Mon
Mar 1 2010 10:36am

Telepathy and polyamory: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Forbidden Tower

The Forbidden Tower (1977) is the sequel to The Spell Sword (1974) and they’re in print in one volume as The Forbidden Circle. As with the Renunciates books, but even more so, this pair is an adventure story followed by a slow reflective consideration of the consequences of that adventure on the participants, with an afterthought of an action plot pinned on. In The Spell Sword Andrew Carr, a Terran who grew up on a ranch on Earth, comes unexpectedly into telepathic contact with Callista, the Keeper of Arilinn, who was captured by nonhuman catmen. They fall in love. At the same time Damon Ridenow, a telepath, soldier and younger son, falls in love with Callista’s sister Ellemir and organizes the exterior side of the war with the Catmen. In The Forbidden Tower, the four of them deal with their personal issues. It’s a book about marriage between four telepaths with cultural, magical and sexual issues. It’s a book that feels surprisingly honest and it works surprisingly well.

I think The Spell Sword would be a reasonable place to start the series and discover the world, but if you read The Forbidden Tower without having read it first I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have any problems working out what had happened. They are written in very different registers.

One thing I noticed, going from the Renunciates books to these, is how very much these are books about the men. Although Callista and Ellemir (and Leonie Hastur) are important characters, we see them through the eyes of the men who love them. This is primarily a story about Terran Andrew coming to love Darkover and Darkovan customs (like wife-sharing and not being homophobic) and we’re only told how the women feel from outside.

In the broader story of Darkover, these are set at the same time as the Renunciate books and a generation before The Bloody Sun. The significant thing that’s going on is the beginning of matrix work being done outside the towers—teaching it to ordinary people who have laran, and using it to help ordinary people. The bit at the end of Thendara House that deals with the Forbidden Tower people concentrates on this acpect of what they’re doing. But The Forbidden Tower is a book about marriage and culture shock, and all of this is very much secondary—for most of the book it’s barely on stage.

There’s a plot, which has to do with Dezi, and unauthorized and irresponsible use of laran. Bradley remembers it just enough to keep it ticking over with events and a climactic battle. And there’s the real plot, which has to do with relaxing Callista’s programmed frigidity and Andrew coming to terms with what life on Darkover means. The (literal) climax to this second story is a little hurried.

I didn’t read these books as a teenager. (They mostly didn’t have British editions.) I read the whole lot of them in about a week in 1987 when I was storing some books for a friend, in old yellow-spined DAW copies. I therefore came to The Forbidden Tower long after reading Heinlein’s take on polyamory in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and elsewhere. It wasn’t a new idea to me. Even though this is from the men’s point of view, it struck me then as a much more female angle on the issue, and a much more realistic one—Andrew at least finds it a culturally unusual thing and has problems with jealousy and understanding where the emotional lines are. It’s still idealised—and she’s quite sure telepathy would help, which I think reflects a touching faith in human nature. I think telepathy would make relationships almost impossible. But this is an interesting exploration of a subject that isn’t written about much at all.

Trivia question: What happened to all their children, as referenced at the end of Thendara House? We know about Cassilde and Cleindori, and that’s all. Valdir is Kennard’s father. Presumably one of their children is the father of Gabriel Lanart-Hastur in Heritage of Hastur, and perhaps one of them is Danilo’s mother?


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.

20 comments
David Dyer-Bennet
1. dd-b
"Telepathy" doesn't have any clear-cut meaning, not even within our genre (where it's perhaps used most). It's used to describe everything from "mental radio" (completely consciously controlled exchange of information) to a complete melding of beings ("hive minds" and the like), with widely varying levels of conscious control. A Lensman, according to Virgil Samms, cannot lie with his mind (which leaves me wondering how Kinnison got on with Alcon of Thrale's chief advisor for as long as he did), but Marc C. Duquesne *can* (though it's treated as unusual).

A society that evolved among telepathic beings (of some particular specification) would probably be in many ways different from any human society; the details depending among other things on the exact rules of their telepathy.

It seems to me that some versions of telepathy would be very useful for dispelling the sort of jealousy based on doubts about whether a partner "really loves you" that's common in human societies. This might be very useful for some people first encountering polyamory.

And in fact the telepathy granted by laran, as I remember it from long ago, is of that type.
Elizabeth Coleman
2. elizabethcoleman
I'd actually forgotten about the polyamory in these books. I'm surprised I took that stuff for granted when I was a teen. Now that I think about it, I seem to remember Two To Conquer had an MMF relationship. Okay, I do need to reread these for myself.

Yeah, I don't think telepathy would be a good idea in relationships. Empathy, yes. Telepathy, no. (With the exception of babies. Dear god, telepathy would be nice when confronting a screaming infant.)
Lsana
3. Lsana
Have you ever read George RR Martin's novella "A Song for Lya"? That has a rather interesting take on the idea of relationships between telepaths. On the one hand, telepaths know each other far more intimately than normals can, so perhaps their love is deeper. On the other hand, telepaths know each other a little too intimately: Lya points out that she knows her partner's fantasies exactly and always does everything she can to fulfill them because she wants to please. It leaves her wondering, however, if he would still love the "real" her who didn't fulfill his fantasies.

I'm summarizing it rather badly, but it's a very good take on the "telepaths in love" idea.
Liza .
4. aedifica
About a year ago I was re-reading a lot of the Darkover novels and I noticed several of them were variations on "Terran male comes to Darkover, feels unexpectedly drawn to Darkover/Darkovan society, has to come to terms with his Terran sexual jealousy which is out of place in Darkovan culture." I thought it was well done here, but by the time I had read it three more times in some of the other books it got a little old! (And it made me start to think Ann'dra was unique in being a Terran who wasn't secretly Darkovan or half-Darkovan by birth--unless I've misremembered and he was too?)

I really like this book, though--it's one of my favorite of the series, along with the Renunciates books.
Maiane Bakroeva
5. Isilel
I actually read this after "The Bloody Sun" and it really crystallized something I can't stand about MZB's Darkover Oeuvre - namely the bait and switch.
Almost every book has a more or less happy ending that promises some progress, new development in this society, whatever.
But then the (loose) sequel comes around and we invariably learn that everything is back to square one, with stock Terran and Drakovan attitudes and all those hopeful things from chronologically earlier installment coming to nothing. This really spoiled the setting for me.

Also, I don't find it very believable that all those many characters going native, both men and women, would miss the undeniable advantages Terran civilization has, despite it's many problems, so little.
Bradley really should have decided how well laran Healing works too (among other things) and stuck to it.
But she wanted to have her miracle cures and yet have the "brutal, nasty and short" vibe even for her aristocracy, alas, and thus produced a ton of contradictions.
Lsana
6. Doug M.
Jo, you said you didn't go in for biographical criticism. And that's okay. But I do think a discussion of the whole "gay-friendly Darkover vs. homophobic Terra" thing benefits from at least a passing awareness of Bradley's personal life. She was, depending on who you talk to, either gay or bi, and she was married for almost 20 years to a gay man. She started off in the closet and spent a couple of decades cautiously sidling out*; he, well, that's a story. Let's say his orientation led to serious problems and leave it at that for now.

Darkover's lack of homophobia thus smacks somewhat of authorial wish-fulfillment /not that there's anything wrong with that/. Which, in turn, goes a ways towards explaining the bait-and-switch described at #5, above. Darkover can change in some ways -- the spread of matrix technology, and such -- but insofar as it's a wish-fulfillment fantasy, it can't really change. A hostile interpretation would be something like "Darkover has to stay a place where beautiful, special, talented people can work out their very special problems without being hassled by mundane concerns and retrograde sexual hangups". A more charitable one might say that Darkover partakes somewhat of the nature of Oz and other wish-fulfillment fantasy lands: it's about voyages of inner discovery and the exploration of wild possibilities and new ways of being.

That said, there are certain sorts of changes that just can't happen on Darkover. Steve Brust has a Marxist revolution in the Vlad Taltos series; even though it fails, the fact of its happening says a great deal about that world. I don't think that's an option in Darkover.

Someone pointed out in the last thread that, in the early books, Terran culture is portrayed in a consistently negative. I wonder if that's not because, in the early books, it's a stand-in for an all-too-hostile Real World. But whether things changed because the real world gradually grew less gay-hostile, or just because she got interested in the possibilities of a more nuanced culture clash, I couldn't begin to guess.


Doug M.

*based on ~20 year old conversations with fans who were in or near that circle; consistent with the public record, but if anyone knows better, please step in.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Aedifica: No, Andrew Carr remains nothing but a Terran, and good for him.
Tony Zbaraschuk
8. tonyz
I wouldn't mind some biographical commentary in this case, though perhaps it should wait for Heritage of Hastur.

Of all the Darkover books, I think that Forbidden Tower may be my favorite, because -- looking back now -- most of the characters are sane (and even Leonie has reasons for being the way she is), it comes to a reasonably happy ending, and I read it at the Golden Age of SF (early teen), when it was a neat exploration of what telepathy/empathy/whatever might be. And I like Andrew and Damon and Callista and Ellemir; they're all people in a somewhat hard situation trying to make a life, not to emote drama and do stupid things (like Lew Alton) and they're not in a Wagnerian tragedy (like some of the Ages of Chaos novels -- Stormqueen, I'm looking at you).

For me, the Terran Empire never seemed like a Nasty Place; it was just relatively normal if sometimes a bit clueless, and Darkover was the strange and weird place that needed to grow up (even if there were dreadful skeletons lurking in its closet). There were things the Terrans had that Darkover could learn from, and vice versa; ideally it would be an eventual symbiosis (though I have no idea where the books have gone since City of Sorcery, which was throughly awful.)
Fragano Ledgister
9. Fledgist
Darkover has some truly complex sexual mores and practices. Telepaths in the towers are polyamorous. The aristocracy have very aristocratic marriages di catenas (deriving, very obviously, given the ancestry she gives Darkovans, from the Spanish cadena,"chain"). The Renunciates have free relationships which may be straight or gay, and some Renunciates undergo surgery which alters them physically making them, among other things, infertile.

The Dry Towns, now...
Lsana
10. Marc Rikmenspoel
The Spell Sword was the first Darkover novel I ever read, back around 1986, when I was around 16. I read The Forbidden Tower soon after, and found its issues thought provoking to my developing young mind.

I liked how these books came to essentially happy endings, since there's so much tragedy in most Darkover books. And I seem to recall that Bradley wrote more believable male characters (at least in these two books) than did many other female authors (notwithstanding that many male authors write unconvincing female characters, but that's a separate issue).
Maiane Bakroeva
11. Isilel
Tonyz:

Yes, ideally there would be a symbiosis, but the way Bradley was going about it was to have a hard reset after every book that lead in that direction, so that in the next installment Terran and Darkoverian attitudes would be back to square one.
When read in internal chronology, every multi-volume storyline is a tragedy, really, because every development runs into sand.

For instance, Forbidden Tower - The Bloody Sun - Lew Alton books.

That program of finding laran-gifted Terrans started in the end of, I think "The World Wreckers"? Abandoned and forgotten by the time next installment rolled in. Etc, etc.

The new laran techniques and the new ways of organizing a "tower" worked out in "The Forbidden Tower"? Ditto, of course. Etc, etc.

I used to read a lot of Bradley's Darkover, haphazardly, but once it became clear to me how utterly futile anything achieved in an individual book turns out to be and that happy endings are basically lies, I abandoned it.

Another thing that was quite jarring is that she uses Darkover as "that magical place", yes, but also as a patriarchal hell-hole. She has miracle cures and other fantastic things achieved with laran, yet also mortality among the aristocracy incompatible with these cures and women who use laran to mine metals (!) unable to use it for self-defense.
One would have thought that laran being so vital for the survival of their civilization would have resulted in the Tower mentality spreading among the population, rather than vice versa, but no. Etc, etc.
Gray Woodland
12. Greyhame
It's been ever so long since I read any Darkover, but this is one of the ones that's always stayed with me. At least from this vantage, it remains my favourite.

Confirming your intuition, I read and enjoyed it without having read The Spell Sword or even ever heard of it. Didn't hurt the experience at all.

I picked this one up at fifteen or thereabouts, and it blew my mind on several levels. Besides its structure and pace - which were new to me in anything I actually enjoyed reading - the treatment of marriage, homoeroticism, and polyamory was a revelation. Since even by teenage boy standards I was quite uncommonly screwed-up about sex at the time, vehement book-hurl ought to have been a certainty.

Somehow it didn't happen, and I just got drawn deeper in. And when I put it down at the end - that end! - I remember thinking something like, "Hey! I believe in those people, and by gosh do I like them. More things in Heaven and Earth, I reckon."

Which was one small step in my mental education, and a considerably larger one in my visceral. A body don't forget a book like that.

One day I shall read it again. I hope it's at least half as good as I remember...
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Grayhame: Any book that does that is a good book.
Lsana
14. GregJ
Isilel: Your response to the series (i.e., the "restting" of the Darkover/Terran conflict in each book) interests me.

I've always thought that one of the key themes in the Darkover books involves how individuals accommodate the demands of social responsibility with the longing for personal happiness. (It's one of the issues that makes Jacqueline Lichtenberg's "Unto Zeor, Forever" a favorite re-read, even if the execution is bumpy.) The Terra/Darkover cultural conflict seems merely a context to explore the problem of whether the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. In fact, the ephemeral nature of personal happiness just makes the socially-responsible choices most of the characters make more poignant. (I think that's why the lack of social progress after each book doesn't disturb me -- and why the books written after MZB's death don't interest me: too Mary Sue.)


Now, of course, we can question whether the socially-responsible choices really were responsible -- or whether they encouraged social stagnation. But, perhaps, we can wait for the discussion of "Heritage of Hastur".
Lsana
15. OtterB
Huh. Interesting how many people are particularly fond of Forbidden Tower. I recall finding it ... how shall I put this ... bordering on the pornographic, where plot devices seemed to exist only to let the author talk a lot about sex in many variations. I can't remember when I read it, but I think it was shortly before I cut way back on reading SFF for a few years in favor of mysteries and romances, so it wasn't just that I didn't want s*x in my books. ;-) I'll have to give it another try and see if my opinion has changed.
Lsana
16. jannils
I read The Forbidden Tower first, and had no trouble at all following the story--the only downside was that The Spell Sword seemed to suffer a bit for being read second, as it really is just (as I recall) a straight-up adventure story.
Gray Woodland
17. Greyhame
Jo @ 13: Very true, but I'm greedy - I want it to be as good, even now when I'm so different. Some books look much better from here and some look worse, and I'd really like for this one to read at least at par with memory. Eh well, only one way to find out.

GregJ @ 14 - Yes. I can't comment at this distance about the clumsiness or elegance of the resets, but the whole "It ain't a happy ending unless it changed the world for good" vibe really doesn't sit well with me. A heroic success offering great promise for the future remains happy even if two generations later the promise is all spent. Or sooner. Are there no happy endings in all Arthuriana, because at the end of all lay Camlann field and the long night?

OtterB @ 15: The only problem I now have with pornography is its unhappy tendency to be dull, mean, false, and contemptful. When I first read FT, I had a very strong and somewhat justified bias towards assuming that any sexually frank story would feel like that, with extra ick if the sexuality explored was 'abnormal', i.e. most stuff. I got a serious and salutary jolt from discovering that such need not be the case.

There's no less reason to write a good story to explore variations on sex, than there is to explore variations on friendship, or hospitality, or alienation. People bend plot to those things all the time without copping half the criticism for it. Not that you sound as if you'd have any more patience for that - mystery being the king of plot, and all - but the double version of the standard is still running very wild and free out there.
Lsana
18. Amy Goldschlager
Nope, Danilo's mother was one of Kyril Ardais's illegitimate kids--that's how Danilo ends up as Heir to Ardais. However, his father Felix was Colin Syrtis and Hilary Castamir-Syrtis' son. (Hilary and Colin were at the outskirts of the Forbidden Tower, and Colin also fathered Magda Lorne's daughter Shaya.) I read all of these books and paid way, way, way, too much attention to genealogy. But it really is important to the plots of the books.
Lsana
19. jungle Gringo
I read Darkover as a young teen and really enjoyed it but never read Forbidden Tower.
Now in my 60's I decided to experience the nostalgia by rereading the series.
IMHO. Forbidden tower could have been skipped !!!
It read more like a Harlequin romance.
I was bored to tears..... a lot of repetition Talking about padding a book !!
Andrew came off as a small child. He was warned constantly about the intimacy with Calli but like a child needed to express his macho. the same scenes over and over. geesh !!!
I wish Ms. Bradley realized that she had male readers too and did a little less of venting her personal frustrations on her male readers.
Enuff said.
She is still one of the great S/f writers of all time
This written with total respect.
Lsana
20. Dr. Thanatos
Interesting books, although I tended to like the more apocalyptic ones involving Guest Appearances by Al "the Enforcer" Dones and such.

Regarding telepathy and mental honesty: In the world of EE Smith, the Lensmen thought a lot of things like "no one can lie mind to mind" and "no one can overcome a resistant will." And yet this was clearly and repeatedly shown to be untrue. I picture the Arisians saying "yep, keep thinking that; makes our jobs much easier tricking you doofuses into doing our work for us..."

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