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Leigh Brackett, The Reavers of Skaith

Steranko Reavers of SkaithIn an interview conducted for the fanzine Tangent in April 1976, Leigh Brackett was asked what she had in the pipeline after The Reavers of Skaith, and she replied, "I'm working on the fourth Eric John Stark novel. We finish with Skaith with this third one. Both Eric John and I have had enough with that planet, and I think we're going to move on to something else. We're starting a whole new world." Instead she turned next to the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, which she completed before she died in March 1978. So The Reavers of Skaith ended up being the last book she wrote. It was published in 1976.

The first two volumes in the late-career Eric John Stark series, The Ginger Star and The Hounds of Skaith, were published in 1974, so I assume they were written together and this one was written later. It has some stylistic differences from the first two books, most notably in the way it switches at times away from Stark's viewpoint to that of other characters. At first this seemed sloppy to me, but I think I understand why she did it. Maybe she had more than one reason, in fact, because it both allows her to paint a broader picture of the social convulsions on Skaith as things fall apart and it allows her to resolve the stories of the rather large cast of characters she created over the course of the trilogy without having to bring them all back into contact with Stark again. Nonetheless, I think it does tend to create a looser, less finely focused book, especially since I had a hard time remembering who half the point-of-view characters were.

Michael Moorcock, who has written perceptively about Brackett's talent and importance, says that these late Stark books are not worthy of her. I think part of the over all problem with the trilogy is that Stark is a less interesting character than he is in the original trilogy of novellas she wrote about him. He was conceived as a combination of Tarzan and Conan -- half man, half animal, all mercenary -- but in these books the savage, sadomasochistic side of his character rarely has any real impact. For that matter, the mercenary side of him gets lost in a rather more idealistic character who fights for the down-trodden of Skaith and falls in love with a witchy woman. The relationship with the seer, Gerrith, is problematic in other ways, because his feelings for her are apparently deep, and yet their interactions seem completely secondary to the plot. (That said, his feelings for her do lead in this book to one of the best lines in the trilogy: "And Stark's heart turned in him like a sword blade.") Another weakness of these books, to my mind, is the overt turn to supernatural magic, as in Gerrith's ability to see the future. The older stories were science fantasies in which science was more or less miraculous, but there was no overt magic.

And yet I ended up liking these books, despite their apparent flaws. I thought the depiction of Skaith got more interesting in the second volume, and it gets even better in the third, for all that Brackett herself was apparently tired of the place. What we get in the final episode is the apocalypse. Skaith is a planet orbiting a dying star, and the planet is slowly freezing from the poles inward. Human civilization has been convulsively migrating toward the last remaining fertile land in the temperate and equatorial zones. In The Reavers of Skaith there is a sudden climatic change that ruins crops and sends waves of starving migrants toward the fertile zones. The desperation of this migration is vividly portrayed, as is the resulting collapse of social stability. Brackett's pragmatic tough-mindedness keeps an eye on the logistics of civilization, with a bracing view of what it looks like when people have to live in their own offal and disease begins to spread.

Brackett also keeps an idealistic eye on the stars, which offer an avenue of escape that is traditional to old school American science fiction. The trilogy ends on a hopeful note, although it is counterpointed by the personal loss Stark has suffered. It's our loss that we didn't get any more fiction from the remarkable Leigh Brackett, who was only 63 when cancer took her.

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