I finished off a collection of Leigh Brackett’s Martian romances over the weekend – ‘The Coming of the Terrans’. Some great stories in there, but there’s more going on than just pulp mayhem.
Brackett’s Martian stories are set on an exotic, faded Mars. In her world, humans arrived there to find an aeon-shadowed (thanks, HPL) civilisation in the final stages of decline. The dessicated, decadent atmosphere of that fading culture is key to the stories’ success.
The stories in ‘The Coming of the Terrans’ show what happens when humans encounter that culture. In each case, the human engages with the Martian, and as a result the limits of his humanity are (more or less) brutally exposed.
One protagonist hunts down a disappeared girlfriend, and in doing so is forcibly de-evolved and bluntly reminded of man’s fundamentally bestial nature. Another encounters an ancient Martian god-thing, but represses all knowledge of lest it destroy his academic career, and is destroyed by that repression. A third discovers just how futile – not to say absurd – human efforts to re-vivify the Martian deserts by tapping into hidden water supplies are.
In each case, human rationality is broken against far more enduring and deeply rooted alien structures. Initially, I read this in quite a Jungian way, understanding the human to represent the conscious mind and the Martian cultures and landscape to image the archetype haunted depths of the subconscious.
That points to the fundamental misunderstanding-of-self that Jung exposed in his writings. We commonly believe that the superficial structures of the conscious self are the core, enduring definers of what it is to be human. We choose what we are on a daily basis; our humanity lies in those choices.
In fact – Jung pointed out – that’s a profoundly deluded viewpoint. The common self of humanity lies in the deep subconscious. We inherit archetypal patterns, modes of behaviour, from those shadowy regions – and they are our shared human heritage.
Next to them, the conscious self is a useful but ultimately entirely transient structure that gives a useful purchase on daily life, but not much more. Archetypal structures endure through millennia; the self gets three score years and ten, or thereabouts.
There are clear parallels with the basic structures underlying Brackett’s Martian stories. But I think there’s something else going on there as well, something deeper and in some ways far more interesting.
It’s part of a broader trend in 20th century literature. Brackett wrote about the failure of a humane, rational, human centred worldview. She wasn’t the only person to do so. From pulp visionaries like H.P. Lovecraft to broken epic poets like Ezra Pound, the failure of that kind of narrative of the self was a common, obsessive theme.
What I think Leigh Brackett was really charting was the final failure of the Humanist project. Born in the Renaissance, it posited a universe that demanded liberal, humane, rational behaviours as the most productive mode of being possible.
For Humanists, the cosmos existed to reflect back human enlightenment and benevolence on us. Archetypal Renaissance mage Giordano Bruno described an ideal mind state; full of classical learning, the enlightened man should step out of his house and, looking around, see benevolent connections uniting everything around him.
Of course, Giordano was burnt at the stake. Even back then, Humanist optimism faced very substantial real world obstacles. But it’s taken the 20th century’s combination of deep science and deep brutality to really finish it off. The universe isn’t necessarily ordered around anything; it certainly doesn’t run like a benevolent ticking clock.
It’s that death of Humanism that’s exposed in Leigh Brackett’s planetary romances. Against the impassive, often bizarre, and always unshakably experienced ancients of Mars, Humanist thinking is exposed as being at best naïve, at worst downright damaging.
And that exposure is echoed in the 20th century itself, the moment that broke Humanism against events ranging from the discovery of the fundamental oddness of matter itself to industrial genocide on an unprecedented scale.