The Big Jump by Leigh Brackett
Ace Books, 1967
Originally published in Space Stories, February 1953
Price I paid: $1.25
“A good story, with a very good characterization and flashes of an almost Merritteque poetry…
“The story concerns itself with THE BIG JUMP from this system to another sun—Barnard’s Star. The first expedition returned: one man alive, the others missing, and that one man dying of some ghastly sort of radiation sickness.
“Comyn, tough space-bum, sets out to find what happened to Paul Rogers, close friend of his…eventually making the second Big Jump himself. What he finds at the end is not only a brilliant science fiction gimmick, but good, solid writing.”
It’s been a good while since I last read Leigh Brackett, and even longer since I’ve read any of her work that was more science fiction than action/adventure. And gee whiz, it was worth it!
To start, though, I want to mention that this is another book where the back matter is a snippet from a review. Or at least, I think so? All it’s credited to is something called “Inside,” which I’ve never heard of. I tried to do a little research but my skills are failing me. Turns out that words like “Inside Magazine” or “Inside Review” are not helpful search terms! I turned to our good pals at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, who frequently list published reviews of novels, and while there were reviews in F&SF and Astounding and Galaxy, I don’t see one listed for anything called Inside.
It is a mystery!
This cover art, though! It’s by Jeffrey Catherine Jones, who at the time was working as Jeff Jones. She was hella prolific in cover art, comics, and regular art stuff. According to Wikipedia, Frank Frazetta called her “the greatest living painter.” She had a distinctive style that I am all about. I don’t recognize her from the covers of any books I own or have reviewed, but she did do the 2002 cover to A Game of Thrones and all of the Ace paperback editions of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, so I’ve probably seen her work there or elsewhere and not known it.
My opening paragraph might have led you to believe that I found this book a flawless one, but that’s not the case. This is one of those books that didn’t grab me at first, or even all that often, but when it did, it really did. Saying it had “flashes of brilliance” isn’t right, either. It had chunks of brilliance. Big honkin’ solid ones like a chocolate chunk cookie. That analogy isn’t a good one but you probably get the idea.
My main issue with the book is that I don’t think I ever got a good feeling for why any of it was happening. Certainly I was told why things were happening, but that felt hollow. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.
Our main guy is named Arch Comyn. We first meet him breaking into a hospital to find a guy. The guy is named Ballantyne, and he just got back from a historic journey. A history-changing journey. The Big Jump.
In the world of this book, our Solar System is largely explored and settled, but no sort of faster-than-light drive has been discovered until now. This Ballantyne guy created a drive that’ll do it, and he, along with a crew of some other guys, just made the journey to Barnard’s Star. But something went wrong. Ballantyne was the only one to come back, and he’s in very bad shape, although the public doesn’t know that. The public is being kept in the dark about a lot of things, it seems. Comyn wants to know….
Actually Comyn doesn’t give much in the way of any craps. He only wants to know one thing, the whereabouts of Paul Rogers. Who is Paul Rogers, you ask? I asked this too. This is the weak part of the book, and what kills me is that it could have been avoided pretty easily, I felt.
The one thing I know for sure is that Paul Rogers is not Paul Rodgers, the lead vocalist for Bad Company.
What irritated me about Comyn’s quest for Paul is that it never felt like he had any strong reason to be on it. Part of this is that Comyn, along with everyone else in the book, is pretty one-dimensional. I never got a good mental image of him other than just some dude. I guess I assumed he had close-cropped hair, maybe a buzzcut, because in my mind every male character from the 50s looks exactly the same.
But the main problem is that Comyn does explain himself a few times, and it’s this very terse, unemotional explanation of something like “he helped me out once, I owe him” with an additional bit of “we’ve known each other for a long time.” There’s no backstory with any kind of emotional impact. We never learn what this past situation between the two of them is. When they finally meet at the end there’s perhaps a glimmer of feeling, but it’s tiny and even that doesn’t feel earned. A simple flashback would have helped so much.
Comyn breaks into this hospital and finds Ballantyne because he wants to know where Paul is. Ballantyne is in bad shape both physically and mentally. He rants a bit about something called the “Transuranae” before screaming and then dying. Comyn doesn’t know what this means.
After this follows a lot of wheelings and dealings between Comyn and a family of people called the Cochranes. They’re some of the richest people in the Solar System, and they funded the first Big Jump. Notable Cochranes include Sydna, who is the focus of Comyn’s male gaze for a solid portion of the book, and William Stanley, the husband of a cousin of the family. Sydna is also notable for being the only woman with more than two lines of dialogue, and also she’s super hot and vapid. Stanley spends a lot of the book trying to kill Comyn, although neither we nor Comyn know that until near the end of the novel. Again, I couldn’t bring myself to care. All of these characters ran together so much that when it was finally revealed I thought he was somebody else whose name also started with an S.
So I’ve made it clear that I can’t bring myself to care about any of the characters or what they want or do, but what about the good parts of the novel? The parts I’m glad I read? What’s left, right?
What really worked in this novel were the science fiction elements. Not only were they delightfully original, they were written in a way that left me breathless. There was horror and fear and wonder and joy and mixtures of all those emotions in ways that I could only dream of writing myself one day.
The first time we see it is when Ballantyne starts moving around after he dies. At first I was wondering if this was some kind of zombie thing, but no, he’s just twitching. A lot. And nobody can figure out why. They eventually destroy his body as part of his funeral, broadcast throughout the Solar System as a tribute to this great, lost man.
Perhaps it’s the good science fiction that made the rest of the book so cold for me. I was hooked from the start of this sci-fi mystery and I wanted to know all about it and how it would resolve. So when the rest of the book was dealing with who-tried-to-murder-who and family drama and so much intergenerational wealth, I felt like Milhouse in the Poochie episode.
Finally we get past a lot of the boring stuff and Comyn gets to go to space. Along with him are Stanley, and it’s in space that we learn that it’s been him trying to murder Comyn the whole time when he tries again and fails, and Peter, the eldest of the Cochrane siblings. At first everyone is aligned against Comyn but that starts to change and is just more of the same stuff with an interesting new element.
What I liked here was Brackett’s description of space travel, in particular the Ballantyne Drive. You see, it’s a very unpleasant means of space travel, in ways I’d never seen before. Most star drives in fiction are presented fairly neutrally. They are a conveyance and most people don’t even know it’s happening except that maybe the stars look funny. This is not the case here. For starters, the drive emits a high-pitched whine that is just barely on the edge of being audible. Then there’s the fact that there’s no perceptible sense of movement. These are experienced space travelers, and they’re used to feeling inertia and such. Here, it’s just an eerie sense of stillness.
The result is that our astronauts start get tense. They know how long the trip is supposed to take, but how do they know that the chronometers even work right in this superluminal dimension? With no frame of reference, what even is an hour, a day, a week? Couple that with the fact that they don’t even feel like they’re moving in the first place, and that’s a recipe for Space Madness.
Air whirred in the ventilators. The dome lights burned, and they were bright enough, but there was something vaguely unnatural about the light itself, as though it had shifted somewhere along the spectrum. Comyn’s flesh quivered deep in its individual cells, torturing him like a persistent itch. It tortured everybody.pg 71
This whole section of the book was so well-written! I could feel the deep, grating anxiety of these astronauts. The cumulative effects of so many little annoyances, compounded by their fear of the unknown, or at least the little-known. And what they do know isn’t pleasant either.
In a way its refreshing to see a work from the Atomic Age presenting the physical act of stellar travel as something less than ideal. I think this ties into a greater theme presented at the end of the book.
Our guys do manage to make their way to Barnard’s Star and land on a planet as indicated by the logs of the previous voyage. And it’s there that they find the rest of the crew of the previous trip and find that they’ve gone native. But here, again, is some original science fiction concept and an analysis of its consequences.
The natives of this planet are what our heroes think of as “primitive.” They run around naked and have barely any of what they would think of as civilization. The crew of the previous trip explain what’s going on, and why this is a good thing.
It turns out that this planet is rich in some elements the book keeps referring to as “transuranic.” Normally this would refer to stuff like neptunium and plutonium but in this case it’s elements much further down the table, things never even dreamed of by Earth science. These elements do emit a radiation, but it’s a good radiation. A positive one. It changes the people exposed to it for the better.
It’s not super clear how it all works, which is fine and works to the benefit of the story, but basically the energy from these elements is able to feed the cells in a living body directly. There’s no longer a need for food, for shelter, for any of the other physical necessities that we take for granted as essential. The radiation renders people essentially immortal, although they can still be killed by violence. This is also why Ballantyne was so twitchy after he died. He got some of the radiation, but not enough before he left, or something.
And that’s why there’s nothing anyone would call civilization here. After all, isn’t civilization, on the main, a way to keep a lot of people fed and sheltered? Everything else just grows out of that. Imbalances mean that some people are better fed and better sheltered at the expense of others, either by means of war or economic injustice. But once those root needs are taken care of, there’s no need for any of this. People can just run around, naked and unafraid.
This plays with our expectation that a better life is one that is more “civilized,” however we want to define that. The pursuit of technological heights, of power over our fellow humans through strength of arms or cold hard cash, of conquering worlds and space. What’s the point of any of that, when confronted with a people who can live quite happily without any of it, and not only happily, but effectively forever?
We later get a glimpse of some kind of higher beings, dancing shapes of light that seem to emanate from a concentration of these transuranic elements. Nobody knows anything about them. There’s some speculation that they and the radiation are the most basic form of life. The thing that started life in the first place. We are all their children somehow, and of course that means that this planet is essentially the Garden of Eden. I don’t think this is an outright Shaggy God Story, but I could see the argument for it.
Seeing all of this, our heroes turn tail and run. Comyn is tempted to stay, especially after he finds his old buddy who explains some of this to him and us, but he’s dragged away by the rest of the crew. There is some argument about this and whether it was the right thing to do. Comyn is angry about being wrenched away from something so obviously beautiful and good. Peter Cochrane explains that humanity is not ready for this, that we still have to grow and learn what we can become before accepting the easy out of becoming angels without working for it. I sort of get his argument, and I appreciate that Brackett didn’t try to sell us for good on one or the other.
The astronauts return home and declare the planet off-limits, Comyn and Sydna decide to get married, and he is haunted by the thought of what might have been. And that’s the end.
So yeah, this story started out kinda weak and boring for me, but danged if it didn’t pick up at the end.
The science fiction elements of this book shined a lot with the stuff I like best about the Weird Tales crew, mainly the concept that there are Things so far beyond us that we might never understand them. In a bit of a twist from the typical Lovecraft angle, that thing here was something beautiful and wholesome and good and life-bringing. I’m not sure if we get a clear answer on whether it actually cares about people or just is, and that’s fine.
And the idea of space travel being so unpleasant is a nice touch. It’s not something one sees often outside of media like Warhammer 40,000, where hyperspace, or “The Warp,” might literally be Hell. I think the 1997 film Event Horizon also dealt with a similar subject, but I only know that second-hand. These are both different, though, from the fact that the Ballantyne drive isn’t so much malevolent as grating and disturbing. That’s a really nice touch, and so different from the “technology is wonderful and will solve the problems” attitude you usually get in the 50s. I think this book is a bit ahead of its time in that regard, and would probably have fit in pretty well with something a bit more New Wavy maybe a decade down the line. This might well be why it got a 1967 reprint in the first place.
So yeah! I didn’t like this one at first, but now I’m super glad I stuck with it. If I recommend it, I might just recommend the second half? You’d lose some context and I have a hard time thinking about how necessary that context is, so now I hesitate to say that. I dunno.