Leigh Brackett and Jane Goldman: Female Genre Writers Across the Century

While science fiction films are not rare in today’s media, well-written, culturally smart sci-fi is still far and few between. Leigh Brackett and Jane Goldman are two authors and screenwriters who saw beyond genre restrictions and managed to craft exciting and inspiring stories within the sci-fi and fantasy spectrum. These writers pushed their genres to, and past their limitations, creating new genres in the case of Leigh Brackett.

Little is know about the early life of Leigh Brackett, she was born in California on December 7th, 1915, and she started writing for serial science fiction and fantasy magazines at the age of 25. It was a popular form of storytelling at the time, and Leigh Brackett’s career was aided by her androgynous name. Much of her twenties was spent writing these short stories. Jane Goldman got her start writing even earlier, and in a much more direct way. At the age of fifteen, Jane marched into the office for the editor of 17 Magazine and demanded a paying job, the editor was shocked by Goldman’s entrance into her office, as well as her impressive collection of self written OP-ED pieces. The editor gave Goldman a job on the spot. Ironically, this is the very type of magazine that Leigh Brackett said she could never write for. Both women fought vigorously for their writing, Brackett did so by defending Science-Fantasy, the subgenre she had helped to create. Goldman fought for her right to be employed in the field she wanted at the youngest age possible.

Leigh Brackett insisted that her writing was too farfetched to be accepted into the types of magazines that Jane Goldman built her career on. Despite this, when it came to screenwriting, the two had a great deal in common. Leigh Brackett invented the idea of the Planetary Romance, a niche subgenre revolving around the relationship between a human being, and another entity. In Brackett’s short story work, this was typically between a male astronaut and a female alien of some variety. In The Empire Strikes Back, Brackett’s one example of Science-Fantasy on the screen, this romance is between Han Solo and Princess Leia. While neither one is a physical alien, they are separated by their ideologies and personal ambitions.

Jane Goldman’s first professional screenwriting job was working to adapt Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, which prominently features the relationship of Yvaine and Tristan. Yvaine is a literal fallen star, where Tristan was raised a farm boy. In Empire Strikes Back, Brackett used a series of heightening arguments to highlight the discrepancy between Han and Leia, Goldman uses the same strategy here to capitalize on the “will they, won’t they” aspect of their dynamic.

Both writers have stated their love of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and have worked almost exclusively within the realms of genre writing. The major difference between the two woman in this regard is the time period they wrote in. Leigh Brackett wrote the vast majority of her science fiction during her years writing freelance for various literary magazines. The first film she was asked to work on was The Big Sleep, a noir thriller. It was out of her comfort zone, but her influence on the characters is clear, as the levity of the film comes from her distinct sense of humor. She wrote several John Wayne westerns, which were more formulaic and in tune with the types of stories she had been writing for magazines. Although she enjoyed her writing for Hollywood, her first love would always be Science Fantasy. Empire Strikes Back is the one opportunity she got to flex her screenwriting muscles in the genre of her choice.

Jane Goldman’s first screenwriting opportunity came attached to one of the biggest names in Fantasy Fiction, Neil Gaiman, and arrived just after the turn of the millennium. Goldman has stated that she likes to work in adaptation, when she writes a screenplay, she likes to try and mimic the effect reading the book or graphic novel gave for her. As it turns out, she’s really good at it. Goldman has been Mathew Vaugn’s screenwriting partner on projects like Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. Big budget genre productions that have been met with widespread acclaim.

In fact, as time has gone on, more and more science fiction has achieved acclaim. It’s still the genre of choice for the basement-dwellers of the world, but now, also for the film critic and philosopher. More of the mainstream audience is now realizing that science fiction and the inherently broad story ideas within can be used to explore some unexpectedly deep themes. Both Leigh Brackett and Jane Goldman used science fiction as a tool to venture deeper into the profane elements of their worlds. Goldman’s films focus on the dichotomy between national powers, and usually take place during periods of worldwide conflict, examples of this would be Goldman’s interpretation of the Cuban Missile in X-Men: First Class, or the relationship between the U.K. and U.S. in the Kingsmen series of films. Leigh Brackett used her science fiction exploration stories as a way to highlight the cruelty American colonialism brought upon many during the late 19th century.

In the time Leigh Brackett started making films, it was far from practical for a studio to finance a science fiction film, they were expensive, hard to follow, and isolating. Some executives would likely still agree with that point, but the fact is that as the studio system has grown and technology has advanced, these movies are not as hard to make as they once were. It should be said that if it weren’t for the persistence of woman like Leigh Brackett, writers like Jane Goldman would likely have a lot more trouble finding success writing the genre of their choice.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I love Lane Goldman. It’s quite rare that a screen writer become famous enough that if you see their name attached to a film it will i influence whether you go and see it – something usually only reserved for directors. I love her work and actually saw Kingsman because I saw her attached as screenwriter (having Mathew Vaughn direct didn’t hurt either).

  2. I met Brackett in a film class in 1974 or 1975. She knew the professor, was in town and agreed to speak. My memory is that she mostly focused on Hollywood sexism and she told the Hawks story about him expecting a man at the train with a great deal of relish. She’d just finished Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” but I don’t remember her talking about it. And pulp — whether SF or mystery — didn’t get much mention at all.

  3. bringer

    Anybody have recommendations for the best Brackett stories/novels to read?

    • Your mileage will vary, of course, but Brackett’s best sf novel is probably The Long Tomorrow. However, The Sword of Rhiannon is the best representation of her personal brand of “sword-and-planet.” For a change of pace, her first novel, No Good From a Corpse, is an excellent noir mystery in the Raymond Chandler style.

      My favorite LB short stories:

      “The Veil of Astellar” (great last line!)

      “The Moon That Vanished”

      “Mars Minus Bisha” (bring a tissue)

      “Last Call From Sector 9-G” (noir and space opera nicely blended)

  4. Amyus

    What a great article – my only criticism is more please!

  5. It tickles me to death that Leigh Brackett is getting some of the recognition she’s deserved. She was a Writer, but like a lot of her peers in the pulps she was savvy enough to make a good living at it.

  6. Oh, boy. I have so much to learn. Leigh Brackett is (was) a woman?

  7. I was an impressionable 6-year-old boy when Star Wars came out and so was eight or nine for Empire. So, because of that I decided that classical, romantic, baroque, etc. music was OK because it was just like Star Wars. So imagine my surprise when, years later in my younger adult life (not young adult, but an adult, just young) when I discovered that female science fiction/fantasy writers could be such a political thing to people, even now. In all my pre-adolescent quests to learn everything about the Star Wars Universe (pre-Internet, so through Starlog and Bantha Tracks and all that) I discovered that, yes, Leigh Brackett was a woman but didn’t really think anything of it, so women who wrote the kinds of books I liked to read already didn’t seem all that unusual. So, whether a lot of her script made it into the finished film or not, I can’t imagine I’m the only one who didn’t really think it mattered what the gender of the author was.

    • It might be worth pointing out that Leigh Brackett took advantage of her androgynous name in order to help sell stories in what was perceived to be an overwhelmingly masculine genre and market (a ploy also taken advantage of by her contemporary fantasy-adventure author, C.L. Moore).

  8. Villarreal

    I think JG is a very bright talent, Stardust is excellent,Xmen, Kickass all good.

  9. I have most, if not all, of Leigh’s books! 1st printing! And the Best of all the Star Wars films. Maybe ever.

    • I’d say it was the best if only it had more aliens in it. Other than Yoda, Chewie, ugnauts and the Bounty Hunters it was a human-fest. Now Jedi is the opposite weak story but lots of great aliens. So by default I like ANH the best even though ESB has best story.

  10. Nice post. I read The Long Tomorrow in Library of America’s recent collection of 50s novels, it was great. She was such a fine writer, it’s nice to see her getting credit for her contribution to Star Wars.

  11. Floretta

    Thanks for this post! I am embarrassed to say I haven’t read much Brackett. Looks like I’ll have to rectify that.

    • Highly recommend the Eric John Stark novels. Rollicking good times.

  12. One of my favorite writers ever, Leigh Brackett is one of those few writers whose section in bookstore shelves I automatically scan on any visit, in hopes of finding an upgrade, an unknown title, or just a good edition I wouldn’t mind having a second — or third, or fourth — copy on my shelves.

  13. Munjeera

    Good for you for highlighting the achievements of two women. We need more articles like this on some people who may not have gotten the credit they deserve. I always enjoy learning about people in the past like these two women.

  14. Rupert Reaves

    Basically, Leigh Brackett is the Rosalind Franklin of the Star Wars pantheon.

  15. It would be interesting to see other writers highlighted.

  16. I was hoping to see more than just these two (admittedly phenomenal) writers brought to the forefront of this article: you missed a big one with Ursula K. Lee Guin — while not a screenwriter (that I know of), her novels are amazing works of art that encompass nuggets of her hidden passion (and that of her parents’) work in anthropology. She tackles some harder to discuss topics, too, not just interplanetary romance.

  17. Joseph Cernik

    An interesting essay.

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