Mars in the fiction of Leigh Brackett

Mars in the fiction of Leigh Brackett
The planet Mars

The planet Mars appears frequently as a setting for many of the stories of Leigh Brackett, and Mars and Martians are frequently mentioned in other stories of the Leigh Brackett Solar System. Brackett's Mars shares some characteristics with the astronomical Mars, but in other respects functions as a consistent fantasy world with recurring landmarks and characteristics that reappear from story to story. Some of these fantasy characteristics are of Brackett's own invention; others reflect some of the scientific theories about Mars that were current before the early 1960s, although certain of the astronomical and scientific details described in this article are not true of the real planet Mars.

Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun in our solar system. In Brackett's Solar System, Mars has two moons, Denderon (Phobos) and Vashna (Deimos). Mars is one of the three "Triangle Worlds" and a founding member of both the League of Worlds and the United Worlds. It is the site of the headquarters of the Interworld Space Authority.


Physical characteristics

Mars has only a quarter the surface area of the Earth and only one-tenth the mass, though its surface area is approximately equal to that of the Earth's dry land because Mars no longer possesses oceans. The solar day on Mars is very close to Earth's day: 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35.244 seconds.


The atmosphere of Mars is thinner than that of Earth or Venus, comparable to the high plateaus of the Andes or Himalayas on earth, but is oxygen-rich and presents few difficulties to offworlders after a period of acclimatization.

Image of Mars showing northern Drylands (ochre) and southern dry ocean basins (dark).



The dichotomy of Martian topography is telescopically observable from a great distance: pale northern plains (or "drylands") covered with reddish sands contrast with the darker southern lowlands. The north represents Mars' ancient continents, while the equatorial and southern dark patches are the dry sea-beds of ancient oceans.


The disappearance of Mars' ancient surface water has governed the history of Mars; there is too little water on Mars to support thick clusters of population or abundant life on the surface. Martian civilization was only maintained in existence by the construction of numerous canals by means of a now-forgotten technology. The canals act as aqueducts, carrying meltwater from the polar ice-caps to the temperate and equatorial regions of Mars. In the southern hemisphere, the canals preserve the remnant waters of the ancient Martian seas, and serve to connect the remnants of Mars' former harbor cities; these canals are collectively known as the Low Canals.

For further information on the hypothetical linear structures believed by some astronomers to exist on Mars before 1964, see Martian canals.

Mars with polar ice caps visible.

Political Geography

Although to the casual visitor to spaceports such as Kahora and Jekkara Port, Mars may seem little different from the modern urban life of Earth or Venus, beyond the big cities the life of Mars proceeds much as it has for thousands of years, based upon the ancient units of canal town and desert tribe.

The Martian Planetary Government, unlike the World Government of Terra, is a federal government whose primary units are the Martian City-States, represented in the Council of City-States. These States are largely self-governed and admit little interference in their internal affairs. The states are mostly clustered in the moister lowlands of equatorial and southern Mars, although some (the Polar Cities) are grouped in the areas close to the northern polar ice cap. The following are only some of the more prominent City-States:

  • Karappa
  • Kathuun
  • Kushat (polar)
  • Narrissan
  • Ruh
  • Tarak
  • Varl

Low-Canal Cities

The Low-Canal cities, Barrakesh, Jekkara, and Valkis, are a group apart, in history and culture.



Jekkara was formerly a port city and a prominent kingdom in ancient Mars. It stood on the eastern shores of the White Sea, below a range of hills immediately to its east. These hills were chosen by the ancient Quiru as the site of the tomb in which their errant compatriot, Rhiannon, was imprisoned. Thousands of years later it came under the control of the Dhuvian-supported empire of Sark, before that kingdom suddenly collapsed.

This original city of Jekkara is no longer inhabited, and is known as the "Old Town"; its lighthouse and stone and marble quays are still visible above the old waterline. As the White Sea retreated, during the 17th Dynasty of the Khalide kings (c. 16,000-14,000 ybp) Jekkara's position as a maritime power dwindled. The Khalide palace atop the cliffs that formerly lined the sea-basin (now desert) still exists, though in ruin.

The "New Town" is the still living part of Jekkara. Its center is the great square that fronts the Jekkaran Low-canal which runs, roughly north-to-south, immediately to the west of the town, by the old bridge across the canal. Jekkara's businesses are chiefly drinking, gambling, and other vices; for a long time, however, non-Martians were prohibited entry into the town, and travellers are still advised to be cautious in its back-blocks.

Jekkara also retains some quaint but little-known customs, such as the propitiatory rites to the chthonic 'Dark Lord' said to dwell in a cave in the hills above Jekkara. These have been reported to involve human sacrifice, but experts currently believe it to be a harmless, vestigial ritual, whatever its origins may have been.

Modern Jekkara is known for its pit mining, and its wealth has given it a modern spaceport (Jekkara Port), two miles from New Town. The best known of Jekkara's many entertainment establishments is Madam Kan's, boasting beautiful dancing girls, exquisitely prepared thil liquor or desert-cactus brandy, and gambling at getak.


Travelling south along Jekkara's Low-canal brings you to the city of Valkis, at an intersection with another canal and the cliffs that formerly lined the sea bottom. Valkis is even more archaic and conservative than Jekkara, and consequently more dangerous.

Valkis stood on a gentler slope than Jekkara's cliffs, and in consequence one can see no fewer than five different Valkises, each built below the others as the sea retreated. As in Jekkara, the highest city contains the ancient royal palace.

The hills back of Valkis are home to Shunni nomads, who cooperate with the Valkisians on certain matters.

Valkis was formerly the center of the addictive vice of shanga, the going-back, a technology inducing euphoria as part of a temporary evolutionary regression. This practice was for a while very popular among Terrans, and brought a great deal of money, some of which was used to partially restore Valkis' ruins. It was found that in some cases the regression might be more than temporary, and could go well beyond merely primitive humanity. After it was discovered that the Lady Fand of Valkis was abusing shanga to brutalize and degrade Earth humans, whose presence was resented, it was outlawed; however, in some disreputable quarters of Valkis a modified form of it has remained available (The Beast-Jewel of Mars, Queen of the Martian Catacombs).

Under a later lord, Delgaun, Valkis was the center of a plot to use the Dryland nomads of Kesh and Shun to attack the border City-States, to the profit of Valkis. The failure of the plot, involving the death of both Delgaun and Kynon of Shun, destroyed Valkis' chance to lead Mars (Queen of the Martian Catacombs). Valkisian hostility to Terrans remained, and it was a center of the Pan-Martian faction.


The Trade City of Kahora is a Terran foundation, and now serves as the administrative capital for the Martian Planetary Government (MPG). It thus does not count as a City-State, though it is one of the most populous and busy places on the planet.


The stretches of uncultivated land between the canals and City-States belong to the Martian Dryland nomads, who are grouped into two large and frequently antagonistic tribes, the nations of Kesh and Shun. There are a few other nomadic bands, such as the Norland tribe of Mekh, who do not belong to these two tribes.


Oceanic Mars

The present desiccated state of Mars is historically abnormal, and represents the outcome of a long period of drought beginning perhaps 20,000 years ago. Before that, Mars -- as testified to by numerous physical and historical evidences -- was an oceanic world similar to Earth.

The earliest known inhabitants of Mars were the Quiru. Their exact date is unknown: conventional dates such as "one million years ago" are at best approximate and are probably exaggerated. The ancestry of the Quiru is unknown, though they seem to have been human in form. They possessed a high technology of which little survives; but they remained in the memories of the Martians as a race of gods. Prior to all recorded history they vanished from Mars. The only name of the Quiru that is remembered, however, is that of Rhiannon, a renegade who was punished for sharing the technology of the Quiru with other, less developed Martian races, most notably the reptilian Dhuvians.

Thousands of years later, those same Dhuvians were able to create a short-lived empire around the White Sea of Mars, which included such later significant cities as Valkis and Barrakesh. They did this through manipulating the nearby human kingdom of Sark; their opponents were driven back to such refuges as Khondor, ruled by the Sea-kings. The Khonds and their allies, the halfling Swimmers and Sky Folk, were ultimately able to defeat Sark and liberate her vassal cities; the Dhuvian city of Caer Dhu was destroyed (Sea-kings of Mars).

About the same time the city of Shandakor was flourishing. Shandakor was the home of another non-human race, and possessed an advanced technology similar, though not quite as advanced, as that of the Quiru, which they shared to a judicious extent with their human neighbors. Their self-imposed isolation from the humans, some of whom they used as slaves, earned them the enmity of other humans; and though the people of Shandakor lived to see the Terran presence on Mars, their city -- already depopulated and dilapidated -- tragically fell when the neighboring nomad tribes cut their water supply (The Last Days of Shandakor).

The Thinkers, who lived in domed cities near the polar cap, were another non-human race of the time of the Sea-kings. They are thought to have withdrawn from the rest of Mars at about the time that humans became numerous, although they intervened from time to time in moments of crisis, such as the Inter-hemispheric War of 62,007 (n.b., the synchrony of this dating system with Earth reckonings is uncertain). This may have been the same war in which Sark was overthrown, although in other accounts of it the Thinkers are not mentioned (Shadow Over Mars).

Another technologically advanced race were the human Prira Cen, who lived about 40,000 years ago. They were overthrown by a nomadic people of raiders whom they had helped civilize about 400 years earlier; these people founded the empire of the Seven Kingdoms, encompassing about half of the land surface of Mars, seated at Rhiannon, an island group in the Sea of Kesh, later known as the "Lost Islands". It is uncertain if there is any connection between the islands of Rhiannon and Rhiannon of the Quiru (The Sorcerer of Rhiannon).

A more malign influence on Martian history were the Ramas, or "Immortals" of the island city of Sinharat, who developed or inherited a technology that allowed minds to be exchanged between bodies; by placing their minds into younger bodies when they became old, they acquired a sort of immortality, at the cost of thousands of lives (Queen of the Martian Catacombs/The Secret of Sinharat).

The causes of the long drought that desiccated Mars are not fully known; they may have had something to do with a temporary expansion of the ice cap that occurred about that time (Black Amazon of Mars). The Ramas, attempting to preserve the civilization of nearby Kharif (from which they had stolen most of their bodies), provided resources and technologies which gave them access to desalinated water. For a while Kharif flourished, but as the overall desiccation of Mars could not be halted, the end result was to create a greater population to eventually die of thirst. The remnant peoples of Kharif eventually adapted to living in a hostile, dry climate, and their descendants are the Dryland tribes of Kesh and Shun (The Road to Sinharat).

The long-term remedy for the drying-up of Mars was found in the construction of the canal system, which brought water from the polar caps to the equator, and channeled what remained of the original sea water. Access to the water of the northern polar cap, at this time greatly extended, was achieved by the Martian hero Ban Cruach. According to some legends he defeated a group of psychrophilic non-humans who had used artificial means to drain the planet's heat, and made polar melt-water available for the canals (Black Amazon of Mars).

The technology used to create the canal system has long since been lost, but the Martians who live by the canals regard keeping them clear as a traditional obligation (Mars Minus Bisha, The Road to Sinharat).

The Coming of the Terrans

Until the later 20th century, it was widely believed that Mars was a lifeless, barren desert; astronomers such as Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell who claimed to have telescopically detected Martian life were generally disregarded. It took direct contact with Mars and its civilized peoples to vindicate their observations. Terran exploration of Mars rapidly followed the initial contacts, and the Trade City of Kahora was founded under the "Umbrella Treaty" with the Federation of Martian City-States in 1981 (Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon).

Terran influence spread slowly from Kahora, starting with spaceship crews and less savory types, thieves and mercenaries who embroiled themselves in the last-gasp wars of the older civilizations. Later they were joined by others with scientific interests: physicians, anthropologists, archaeologists, trying to make sense of the history of Mars and of its peoples. Within a few centuries, however, Terrans could be seen all over Mars.

Martian Rebellions

The Terran presence was strongly resented by the more tradition-minded Martians. On three occasions in the early years after the coming of the Terrans, pan-Martian coalitions joining the Dryland tribes to the Low-canal towns attempted to beat back Terran culture and political dominance.

The first rebellion was that of Kynon of Shun, who together with Delgaun of Valkis and a number of criminal leaders from across the System sought to make an attack on the Dryland Border States. The rebellion fizzled when it became apparent that Kynon was in fact the tool of a conspiracy with quite different motives (Queen of the Martian Catacombs/The Secret of Sinharat).

The second rebellion was in opposition to a Terran-inspired scheme to replace Mars' traditional canal technology with a new technology intended to water large areas of the Drylands. The rebellion came to an end when the government abandoned the project (The Road to Sinharat).

The third rebellion for the first time combined Martian traditionalists ("pan-Martians") with Martian moderates and Terran transplants ("Unionists"), largely in response to the policies of Ed Fallon's Terran Exploitations Company, a mineral-extraction venture based in the city-state of Ruh which was very powerful. The rebellion was successful in terms of toppling the leadership of the T.E.C. and leading to a new Unionist planetary government under Hugh St. John; however, the traditionalist project of bringing to power the heir of an ancient line of Martian kings failed (Shadow Over Mars/The Nemesis from Terra).

The Interplanetary Wars

Mars played a significant role in each of the three major interplanetary wars. In each of them, its primary concern was protecting its access to offworld water.

In the Earth-Venus war, Mars maintained neutrality, though it was careful to keep good relations with Venus as most of its water was obtained from that planet (No Man's Land in Space). In the Jovian War, when the inhabitants of the satellites of Jupiter attacked the Triangle Worlds, Mars fought alongside Earth and Venus (Outpost on Io).

Mars' role in the Interplanetary War of the 26th century was less creditable. Emerging from its own World War in 2504, Mars attempted to reclaim large areas of the Drylands for farming -- an operation that was extremely water-intensive. To break Venus' monopoly on shipping water to Mars, the Martians sought to obtain water-rich asteroids controlled by Jupiter. With the outbreak of war between Venus and Jupiter, Mars sought to aggravate the war and improve its own position with regard to the warring parties by bombing Venus' Trade City of Vhia under the guise of a Jovian attack. Mars' role in the bombing was, however, detected by representatives of Interplanetary Press (Interplanetary Reporter).

Anthropology and Ethnology

Human Martians

The majority of native Martians are 'humans', not of proximate Terran stock, but (despite differences in color and build) genetically compatible with Terran humans. The historical nature of the connection remains uncertain, but the presumption is that at some point in the past an ancestral human stock had "seeded" many of the worlds of the Solar System (The Secret of Sinharat).

Ancient Races

Some of the ancient human races of Mars have disappeared, leaving only memory and legend behind them, though rumors of their survival have occasionally surfaced.

The Quiru were perhaps the earliest known group of human Martians, possessed of a technology and knowledge so advanced that they were regarded as gods. The best known of the Quiru was Rhiannon, who taught some of the Quiru technology to the reptilians of Caer Dhu, and was therefore cast out and reviled as a diabolical figure (Sea-Kings of Mars/The Sword of Rhiannon).

The Prira Cen were a wise and technologically advanced race, distinguished from the other humans of Mars by their golden eyes and blue hair. They were destroyed 40,000 years ago by the Sorcerers of the Lost Islands of Rhiannon (The Sorcerer of Rhiannon).

The Ramas were the rulers of the island city-state of Sinharat, who possessed a technology that allowed them to live on in the body of another person -- at the cost of that person's life (Queen of the Martian Catacombs/The Secret of Sinharat, The Road to Sinharat).

Modern Races

Perhaps the best preserved, and certainly the most distinctive, of the ancient cultures on Mars is that of the Dryland barbarians, who are for the most part divided into the two tribes of Kesh and Shun.

The Drylanders are adept at forcing a living out of the brutally extreme climate of the desert, dryer than the Sahara on earth. They can survive desert crossings that would kill a Terran, or even a Martian of the City-States or Low-canals.

The Keshi warriors wear their tawny hair long, braided up in a kind of crown by thin metal chains. Both Keshi men and women can become warriors. Their dark brown faces are tanned to the appearance of hard wood or metal by the harsh sun, far away but barely filtered by the thin atmosphere. Their eyes are amber-yellow or blue. Their usual garment is a kilt ornamented with metal bosses.

The Shunni wear bright kilts and leather harness. Their weapons are barbed spears and knives. Their skin is olive-brown and their hair olive-purple. They live in hill-caves wherever there is an available water source.


Mars has possessed an unusual number of very variable non-human or semi-human (halfling) species, intelligent but alien and genetically dissimilar to the humans (Martian or Terran). Some of these are extinct, but others can be found in out-of-the-way corners of Mars.

The Swimmers were an aquatic halfling race, gifted with telepathy, living in the ancient Martian seas. They did not survive the drying up of the ocean beds and are now extinct (Sea-Kings of Mars/The Sword of Rhiannon).

The Sky Folk were a winged halfling species living on islands in the sea. Originally of fully human size, their descendants on present-day Mars have dwindled to only four feet tall, and are only found in such former island fortresses as Caer Hebra (Sea-Kings of Mars/The Sword of Rhiannon, Shadow over Mars/The Nemesis from Terra).

The Dhuvians were a reptilian species that long possessed an advanced technological equipment even when the rest of Mars was limited to early Iron Age technology. Their efforts to establish an empire over the other Martian races failed, and they vanished thousands of years ago -- though it is possible that some of the vaguely reptilian races, such as the people of Shandakor, might have some connection with them (Sea-Kings of Mars/The Sword of Rhiannon).

The Thinkers were a humanoid species who lived in cities near the northern polar ice-cap. They intervened from time to time in the affairs of Mars, notably during the era of the Sea-Kings, but eventually retreated to a realm of pure thought, leaving their useless bodies behind (Shadow over Mars/The Nemesis from Terra).

The Anthropoids, or ape-men, are a sub-human, semi-intelligent race of apelike beings that roam the sea-bottoms of Mars. Whether they are an offshoot from the same root as the human Martians, or a degenerate human sub-group is uncertain. The Terran Exploitations Company employed them as trackers, kidnappers and killers (Shadow over Mars/The Nemesis from Terra).

The People of Shandakor were a tall, golden-skinned humanoid species, with black eyes, a silver crest of wiry fibres on the scalp, similar silvery tufts on their pointed ears, and traces of scales, perhaps pointing to a reptilian ancestor. They restricted themselves to the single city of Shandakor, but their technological skills, to the degree that they agreed to share them, had a great influence on the rest of Martian civilization. Shandakor in its heyday was a great trading center visited by halflings (Swimmers, Sky Folk, Dhuvians), but as the older civilizations vanished it became increasingly remote and detached from Martian affairs, lost in its own memories of the past. Relations with the Martian humans became distant and hostile. Shandakor finally fell when its water supply was cut by one of the neighboring Dryland tribes; none of the people of Shandakor survived (The Last Days of Shandakor).

Martian Languages

Although there are no doubt a wide variety of vernaculars spoken in the various City-States of Mars, all human Martian languages appear to be related, and two forms are widely used or recognized in all civilized areas of Mars. These are generally known as High Martian and Low Martian.

High Martian is an ancient language, which has been compared to Terran Sanskrit, though it is far older; the characters in which it is written have not changed for thousands of years. It has been retained in use as a polite and formal means of expression.

Low Martian, by contrast is the ordinary vernacular of the Low-canal towns, and can be widely understood throughout Mars.

Martian Religion


Given the Mars has, by some estimates, at least a million years of past history, archaeology is a very fruitful field. Many of the earlier archaeologists were little more than tomb robbers, less interested in scientific research than in gaining a high price for their plunder. Archaeology is now, however, carried on under the auspices of a number of Martian and Terran foundations, including the Martian Archeological Foundation, the Society for the Preservation of Martian Relics, and the Martian Antiquities department in Kahora.

Researchers into Martian antiquities have discovered many "lost cities" belonging to earlier phases of Martian history, both human and alien. These include:

  • Lhak
  • Ptakuth
  • Shandakor
  • Sinharat
  • Ruins near the Wells of Tamboina

In addition, productive work has been done in the vicinity of old sites that are still inhabited, like Jekkara.


Symbols of Mars

Before the formation of the Martian Planetary Government, the only symbols representing Mars as a whole were either archaic ones from ancient Mars, or found on standards of would-be pan-Martian rebellions. The Banner of Death and Life borne in Kynon of Shun's rebellion was one such; modelled on the symbols of the ancient Ramas, it bore on a black field two white crowns above a red sword. More general in its application was the Banner of the Twin Moons raised for the planned revolt on behalf of Haral of Karadoc. It is probable that this was the inspiration for the current Martian planetary emblem of twin circles, representing the moons.

The moons of Mars

Mars has two tiny natural moons, Denderon and Vashna, which orbit very close to the planet. Terrans generally call them by the Latin names Phobos and Deimos. Phobos, the larger, closer, and faster-moving of the two moons shows evidence of the presence of an unknown race in the distant past that has left monuments that are still little-known. In Low-canal culture, Phobos is sometimes known as the "Mad Moon" and plays an important part in certain rituals (Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon).

Photograph of a Martian sunset

See also


Core Mars stories

  • Martian Quest (Astounding Science Fiction February 1940)
  • The Treasure of Ptakuth (Astounding April 1940)
  • The Sorcerer of Rhiannon (novelette; Astounding February 1942)
  • Shadow Over Mars (Startling Stories Fall 1944) published in book form as The Nemesis from Terra
  • The Beast-Jewel of Mars (novelette; Planet Stories Winter 1948)
  • Quest of the Starhope (Thrilling Wonder Stories April 1949)
  • Sea-Kings of Mars (Thrilling Wonder Stories June 1949) published in book form as The Sword of Rhiannon
  • Queen of the Martian Catacombs (Planet Stories Summer 1949) published in book form as The Secret of Sinharat
  • Black Amazon of Mars (Planet Stories March 1951) published in book form as People of the Talisman
  • The Last Days of Shandakor (novelette; Startling Stories April 1952)
  • Mars Minus Bisha (Planet Stories January 1954)
  • The Road to Sinharat (novelette; Amazing Stories May 1963)
  • Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction October 1964)

Marginal Mars stories

  • Water Pirate (Super Science Stories January 1941)
  • The Veil of Astellar (novelette; Thrilling Wonder Stories Spring 1944)
  • The Ark of Mars (Planet Stories September 1953) later published as part of the book Alpha Centauri or Die!

Non-Mars stories

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