Book review: The Big Jump, by Leigh Brackett

15 07 2017

Leigh Brackett was an American novelist and screenwriter, whose movie credits include The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and The Empire Strikes Back (although her ultimate influence on the latter screenplay, revised after her death in 1978, remains contentious). A noted SF writer herself (at at time when women were notably underrepresented amongst SF novelists), she was married to fellow SF notable Edmond Hamilton and collaborated with (among others) William Faulkner and Ray Bradbury.

TheBigJump

In Brackett’s short novel The Big Jump, first published in 1955, Arch Comyn strives to uncover the truth behind mankind’s technically-successful-yet-unfortunately-fatal first jump through hyperspace, after he breaks into a heavily-guarded hospital on Mars to hear the dying words of Ballantyne, the flight’s last surviving crewmember. Comyn finds a mystery; he finds trouble; he finds Sydna, the femme-fatalesque dranddaughter of tycoon Jonas Cochrane, the entrepreneur who bankrolled the first ‘jump’ mission. Comyn also finds an unnerving indication of something life-transcending, something sinister that waits on the planet around Barnard’s Star to which the first mission travelled, and where his childhood friend Paul Rogers ostensibly met his death. Given the dangers exposed by the mission, it’s out of the question that a follow-up should even be countenanced; given human greed and the lure of the distant planet’s wealth of transuranic ores, it’s inevitable that a second mission will occur. Readers will presumably not be too surprised to learn that Comyn succeeds in getting a berth on that mission …

It would be an exceptional work of space opera which, after six decades, managed not to appear dated in any fashion, and The Big Jump could not be called exceptional. It’s very much a product of its time, with social attitudes steeped in the hard-drinking, guns-and-fisticuffs approach to problem-solving typical of the era’s male-oriented genre fiction. There’s a lot of emoting, a lot of posturing, a lot of chauvinism inherent in the treatment and depiction of female characters (who are rather thin on the ground). This may well be an indication of the type of hoops which female SF writers of the time were forced to jump through—one wonders how many of Brackett’s readers would have known she was female—but it is something that dates the text by today’s standards. Moving beyond this, though, the story does make a reasonable fist of its scientific content: while there’s a little too much handwavium in the treatment of interplanetary and interstellar travel for the book to qualify as hard SF, it’s reasonably well-informed on the rudiments of the periodic table, and its extrapolations on the biochemistry of the transuranic elements are intriguing if distinctly fanciful. If the reader is not too averse to some sometimes highly purpled prose—and fifties SF arguably did pulpy purple prose better than anyone else—then this is an interesting and sometimes even thought-provoking encapsulation of the genre in which one can see, for example, prescient echoes of characters such as Star Trek‘s James T Kirk and Star Wars’ Han Solo.

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