The Book of Skaith, by Leigh Brackett
Posted April 18, 2012on:
Published in 1976
where I got it: borrowed from a friend
On the edges of explored space lies the dying planet of Skaith. Orbiting a dying ginger star, the cooling habitable areas of Skaith grow smaller and smaller, crushing her tribal populations ever closer to a boiling point. Minimal interaction with the Galactic Union has brought much needed resources along with one last hope of emigration. When the Galactic Union’s emissary, Simon Ashton, goes mission on Skaith, his adopted son Eric John Stark frantically plans a rescue mission.
Much of Skaith is ruled by the theocratic Lords Protector. As with most religious leaders, once upon a time they had the best of intentions: feed the hungry, house the homeless, help the needy. Many generations later, a large portion of the population has become “Farers”, homeless, hungry and resourceless, they demand food and shelter from the farmers and herders who have been virtually enslaved by the Lords Protector. Every year there are more Farers and less food to feed them, and fewer farmers to grow the food.
Stark arrives on Skaith with a little money and the clothes on his back, and it’s not long before he gets a lead on Ashton’s location. But it will take more than offworlder smarts to outwit Mother Skaith and her bounty of genetically modified tribal populations. Once upon a time, when the ginger star was younger, Skaith had knowledge and technology and many of her peoples chose to force genetic mutations, some to be able to live under water, others to fly, others to have telepathic abilities. In Dying Earth fashion the knowledge behind the mutations has been lost.
Skaith was ripe for revolt before Simon Ashton or Eric John Stark arrived. To survive, Stark will need to call on the darker tendencies of his savage youth. Stark isn’t interested in being the savior the people of Skaith so desperately need. He isn’t interested in becoming the new leader for the tragically telepathic Northhounds. But we don’t always get what we want, do we?
The Book of Skaith contains three short novels, The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith and The Reavers of Skaith. Categorized as Sci-fantasy, or Sword and Planet, (a sci-fantasy take on Sword and sorcery), I got a decidedly political space opera vibe as well. The Lords Protector are so desperate to keep their power and fearful of change that they forbid anyone from ever emigrating off Skaith, and manipulatively preach than offworlders are evil. But there are southern populations fighting for control as well. Not to mention the hordes of starving Farers and other freakishly not-human hunters and brigands. The different populations of Skaith have one thing in common: denial.
Brackett’s writing is crisp and clear, describing the tribes of Skaith and their different belief sets. Many secondary characters get a few minutes here and there of their points of view, which also helps to reader to sympathize with the “bad guys” who have their own tragic back story. Brackett was doing anti-heroes and greyer than grey before it was cool. Even Stark isn’t the perfect good guy everyone wants him to be. His goal is to find Ashton, get back to the small spaceport and get the hell off the planet and back to civilization. Frustrated by the lack of technology, Stark will bargain with just about anyone to get safe passage across mountains and plains. No amount of prophecies, tribal civil wars, starving children, or beautiful women will change his mind. Or will they?
If this had been written today, Stark would have come in guns a’blazing, and technobabble a-screaming, the technology of the Galactic Union overrunning the savage and frozen beauty of Skaith. I’m so happy this was written in the mid 1970’s. Old school sci-fantasy is wonderful like that – you’ve got a character who comes from the galactic center (think Corusant or Trantor), and they are dumped on a backwater and have to survive. No i-phone, no wifi, no bargaining chips, no nothing. Just their own brains.
I’ll admit it, it took me a little while to get into The Ginger Star. Writing styles have changed over the years, and my brain had to switch gears a little to get back into the writing style of the 1970’s (anyone doing a dissertation on genre writing style changes of the last fifty years? seriously, find me, I want to read your dissertation!), and once I did, I couldn’t put this down. The Book of Skaith truly does have a little bit of everything, and Brackett blends it seamlessly together in an unforgettable story.
A little about Leigh Brackett – (1915-1978) She published her first science fiction short stories while she was in her 20s, and published heavily in the 1940’s. Her mystery novels got the attention of film makers, and soon she was working on screenplays as well. After her marriage to fellow science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton in 1946, she focused on screenwriting and adventure science fiction short stories, focusing more and more on Hollywood screenwriting in the 1950s as the scifi short story magazines began to fold. Later in her life she returned to science fiction and sci-fantasy. She worked on one of the original screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back, but would not live to see the movie produced. To this day it is a closely held secret which parts of her original screenplay made it to the final film.