Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Retro Review: "Shadow Over Mars" a.k.a. "The Nemesis from Terra" by Leigh Brackett


Mayo wears a sensible coverall for most of the novel, but the cover artist had to give her a brass bikini

Shadow Over Mars by Leigh Brackett is a planetary romance novel, which appeared in the fall 1944 issue of Startling Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version of the novel may be found here.

Many people will probably also know this novel under its alternate title The Nemesis from Terra, under which it was reprinted as one half of an Ace Double (the other half was Collision Course by Robert Silverberg) in 1961 and a few times since. Though unlike the Ace Double reprints of two Eric John Stark stories, which I reviewed for Galactic Journey last year, the only difference between Shadow Over Mars and The Nemesis from Terra seems to be the title. The text is otherwise unchanged, including a persistent misspelling of the Mars moon Deimos as "Diemos".

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!

Shadow Over Mars starts off in the ancient Martian city of Ruh, a location that I at least don't remember from any other of Leigh Brackett's Martian adventures. Protagonist Rick Gunn Urquart is on the run, trying to avoid the press gangs of the charmingly named Terran Exploitations Company (well, at least they're honest and there's something to be said for truth in advertising) who are hunting slaves for the mines they operate on Mars. Anybody who doesn't run fast enough is fair game, because evil capitalists need cheap labour.

Rick is a typical Leigh Brackett outlaw protagonist, someone who ekes out a living on the margins of his society. Rick is a drifter, born in space, "in the hull of a tramp freighter…" he proudly declares at one point, "…and never left it since." To the native Martians, Rick is an Earthman (and the titular nemesis from Terra), but that's not how he views himself. And indeed it's interesting that even though most of Leigh Brackett's protagonists are nominally Earthpeople, they have little connection or loyalty to Earth and usually view themselves as something else.

Rick ended up stranded on Mars, when he was fired from his latest job on a spaceship crew after slugging a mate (we're certain he deserved it). He's dead broke, because he left what little money he had in the brothels of Mars. And so he is fair game for the press gangs of the Terran Exploitations Company, press gangs that consist of apelike Martian beings called anthropoids.

Rick easily kills the first batch of anthropoids with his trusty blaster, but the shots draw others and Rick has gotten trapped in a dead end in the maze-like streets of Ruh. Lucky for him, he spots the crack of light of an open door and forces his way inside.

The house is inhabited by an old Martian woman and her grandson. Rick tells them that he means them no harm, but that he will hide out until the press gangs have gone. The old woman offers to read his fortune. Rick doesn't really believe in such things, but he humours the old woman anyway. Her pronouncements regarding his origin turn out to be surprisingly accurate. Then she tells Rick that he is the titular shadow that will fall upon Mars and suddenly attacks him with a knife. Ricks shoots her in self-defence and flees, only to promptly run into the arms of a press gang and end up in the very slave mines he tried so hard to avoid.

In the next few chapters, we encounter the rest of the players and the fractions that are fighting for control of Mars. For starters, there is the Terran Exploitations Company with its director Ed Fallon. Fallon's righthand man is Jaffa Storm, a human telepath from Mercury who is described as tall and dark-skinned. So we have another main character of colour in this novel. But unlike Eric John Stark, Leigh Brackett's other tell and dark-skinned Earthman from Mercury, Jaffa Storm is an unambiguous villain and a particularly nasty one, too.

On the Martian side, we have the boy king Haral and his general Beudach who are plotting to start a rebellion and kick the Earthpeople off Mars. The grandson of the old woman Rick killed immediately runs to Haral and Beudach to inform them about the prophecy and to demand the head of Rick Gunn Urquart as vengeance for his grandmother. Haral, Beudach and their supporters are only too happy to oblige, because they don't want any Earthpeople ruling Mars, whether it's the Terran Exploitations Company or Rick Urquart whose shadow will fall upon Mars. And so the hunt is on for Rick.

The third fraction is the Union Party (I'm sure it's purely coincidental that the name of the party is reminiscent of the term "trade union), a group headed by Earthman Hugh St. John and Martian Eran Mak. They want to unite Earthpeople and Martians and establish a better society on Mars for everybody. However, that requires getting rid of Ed Fallon and his Terran Exploitations Company first. And so Fallon tries to bribe St. John with large sums of money, which St. John gratefully pockets while trying to find proof that Fallon is using slave labour in his mines, so he can report him to the authorities, because even the imperialist Terran Empire of Leigh Brackett's stories frowns upon slavery. You'd figure that the press gangs roaming the streets of Martian cities and snatching people would be proof enough, but apparently not. And so St. John has sent a spy into Fallon's lair, a young Earthwoman named Mayo McCall.

Mayo McCall is a spunky heroine and an all around awesome character. When Jaffa Storm forces a kiss on her, she kicks him in the balls. Nor does she take shit from anybody else. She's probably my favourite female Leigh Brackett character. Mayo works as a technician for the Terran Exploitations Company and absolutely no one finds anything unusual about a woman working as a testing technician for a mining company. Of course, when Shadow Over Mars was written, plenty of women in the real world were working in factories, building airplanes and tanks, testing military equipment, etc… But in the speculative fiction of the golden age, spaceship crews, lab technicians, miners, etc… are all male and women only appear in a few stereotyped roles such as wife, mother, daughter, girlfriend/love interest, housewife, actress, nurse, etc… In this environment, Mayo McCall is a breath of fresh air.

Mayo just happens to be at work, when Rick stages a slave mutiny, because he's not going to let himself be worked to death by the Terran Exploitations Company. At first, Rick's revolt seems to be successful, until Jaffa Storm brings in a Banning Shocker, a weapon that also appears in "Queen of the Martian Catacombs", the first Eric John Stark story. Eric John Stark is only threatened with the Banning Shocker, but in Shadow Over Mars we see it in action. And so Rick's fellow mutineers are either killed or surrender one by one. Rick refuses to surrender and is about to be killed by Jaffa Storm and his men, when Mayo intervenes and tries to get Storm and Fallon to confess that they're using slave labour. Unfortunately, Mayo is unmasked as a spy instead. In the resulting shoot-out, Rick and Mayo flee into the mine tunnels and eventually escape into a maze of fossilised bore tunnels left behind by the long extinct mud-worms of Mars.

If the huge Martian mud-worms seem a tad familiar to you, you're not alone. Because those mud-worms are very clearly the ancestors of the sandworms from Frank Herbert's classic novel Dune. And indeed, there is quite a bit of Brackett influence detectable in Dune. I guess Frank Herbert was a fan.

Rick and Mayo eventually escape the tunnels and find themselves in the Martian dessert, where they encounter a group of tiny winged people, a native Martian race that also appears elsewhere in Leigh Brackett's work such as her 1949 novel Sea-Kings of Mars a.k.a. The Sword of Rhiannon. The winged people are allied with Haral and therefore immediately recognise Rick as the man all Mars is looking for. So he and Mayo are taken prisoner.

The winged people are planning to hand Rick over to Haral, Beudach and the grandson of the prophetess. Only a young woman named Kyra takes a liking to Rick, because he is so alive and she believes he could bring that life to dying Mars. Mayo agrees and thinks that Rick might be an asset to the Union Party. Rick himself isn't sure what he believes except that he wouldn't mind ruling Mars with Mayo by his side. Mayo points out that that's not what she meant. She also tells Rick that she loves him, even though she isn't sure if he is able to love anybody except himself.

Now I'm a big fan of Leigh Brackett, but one thing that often bothers me about her stories is that her characters tend to fall in love with each other a little too quickly. The most glaring example is Eric John Stark falling in love with the titular character of "Black Amazon of Mars" as soon as he realises that the masked Martian warlord he has been fighting is really an attractive woman, completely forgetting that she had him whipped nearly to death only two days before. The romance between Rick and Mayo does not come quite so out of nowhere – after all, they did survive the ordeal in the worm tunnels together. And to be fair, Rick isn't entirely sure at this point whether he loves Mayo. He just knows that there is a connection between them and wants to see where it goes.

Nor are Rick and Mayo the only characters affected by insta-love. Kyra also falls in love with Rick at first sight, even though she knows that he doesn't feel the same. Hugh St. John quietly pines for Mayo and Jaffa Storm also wants to possess her, even though Mayo kicked him in the balls at their first meeting. Maybe, humans from Mercury have a touch of masochism in Leigh Brackett's version of the solar system.

What is more, believable romantic relationships are fairly rare in golden age science fiction. Leigh Brackett may tend towards insta-love, but at least her characters do get to have feeling at all, which is more than you can say for many other stories of the period. Of all the stories I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project, the most affecting love story not written by Leigh Brackett was that between a man and his spaceship. And I liked Rick and Mayo very much. They definitely have chemistry and I could easily imagine them being played by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in a movie. Nonetheless, I would have preferred it if the relationship between Rick and Mayo had developed a little more slowly.

Though Rick and Mayo haven't got much time, before their captors take them to Haral and his court. Rick won't beg for his own life, but asks the Martians to let Mayo go. The Martians, however, have no intention of letting anybody go. And so Rick is crucified against the nearest wall, while the Martian chiefs continue to plot the overthrow of the Terran Exploitations Company.

The Martian war council is interrupted by Jaffa Storm and his troops, who kill the Martians, kidnap Mayo and leave Rick for dead. However, Rick is not dead, not yet. Nor is he the only survivor of the massacre. Haral's general Beudach and the winged girl Kyra survived as well. Together, they free Rick. Beudach, who has been quite impressed by Rick's courage and strength, clamps the collar of Ruh, symbol of the rulership over Mars, around Rick's neck before succumbing to his injuries.

Now Rick has the collar and the prophecy to back him up, he and Kyra gather the troops. They persuade Martians and Earthpeople living on Mars to work together to bring down the Terran Exploitations Company. Rick also enlists the help of Hugh St. John and Eran Mak and their Union Party.
The cover of the 1951 edition

Meanwhile, Jaffa Storm hasn't been idle. He killed his boss Ed Fallon to take his place and is using his telepathic abilities to learn of his enemies' plans before they can put them into action. To counter Storm's abilities, Rick decides to do something completely unpredictable and crashes a spaceship into the headquarters of the Terran Exploitations Company. The element of surprise gives Rick the edge and the combined army of Martians and Earthpeople manage to overcome Storm's forces. However, Storm has fled and taken Mayo with him.

Rick is determined to go after them, but first he has to deal with treachery from his own allies, when Hugh St. John and Eran Mak double-cross him. They knock Rick out, steal the collar of Ruh and tell Earthpeople and Martians that he betrayed them both. Then they put Rick on a spaceship bound for Earth with fifty thousand credits to make him go away. But Rick isn't someone you can get rid of that easily. He uses the fifty thousand credits to bribe his way off the ship.

He finds Kyra who was mortally wounded in the attack on the Terran Exploitations Company. She dies in Rick's arms, but not before telling him where Storm has fled with Mayo. I have to admit that I was disappointed that poor Kyra was fridged like that. Yes, obviously there was no future for Rick and her, but couldn't Brackett have found someone else for her? Or have Kyra remain happily single and working to build a better Mars?

After many more ordeals, Rick finally tracks down Jaffa Storm in the polar cities of Mars, where an ancient non-human race lies in stasis and dreams, while their marvellous technology still lies around, ripe for the taking. Rick has no weapons, but nonetheless he manages to outwit Storm by using his telepathy against him. For while Storm can sense which move Rick is going to make next, he is unaware that Rick is lefthanded and therefore miscalculates his countermoves.

Rick kills Storm and rescues Mayo. Together, they head back to confront the treacherous Hugh St. John and Eran Mak. Rick tells them in no unclear terms that he will not be bought off with fifty thousand credits. After all, Rick tells them, he was the one who suffered, was crucified and almost killed on more than one occasion, while St. John and Mak sat around in their office twiddling their thumbs. Also, Rick knows the secrets of the polar cities with their fantastic weapons and he will use them if he has to.

Luckily, Rick has no interest in ruling Mars. St. John and Mak can have that job, thank you very much. Rick would much rather have Mayo – as well as a spaceship and a crew to explore the asteroid belt and Jupiter plus trading privileges. After all, he was born in space and that's where he will return.

The cover of the 1961 Acve Double edition shows Rick in chains.

No one wrote better planetary adventures than Leigh Brackett and Shadow Over Mars perfectly showcases her skills. There are thrills and action aplenty as well as twists and turns and the nigh psychedelic descriptions of alien landscapes that Brackett excelled at.

Shadow Over Mars was Brackett's first science fiction novel (she also penned a hardboiled crime novel entitled No Good From a Corpse in the same year). In many ways it feels like a prototype for her later work, particularly the Eric John Stark stories as well as her 1949 novel Sea-Kings of Mars a.k.a. The Sword of Rhiannon. A lot of elements from this novel – the prophecy, the slave rebellion, the Banning Shocker, the polar cities of Mars with their mysterious non-human inhabitants, the winged people of Mars and the dark-skinned humans of Mercury – would all show up again in future stories.

But while Eric John Stark may be physically closer to Jaffa Storm, there are also many similarities between his character and Rick Urquart. Both are drifters without a home or a loyalty to any particular planet. Erik John Stark was an orphan raised by a Mercurian natives and refers to himself as N'chaka, the man without a tribe. Meanwhile, Rick was born in space and doesn't belong on any planet.

Now most of Leigh Brackett's protagonists are drifters and outlaws, but Rick Urquart is a little more cynical than most of them. Eric John Stark's involvement with various uprisings against villainous capitalists and colonialists are inevitably motivated by idealism, even if he calls himself a mercenary. Rick, on the other hand, is mainly out for himself. His love for Mayo softens him somewhat, but he still has no qualms about blackmailing St. John and Mak to get what he wants. Though to be fair, St. John and Mak have it coming.
 
I can't even blame them for not wanting Rick in charge of Mars, because Rick really isn't the sort of person you'd want to put in charge of anything larger than a spaceship. Never mind that history has shown again and again that the people who lead the revolution are usually not the ones who end up ruling the country afterwards. Nonetheless, Rick is right. St. John and Mak did let him fight and suffer and bleed for their cause and then promptly turned on him. And even if Rick is plainly unsuited to ruling Mars, I can't help but wonder how well Mars will do under the control of the backstabbing St. John and Mak. They are marginally better than Fallon and Storm, if only because they don't enslave anybody (yet). But I can't really imagine them being good rulers. Most likely, they will become the villainous government that the next outlaw hero has to take down in ten or twenty years' time. Leigh Brackett obviously had a strong dislike of politicians and government and it often shows through in her fiction.

The cover of the edition I own has nothing whatsoever to do with the story.

The Sad and Rabid Puppies generally seem to like Leigh Brackett, probably because of the 1970s Skaith trilogy with its evil space hippies and evil space socialists bleeding a beleaguered population dry. However, Leigh Brackett's stories from the 1940s and early 1950s are extremely critical of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism and her heroes are often literal social justice warriors, fighting to liberate a downtrodden native population. These tendencies can be seen in the Eric John Stark stories as well as in the 1944 Retro Hugo finalist "The Citadel of Lost Ships". Shadow Over Mars is another example of Leigh Brackett in social justice warrior mode. And the Terran Exploitations Company are the most blatantly evil capitalists I've ever come across in any Brackett story.

Rick and the kidnapped men slaving away in the mines of the Terran Exploitations Company wear chains and manacles and Rick is often depicted in chains on several of the covers this novel had over the years. Those chains bring to mind not only slavery in the antebellum South – abolished for not quite eighty years when this novel was published and therefore as far removed for 1940s audience as WWII and the Great Depression are for us – but also the chain gangs of convicts that still toiled in fields and built roads in the US South at the time Shadow Over Mars was published. Leigh Brackett often tackled contemporary social issues in her stories, which is why I'm so surprised that those who believe that good science fiction should be apolitical tend to embrace her work. But then, Leigh Brackett also wrote cracking good action, so maybe that makes it easier to overlook the blatantly political messages in her stories.

Like pretty much all stories of the golden age, Shadow Over Mars is dated in places. The apelike anthropoids the Terran Exploitations Company uses as disposable muscle are referred to as "black boys" by those on the receiving end of their fists, which is not a word choice anybody would make today. The smoking, always present in golden age speculative fiction, is also really notable here. Rick, Jaffa Storm and pretty much every other male character smokes. At one point, his trusty pack of cigarettes even save Rick from a pit full of flesh-eating psychedelic killer flowers.

But in spite of the dated aspects, Shadow Over Mars is another great and glorious adventure from the queen of space opera. It would make a great addition to the 1945 Retro Hugo ballot, especially since 1944 wasn't a strong year for SFF novels.

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