Leigh Brackett’s The Starmen of Llyrdis packs a lot of square jawed men having space adventures and fighting for the good of all mankind into a very little package.
Michael Trehearne is a mangry dude on a vacation of self-discovery in Europe when he finds out that he’s the descendant of a race of spacefaring humans by way of a poor Breton peasant girl getting knocked up by a visiting space man 4 generations ago. During a pagan ritual, Trehearne runs into Shairn, a sexy space lady, and Kerrel, her jerk-ass space-Gestapo ex-boyfriend; sexy space lady entices him to follow her as far as he can, which lands him on an interstellar ship and in the middle of a political intrigue.
The Starmen of Llyrdis, aka the Vardda, are an Aldebaranian race who discovered the means of surviving faster than light travel. Or that’s what they claim. Actually, a millennium ago, one of their scientists figured out how to tweak and speed up the evolutionary process; he was going to give the technology to the rest of the galaxy, so he was hunted down by his own people and went missing ages ago. Meanwhile, the Vardda hold a peaceful, if somewhat bigoted and supremacist, monopoly on galactic trade as the only humanoid race whose cell structure won’t liquefy during faster than light travel. Trehearne’s spaceman blood explains why he was both a great test pilot and why he was bored with earthbound flight and wanted more from his life. Or at least it’s a convenient excuse for wanting to feel like he finally belonged.
So, the big problem Mike has is that he’s a fly in the ointment of centuries old policy that has allowed the Vardda to maintain peace in their empire: only Vardda can travel between worlds. But he’s not Vardda, he’s some 4th generation bastard. But he survived interstellar travel, therefore he must be a Vardda, even though he is certainly not REALLY a Vardda. He’s caught between his new-found elitist race and his political dissident friends whose belief in him allowed him to have the chance to belong. Kerrel sees that this is going to be a problem for political reasons (“Does my survival upset you?” “I don’t enjoy condemning a man, particularly when I’ve got nothing against him”) while Shairn is just happy to have found a new toy she can use to piss off her ex.
Yeah, so I mentioned that Mike is a mangry dude? He’s pretty enraged by Shairn’s coyness and flippant attitude as well as her lack of concern for the wellbeing of anyone, himself in particular. Most of the first act, it’s like you don’t know whether he’d rather kill her or hate-fuck her.
“That was kind of her, not really to want him to die. He began to be able to see her face again. He wasn’t sure whether it was true sight, or only the memory of how she had looked before he began to die. But he could see her, pale, distorted. He was glad he could see her. She was sitting in front of him, and she wasn’t far away. Somehow, pressure or no pressure, he was going to get to her. He was going to put his hands around her white throat, and then they could forget about star-flight together, and it wouldn’t matter that he was a mongrel and she was not. He began to fight against the pressure.
He wanted so little. Only to get up, to move the short distance and lock his fingers at the back of her neck, with his two thumbs lying over the great pulses. So little. He was filled with a raging determination to have it…”
Leigh Brackett really knows how to eroticize violence.
Even though Kerrel the is villain, you almost feel bad for him, because he’s being driven by his convictions and his love for Shairn, and we can guess that Shairn has put him through the ringer, too. She loves toying with the emotions of everyone around her, rubbing her wealth and fleet of interstellar ships she inherited in everyone’s face, and shares Kerrel’s political convictions not out of any sense of duty or nationalism but shallow bigotry.
But yeah, eroticized violence? Check out this climactic fist-fight between Mike and Kerrel while the rebels are fighting their way to a ship so they can go free the political prisoners from the prison planet:
“Trehearne managed to get his knees under him and roll. He saw Kerrel’s face close to his. In a second the two men had each other by the throat. They strained together, breast to breast, like two lovers, kicked and tramped by the feet of other men, oblivious. Edri got free and rose. He would have struck Kerrel but Trehearne gasped, “No! I’ll handle him!”
Kerrel smiled, an anguished baring of the teeth. This thumbs bit hard into Trehearne’s neck. Trehearne let go of Kerrel’s throat. He bunched his two fists together and struck upward. Kerrel’s head snapped back. His hands loosened. Trehearne tore them away. He threw himself on top of Kerrel. He hit him hard in the face until Kerrel’s head rolled like the head of a dead man.
Hands grasped him and tried to drag him away. He shook them off. Kerrel moaned and turned on his side. Trehearne kicked him with his sandalled feet. “That’s for Yann,” he grunted. “That’s for the hounds and for Torin.”
Even though Kerrel doesn’t know that Shairn’s been bound, gagged and taken hostage by the good guys (she was going to betray them, so got punched in the face!), there’s enough subtext between Kerrel and Trehearne to say that this is where The Starmen of Llyrdis passes the Jeffro test.
Reading The Starmen of Llyrdis, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the much later Hainish books by Ursula K. LeGuin. Both are about non-earth humans who have established vast empires of commerce throughout the galaxy, but Brackett’s Vardda come across as a much more believable galactic overlord race than the benevolent Hainish. While the Ekumen is all sunshine and lollipops, ‘join our federation, it’ll be great; we won’t give you interstellar travel, but hurf blurf cultural exchange!’, the Vardda use their advantages to maintain a trade monopoly which the rest of the galaxy resents them for. At least in The Starmen of Llyrdis the condescending spacemen holding their noses up at the non-spacefaring races are the bad guys.
Anyway, this was part of a major haul of old SF/F paperbacks I scored from Once Upon a Time Books on Saturday:
The Nemesis from Terra by Leigh Brackett
The Dragonmasters, the Grey Prince and Galactic Effectuator by Jack Vance,
Ace Doubles of The Arsenal of Miracles by Gardner F. Fox/Endless Shadow by John Brunner and Tower of the Medusa by Lin Carter/Kar Kaballa by George H Smith
The Falling Torch by Algis Budrys
Tales of Time and Space
If you’re ever in the area or want to do some shopping online, they’ve got one hell of a collection.
Update: Just a little bit before I got this written up, Jeffro posted a retrospective of Sword of Rhiannon. Somewhere, I’ve got a formatted word doc of Black Amazon of Mars that I was going to make myself a Lulu print copy to read; it’s moved up significantly on my list of things to do.