Feb 24 2010 2:36pm

Culture clash on the borders of genres: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series

Marion Zimmer Bradley worked on books set on Darkover pretty much her whole life. They vary tremendously in quality, they also cover a huge range of styles and subjects. Some of them contradict each other, and some of the early ones were rewritten to agree with later ones. She opened the universe up to her friends and published anthologies of multi-author stories. After she died she left plans for future books, which are still being written. Her web page lists them in publication and internal chronological order and with their various different titles.

Darkover is a cold, dark planet that was settled by a lost colony ship of Spanish and Scots Gaelic speakers who interbred with the psionic natives to produce a red-haired psychic aristocracy called Comyn who began a breeding program for psychic talents while the planet regressed to medieval technology. (I’m simplifying.) After the Terran Empire came back into contact with Darkover, things got interestingly complicated. Most of the best Darkover books are about culture clashes between Terrans and Darkovans who each have something to learn from the other. They’re science fiction—they have space ships and a galactic empire. They’re fantasy—they have people doing out and out magic. But the magic is always talked about in scientific (or, at worst, pseudo-scientific) terms, and while it certainly impossible it is rigorously worked out and deeply integrated into the culture.

Because Bradley started thinking about the world when she was fifteen, it has some absurdities and some things that someone older might have thought better of. But because she worked on the world so long it developed something like an actual organic history. It started from adventure stories and sprouted realistic stories in the corners, sometimes with an adventure plot grafted on in the last couple of chapters. She lived through second phase feminism and started to re-examine gender relationships in Darkover, she met gay people and started to re-examine same sex relationships there. She wrote about rebels and conformists, people re-examining the world, aristocrats, peasants, people of early eras and late ones, and most of all she wrote about families and culture clashes. What they’re like is a family saga—I can’t think of anything else in SF or Fantasy that’s quite like this, covering generations in a way where you could write the family tree.

These books are not really what I would call good, but they have a compulsive quality that makes it hard for me to read just one of them. I can ignore them for years at a time, and I’m not reading the new ones. But when I do pick up one of the old ones I get sucked into the world and want to read more and more of them in that cookie-grabbing way.

I’m going to do a typical rambling re-read. I have read them all in order of internal chronology, and I have read them all in publication order, but I’m not doing either of those sensible things this time. I picked up The Shattered Chain because I was was thinking about heroine’s journeys, and I’m going on from there. I’m not going to read the ones I don’t like, and I’m going to stop when I’ve had enough.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. Lsana
Marion Zimmer Bradley has always been one of those authors that I really want to like. I respect her as one of the great female pioneers in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I think her writings on the roles of women in fantasy are some of the best I've seen: she manages to get at the problems without ever sounding preachy or like a man-hating feminazi.

And yet every time I try to read something of hers, it falls flat. Mists of Avalon was about 700 pages too long. I couldn't get past the first few pages of Firebrand. And Darkover Landfall produced a reaction of "Who cares?"

I'm a bit short of reading material, so I may try again. Do you have any suggestions of good ones to start with?
Elizabeth Coleman
2. elizabethcoleman
Yay! The Darkover books are quite possibly my primary writing influence. I love that sort of sprawling worldbuilding. I've also been afraid to go back and re-read them, for fear that they'll actually suck, since I haven't read them since I was a teenager.
Chuk Goodin
3. Chuk
I had a couple of people really enthusiastically pitch the Darkover books to me and as I was dating one of them, I did give them a try. I kind of like them, but it feels like they should be better. (I do have a bias for books with psychic powers in them, which is why I kept on.) Not sure exactly how far I got, I definitely read several of the novels (although I swear two of them were the same story with a different title) and some of the short story anthologies.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Lsana: I hate Mists of Avalon myself. I'll have a post on The Shattered Chain probably tomorrow, that's a good place to start. Or Hawkmistress, which is a standalone early example of girl-disguised-as-boy.
Debbie Solomon
5. dsolo
Chuk @ 3 - It's entirely possible that you read the same story under different titles. "Sword of Aldones" was one of her earliest Darkover stories, and she later revised/rewrote it as "Sharra's Exile".

I love the Darkover series, but the writing varies. The world building is not as complex as LOTR or WoT, but it's not the same kind of world. Her people are colonists stranded on a world they were not intended for and the culture that grows up from an advanced civilization forced back to primitive survival methods, with psychic powers enhanced by local flora. The best of her stories deal with interactions between the descendants of the original colonists, who had their own brutal past involving psychic weapons and their rediscovery by the Terran empire. Their main thrust is not to allow the Terrans to discover their abilities and exploit them. Add into that all the lost knowledge, hidebound traditions and class separation of a semi-feudal society. The Comyn are both privileged and trapped by their abilities. A small gene pool at the time of the initial landing forced women to become breeding stock, whether they wanted to or not. She addresses many different social issues from the perspective of the era she was writing them in - women's rights, homosexuality, parenting, surrogates, etc. Most of the short story anthologies are written by fans of the series, and selected by MZB. They don't have to be read in order, so I recommend starting with "Heritage of Hastur" or "The Bloody Sun". Two of my personal favorites are "The Forbidden Tower" and "The Shattered Chain".
Elizabeth Coleman
6. elizabethcoleman
I didn't like Mists of Avalon much, either. I actually seem to remember seeing MZB say somewhere that she was surprised at Mists of Avalon's success, since she didn't think it was one of her better written works.
The Darkover books exist mainly as a big melty soup in my brain, so I don't remember individual books too well. But I do remember Heritage of Hastur, and recommend it as a first time read.
7. Foxessa
I initially liked the Darkover series tremendously. As time went on I liked it less. Then the books got to the point where something seriously creepy seemed to be going on, and it had to do with females as victims of some sort. But I never parsed it out because I stopped reading. Why read what makes you feel kinda unclean?

Now that may well have just been a phase of my own, and have nothing to do with the books at all. But as I'd outgrown them anyway, I'll never know for sure because I cannot get myself to re-read these books.
8. nlowery71
I only wish it were summer, so I had time to reread these along with you!

I reread The Mists of Avalon a couple years ago and was surprised at how much I liked it. I think I liked it better than I did at 15, but maybe that was just low expectations.

But Darkover -- Darkover was a huge influence on me as a teen. They are so different than most of what you find today, so thorny and dark and really weird. But taken as a whole, so richly imagined. Some books defy quality and just live in their own space.
9. tariqata
I think Jo's post really sums up what I feel about the Darkover books. I first read them in my early teens, and as I've grown up, the inconsistent writing (not to mention the incredibly painful writing in some of the books that were completed after Bradley's death) has become much more noticeable - but I still find something about the world and (many of) the characters really compelling.

(The Renunciates trilogy, along with Hawkmistress, are the Darkover books I most enjoyed as a kid and still re-read occasionally!)
10. OtterB
I really enjoyed The Heritage of Hastur. I liked The Shattered Chain pretty well, but Thendara House even more. Others I never really got into. They're downstairs on the "I liked this enough that I'm not going to get rid of it even if I haven't reread it for years" shelf; I'll have to pull them out again some time.
11. Foxessa
BTW, anyone notice that in Season 4 of The Sopranos (2002), Tony Soprano's wife, Carmela, throws The Mists of Avalon across the bedroom?
12. musicalcolin
I haven't read any of MZB's books in many years, but I remember that I stopped reading them because of, what I perceived, as freaky gender relations. Like other commenters have stated Darkover (and really all of Bradley's books) seem like the sorts of things I should like: melding of fantasy and sf, cool psionic powers, etc; however when I would read them I was really turned off. This is how I remember the gender relations: All of Bradley's books that I read featured really strong female protagonists who were way to willful for their milieu; then an even stronger and more willful man would show up who the woman would inevitable fall in love with, and thus be calmed down.

Am I completely misremembering?
Kendall Bullen
13. kendallpb
I look forward to your posts about Darkover books!

I read most (if not all) of the ones by MZB herself, and some of the anthologies, starting with the SFBC omnibus that combined The Heritage of Hastur and Sharra's Exile. As a then-closeted bi guy, it was great to read F/SF books with sympathetic (and not-so-sympathetic) GLBT characters (though this was far from the only reason I liked the books).

So, yeah--an old favorite I haven't read in eons; I should re-read them, too. I'm one of the few (it seems) who still loves old favorites, even if they "don't hold up." Once enjoyable, always enjoyable to me.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
MusicalColin: Some of them are like that, and some of them are very much not. And you have to remember when they were written.
15. Marc Rikmenspoel
I read some Darkover novels over 20 years ago, and quite enjoyed them. I passed some along to my grandma, and she liked them too. I didn't continue with them because my interests are more in fiction with military themes, and I only had so much time available. But I still have a dozen or so Darkover volumes in a box here somewhere.

In the late 1980s, Ace issued a combined edition of The Planet Savers (a very early-written adventure tale) and The Sword of Aldones (a more ambitious story, conceived early, and rewritten for publication somewhat later, and as mentioned above, eventually revised into Sharra's Exile). This included a fascinating essay by Bradley, circa 1979, on how the books unintentionally became a series. She explains how the pulpy early stories were gradually succeeded by the deeper ones, starting with The Heritage of Hastur.

Around the time of that double edition, Ace also released a revised text of The Bloody Sun. That revision was later reissued by Daw, and used copies are around from both publishers. I think that version of The Bloody Sun is a good starting place for those new to Darkover. The book has more depth than other early stories of that world, but can easily be read with no prior knowledge of the setting.

I too look forward to following along this reread of parts of tje series, thanks Jo!
16. Doug M.

Would a discussion of the books entail a discussion of Zimmer Bradley's idiosyncratic personal life?

Because a discussion without it would be kinda incomplete. To give just one example, Darkover Landfall reads very differently if you know the author was married to Walter Breen.

On the other hand, discussions involving Walter Breen have been problematic for (checks calendar) going on 50 years now. So maybe not.

Doug M.
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
Doug M: I generally prefer to avoid biographical criticism, even with dead authors, unless it really illuminates the books.
18. Doug M.
It's a judgment call.

That said, there's a lot to work with. She had a complicated life, and she put a fair amount of it into her fiction.

I haven't reread these books since forever, though, so I won't have much to say about it anyhow.

Doug M.
19. Darwinista
I never made it through a Darkover book. I think I tried Heritage of Hastur a couple of times. I enjoyed Mists of Avalon enough to write my honors thesis comparing it to the Morte D'Arthur, examining how it attempts to view the legend through a contemporary feminist lens with interesting although maybe not entirely successful results. I haven't picked it up since because I fear it won't age well. I enjoyed some of MZB's work on Thieves World, too.

I will say that she wrote some of the sweetest rejection notes. I still have one.
Tony Zbaraschuk
20. tonyz
It's been a while since I read them; I wonder if they would seem as interesting now as when I collected the whole set (at least up to about 1990; I haven't collected most of the others). Some of them are definitely lightweight, even to a teenager; others are fairly heavy-duty novels -- Forbidden Tower and Heritage of Hastur being perhaps the best of them, IMO.
21. Walter Underwood
Lsana: Bad luck in the novels you chose. I could barely get started in Mists of Avalon, and Darkover Landfall is an origin story that doesn't share the feudal society of the main sequence of Darkover stories.

A friend got me started with The Spell Sword and The Forbidden Tower. The first is an outsider slowly understanding Darkover, a classic way to get into a world. The Forbidden Tower is one of the best of the Darkover books.

If that doesn't do it for you, then maybe Darkover isn't for you.
David Dyer-Bennet
22. dd-b
I enjoyed the Darkover novels around the Heritage of Hastur period (making me in my 20s). I don't think I've touched them since, though, and I never branched out to any other Bradley stories (perhaps it's just as well, since from everything I heard from people, Mists of Avalon was truly horrid).

Definitely fantasy, despite the StFnal trappings in some of the books.
23. Melinda M. Snodgrass
The Darkover books are my guilty pleasure. The writing is indifferent, but she told such ripping good tales, she created memorable and likable characters, and I loved the world. Just as I wanted to visit Barsoom I would love to go to Darkover. And I'm a redhead of Scottish descent so they speak to me. :) One of my favorites is The Forbidden Tower.
24. MatthewMalthouse
Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover is, I think, the only series I recommend people read in publication order rather than by internal chronology.

This is because if the reader can appreciate the early written books they'll cruise through the rest with pleasure. Introduced to the later work the others could come as a deep dispoaintment.

In addition although there are some clear links very few of the books rely on sequential reading, it's a realtively small world and you can build your picture of it from almost any point.

A postive advantage of that reading order is that you can clearly see the development of the writer: and as to that I would contest JW's opinion about whether they are "good". No, perhaps not as a whole but the later works have their own literary merits.

Oh, and Darkover is definitely one of the worlds I had a deep wish to visit, prefereably if endowed with some suitably awsome laran powers. :)

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