The Hounds of Skaith
The Reavers of Skaith
By Leigh Brackett
Leigh Brackett is my favorite Sword & Planet writer. Erik John Stark is like Tarzan, on Barsoom, as re-imagined by Raymond Chandler for a John Ford Western. But like Tarzan and cowboys, planetary adventurers need space. The problem is that in her lifetime Brackett scientific exploration overtook her. Mars rovers made it all too plain that the Red Planet hosted no lost civilizations, no ruined cities on the edge of drying seas, no silver-prowed galleys sweeping through ancient canals.
So Brackett just moved her hero a little deeper into space. The early Stark stories featured colonialist earthmen with spaceships, so why not get out of the solar system altogether? Stark is sent to the planet Skaith, out where Earth’s influence is at its ragged edge. Skaith is a dying planet under a dying sun. The whole dying thing speeds up when the locals piss off Stark.
Just as Stark’s Mars is a distinct take on Barsoom, Skaith owes a certain debt to Vance’s Dying Earth and perhaps to Flash Gordon’s duel with Ming the Merciless. It is a world under a theocracy. The Lords Protector and their enforcers the Wandsmen enforce a rigid sort of wealth transfer between the shrinking base of producers and the class of wandering parasites called the Farers. Moreover, on Skaith humanity has fragmented, morphing their forms adapted to the environment at the cost of having anything in common with their fellows. Culture is fragmented as well, consisting of isolated and backward city-states. But there are prophecies of a Dark Man who will overturn the world.
Stark does some overturning alright. He’s there to look for a friend who disappeared while helping some of the productive people escape the tyranny of the Wandsmen. The novels are a series of adventures as Stark wanders Skaith giving the Lords Protector hell. It’s a bit like a hard-boiled movie serial.
The real secret is that Skaith is Earth, specifically America c. 1970. The Farers are hippies gone feral, the Wandsmen are the PC police of a decadent welfare state. It’s an interesting take though perhaps your mileage may vary. I rather liked the Skaith novels, though I find the early Stark tales, rooted in nostalgia rather than insecurely clinging to it, better.