Wed
Mar 3 2010 12:04pm

“Where did he belong?”: Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Bloody Sun

The Bloody Sun (1964, rewritten 1979) is in many ways the most typical Darkover novel, and a very good place to start the series. Jeff Kerwin was born on Darkover, but grew up in an orphanage and then with his grandparents on Earth. He has never felt that he belongs anywhere and longs for acceptance. He can’t remember anything about his parents, but he wants to go back to Darkover to find out. Once on Darkover he discovers that everything is more complicated than he imagined, that he has psionic powers, that he’s desperately needed, and that nobody will tell him anything about his parents.

On the other hand, maybe it’s a terrible place to start reading. What I’ve said is true of both the original and the revised versions of the novel, but who he finds out he is, is completely different. And while the revised version is much better written, it’s also necessary to care about who Damon is, and who Dyan is, to get the most out of reading it. I’d recommend reading at least The Forbidden Tower first. There’s a lot of looking over the shoulder to other stories in this book, more than in any of the others I can think of. The original version was written early, and the later version after most of the others I’m re-reading. Jeff’s culture shock might make a good way in, but I think people are more likely to enjoy this after reading others.

There’s something odd about the pacing of the revised version. It’s much better written, and it’s consistent with all the others, but it’s got less momentum as a story than the original. There’s a way in which Bradley seems more interested in Cleindori’s story than in Jeff’s, and yet it’s Jeff’s story and discovery of who he is that she’s telling.

This is another book about a Keeper laying down her vows for love. Is this actually a theme? There’s quite a lot more about ritual virginity in these books than there is in most books.

It has always seemed to me that there ought to be a book between Star of Danger and this, about Kennard Alton’s life and love. We see him as a boy, and then as a middle-aged man, and in Heritage of Hastur as an old man. His actions and motives are central to The Bloody Sun making sense, and I’m not sure they quite hold their weight unless you’ve already read the other books.

Good magic

The whole thing with telepathy and the rather desperate need for a tower circle doesn’t hold together when you think about it, especially in the context of Cleindori, the Forbidden Tower, and matrix mechanics being licensed. You’d think they could get any of those people Jeff consults for Arilinn and they’d be as useful as Jeff. Also, the mining to prevent the people going to the Terrans—surely being able to do one off tricks like this can’t make any long term difference? It isn’t enough. But Bradley deals with the magic itself in a way that feels absolutely right—the magic makes emotional and metaphorical sense and is one of the best things about the book. These quibbles don’t occur to me while I’m reading it, only afterwards.

I’m not normally much for pseudoscience, I prefer my magic numinous. But I do think the treatment of laran in all the books, the way it’s divided into types, the gifts, the way it’s as much curse as gift, works extremely well. On the one hand, they’re red-headed telepathic aristocrats, good grief, and on the other, they’re people with duties and responsibilities and a weight of context that  make the whole thing seem solid. Because we so often see the laran as something people have to learn to cope with, the improbability of the matrices transforming thought into “energons” just slides past. While this is unquestionably magic with scientific and pseudoscientific terms used for it, I think it’s magic dealt with in a science-fictional rather than a fantastic way, and it’s this that puts the books on the fulcrum between genres, for me.

Bad science

I wince every time I read that Cottman IV, Darkover, is located between the upper and lower spiral arms of the galaxy and that the Empire therefore needs a spaceport there as a hub. What does that even mean? Every time I read about this I keep trying to picture the galaxy and gritting my teeth. The upper and lower spiral arms are not... conveyer belts. Or highways. What’s in between them isn’t one convenient world like an airport hub but the core of the galaxy.

Less culpably, I found myself frowning over the description of the computer. It didn’t seem quite right. It has memory banks that can be tampered with, but it’s in one place and you have to go to it, you put physical stuff in and get physical stuff out—I was picturing a PC and getting confused, but this is quite unfair, in 1964 or even 1979 this was a perfectly good extrapolation. This is also a future we didn’t have, one with spaceships and a galactic empire but no internet.

The Terrans, in addition to having a Galactic Empire run by rigid 1950s bureaucrats, also have a weird longterm plot against Darkover. Generally the books are more balanced than this and show something good about the Terrans—here it’s all whores and guns and rules and spying. Oh well.


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.

12 comments
Liza .
1. aedifica
I wonder which version I read! I hadn't realized there were two.
David Goldfarb
2. David_Goldfarb
The revised version was the first Darkover novel I read, and it worked just fine as a gateway for me.
Marc Rikmenspoel
3. Marc Rikmenspoel
I think tying in Cleindori's story was a good later addition. It gives the book more weight, and makes it feel closer to the more substantial 70s Darkover books, rather than the less-ambitious 60s ones.

I liked this one a lot, as it wasn't as heavy and dense a reading experience as some of the other Darkover works, yet still had some heft thanks to the re-write. My Grandma liked it too, back in the day ;-)
Gray Woodland
4. Greyhame
I didn't know there were two versions, either.

The slim version I read in my salad days, at a time not too far removed from my introduction to Leigh Brackett with The Ginger Star. I completely failed to make any nontrivial connection. The respective memory impressions went like this:

The Ginger Star: I don't remember much about the plot, but I never forgot the central character or the vividness of the imagery. I can't even think about it today without feeling the chill, and the queer mind of Eric John Stark, and the heat of dog's breath on my skin.

The Bloody Sun: Something happens on Darkover, where some Terrans are up to something.

It was a big-time disappointment - with that particular title, I'd expected something pivotal, and what I got seemed scanty and ho-hum. I'm pretty sure, especially given what I hear here, that if I do come back to it, it'll be via the rewrite. I'm curious as to what she made of it, this second time.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Greyhame: If you remember who he found out he was in the original, reading the new version is a little disconcerting, as what he finds out is all different -- but much more consistent with The Forbidden Tower.
Arthur D. Hlavaty
7. supergee
Hal Clement used to do a one-hour presentation at Darkovercons on everything that's astronomically wrong with Darkover.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Supergee: I wish I could have heard that! I don't mind the four moons of four different colours that rise and set as poetically appropriate and are all in the sky together twice a year. I can see how some people might, but I have no problem with them. But that statement about the spiral arms just grates.
Maiane Bakroeva
9. Isilel
Who did Jeff used to be in the original? The re-write was my first Darkover book and I loved it. Of course, the whole "we have so few telepaths and we need _you_" thing was then re-used ad nauseum and what, with all those many pure Terrans suddenly exhibiting laran made less and less sense the more Darkover books one read...
Also, one can't help but think that either Terran medicine or Darkovan magical healing should have solved the problem long ago.
Marc Rikmenspoel
10. cofax
Who did Jeff used to be in the original?

I *think* I read the original novel, back in 1979/1980 or so. (The cover was certainly not the one Jo has posted on the top of this entry.) In which Jeff eventually discovers that he's ... argh. One of the children of the Forbidden Tower, right? Is he Cleindori's son? There's a whole thing about riots and the Tower burning/falling.

So is Jeff more important in the revised version, or less?

Man, these entries take me back: Darkover was my fandom when I was in high school, and while I haven't read any of them in years, they really clung to me and shaped me in a lot of ways.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Cofax, Isilel: IIRC In the original he's the son of Cleindori and... someone else, a Ridenow. In the revised version he's the son of Kennard Alton's elder brother Damon. In other words, in the first version he's a Darkovan, but just any old laran-gifted Darkovan. In the new version, he's heir to a Domain.
Marc Rikmenspoel
12. Jannils
The original version of this one was my intro to Darkover, and as such it worked well enough to thoroughly pull me in. I read the rewrite a few years later and ... could see how it was written better, but didn't love it as much, and felt like it had loss focus a little.

Of course, then I went back in my 30s and reread the original version, and was amazed at just how dated it felt, and at how much not-so-subtle sexism was there, including (especially?) in Jeff's creepily possessive attitudes toward the Keeper. (Whose name I'm blanking on.) That all went right past me during my first reading.
Vicki Rosenzweig
13. vicki
My memory says Damon Ridenow, but I haven't looked at any of the books in at least a decade.

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