with nothing where her eyes should be. Nonetheless, "Terror Out of Space" is not a science fiction horror story like John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" or H.P. Lovecraft's "Color Out of Space".

It is also unusual for a Golden Age story that the alien creature is not so much evil, but misunderstood and has no idea about the damage she is causing. Just try to imagine what this story would have been like, if it had been published in John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction. For starters, Lundy would never have been allowed to have doubts and fear, even though this sets him apart from the stereotypical square-jawed heroes of the Golden Age. And the creature would have been unambiguously villainous, only to be outsmarted by superior human intelligence. But then, Leigh Brackett had stopped publishing in Astounding by this point, having found a more sympathetic audience for her brand of science fiction in Planet Stories.

Of course, Leigh Brackett, whose penchant for femme fatales is well known, could not resist turning even her very alien antagonist into a femme fatale. And not just any old femme fatale either, but the ultimate femme fatale who literally drives men of any species mad with a single look into her eyes.
When reading "Terror out of Space", there is never any doubt that this is vintage science fiction. Whether it's the vivid description of an ocean covered Venus that never was or Lundy's old-fashioned rocketship, complete with an autopilot named Iron Mike who is a literal robot or the aggressive heterosexuality of the creature, it is always very obvious that we are reading a story that's seventy-five years old. However, "Terror Out of Space" is also dated in other less obvious ways. For example, the medication Lundy takes along on his long trek across the Venusian ocean floor is a drug called Benzedrine, which left me puzzled, thinking, "But isn't that the trade name of an allergy medication?"

It turns out that I got the names mixed up (I was thinking of Benadryl, which is indeed an allergy medication) and that Benzedrine was an early amphetamine, which actually was used as a nasal decongestant, before people figured out that it also was a very effective stimulant. In the 1930s to 1950s, Benzedrine was widely used, both by soldiers in WWII as well as by scientists, mathematicians, writers and artists who used it to focus, stay awake and be more productive. And considering the conditions under which pulp fiction writers worked, sometimes cranking out one or two short novels per month, it's obvious why a stimulant like Benzedrine would be popular. And indeed, Wikipedia has a long list of references to Benzedrine in pop culture.

So a science fiction reader in 1944 would have known what Benzedrine was and what its effects were at once, whereas I – reading the story seventy-five years later – had to look it up. Leigh Brackett also namedrops another drug, Avertin, which Lundy uses to sedate the raging Farrell. I initially assumed Avertin was a made up name, but when I googled it, I found that Avertin is the trade name for an anaesthetic called tribromoethanol, which is still used in veterinary medicine today and which was used for humans in the first half of the twentieth century, before safer substances were developed. So again, a reader in 1944 would likely have known what it was.

The story provides enough context that it is obvious what these drugs do, even if – like me – you have never heard of them. Nonetheless, the takeway here is that a science fiction writer should never assume that something ubiquitous in your day will still be recognised by latter day readers, let alone in whatever future you depict. And indeed, when mentioning medication (which occasionally comes up in the In Love and War stories in particular), I never use real brand names, but either make up a name or just describe what it does.

I'm also very glad that the many references to drug use you can find in science fiction from the Golden Age all the way through the New Wave and beyond went completely over my head, when I read these stories as a teenager (not "Terror Out of Space", but other stories by Leigh Brackett). Because I wouldn't have been able to enjoy those stories, if I had realised how drug-soaked many of them were. For back when I read them in the late 1980s, it was a serious topic of debate among my friends whether it was morally acceptable to consume art that had been produced under the influence of drugs. I resolved the issue for myself by declaring that none of my favourites would ever as much as look at drugs – after all, they were science fiction writers and should know better (Yes, I know. I was very na├»ve) – so the question was moot. When I saw a documentary about Hollywood on TV and some fellow held up a bag of what he claimed was cocaine and said every movie or TV series produced in Hollywood was made by mediocre people under the influence of cocaine, I was utterly crestfallen and depressed, because it that were true, it would mean no more US movies or TV shows ever. In the end, after an avid discussion with friends, we decided that the man in the documentary must have referred to dull Hollywood movies, Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, Terms of Endearment, Basic Instinct and the like, that nobody liked anyway.

Among Leigh Brackett's extensive oeuvre, "Terror Out of Space" is one of the more obscure stories. It hasn't been reprinted very often – once in 1959 in an anthology of Venus stories edited by Donald A. Wollheim and then not again until 2005 in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition Sea Kings of Mars and Other Stories, which is also where I encountered it. But while "Terror Out of Space" is fairly obscure and also atypical for Leigh Brackett, it is nonetheless a fine and entertaining story, featuring some of the more interesting alien creatures of the Golden Age.

No comments:

Post a comment