Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#17: Marion Zimmer Bradley

I suppose it's fair to ask why I'm reviewing Bradley's writing. It fits the target time-frame, if sloppily -- she's been writing for over thirty years, though her best work is relatively recent -- but the review scores poorly on the criterion of usefulness: Even readers who are relatively new to sf tend to be familiar with her writing. The truth is that I'm doing it for my own satisfaction; Bradley's writing has given me considerable pleasure and considerable aggravation in the past, and I welcome an excuse to try to put it into a perspective of sorts. But, for the record, since this is a review series, let's pretend that I'm doing it for the few readers who have not read Marion Zimmer Bradley's work.

It is probably worth making my usual practice explicit: This is a guide, not a comprehensive study. I will be leaving out many of Bradley's books -- and it won't be because I inexplicably forgot -- and giving others less attention than they may deserve. If readers feel that the result is unjust or unbalanced, I welcome their followups.

"The Mists of Avalon" (****-) is Bradley's most ambitious novel, and probably her best. It's that exceedingly rare thing, a retelling of the Arthurian legend which is original enough and skillful enough to be interesting. The tale is told from the perspective of the women in the story -- in particular that of Morgan le Fay. (In this telling, Morgan is the protagonist. Arthur remains offstage, mostly.) It's a thoroughly contemporary interpretation, with the events of Britain's fifth century recast as a struggle between the old order -- matriarchal and Pagan (Neopagan, in substance) -- and the encroaching, patriarchal, Christian one. Arthur is the king who vowed to honor the old order, and betrayed it.

It works. It works because the Arthurian legend is so rich to start with. It works because, for all that Bradley turns Mallory's world upside down, she treats it with skill, control, and respect. Arthurian purists shouldn't go near this book; neither should historical purists. It's a fantasy, a morality play with a twentieth-century agenda, a book that squeezes some heroes of the Legend into a mould that often leaves them unrecognizable. And, if that doesn't bother you too much (and there's no particular reason it should), it's a first-rate work of fiction.

(Bradley attempted to duplicate this success in "The Firebrand" (*), a reinterpretation of the Iliad from the viewpoint of Cassandra, and failed badly. If I had to give a single explanation for the failure, it would be that she does *not* treat that source Legend with respect.)

"Survey Ship" (***+) is a relatively minor work, but one of my favorites. It is best classified as soft science fiction. (It's not fantasy-in-disguise: The science-fictional elements are essential to the story, though not much attention has gone into them.)

   How do you make a spaceman?
   You start the same way that you start to make a chess master, a ballet dancer, a trapeze performer, or any other difficult and complex task demanding highly trained and complex skills, physical or mental; you start when the future professionals are too young to know whether that is what they want out of life, or not. Six is not too young.

The time is the not-too-distant future (probably twenty-first century), and the UN is sending out one STL star-probe each year -- crewed by about half a dozen trained-from-early-childhood teenagers, chosen from a class of fifty. "Survey Ship" covers a few critical days in the lives of one such crew -- the selection of the lucky few, and their initial efforts to form a team that will live and work together for years or decades.

"Endless Voyage" (***) looks at a somewhat different kind of starship crew. The time is the more distant future, and the civilized galaxy is linked by matter-transmitters. To be made *part* of the civilized galaxy, however, a planet must first be visited by a STL Exploration ship. (Simple math will make it clear that it'll be a long, long time before the network spans much of the galaxy.) The crew of an Explorer is a family, serving planet-bound society, but cut off from it by time-dilation and the effects of space. One of those effects is sterility, and since adaption to STL travel requires surgical procedures that only work on infants, new members must come from the planets. The unfortunate effect is that the only picture of Explorers which most of the planet-bound have is of people (physically distinctive) who show up every few decades and make off (adopt, buy, whatever) with babies. It's the stuff of which prejudice is born, and Explorers are finding it harder and harder to continue -- and too few of the planet-bound appreciate how important the expanding frontier is to their own well-being. (This book was reprinted as "Endless Universe", with a chunk added that was obviously edited out of "Endless Voyage." I preferred the edited version.)

Marion Zimmer Bradley is best known for her Darkover series. In a time over two millennia in the future, Earth is the center of a growing Terran Empire which is essentially a caricature of contemporary American society, with a few high-tech props -- ftl travel and communication, blasters, improved medicine -- thrown in when the plot requires and not otherwise. On the recently contacted planet Darkover, this culture clashes with what is effectively a sword-and-sorcery culture -- a low-tech society of high sophistication, ruled by telepaths whose psi-based technology which has seen better days.

(The Darkover novels have an extensive fan following. One might guess from this that they provide numerous niches for wish-fulfillment identification, and such a guess would be correct. As a world of telepaths, aristocrats, swords and psionic sorcery, women who are chattel and women have created their own society, and half a dozen or so nonhuman intelligent species at various levels of sophistication -- the most attractive of which is humanoid and hermaphroditic -- Darkover turned out to be tailor-made for fandom.)

Darkover has evolved through four 'generations' of writing. In the early sixties, Bradley published three novels which could be viewed as alternative rough drafts for Darkover. "Falcons of Narabedla" (*+) was a clone of Kuttner's "The Dark World", with a few elements added, and little of it has carried over. "The Door Through Space" (*+) was a novel of the Drytowns -- notable in the Darkover mythos as the culture in which women are chattel, and go chained -- written before Bradley decided to set the Drytowns on Darkover. "The Sword of Aldones" (**+) presented the first version of Darkover proper -- one which owed a debt of names and atmosphere to earlier writers such as Chambers and Moore.

The early Darkover is a science-fictionalization of the traditional sword-and-sorcery milieu. 'Sword', not because Darkover is incapable of deadlier weapons, but because they were outlawed by planet-wide Compact. 'Sorcery' in the form of powers bred into the ruling families. The families guard the remains of the old psi abilities and technologies, and some of their members provide services such as a telepathic communications network, small-scale telekinetic mining, and occasional weather control. The Terrans don't more than half-believe in these powers, but their cultural impact of the Terran presence upsets the old status quo, and makes it easier for old genies to slip their bottles: In "The Sword of Aldones", a telepathic aristocracy in disarray must combat what is functionally a once-banished demon working through a once-lost artifact.

The later sixties saw the publication of several sequels -- "The Planet Savers" (**) (in which the later-prominent Free Amazons were introduced), "Star of Danger" (**), "The Bloody Sun" (**), and "The Winds of Darkover" (**) (the last novel in which the notion that a man's desire constitute's a woman's responsibility is presented with a straight face). This chronology ended in "The World Wreckers" (**+), with the final destruction of the old Darkovan regime, and the possible establishment of a new one. "The World Wreckers" is probably more significant as the first Darkover novel whose target audience was not the traditional one of teenaged boys.

The seventies and early eighties were spent essentially (and sometimes literally) rewriting Darkover. Swords and sorcery took a back seat to women's issues, and fantasy-cliche customs which were throwaways in earlier books came in for more serious examination. (Not surprisingly, the transition was accompanied by some lamentation on the part of the outgoing target audience. The newer books represented much better writing than the earlier ones, but a book about women who have renounced the authority of men is obviously going to appeal to different needs and readers than a book about rival powers beyond this reality, manifesting themselves through dueling telepaths.) Among the key books of this period were:

"The Heritage of Hastur" (***). This initiated the revision of previously established Darkover continuity, and is a good entry point for new readers.

"Sharra's Exile" (***) is the revision of "The Sword of Aldones". It and "The Heritage of Hastur" constitute the core of the revised 'continuity'.

"The Shattered Chain" (***) is the book that brought the Free Amazons into the prominent position they were to occupy in the mythos. The Free Amazons are women who have formally forsworn both the rights and the obligation of Darkovan women's second-class status.

"Stormqueen!" (***) and "Hawkmistress" (***) fill in parts of Darkover's backhistory, focusing on a period when the telepathic powers were more widely used and misused.

"Thendara House" (***) and "City of Sorcery" (***) are novels of the Free Amazons, and 'modern' Darkover. They represent some of Bradley's stronger writing, but they are also novels that could be transplanted to a non-Darkovan milieu with little or no loss.

(Why don't I give these books ratings of ***+ or better if they represent the better works? I probably would, if they stood in isolation, but I find it harder to recommend a book that has a couple of dozen companions.)

I would suggest ignoring Darkover books written after "City of Sorcery" (1984). The Darkover of the last decade has been a playground for uninspired rehashes and for fan fiction -- much of it bad. The most recent Darkover novel, "Rediscovery" (*+), actually represents the handing over of this playground to new management.

If you are new to the Darkover novels, you might give them a try, starting with books I listed above. If reading some of those inspires you to seek out the other Darkover books, you'll find them easy to locate in used book stores. A perennial question of people who *do* wish to read on is in what order to read them. The most common answer -- and the best, to my mind -- is that people who wish to read systematically should read them in order of publication. Attempts to read the books in chronological order will be confounded by the multiple versions of some stories, by the evolution of the milieu, and by the evolution of the author's political stance.

There have been three Marion Zimmer Bradleys. First came the early Bradley, the writer of bad but promising adventure fiction, drawing upon a number of earlier writers (and her own reworkings thereof) for inspiration. I'd generally describe the early writing as being for completists only. Dishonorable mentions go to "The Brass Dragon" (with its amusing-at-the-time, funnier-in-retrospect Galactic Slide Rule), "The Parting of Arwen" (don't ask me where you can find a reprint, because I don't know) -- a short piece of bad Tolkien, and "The Colors of Space", juvenile sf originally published with blackmail-grade bad cover art.

Second, and peaking in the early eighties, came the mature author, with her own distinctive voice, generally choosing to write of and for women. Much of this writing tends -- for those to whom this matters -- not to work well as *sf/f*: Contemporary social debates are acted out with little regard for whether the milieu is supposed to be placed millennia in the past or millennia in the future. Both the skill and the content have appealed to a large fandom, however, so if you are unfamiliar with Marion Zimmer Bradley's writing, give some of these books a try. They may appeal to you, as well.

The Bradley of the past decade has been an editor and a mentor, more than an author. Her writing from this period is also of interest primarily to fans and completists.

Dani Zweig
And there is more to it than this, for dancing is practised to reveal whether lovers are in good health and sound of limb, and after which they are permitted to kiss their mistresses in order that they may touch and savour one another, thus to ascertain if they are shapely or emit an unpleasant odour as of bad meat. Therefore, from this standpoint, quite apart from the many other advantages to be derived from dancing, it becomes an essential in a well-ordered society. -- Thoinot Arbeau (1588)