Her Majesty the Queen of Space Opera: Part One

Leigh Brackett will always be a name to conjure with, and not just because she wrote the first draft of a little movie you may have heard of called The Empire Strikes Back. Though she died before it went into production and hers was not the final filmed screenplay, she created many of the story beats that ended up in the movie. City in the clouds: check. Battle of Hoth: check. Deadly trip through an asteroid field: yep, it’s there. Love triangle between Luke, Leia and Han: check, check, and check.

 Brackett made her first sff sale to the Feb 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and became one of the few—very few—big name female writers of science fiction at the time. One of the others was C.L. Moore, who’ll be the subject of a future column.

Leigh Brackett was born in 1915 in Los Angeles. Her father died when she was three, and Leigh and her mother moved back in with her grandfather. She described her education as ‘rather haphazard’ and, although she was offered a scholarship to college, she had to turn it down to make money writing for pulps. In a 1944 autobiographical sketch for Startling Stories, Leigh listed her likes as ‘Anything to do with the sea…people, the genuine kind…dogs, horses, the theater, movies, books, beer and working hard at something I enjoy doing.’ She would describe her mother as a ‘feminine, helpless little person…a lady with a capital ‘L’, and Leigh obviously despised that attitude. In one of the last interviews before her death, Leigh said: ‘I didn’t believe that you were supposed to sit waiting for a man to come along and provide you with this, that and the other. I don’t need anybody to provide for me. I’ll provide for myself.’

You go, girl.

Brackett put science fiction aside for a while after she published her first detective story in 1943, followed by her first hard-boiled mystery novel in 1944. No Time for a Corpse so impressed acclaimed director Howard Hawks that he had his secretary call and request ‘that guy Brackett’ to help him with the screenplay for The Big Sleep, with William Faulkner as her cowriter, and Bogart and Bacall as stars.

In 1946, after Brackett married fellow pulp writer Edmond Hamilton—Ray Bradbury was their best man—Brackett left screenwriting for a while and returned to science fiction. She created Eric John Stark in 1949, a black-skinned orphan raised by an indigenous tribe on Mercury. Apparently, no cover artist read her descriptions of Stark: Erik John was consistently shown as the strapping Caucasian hero, par for the course in that time. After the Mariner Mission confirmed that Mars was not inhabited or inhabitable, Brackett didn’t even slow down on the Stark stories: she just transposed him to another solar system. Her last Stark, ‘Stark and the Star Kings’, put Erik John in the world created by her husband. Some of the Stark stories are: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs’, ‘City of the Lost’, ‘Black Amazon of Mars’, and ‘Enchantress of Venus.’

I defy you to think of pulpier titles. Go ahead and try. I’ll wait.

In the mid-1950s, Brackett returned to writing screenplays for TV and movies, including several westerns for Howard Hawks: Rio Bravo, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo. Later, she and Lawrence Kasdan shared credit for the screenplay of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Obviously, Brackett’s range was extraordinary. She was a member of the Mystery Writers of America, the Western Writers of America, and the Science Fiction Writers of America, plus the Writers Guild and the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her novel Shadow over Mars won the Retro Hugo Award for 1945.

When George Lucas offered Brackett the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, she knew she was already dying from cancer. She put aside her final Eric John Stark novel to work on the screenplay. Frederik Pohl, science fiction writer and editor, speculated as to why:

    ‘I think she was aware that what Lucas was doing was taking the science fiction pulp stories of the 30s and 40s and putting them on the screen, and of course Leigh was there, she was part of that. The two things she was really good at: science fiction and screenwriting, and for the first time in her life, they went together.’

Yeah. They did.

Leigh Brackett, Queen of Space Opera. And mysteries. And westerns. A role model for the ages.

Next month I’ll do a deep dive into the Skaith/Eric John Stark stories.