Eric John Stark – Social Justice Warrior of Mars

Today, I’m over at Galactic Journey again, reviewing The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman by Leigh Brackett, the 1964 expansions of the novellas “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” and “Black Amazon of Mars” from 1949 and 1951 respectively. These are two of the three novellas about Eric John Stark that Leigh Brackett wrote for Planet Stories in the late 1940s/early 1950s. The third, “Enchantress of Venus” from 1949, was not reprinted in the 1964 edition and has never been expanded to novel length either.

With the 1944 Retro Hugos and this review for Galactic Journey, I have been reading a lot of vintage Leigh Brackett. And one thing that struck me was that even though Leigh Brackett has never been considered a left-leaning writer in any way, her space opera adventures from the 1940s and 1950s show a lot of sympathy for marginalised people, particular for downtrodden and exploited indigenous people. Furthermore, Leigh Brackett’s stories featured quite a few protagonists of colour, including Eric John Stark himself, and women with agency (even if that agency all too often manifested as typical 1940s femme fatale villainy) at a time when that was far from common in science fiction.

I’ve already written at length about the 1944 Retro Hugo finalist “Citadel of the Lost Ships” and its protagonist Roy Campbell here. Now Roy Campbell very much struck me as a prototype for Eric John Stark, who showed up a few years later to the point that both characters are men of colour, even if the cover artists inevitably ignored that fact until well into the 21st century. Campbell and Stark are very similar characters with similar outlooks, though Stark is much better developed and indeed one of the most interesting characters of the Golden Age, which was usually not particularly strong on characterisation.

But as I reread the three stories about him (cause I reread “Enchantress of Venus, too, while I was at it) it struck me that Eric John Stark is a literal social justice warrior. Nominally, Stark is a mercenary, though he himself admits that “mercenary” is just a kinder word for “outlaw” in his case (and it’s striking how many outlaw protagonists there are in Golden Age SFF, e.g. Conan, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, Northwest Smith, Roy Campbell and of course Eric John Stark). However, unlike most mercenaries, Stark doesn’t go where the money is, but inevitably sides with various oppressed native people throughout the solar system who have the misfortune to get in the way of the expansion of the Terran empire. And so Stark is involved in an endless series of uprisings and guerilla wars, usually against the twin forces of colonialism and capitalism. We only get brief flashbacks of these uprisings and hints that most of them failed.

The fact that Stark inevitably sides with the underdog is due to his unusual upbringing as an orphaned human child adopted by native people on Mercury and then orphaned a second time, when greedy miners exterminated his tribe and put young Stark in a cage. He was rescued by Simon Ashton, a Terran police officer who took Stark in and raised him to adulthood. Given Stark’s history, it’s not surprising that he fights to protect other indigenous people when he could not protect his own tribe. And Simon Ashton, though theoretically a representative of a system that sides with the oppressors instead of the oppressed, nonetheless has a lot of sympathy for Stark’s less than legal activities, as becomes clear in the opening pages of Queen of the Martian Catacombs/The Secret of Sinharat. Coincidentally – and this is something I had forgotten – Simon Ashton is described as dark-skinned as well.

In the first of his three adventures chronicled in Planet Stories between 1949 and 1951, Eric John Stark tries to keep a charismatic con man and his retinue of interplanetary gangsters from trying to incite a holy war on Mars, because the indigenous people would be the ones who suffer the most. Later, he starts a slave revolt on Venus and takes down a decadent aristocratic family and finally, he helps to defend the Martian city of Kushat, a city he has no connection to beyond the fact that a dead friend hailed from there, against yet another warlord who wants to conquer the city as well as against sinister aliens from the polar regions of Mars. Stark always fights for justice and freedom for the oppressed, both in his chronicled adventures as well as in the ones we don’t see. So yes, he’s definitely a social justice warrior and he’s far from the only one in Leigh Brackett’s Golden Age stories.

Of course, there’s also the Skaith trilogy from the mid 1970s, where Eric John Stark travels to the dying planet of Skaith to rescue his mentor and surrogate father Simon Ashton from the planet’s evil rulers, who have installed a socialist nightmare regime right out of central casting which taxes the hardworking population half to death, keeps them subjugated with superstition and tries to prevent them from emigrating to greener pastures (that is why Ashton was kidnapped) and also floods the planet with hordes of evil space hippies who form a sort of instant army deployable wherever needed. So how does the anti-leftwing slant of this trilogy square with the social justice slant of the earlier stories?

Well, for starters political views often change over a lifetime and many people become more conservative as they age. Leigh Brackett was in her thirties when she wrote the earlier Stark stories and around sixty when she wrote the Skaith trilogy, so she probably moved further to the right as she aged. Heinlein from the 1940s also reads very differently from Heinlein in the 1970s. And besides, Stark only comes to Skaith to rescue Simon Ashton and initially has little interest in the local conflict, though the local conflict won’t leave him alone. Stark does eventually side with the locals, as he comes to know them (and falls in love with one of them). And besides, the inhabitants of Skaith genuinely are oppressed, even if their oppressors are evil space Socialists rather than evil space capitalists.

As for the evil space hippies, who very much puzzled my younger self, because I couldn’t imagine less likely villains than hippies of all people. My theory at the time was, “Well, Leigh Brackett is from California and The Ginger Star was published in 1974 and California was hippie central in the 1960s and 1970s. Who knows, maybe she found drugged out hippies asleep in her garden, the needle still in their arm, every morning. If I had to step over drugged out hippies every time I went to fetch the newspaper, I’d be pissed off, too.” Now drug addicts sleeping and sometimes dying in other people’s gardens and doorways was big problem in the Steintor neighbourhood of Bremen around the time I first read the Skaith trilogy, so I simply projected an issue I was familiar with elsewhere.

However, thanks to Quentin Tarantino and an endless number of articles and essays commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders, we know that much of Hollywood really was deadly afraid of hippies – not just Charles Manson and his followers, but anybody who even remotely looked like a hippie – in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Now I was certainly aware of the Manson murders at the time I first read the Skaith trilogy – if only because I remember watching The Fearless Vampire Killers at movie night at my school with a bunch of friends and whispering, “That’s her. That’s the one who got murdered,” followed by lurid and probably incorrect details about what had happened to Sharon Tate – but to me those murders were only something terrible that had happened a long time ago in a place far away. It wasn’t until the deluge of articles about the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson murders and that bloody Tarantino film that I realised that those long ago murders apparently had a much bigger psychological impact on the American psyche, particular that of people living in Los Angeles at the time, than I thought.

Though I still roll my eyes at the narrative about how the Manson murders marked the end of the peaceful flower power sixties, because from my point of view, the various countercultural movements of the 1960s have always been intertwined with violence from all sides. The brutal attacks on peaceful protesters during the state visit of the Shah of Persia in 1967, the murder of Benno Ohnesorg during said protests (yes, I’m calling it murder), the attempt on the life of student activist Rudi Dutschke in 1968, the riots in Paris and the violent suppression of the Prague spring, both in 1968, and let’s not forget the 1967 L’Innovation department store fire in Brussels, which left 251 people dead and has long been suspected to have been caused by arson attack by a leftwing group protesting the “American weeks” at the department store. And while it has never been proven whether the L’Innovation fire was arson, the leftwing German Kommune 1 were gloating in this disgusting leaflet and members of what would eventually become the Red Army Fraction started their terrorist careers by committing arson attacks on German department stores inspired by the Brussels fire, which thankfully did not cause any deaths or injuries, because Andreas Baader and his friends had no idea that sprinkler systems were a thing. So in Europe, the peace and love sixties were never peaceful. Nor were they in the US, as the violent attacks on and murders of civil rights activists, the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968 (and the murder of John F. Kennedy earlier in the decade) and the bloody war in Vietnam show. In fact, given all this carnage in what was a very violent decade, I’m surprised that the admittedly horrible murders of a young actress and her friends and a couple of supermarket owners had such an outsized impact.

But to get back to the point (sorry, but I wanted to write the above ever since that bloody Tarantino movie came out), much of Hollywood and much of America in general was terrified of hippies after the Manson murders. Leigh Brackett worked as a screenwriter and wrote the screenplay for Rio Lobo, which came out in 1970, i.e. she may well have been in Hollywood at the time of the murders and would certainly have been aware of the general atmosphere of fear. The Ginger Star came out in 1974, so it’s well possible that it was influenced by the mood of the time.

However, the Skaith trilogy is late period Brackett. And her works from the 1940s and 1950s show a lot of sympathy for anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist causes. Which in turn makes me wonder why Leigh Brackett has been embraced by the Sad and Rabid Puppies, particularly the Pulp Revolution offshot movement. Now on the surface, Leigh Brackett’s Golden Age stories are very much what the Puppies claim to want, chockfull of adventure and action (and Brackett is listed in Appendix N in the original Dungeons & Dragons handbook from the 1970s, which is a sort of literary Bible to the Pulp Revolution movement). The protagonists, including Eric John Stark, are generally macho types who just grab a woman they like and plant a “kiss brutal as a blow” (actual quote from “Black Amazon of Mars”) on her lips. On the other hand, Leigh Brackett had a lot more characters of colour than was common in the Golden Age and Brackett’s women are usually strong women with agency, even if a lot of them are villainesses or at least antiheroines. Ciaran, the antiheroine of People of the Talisman even delivers a very feminist statement, when Stark asks her how such a nice girl came to be a battle axe wielding Martian warlord. “I did not ask for my sex. I will not be bound by it,” is Ciaran’s reply. But I suspect that the puppies are willing to overlook those bits, especially since Brackett delivers thrills and action aplenty. Though I do wonder how they managed to miss the anti-colonial and anti-capitalist bits in many of Brackett’s Golden Age stories.

Comments are closed. Not interested in arguing with puppies or Tarantino fans.

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  1. Pingback: Why the Retro Hugos Have Value | Cora Buhlert

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