I first read “The Beast-Jewel of Mars” in a collection of Leigh Brackett Mars stories, The Coming of the Terrans. While I enjoyed all the stories in that collection “The Beast-Jewel of Mars” is the one that has stayed with me the most over the years. The collection I have dated from the 1970s based on the cover, although the same contents had been issued with different art earlier.
First published in Planet Stories in the Winter 1948 issue, the story fits the pattern of Martian stories before December 5, 1964, when Mariner confirmed Mars as a cold, lifeless world. Brackett’s Mars is a world of long disappeared seas and towns now watered by canals. The native Martians are humans not so different from ourselves, both in body and spirit. They are, however, ancient. In many of the stories, characters remark about walking on stones worn smooth before some humans on Earth made some advance be it cities or fire.
“The Beast-Jewel of Mars” begins with Captain Burk Winters, a chain-smoking wreck, arriving on Mars. A man broken by the death of his fiancé in the Martian desert leads him to seek out Shanga, a Martian treatment that caused one to revert to a more primitive, in the evolutionary sense, state. While we see the watered-down form engaged in the decadent of modern Terra, he is seeking the pure, if illegal, form.
He gets that desire and more fulfilled. There is a dark side to this release. Shanga, like any drug of escape, is addictive. Martians of the Dry Towns, the bandits, thieves, and assassins of Brackett’s Mars, are using Shanga as revenge for the domination of Mars by Terra. Imagine opium had been native to China instead of imported by the British to exploit the Chinese. Instead, theTong used debase British serving in China.
Burk’s efforts to escape the addiction and debasement of Shanga consume the rest of the story.
A theme common in Robert E. Howard’s writing and other authors from the pulps is the decadence of civilization and its vulnerability to rougher barbarians. This theme shows up in multiple comparisons in the story. As Burk leaves his ship for the Terran trade city where the watered-down Shanga parlors reside, we learn:
Other things than the making of money were done in the Trade Cities. The lovely plastic buildings, the terraces and gardens and the glowing web of moving walks that spun them together, offered every pleasure and civilized vice of the known worlds.
Winters hated the Trade Cities. He was used to the elemental honesty of space. Here the speech, the dress, even the air one breathed, were artificial.“The Beast Jewel of Mars”
Winters is a barbarian compared to the trades of his tribe. The trade city folk seeking Shanga are described as overly coiffed and bejeweled, pale and effeminate yet showing the signs of stressed life. I cannot help but think of modern celebrates in the descriptions. In contrast, Burk Winters is a big man, his skin burned dark by the radiation of space which simultaneously bleached his almost white with pitiless but radiant grey eyes.
When Burk heads to the Dry Towns for the real Shanga, he becomes the effete Terran among the barbarian Martians, although his effete nature is more in tone and speech than appearance.
Yet, in the end, it is the barbaric Terran, from a young and, in Martian terms, uncivilized Terran who will get the best of the decadent Martians who were so “bandits who had been civilized for so long that they could afford to forget it.” The idea of being civilized so long you forget you were ever bandits or barbarians is a key to Burk’s escape.
Brackett’s Mars is exotic. One of the great descriptions in the story comes when Burk is flying into the city of Valkis. A parade of five harbors, each created when the seas had dried such that the prior one was unusable, mark the line from the hilltop palace of the kings of Valkis to the thin line of the canal that now provides water to the city. Despite age and technology, on the ground is a town lit by torches. The choking dust of millennia and stones worn down by generations of Martians are described in great detail. The costume of the Dry Towns of topless men and women, the latter in long, full skirts slit to the waist with bells woven in their hair while the former are kilted with jeweled girdles and vicious knives.
Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom is the only competitor for a fantastic Mars of beautiful women, deadly adventure, and untamed masculinity. I read of Barsoom first but love Brackett’s Mars more. My first blog post at Places to Go, People to Be, addressed how Mariner cost us both.
For a pulp story from 1948 by an author mostly remembered for her screenwriting, it is straightforward to find. Copies are available on Kindle and at Scribd. There is a Librivox audiobook. If you enjoy pulp adventure and old-school sword and planet, I recommend getting one of them.