Monday, May 4, 2009

Brackett - Ginger Star

The Ginger Star. Leigh Brackett. Ballantine Books. 1974.

In this novel, Brackett reintroduces Eric John Stark, a hero of a couple of stories many years previous. After writing sf for many years, including some Stark tales, she turned to screenwriting. She wrote such films as Rio Bravo, and The Big Sleep. Shortly after returning to sf writing, she wrote Star Wars part five, The Empire Strikes Back.

The Ginger Star is part one of a three part series. It is a quest story. Stark arrives on a distant and hostile planet in search of his missing foster-father. The planet is ruled by dictators known as Wandsmen. Technology is limited. There is only one spaceport on the planet, set up recently by outsiders, and in danger of being shut down by the Wandsmen, who prefer to rule a dying planet than see the people leave for other worlds and be beyond their power.

The strongest part of the book is in the creation of the many places and people. Most are extremely vivid and well thought out. There is a sense that these people and places could be real.

On this planet there are city states, wandering nomads, and human hybrids. Almost all are unrelentingly hostile to all outsiders. The oceans are filled with creatures who were once human, then altered their own genes to adapt to an underwater environment. More millennium later, they have lost all trace of their humanity, and attack and devour any human who falls into the water. Another civilization has adapted itself to live underground. Several societies use magic derived from close contact with the natural forces of the planet. Others live in city-states more recognizable in lifestyle to Stark and to the reader.

This brings us to another key point of the book: most of the civilizations are cannibals. They not only kill outsiders, they eat them. This is explained as resulting from a lack of other food on the dying world. The few city states near the equator seem relatively benign; travel is possible, and they are not cannibals. But wandering hordes of religious fanatics named Farers make their life difficult also.

In this world, it is impossible to travel without a large heavily armed group. There is one city state that seems to be a gathering spot for travelers, but it is unclear where anyone might travel to in this hostile environment. Even the workers at bridges on routes between cities attack any party that seems insufficiently strong. Only one man lives as a trader. He has to establish and keep his route with armed force, and suffers constant attacks.

This world is designed to give Stark a lot of dangers to overcome. But it was designed too well. In such a brutal, inhospitable group of societies, to travel anywhere is absurd.

The device used to move Stark from one place to another is to be captured, over and over again, and carried along part way by his various captors. He escapes usually by luck, sometimes by his own efforts. This gimmick is another weakness of the book. He manages to encounter a danger without capture only once, near the book's conclusion, which sets up the sequel, or rather the continuation in volume two.

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