Generation Ship Short Story Review: Leigh Brackett’s “The Ark of Mars” (1953)

This is the 9th post in my newly resurrected series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. Not every short story I read for this series fits my definition of a generation ship. If you choose to read the story before my review, know that I disagree with its inclusion in SF Encyclopedia’s entry and understand why it was excluded from Simone Caroti’s original list. And that’s okay! I enjoy mapping the territory with all its swampy bayous, hidden coves, and dead ends.

As a reminder for anyone stopping by, all of the stories I’ll review in the series are available online via the link below in the review.

You are welcome to read and discuss along with me as I explore humanity’s visions of generational voyage. And thanks go out to all who have joined already. I also have compiled an extensive index of generation ship SF if you wish to track down my earlier reviews on the topic and any that you might want to read on your own.

Previously: Otto Binder’s “Son of the Stars” in the February 1940 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, ed. Mary Gnaedinger. You can read the story online here.

Next Up: Frank M. Robinson’s “The Oceans Are Wide” first appeared in Science Stories (April 1954), ed. Bea Mahaffey and Ray Palmer. You can read it online here

Leigh Brackett’s “The Ark of Mars” first appeared in Planet Stories (September 1953), ed. Jack O’Sullivan. 2.5/5 (Bad). You can read it online here. “Ark” was combined with an expanded “Teleportress of Alpha C” (1954) and released as the fix-up Alpha Centauri or Die! (1963).

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. As I mentioned above, this is not a generation ship story despite its inclusion in the SF Encyclopedia’s entry on the theme. While mothers and children are brought on board a massive vessel secretly constructed on Mars for a journey to an Earth-like planet orbiting Alpha Centauri, the voyage lasts a mere five years. Children might be born on the ship but will only spend a short portion of their lives on board. All of the action of the plot revolves around launching the vessel and Mars’ last attempt to stop the trip immediately as it sets off. Few of the distinctive hallmarks of generation ship stories are present — there’s no generational strife between those born on the ship and their elders, no conceptual breakthrough as the “true” nature of the world is revealed, etc. Instead, the ship is a glorified covered wagon, symbolic of Brackett’s identification of a primitivist masculine drive (with adjacent spouses) to trek West rather than a new social system to explore.

Mars, When the Wild West Became Suburbia

“There were no more men in space. The dark ships strode the ways between the worlds, lightless, silent, needing no human mind to guide them” (76).

At first glance, Brackett’s Mars excludes the exotic. But the sandstone pillars do not tantalize ancient secrets but cordon off the tangible starship remains of humanity’s exodus from Earth and dreams of further interstellar voyage. Kirby, an ex-spacer, stands in the shadow with these memories eating at his heart, a half-alive simulacra of a Man in a state of “living burial since they barred the rockets out of space” (76). The spaceways no longer are piloted by the brave spacers of yore but by “electronic brains” ensconced within the “cold, lofty, soulless” heavy freighters and planetary patrol ships (16).

Over the forbidden wreckage of expansion, the decadent metropolis — “Kahora, the Trade City for Mars, where the business of a planet was done in luxury and comfort” (76)—looms, symbolic of the final conquest of the frontier. Around Kakora’s dome–an “artificial” and “smothering place” that “effeminized” the masculine (78)–suburbs evoke Southern California (78). Within these suburbs women “toiled and wailed and nagged unceasingly to move into Kahora proper, under the dome” (78).

All the lands have been settled. The one-time frontier is soft and domestic and controlled and regimented. While the women might look inward, a few brave men like Kirby look outward. The seductive dreams of packing the wagon and setting off into the unknown remain, like a lighthouse beacon burning through the night, drawing others to forbidden shores. And towards the Lucy B. Davenport, built in secret from pilfered supplies, they stream, often dragging reluctant wives and crying children. Will this ramshackle vessel throw off the yoke of the state, avoid the robotic patrols, and reinvent the spirit of adventure?

How To Be a Man

“Believe me, the only reason you’re here is biological. Women, unfortunately, are a necessary adjunct to colonization” (93).

A 1950s discourse on the nature of masculinity dominates “The Ark of Mars.” Brackett’s extensive expose of the horrors of government in defeating that which ticks in the soul of man, proclaims the city and the state that it represents creating “effeminized” men (78). The rugged frontier of space allows men to be men and women to tag along. Kirby’s path to leadership includes dreams of spanking misbehaving women (92), slapping women who want to return home (92), and obsessively rambling about domestic violence if women do not follow men — “All over Mars men are having the same trouble. Bull it through. If she screams too loud, smack her. She won’t die of it” (77). While Kirby’s Martian lover Shari gently presses him to demonstrate more gentle leadership strategies, he can’t refrain from warning her that “if you start acting like [a woman], I’ll break your neck” (94). Women are valuable for the colonizing process only if they follow along and synchronize with all the concerns and desires of men. If they do so, then, like Shari, they are capable of saving the day.

So What Do I Think About All of This?

Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955) remains one of my favorite novels of the 50s due to its complex moral landscape and refusal to provide easy answers. On the other hand, “The Ark of Mars” feels like pulp through and through. The action is front and center. Lengthy chase sequences transpire across Mars, across the void of space, within the robotic spaceships… It’s hard to escape Brackett’s disturbing suggestion that the colonizing program goes hand-in-hand with controlling women. Kirby, representing the previous generation, manhandles women to achieve his dream. And Shari agrees with it all.

If you’re studying the more sinister threads of gender and colonization in 50s SF, “The Ark of Mars” is not to be missed.

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12 thoughts on “Generation Ship Short Story Review: Leigh Brackett’s “The Ark of Mars” (1953)

    • It’s my least favorite as well.

      My favorite part of the story was the idea that Mars (especially as she wrote so many stories of adventure on Mars) is transformed into a decadent suburbia. The California parallels are a nice touch — the Mars as the American West tamed.

      I originally thought that it was Kirby’s bad side as well. However, isn’t the story also a narrative about how to become a leader? His rough edges don’t disappear. And Shari supports him every step of the way despite his pathetic behavior.

      I’ll check out your review.

    • Yeah, Mars as American West transformed into decadent suburbia is the most intriguing angle to the story. And I find Kirby’s misogyny a bit jarring considering the other Brackett novels I’ve read. I’m not sure what to make of it….

  1. Not having read this story, well, the original anyway, might I suggest that the story is one long vent about the toxic masculinity of the time. Tiptree gets a pass on doing the same thing with “Houston, Houston, Do You Read”, a story I found offensive, and which caused me to stop reading Tiptree for over thirty years.

  2. Just found your website over Leigh Bracket search.
    Recently I’ve bought the 70y anniversary edition of the Stark adventures on Mars (and Venus) and searched for more.
    very interesting bookish website, will continue reading you 🙂

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