While there is certainly credit due to the originator of an idea, iterations which better the original are likewise deserving of recognition, and in some cases, perhaps more. Edgar Rice Burroughs gets a lot of attention for pioneering the Martian hero story, as does Robert E. Howard for Conan, the barbarian with honor in a strange land of beasts and magic. But they may not be the writers who best presented the ideas. Similar in name to John Carter, Leigh Brackett’s hyper-masculine hero Eric John Stark features in some of her Sea Kings of Mars stories. More consistent in quality, described in a more practiced, fluid prose, and existing in a fantasized version of Mars comprised of more than just uber-heroism exists, her 1951 novella “Black Amazon of Mars” is a good example of how the student may sometimes outshine the master.
Accompanying the native Martian Camar the Thief to his home, the opening of “Black Amazon of Mars” finds Eric John Stark camped in the snow, the pair getting ready for bed so they can hit the trail early the next day. Camar dying from injuries, however, he is unable to travel further, and passes away that night. But not before bequeathing to Stark the lost talisman of Kushat. Having to set out on the trail alone, it’s not long before Stark is accosted by barbarians and taken prisoner. Thrust before their leader, the masked Ciaran, he is given a choice: join or die. Chaos unraveling in the aftermath of his decision, Stark is swept up in a whirlwind of sabotage, battles, and a journey that ultimately decides the fate of the talisman and Camar’s home.
A nicely told adventure, Brackett writes an engaging tale. It is pulp, but “Black Amazon of Mars” is pulp done well: the prose is practiced and smooth; the scenes are not under- or overwritten, and the pacing is perfect, tiding over what is largely empty content. Without getting caught up in gonzo plotting (Burroughs) or a barrage of juvenile adjectives (Howard), the reader can relax and just enjoy a good adventure that, if truth be told, does possess some surprises despite the formulaic story synopsis above.
Brackett a woman who wrote in a sea of men, its remarkable today to see the manner in which she snuck female interest into her work. Most notable in “Black Amazon of Mars” are the women who feature. Fiery, decisive, self-aware, and possessing purpose beyond sex objects or damsels in distress, they are the opposite of what one sees in many other stories. Howard, for example, continually sexualized female characters for no other purpose than sensationalism—even the women he gave agency are still rendered as sex objects. Brackett, on the other hand, better balances the physical aspects with personality, resulting in women (and men) who become half-stereotypes and half-something edging toward but never achieving realism. Eric John Stark is as classic a male hero if ever there were one, but in the novella Brackett is able to at least scratch at what makes him male, and what makes the females around him, human. The result is characters sketched in basic terms but who achieve more complexity than Conan, John Carter, or any of their archetypes.
In the end, Black Amazon of Mars is pulp adventure, but pulp adventure that does it right. Able to be read today with less wincing, Brackett took Burroughs A Princess of Mars and Howard’s Conan conceptions and had her own go with Eric John Stark—Earthman living as an outlaw in the wilds of the red planet. By including female agency, Brackett is better able to balance her characters—larger than life they remain, but are at least presented in a fallible manner that allows for the easier suspension of disbelief compared to Howard or Burroughs’ creations. Wrapped up in line after line of consistent prose, in this case Brackett has exceeded those from which she received inspiration.