“The Veil of Astellar” by Leigh Brackett is a space opera novelette, which appeared in the spring 1944 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.
Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!
Uncommon for Leigh Brackett, “The Veil of Astellar” begins with a framing story about a manuscript found inside a message rocket sent to the Interworld Space Authority headquarters on Mars. This manuscript offers an explanation of the space phenomenon called “the Veil” which comes out of nowhere and swallows spaceships in the asteroid belt. The space police officers are initially sceptical about the account, but eventually manage to determine that it is authentic. Furthermore, the much feared Veil has vanished and the message inside the rocket explains why.
Once the framing story is out of the way, Leigh Brackett takes us to one of her favourite locales, the low-canal town of Jekkara on Mars, a wretched hive of scum and villainy to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi. Here we meet the first person narrator – unnamed for now, though we will eventually learn that his name is Steve Vance – stumbling over a corpse that has been thrown out of a Martian brothel. The corpse clearly bothers the narrator, though he did not kill the man, and so he closes the dead man’s eyes.
Once he’s done, he meets a young couple – Virgie, a redhead who reminds the narrator of his dead wife Missy, and her husband Brad. Brad and Virgie are passengers aboard a space liner called the Queen of Jupiter, which is carrying immigrants to the Jovian colonies. Vance serves aboard the same ship – quell coincidence. We also learn that Vance is telepathic, that he has a glowing aura, which responds to his emotions, as well as white hair, even though he does not look old.
Virgie is troubled by the dead body in the street and also by Vance, who she claims looks familiar. Vance says that they probably met aboard the Queen of Jupiter and tells Brad and Virgie to return to the ship where it’s safe. Then, after a tastefully described pit stop at a Martian brothel, he heads back to the ship himself and has another encounter, this time with a man called Gallery, a fellow crewmember aboard the Queen of Jupiter. Gallery is yet another of the Irish stereotypes I’ve encountered several times before in the course of the Retro Reviews project. And so Gallery is a big quick-tempered brawler who smells of whiskey. Though unlike the redheads Mike Donovan from Isaac Asimov’s “Catch That Rabbit” and Steve “Irish” Marnagan from Ray Bradbury’s “The Monster Maker”, Gallery has black hair, which must count for something. I already knew before I embarked on the Retro Reviews project that Irish stereotypes were a thing during the pulp era and well beyond (Star Trek: The Next Generation featured several in the late 1980s/early 1990s), but it was still a surprise to encounter three of them in such a short span of time.
Though Gallery adds a new item to the list of pulp era stereotypes about the Irish, for he also happens to have extra-sensory perception, which – so Vance informs us – you occasionally find, particularly among humans of Celtic and Romani origin. Yeah, more stereotypes, but at least Brackett uses the term “Romani” rather than the more common slur. Gallery’s touch of ESP is a problem for Vance, because Gallery has perceived that something is off about him. “You ain’t human,” Gallery confronts Vance who replies, “No, not anymore. Not for a very long time.”
Gallery is planning to kill Vance. To make sure, he has even brought two silver crucifixes, one for each hand. Vance informs Gallery that the crucifixes won’t help, because he’s not that kind of vampire, but Gallery is undeterred. So Vance kills him by telepathically stopping his heart. He hides the corpse in a ruined tower (there are a lot of those on Leigh Brackett’s dying Mars) and returns to the Queen of Jupiter.
Now anybody who knows anything at all about astronomy knows that in order to get from Mars to Jupiter, you must first pass through the asteroid belt. And from the framing story, we know that spaceships have been vanishing in the asteroid belt. So we don’t really need a chapter title like “Voyage of Doom” to know where the story is going.
And indeed, as the Queen of Jupiter hits the asteroid belt, Vance is on watch, while the passengers crowd around the portholes. Rumours are traded about the Veil and how it snatches ships and how it’s all absolutely true, because one passenger’s brother saw it from a distance once, while it took the spaceship upon which the son of another was serving.
Virgie and Brad reappear as well and Vance is mesmerised not just by Virgie’s resemblance to his dead wife, but also by her locket. Noticing his interest, Virgie opens the locket which contains an photo of a man who looks uncannily like Vance. The locket is more than three hundred years old, Virgie tells him, a family heirloom and was a present by an ancestor of hers, a crewman aboard the first spaceship to Jupiter, to his wife Missy. Unbeknownst to her husband, Missy was pregnant, when he left for Jupiter, never to return. The locket has been in the family ever since.
Vance is stunned, for not only does he wear an identical locket under his uniform, he is also Virgie’s long lost ancestor, who vanished during that first flight to Jupiter. But before Vance can say anything, the feared Veil appears and everybody aboard the Queen of Jupiter falls unconscious. That is, everybody except for Vance.
The Queen of Jupiter finally reaches her destination, a world called Astellar that looks outwardly like just another asteroid, is half the size of Vesta and can travel not just through space, but between dimensions as well, all powered by telepathy and something called X-crystals. In fact, Astellar and its people were expelled from their home dimension for reasons which will soon become apparent.
On Astellar, the passengers and crew of the Queen of Jupiter disembark as if in a trance, drawn by a telepathic signal. Vance disembarks as well and meets first Flak, a man of colour who also was a crewman aboard a snatched spaceship, and then his alien lover Shirina.
Gradually, we learn what happened to Vance. His ship was taken by the Veil and brought to Astellar. Shirina and her people normally drain the lifeforce out of the crew and passengers of the ships they snatch to rejuvenate themselves – which is why they were expelled from their home dimension, because no one likes space vampires. However, they decided to keep Vance, Flak and three other humans alive and changed them into beings like themselves, immortal as long as they regularly rejuvenate themselves with the stolen lifeforce of others. Then Shirina and her people used Vance, Flak and the others to lure more spaceships to Astellar and more humans to the slaughter. And Vance and the others went along with it.
Vance has clearly been feeling guilty of what he’s been doing for Shirina and her people for a long time now, but he is too afraid of dying because of the many sins he committed and the many deaths he caused in his long life. But something is different now. Now Vance knows that he had a daughter, a family, and that Virgie is his descendant. And even though Shirina assures him that Virgie’s death will be painless, that they will all die painlessly, Vance cannot take it anymore. He takes off, determined to save his several times great-granddaughter and the other humans.
Flak and the other altered humans block his way, but Vance kills all of them. He reprograms the X-crystals to send the hypnotised humans back aboard the Queen of Jupiter. Then he kills Shirina and destroys the crystals, which causes Astellar to break apart. Vance manoeuvres the Queen of Jupiter out of the docking bay, before the asteroid is completely destroyed. Finally, he activates the autopilot, sets a course for Jupiter, boards a lifeboat and leaves. At last, he sends the message mentioned in the framing story, a message which ends with Vance cursing himself for betraying both humanity as well as Shirina’s people and causing the deaths of his friends and his lover. And he’s not even sure if humanity is worth saving or if it was worth killing the people of Astellar for.
“Why did I give Missy that locket?” he writes, “Why did I have to meet Virgie, with her red hair? Why did I remember? Why did I care? Why did I do what I did? Why was I ever born?” Neither we nor Vance ever get answers to those questions, unless an ad for Star Razorblades counts as an answer. If so, it’s a depressing one.
During her lifetime, Leigh Brackett was known as the Queen of Space Opera, even though most of what she wrote was actually planetary romance. “The Veil of Astellar”, however, is pure space opera. It’s also a fine example of the noir side of Brackett’s work and the guilt-ridden and self-loathing Steve Vance is a classic noir protagonist, even if he is a vampire. Even the first person narration, uncommon for Brackett, recalls the hardboiled crime novels of the era. In his review of this story, Adventures Fantastic says that Leigh Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton believed that Humphrey Bogart was the inspiration for Steve Vance. And indeed, there is something Bogartesque about the voice Brackett gives Vance.
Steve Vance is another outlaw protagonist with a kernel of goodness buried somewhere deep inside his hard shell. This was a character type Brackett obviously liked and frequently wrote about, both in her science fiction and her filmic work. But while Leigh Brackett’s other outlaw protagonists are thieves, small-time criminals, mercenaries or revolutionaries, Vance is a literal space vampire. With his guilt, world-weariness and self-loathing, Vance is also a protagonist who would never have found a home in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, even if his residual humanity is what allows him to triumph over the alien space vampires in the end.
In my review of Leigh Brackett’s “Terror Out of Space” I wrote that it was a comparatively rare example of the horror side of Leigh Brackett’s work. However, “The Veil of Astellar”, which was published in the same year, is another science fiction horror story by Leigh Brackett. But while “Terror Out of Space” was clearly inspired by Lovecraft, “The Veil of Astellar” is a classic vampire story transposed into outer space.
As far as I know, “The Veil of Astellar” is the first space vampire story, published thirty-two years before Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires and forty-one years before its film adaptation Lifeforce. And indeed, “The Veil of Astellar” bears certain similarities to The Space Vampires. In both stories, the space vampires lurk in the asteroid belt, where a hapless spaceship stumbles upon them, both vampire races have been expelled from their original homes, both Wilson’s and Brackett’s space vampires drain the lifeforce rather than the blood of their victims and both are eventually defeated by a human who has learned their powers. I don’t know if Colin Wilson ever read “The Veil of Astellar”, but the parallels are certainly striking. Though Wilson has admitted that The Space Vampires was strongly influenced by the works of H.P, Lovecraft, who was of course also an influence on Leigh Brackett.
There also are some similarities to another Leigh Brackett story from the same year that I reviewed, “The Jewel of Bas”. Both stories feature world-weary and depressed immortals who eventually turn on their own comrades, though Steve Vance is the protagonist of “The Veil of Astrellar”, while Bas from “The Jewel of Bas” is merely a supporting character. Furthermore, both stories contain a tense scene of hypnotised humans going unknowingly to their doom and in both, the protagonist tries to save a woman he cares for. Though Ciaran tries to save his newlywed wife Mouse, while Steve Vance tries to save his descendant Virgie who looks uncannily like his dead wife.
“The Veil of Astellar” also contains something else one rarely finds in the US pulp science fiction of the golden age, namely explicit references to Christianity, whether it’s Gallery and his two crucifixes or Vance introducing himself as J. Goat – J for Judas – or Vance fearing God’s wrath and hoping that someone somewhere will pray for him.
Contrary to what certain Sad and Rabid Puppy offshoots claim, there is very little religion, let alone Christian religion, to be found in the American pulp science fiction of the golden age, probably because many of the writers were secular Jews or equally secular Christians. Explicitly Christian works of the era, such as the Space trilogy by C.S. Lewis, come from outside the pulp science fiction scene. But in American science fiction magazines of the golden age, religion – if it is mentioned at all – is either a) a sham, b) for aliens or c) both and you are far more likely to find a reference to Cthulhu than to the Judeo-Christian God.
And so, religion usually plays no role in Leigh Brackett’s science fiction of the 1940s (religion does play a role in her 1955 post-apocalyptic novel The Long Tomorrow, though not a positive one). There are the occasional ancient Martian and Venusian cults, which sometimes turn out to be a sham and sometimes not, but Brackett’s protagonists are normally not religious. However, Christianity is baked into the western vampire mythos on which Leigh Brackett is drawing for this story and so religion does figure into “The Veil of Astellar”.
Like any story by Leigh Brackett, “The Veil of Astellar” is well written and dripping with atmosphere. The scenes in Jekkara and aboard the spaceship carry a heavy noir vibe, while the descriptions of the interior of Astellar are positively psychedelic, even though the story was written before the term “psychedelic” was even coined.
Leigh Brackett is undoubtedly one of the finest authors of the golden age and was also highly influential on anything from Star Wars (and not just because she wrote an early draft of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back either) via Indiana Jones (there are several Leigh Brackett stories from the 1940s, which are basically Indiana Jones in space) to Guardians of the Galaxy. In fact, Shirina from “The Veil of Astellar” is pretty much a femme fatale version of Mantis from Guardians of the Galaxy down to the antennae.
Nonetheless, Leigh Brackett is not always as appreciated as she should be, maybe because she fits in nobody’s pigeon hole. She did publish a few stories in Astounding, but she never wrote Campbellian science fiction. Instead, Leigh Brackett’s stories are unabashed pulp science fiction, filled with adventure, intrigue and morally grey outlaw protagonists who are a lot more interesting than the competent cardboard cut-outs of Astounding.
Leigh Brackett is also one of the two female SFF writers of the golden age (the other is C.L. Moore) who are always held up as an example that women were always part of the genre, even as other women writers of the period such as Allison V. Harding, Clare Winger-Harris, Leslie F. Stone or Dorothy Quick are forgotten. But while Leigh Brackett is one of the poster girls for women writing SFF during the golden age, there is nothing particularly feminine about her stories. Her heroes were usually macho types, who often engage in hate-love relationships with sword, axe or whip-wielding women who want to kill them. And while there always are notable female characters in her stories, a lot of them are femme fatales. Besides, very few of Leigh Brackett’s stories pass the Bechdel test.
Politically, she’s all over the map as well. The Sad and Rabid Puppies, particularly the Pulp Revolution offshoot thereof, have tried to claim her for their own, but a lot of Brackett’s stories from the 1940s are highly critical of capitalism and colonialism and occasionally read like the very social justice warrior fiction they Puppies claim to dislike. On the other hand, her late period Skaith trilogy features evil hippy and evil space socialists trying to keep honest, hardworking barbarians from escaping their doomed planet.
But even though Leigh Brackett doesn’t really fit into anybody’s pigeon hole, one thing you can always be sure of is when reading one of her stories is that you’ll be having a good time. There are Leigh Brackett stories I like more than others, but I’ve never yet read a Leigh Brackett story I didn’t like. And while Leigh Brackett is mainly associated with her Martian adventures and Eric John Stark these days, the breadth and scope of what she wrote is much bigger. In 1944 alone, we have Lovecraftian space horror (Terror Out of Space), lyrical planetary romance (“The Jewel of Bas”), noirish gothic horror space opera (“The Veil of Astellar”) and social justice warriors of Mars (“Shadow Over Mars” a.k.a. “Nemesis from Terra”), which will be the subject of an upcoming review.
“The Veil of Astellar” feels very much as if Weird Tales and Black Mask (home of many classic noir and hardboiled tales) had a baby and decided to foster it at Thrilling Wonder Stories. It’s also a fine example of how the speculative fiction of the golden age was so much more varied, weirder and stranger than just the competent engineers of Astounding. Highly recommended.