Unless Stephen Haffner has an unpublished manuscript tucked away somewhere, there will be no new stories from Leigh Brackett. Fortunately, the type of adventure oriented science fiction that Brackett wrote isn’t dead. There are still a few practitioners of that are form around who are turning out new work.
Case in point, Charles Allen Gramlich, specifically his novel Under the Ember Star. Gramlich writes across numerous genres, but he seems to have a special place in his heart for the type of story that used to be found in the pulp magazine Planet Stories.
This short novel is half of a double, at least in the print edition. The electronic version is a standalone. We’ll look at the flipside of the book next week.
Here’s the basic setup. The world Kelmer is an ancient world, a dying world divided into desert and frozen wastes. The star Kelmer orbits is in the red giant phase of its lifecycle. At some point in the distant past an unknown alien race placed machines in orbit which collect and redirect the heat of the star down to portions of the planet. This is what produces the desert. Without these machines, everything would be frozen. Human science can’t begin to match what these machines do, nor has mankind managed to gain entry into the satellites.
Kelmer’s indigenous inhabitants have fallen from great heights, but they are still a proud people. They’re treated like indigenous peoples have been treated throughout history, as second class citizens on their own world. The fact that they’re basically humanoid in shape but reproduce completely differently than humans doesn’t help their standing all that much, either.
Ginn is a young woman who lives a hardscrabble existence, hiding in an abandoned building. She’s also a drug addict, although not by choice.
When the story opens, she’s in the process of stealing a supply of the drug from the most powerful criminal overlord on the planet, a fellow who goes by the name Red Jac. She manages to get what she needs but not without taking a few lives and nearly getting killed in the process.
She goes home and collapses, and when she wakes up the next morning, she finds she has a visitor waiting for her in her living room. It’s one of the natives, completely covered in robes. The native wants to hire her to help him return to some undisclosed location. He assures her there will be plenty of her drug there.
Before negotiations can go very far, Red Jac’s men show up with a pulse cannon. And they aren’t afraid to fire it. Ginn and the native make their escape, but Ginn knows the pulse cannon wasn’t for her. Red Jac is going to want her alive. The native on the other hand, not so much. Like it or not, Ginn and the Kelmerian native need each other to survive.
Her new Kelmerian friend has her father’s diary, something Ginn had long thought lost. Ginn’s father was a scientist who came to Kelmer to study the artifacts left behind by the aliens. It was a pursuit that ultimately cost him his life and left Ginn orphaned and drug addicted.
Thus begins a quest across the planet in search of ancient secrets. But the Kelmerian is hiding secrets of his own, secrets that can change a world…
Gramlich does an excellent job of balancing action, of which there is plenty, with character development, which is deftly handled. The story moves fast, and I didn’t keep up with events so much as I was dragged along by them. That’s a good thing, in case you’re wondering.
On the other hand, we see Ginn’s character and backstory unfold at a pace designed to make the reader want to know more about her. We get enough background details to whet our appetites and no more. As she struggles to come to grips with her situation and its revelations and dangers, Ginn is forced to make some decisions about how she will respond and what type of future she will fight for. And not just Ginn, her traveling companions (there’ll be more than one) change and grow, becoming fully realized individuals.
The Kelmerians aren’t a moncultural race. Gramlich shows us more than one society, and the apocalypse sect is especially original. It would have been easy for Gramlich to populate his story with characters from central casting and use paint by numbers cultures. Instead he took elements from classic science fiction and breathed new life into them. While he dedicates his book in part to Leigh Brackett (shown at left) and C. L. Moore, this isn’t an imitation. For one thing, Gramlich’ naming convention on this world isn’t anything like Brackett’s. Nor is Ginn a female Eric John Stark, updated for the 21st century. She’s her own woman, and someone who could hold her own against the rogues and loners of the spaceways without being confused with any of them.
Under the Ember Star is both an homage and an extension of the stories Moore and Brackett told, with echoes of Burroughs thrown in for good measure. You’ve got a dying world that’s mostly desert. You’ve got natives who have fallen from the heights of a once great civilization. You’ve got superscience. You’ve got a heroine who is scarred physically and emotionally yet still strives to the right thing, even when there are no good choices.
A master chef can take common ingredients and make something unique from them. A master writer can take elements that jaded readers might say are clichéd and make a compelling story from them. Charles Allen Gramlich has done that in Under the Ember Star. It’s a worth successor to the works of Brackett, Moore, and Burroughs. I haven’t had this much fun with a book in ages, and I recommend it highly. If you like old school science fiction adventure, especially if you’re a fan of the type written by Leigh Brackett like I am, you need to check this one out.
I read the electronic version of the book, and I have no complaints about it. The formatting was well done; the interactive ToC worked; the text was copy-edited. A good job.
As I stated earlier, Under the Ember Star is half of a double novel in the print edition. Next week we’ll look at the other half of the book, The Battle for Eden by Mark E. Burgess.