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Shadow Over Mars
by Leigh Brackett

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 28, 2020

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Leigh Brackett's Shadow Over Mars won the Retro Hugo Award this year for Best Novel, but I question its qualification for that category. It was originally published in the Fall 1944 issue of Startling Stories, wherein it was just 53 pages, out of a total of 112 for that issue, and yet it was touted as a "Complete Novel." Must have been very small print, or it wasn't all in that issue, instead being serialized over several issues, but I've been unable to verify that. The picture to the right is for the Kindle version I purchased a few months ago after it won the award, and Amazon says it is 145 pages. The images below are for other editions, all with varying page counts. It appeared on its own in book form in 1951, credited by the Internet Speculative Fiction Database as being 128 pages, then in 1961 it was one half of the ACE Double #F-123, renamed "The Nemesis From Terra," which the ISFDb says was 120 pages. None of those page counts says novel to me, at most it is a novella. Two of the other nominees that are in print are equally short, the other two surely novel length.

That out of the way, let's turn to the story itself. Frankly, it's not very good. No, let me rephrase that. It is terrible. It's so bad I couldn't finish it, making it just the second time in twenty years I'm reviewing a book I didn't finish. If you've never heard about what Raymond Chandler thought of science fiction, just google it, and you'll not only see that he invented Google, he also wrote a paragraph filled with the sort of simplistic clichés often found in pulp SF. He wrote that in 1953, so it's possible he was quoting from this book, although further into it than I managed, because that's exactly how it reads. It's the type of juvenile adventure that branded SF as a ghetto genre, which it is still trying to live down. Collectible paperbacks of various editions can be very expensive. The Kindle copy was just 99¢, and that was too much. Several of her other early space operas are available for free at Project Gutenberg. Even if this was among the offerings I would say don't bother.

I'm not the first person to say the Retro Hugos have lost their relevance, if they ever were relevant. Peter Graham once said the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12, obviously referring to the age many fans discovered the genre. If that's true, then the readers of this story when it was first published would be pushing 90 today, and I doubt many of them are still active in fandom. Yes, Leigh Brackett wrote some good stories, but this is not one of them. She was the first woman to be nominated for a Hugo, for 1955's The Long Tomorrow (which I haven't read yet) [EDIT: Now read and reviewed.] She also wrote several impressive screenplays. Nostalgia for other work shouldn't justify an award for lesser work, especially when Olaf Stapledon and Robert Graves were also on the ballot.

There are several more years eligible for Retros if the individual Worldcon committees choose to include them on their ballots. As the years go by, fandom is being populated by younger readers, few of whom care for stories written decades before they were born. I'm 70; Shadow Over Mars was published more than six years before I was born. I've read a lot of Golden Age SF, but for the most part I've moved on from it, embracing many better writers working today. I suppose if I continue reviewing I'll get to other Retro winners in the future, but for those nominating and voting, please choose wisely. Choose quality over reputation. Otherwise, don't bother.


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Leigh Brackett

Fall 1944 in Startling Stories

1945 Retro Hugo (presented in 2020)

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