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.


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