One evening not long ago on my Twitter account I got on a kick of posting images of old covers from pulp science fiction magazines–the sort of “golden age SF” that had its heyday from roughly the late 1920s into the 1950s and 1960s. The covers are incredible works of art that say a great deal about what science fiction was like mid-century, with streamlined rocket ships, bug-eyed monsters and astronauts in colorful suits zooming about in outer space or on fanciful landscapes. A number of covers I found advertised short stories by Leigh Brackett, the legendary SF writer who always seemed to have one thing or another in the fantastic pulps during that era. Most modern science fiction fans know her name because it appears in the credits of one of the Star Wars movies, as a co-screenwriter (with Lawrence Kasdan) of the 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back. But if you look at Brackett’s life and work, a picture emerges of a truly trailblazing writer, and one who managed to span the crucial arc of the development of science fiction as a genre in the mid-20th century, arguably from the old “golden age” days to our more modern conceptions of what science fiction is and should be.
Leigh Brackett’s life and career epitomizes the experience of science fiction authors of her day. She was a native southern Californian, born in Los Angeles in 1915, even before it was a boom town dominated by the movie industry. The writing bug seems to have caught her fairly early. Her first published foray into science fiction was in February 1940 in an issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which was only the second SF pulp magazine, founded in 1928 to compete with Hugo Gernsbeck’s Amazing Stories. Scientific discoveries, new technologies like radio and cars seeping into the financial reach of American consumers and profound social and economic changes fueled science fiction’s rise as a genre in the 1920s, and Brackett, who came of age in the Depression, was part of the next wave of writers. She had dozens of stories published in the years leading up to and shortly after the outbreak of World War II, with tantalizing titles like “The Dragon-Queen of Jupiter,” “Retreat to the Stars” and “Terror out of Space.”
One of Leigh Brackett’s stories appeared in this November 1941 edition of Astonishing Stories. Note another writer whose name is on the cover: Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
The thing about writing SF in the 1930s and 1940s was this: if it was anything, it was a job. Although Brackett was unusual in her craft in that she was a woman, she and her fellow writers–like Edmond Hamilton, whom she married in 1946–were workhorses, slaving away all day over typewriters to churn out story after story, each one of which didn’t pay much by itself but given enough volume became at least a living. Brackett’s stories and eventually novels were firmly rooted in science fiction conventions, like the aforementioned rocket ships and bug-eyed monsters. Readers, especially teenage boys and young men, never tired of these tropes. Writers who made their living by SF had to be prolific by definition. Indeed, another one of these sort of pulp SF writers was a fellow called L. Ron Hubbard, who famously said once that “writing for a penny a word is ridiculous”; he finally got out of the pulp SF business by founding his own religion, now called Scientology.
Brackett was a good writer, though, and eventually she attracted the attention of Hollywood. In 1945 she was hired to write an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep as a film vehicle for star Humphrey Bogart. Ironically, Howard Hawks, the film’s producer, originally assumed Brackett was a man. On this gig she got to work with no less than the greatest American novelist of the 20th century, William Faulkner. The plot of The Big Sleep is incomprehensible to me, but it’s clearly a work of great distinction in the film noir genre. After her marriage to Hamilton she took a break from screenwriting, but did return to it in the 1950s, writing a few John Wayne movies like Rio Bravo.
Another of the classic pulp magazines in which Leigh Brackett was published. This one is from 1943.
Through it all, though, there was science fiction. Brackett continued to churn out stories and eventually novels through the 1950s, 60s and 70s. As a kid I recall reading more than one of them; I can’t remember exactly which ones, though I suspect Shadow Over Mars was one of them, as I recall it taking place on Mars. In the 1960s science fiction grew more cerebral, thanks in part to writers like Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury–the latter is said to have been sort of a protégé of Brackett. The genre was definitely changing with the times. Two motion pictures had a profound effect on science fiction: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and then George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). The golden age of pulp was over, and a new era was beginning.
George Lucas met Leigh Brackett toward the end of her life, as he was beginning work on the sequel. Her exact involvement with The Empire Strikes Back is somewhat disputed, and, as with everything else, endlessly debated among Star Wars fans. Evidently he tapped her to write a screenplay based on his story outline because he respected her work in the SF genre, and Star Wars was deliberately intended to be evocative of those old pulp magazines. She delivered a draft script in February 1978. Though it’s often asserted that Lucas didn’t like the script and threw it out, opting to go in another direction for the film, just paging through Brackett’s draft–it’s available (without Lucas’s permission) on the Internet–I saw a fair amount of her style and influence that made it into the finished film, if not so much her exact words. The Empire Strikes Back has, in my opinion, far and away the strongest script of any Star Wars film, including the prequels. It can’t be a coincidence that the film with the best script is also the only one Leigh Brackett helped to write.
Unfortunately, only a month after she turned in her script for the film, Leigh Brackett was dead. She died of cancer in Lancaster, California on March 18, 1978 at the age of 62. For having a relatively short life, however, Brackett’s career in science fiction could not be longer or more influential. She bridged the gap from those primitive (but wonderful) pulp magazines to the next phase of the science fiction genre. Though her name isn’t as well known as Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, perhaps in future generations–when her contributions are assessed through the lens of history–it will be.