Retro Review: “Citadel of Lost Ships” by Leigh Brackett

The finalists for the 1945 Retro Hugos will be announced tomorrow. But for now, I’ll continue to take a look at some of the finalists for previous years of Retro Hugos. And today, I’ll continue with a story that was not the best story on the ballot, neither in its respective category nor by the respective author, but that I nonetheless found extremely interesting and that I found myself thinking about a lot more than about many of the other Retro Hugo finalists of that year.

The story in question is “Citadel of Lost Ships”, a space opera novelette by Leigh Brackett that was the cover story of the March 1943 issue of Planet Stories and was a finalist for the 1944 Retro Hugo Award. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point.

Roy Campbell, the protagonist of “Citadel of Lost Ships”, is a typical example of the outlaw heroes Leigh Brackett was so fond of. He is also explicitly described as dark-skinned, even if cover artist Jerome Rozen portrays the character as white and blonde and a deadringer for Doc Savage as portrayed by Walter Baumhofer.

At the beginning of the story, Roy has narrowly escaped the Spaceguard and found refuge with the Kraylens, a tribe of native Venusians who have taken him in before. But there is trouble brewing in this peaceful Venusian paradise, for the exhausted and injured Roy is woken by war drums in the middle of the night.

Roy finally gets the story of what is going on from his Kraylen foster father. It turns out that oil, coal and other minerals have been discovered in the Venusian swamps near the Kraylens’ home. And now the Terran-Venusian Coalition government is planning to take possession of the Kraylens’ land to drain the swamps, drill for oil and mine the coal and other minerals (we wonder if the appropriately named Terran Exploitations Company is involved). The Kraylens will be resettled into reservations, where tourists can gawk at their primitive lifestyle. Understandably, the Kraylens are not fans of this plan. “We will die first,” Roy’s foster father says.

Roy wants to help the Kraylens. After all, they gave him a home when he needed one and hid him from the authorities several times thereafter. But Roy also sympathises with the Kraylens’ plight in more ways than one, for we learn that he comes from a family of farmers who had been working the same plot of land for more than three hundred years, until they were displaced by a hydroelectric dam, victims of the same idea of progress and expansion that will now claim the Kraylens and their way of life.

Luckily, Roy has an idea. The travelling space station Romany, the titular “Citadel of Lost Ships” since it has been assembled from abandoned spaceships, has been offering refuge to those displaced by the imperialist expansion of the Terran-Venusian Coalition for a long time now. And Romany just happens to be in orbit around Venus, so maybe they can be persuaded to take in the Kraylens. It is worth a try at any rate.

So Roy sets off for Romany, narrowly evading yet another patrol ship on his way there. When he reaches the space station, he isn’t exactly given a warm welcome. The communications officer, a young black man from Mercury called Zard, treats him coolly and his boss, an Earthman called Tredrick, blows him off and tells Roy that Romany cannot help the Kraylens and that he shall leave. However, shortly after Tredrick has broken contact, Roy receives a message from Zard telling him to dock at one of the ships that make up Romany. Because, so the young man tells him, there are some who still consider Romany a refuge.

Roy docks as instructed and is promptly knocked out by a one-armed Martian named Marah, who mistakes him for a spy for Tredrick. Once that misunderstanding has been cleared up, Roy learns from Marah and a human telepath named Stella Moore what is going on aboard Romany.

It turns out that Romany is on the edge of a civil war between those like Stella, Marah and Zard who want to continue living according to their own code and help those in need, even if it pisses off the Coalition government, and a group led by Tredrick and the station council who want to stop interfering with the Coalition’s plans in exchange for better trading rights and constant orbits. Tredrick’s fraction is about to move against the rebels when Roy blunders in.

Stella promises Roy that the rebels will rescue the Kraylens. In exchange, Roy promises that he’ll stick around and help the rebels – for the Kraylens’ sake and because Roy sympathises with the rebels and their cause.

Romany is a fascinating setting, an assembly of spaceships whose interior not only houses members of many different races, but also mimics their natural environment, i.e. the Venusian quarter has swamp vegetation, while the Titanian quarter has ice caves. Sadly, Leigh Brackett never revisited Romany, though it’s spiritual descendants still abound in science fiction, ranging from Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine to Alpha, the City of a Thousand Planets, from the Valérian and Laureline comics and the recent film adaptation by Luc Besson.

The rebels are planning to take a ship and rescue the Kraylens, but before they can get there, they find their way blocked by Tredrick and his men. Tredrick informs everybody that Romany cannot help the Kraylens, not anymore, because the Kraylens have already been imprisoned for harbouring the dangerous criminal Roy Campbell. And even though Roy used a false name, when contacting Romany, Tredrick knows that he is aboard the station and warns everybody who helps him of dire consequences.

The rebels pretend to comply with Tredrick’s orders, while Stella and Marah help Roy escape. Roy manages to make his getaway just before the Spaceguard arrives, which leads to yet another chase, as the Guard ships pursue Roy and his ship. Roy’s ship is fatally damaged in the resulting firefight. Roy himself is badly wounded, but nonetheless he gets into a spacesuit and steps out of the airlock. He hides among the debris of his damaged and dying ship – a manoeuvre that Roy’s spiritual descendant Han Solo would use again some thirty-seven years later in The Empire Strikes Back, the original screenplay of which was also penned by Leigh Brackett – and then uses the jetpack of his spacesuit to descend to Venus. Of course, Roy would have gotten burned up upon entering the atmosphere, but pulp space operas don’t care about such inconvenient scientific facts.

Back on Venus, Roy meets up with Marah, Stella and their motley crew of alien rebels, who took a ship from Romany to rescue the Kraylens. Together, they head for the Venusian city of Lhi, where the Kraylens have been imprisoned.

However, Tredrick pre-empted their move and has put the Kraylens under heavy guard. But one of the rebels, a man from the Jovian moon Callisto, uses his magical harp to put the guards to sleep. But when Roy and his friends free the Kraylens, Tredrick himself shows up with more guards. A firefight erupts and Roy and Stella find themselves face to face with Tredrick himself.

Now we briefly get Tredrick’s motivation for turning on his own people. Tredrick explains that even though he was born on Romany, he was never happy there and didn’t care for the freedom Romany offered, since that freedom also meant poverty. So Tredrick decided to rise through the ranks, take over Romany and make a deal with the Coalition government to ensure prosperity for all. Roy and the Kraylens as well as Stella, Marah and the rebels stand in his way, so Tredrick decided to use the Coalition forces to get rid of them.

Roy launches himself at Tredrick and the two men engage in a furious fight. But Roy is weakened from his injuries and therefore he is losing. Just as Tredrick is about to kill Roy, Stella intervenes and uses her telepathic abilities to kill Tredrick.

Roy tells Stella to lead the others to safety. He will stay behind and take the blame for the death of Tredrick and the escape of the Kraylens. Because, so Roy tells Stella, the Coalition government needs a scapegoat for what happened on Venus. And if they cannot use Roy as a scapegoat, they will go after Romany. And Romany has no chance against the combined might of the Terran-Venusian Coalition. But if Roy sacrifices himself, Romany gets to remain free.

“You’re wonderful,” a tearful Stella tells Roy, “I didn’t realize how wonderful.”

Roy promises Stella that he won’t be in prison for long and that he’ll escape. He also says that he hopes Romany will remember him and maybe erect a statue in his honour, because he will be back. Then he waits to be arrested, while Stella flees with the Kraylens.

Swords against Tomorrow“Citadel of Lost Ships” is exactly the kind of glorious and thrilling pulp space opera that Leigh Brackett excelled at. However, the story also has a strong undercurrent of social criticism. Now a lot of Leigh Brackett’s early stories were critical of imperialism and capitalism and often featured marginalised protagonists. “Citadel of Lost Ships”, however, features Leigh Brackett in full social justice warrior mode.

Stylistically, “Citadel of Lost Ships” is very much a story of its time. It’s set in the pulp science fiction shared solar system and its full of the usual anachronisms such as finned rocket ships, people smoking in space and Roy Campbell surviving re-entry in a spacesuit. On the other hand, “Citadel of Lost Ships” is exactly the opposite of the prevalent stereotype of golden age science fiction. “Citadel of Lost Ships” couldn’t be further from the ideals of Campbellian science fiction (and John W. Campbell did not publish it – Malcom Reiss of Planet Stories did). Furthermore, the themes Leigh Brackett tackles – the impact of imperialism, colonialism and capitalism, the treatment of indigenous people, the sacrificing of people in the name of progress – are all themes that science fiction is still grappling with today.

The humans of the Terran-Venusian Coalition are clearly the bad guys jere and the story is very concerned with the treatment of what Roy Campbell calls “the little people”, many of whom are aliens who – in a genre tradition that would last well into modern times – stand in for various marginalised groups in the real world. The plight of the Kraylen is clearly intended to criticise the treatment of Native Americans – and let’s not forget that the Wounded Knee Massacre took place only twenty-five years before Leigh Brackett was born, while the last conflicts between Native Americans and representatives of the (white) authorities happened within Brackett’s lifetime, i.e. those events were still very much within living memory, when “Citadel of Lost Ships” was published. Romany, the name of the space station, refers to the Romani people and indeed, Stella explains at one point that the station and its inhabitants are welcomed as traders but otherwise “hated, just as gypsies [Brackett’s word choice, not mine] always are.” This is not the only time that the Romani people feature in Leigh Brackett’s stories of the golden age either. “The Jewel of Bas”, published a year later, also features a heroic Romani protagonist.

Roy Campbell’s father losing the family farm to a hydroelectric dam project, an event which psychologically scarred Roy and set him on the path towards crime, also echoes actual events of the time the story was written. Because the 1930s and 1940s were the age of the great hydroelectric dam projects in the US like the Hoover Dam (then still known as the Boulder Dam) or the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. These hydroelectric dams displaced (and were still displacing when the story was written) farmers, families and sometimes whole towns in the name of progress. It’s very difficult to find critical voices about the Tennessee Valley Authority Act or the Boulder/Hoover Dam even today (the displaced farmers and flooded towns are usually just a footnote), so to find one in 1943 is quite remarkable.

Furthermore, people are still facing displacement due to hydroelectric dams and strip mining operations today, whether it’s the historic Turkish town of Hasankeyf about to be flooded by the waters of the river Tigris due to the Ilisu Dam or the people of the Garzweiler and the Lausitz regions in Germany who have lost or are still about to lose their homes to lignite coal strip mining, even though lignite coal is extremely harmful to the environment and will be phased out in the next ten to twenty years anyway. So the issues addressed by “The Citadel of Lost Ships” are not in the distant past – they’re still current today.

Martian Quest by Leigh BrackettRoy Campbell is one of my favourite Leigh Brackett characters. In many ways, Roy Campbell feels like a prototype for Eric John Stark, who would come along six years later. Like Stark, Campbell is a man of colour, like Stark he does not fit into regular human society, like Stark he found a home with an indigenous tribe, only to lose it again, when those indigenous people were displaced and slaughtered in the name of progress. But while Eric John Stark is generally a good man, Roy Campbell is probably the noblest character Leigh Brackett ever created, even though Roy sees himself as anything but a hero. I also doubt it’s an accident that this noble outlaw and hero of colour shares a surname with the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, a man who would become infamous for his reactionary views regarding race, gender and politics. Was this Leigh Brackett’s way of giving John W. Campbell the finger?

In many ways, it’s a pity that Brackett never revisited Roy Campbell. Did he manage to escape from the prison mines of Phobos (in the pulp science fiction shared solar system, moons are inevitably prisons)? Did he even go to prison in the first place or did the Coalition authorities just shoot him, because the whole affair was too embarrassing? Did Roy get that statue and did he ever get to see Stella again? We’ll never know.

Roy Campbell also sums up the point of the story on the final page, when he says:

“They’re building, Stella. When they’re finished they’ll have a big, strong, prosperous empire extending all across the System, and the people who belong to that empire will be happy.

“But before you can build you have to grade and level, destroy the things that get in your way. We’re the things – the tree-stumps and the rocks that grew in the way and can’t be changed.

“They’re building; they’re growing. You can’t stop that. In the end it’ll be a good thing, I suppose. But right now, for us…”

So much for the claim that the golden age was unpolitical and all about fun science fiction and/or that the science fiction of the time promoted the unquestioning belief in science and progress and the unquestioning acceptance of colonialism. Cause here we have a story from 1943 that is very much about social justice warriors in the most literal sense of the word fighting against human imperialism.

But don’t let my analysis of the political background of the story scare you off. Because “The Citadel of Lost Ships” is a cracking good pulp space opera, whether you agree with its politics or not.

The novelette category of the 1944 Retro Hugos was uncommonly strong and so “The Citadel of Lost Ships” lost out to the excellent, if very different “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” by Lewis Padgett a.k.a. Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. And much as I enjoyed this story, it was not in first place on my ballot either, if only because I love Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser even more and “Thieves’ House” is the best of the early Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories published in Unknown. And indeed, reviewing the early Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories is a project to tackle, once I’ve dealt with the 1945 Retro Hugo finalists I missed.

“The Citadel of Lost Ships” is one of the lesser known Leigh Brackett stories of this era. It has been reprinted a few times, but not nearly as frequently as many of her other stories. This is a pity, because “The Citadel of Lost Ships” is a great story that deserves to be better known.

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2 Responses to Retro Review: “Citadel of Lost Ships” by Leigh Brackett

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