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Endless Voyage, Marion Zimmer Bradley

March 20, 2013

endlessEndless Voyage, Marion Zimmer Bradley (1975)
Review by Ian Sales

Although strongly linked with fantasy – her most famous novel is the Arthurian fantasy The Mists of Avalon; and between 1988 and 1999 a fantasy magazine bore her name – Marion Zimmer Bradley is also well-known for science fiction, particularly her Darkover series. Between 1958 and her death in 1999, and over twenty-three novels and a number of short stories, two share-cropped trilogies and eleven anthologies, she wrote of events on a pseudo-feudal planet inhabited by several alien races and ruled by telepaths. She did also write other works of science fiction, and Endless Voyage is one of these. Originally published as the third book in Ace’s second series of Ace SF Specials, Endless Voyage was later revised and expanded under the title Endless Universe.

In the universe of Endless Voyage, a vast number of human-populated worlds are stitched together by Transmitters, which allow instantaneous travel across light-years. But the process requires Transmitters at both ends, and so virgin worlds must be reached the old-fashioned way. By spaceship. This is what the Explorers do. And when they find suitable worlds, they build a new Transmitter and open the world for settlement. Then a year or two later, they head off to find another virgin planet…

All this travelling through space means the Explorers experience years while decades pass for the planet-bound who travel by Transmitter. This has made a breed apart of them, as the narrator of Endless Voyage, Gildoran, ruminates in the novel’s first chapter. Occasionally, even Explorers decide to settle down and, within the space of a dozen pages, Gildoran mourns a failed relationship with a planet-bound woman, a fellow Explorer who chose to settle down on a planet, and a young man who saves him from a tricky and violent situation but is too old to join Gildoran’s ship, Gypsy Moth.

A protagonist who belongs to special group may be a science fiction staple, particularly of the genre’s early decades, but one or two artistic decisions made by Bradley regarding her Explorers are questionable. For instance, a life in space renders the Explorers sterile, so they must steal or buy babies from inhabited worlds. They prefer to buy, of course – though apparently selling babies is considered perfectly normal, and is done through businesses called “hatcheries”, where infants are picked out like supermarket produce. Not all such babies survive their early years aboard an Explorer ship – some even die, of mysterious causes, during their first launch. Those that do live are looked after by “Poohbears”, large ursine aliens about which the Explorers know nothing and are remarkably incurious.

Space radiation [sic] has also made the Explorers pale of skin, with white hair, irrespective of their original colouring. Perhaps thirty-five years ago, no sf reader would have remarked on a novel featuring special snowflakes who are distinguished by being white, but these days it is no longer acceptable. While some people of colour are mentioned in the story – including “big red men from Antares and small bluish men from Aldebaran” (p8)! – Endless Voyage is the story of the crew of Gypsy Moth

After some initial chapters introducing the set-up and characters, the Explorer ship discovers a new seemingly idyllic world and lands to investigate it. But, of course, nothing is as it appears, and the world proves as deadly as it is Edenic. It takes a while to discover what it is that’s giving the Explorers persistent headaches and a vague feeling of unease, and when they do learn it is more by accident than design. It takes them even longer to work out what killed two members of the crew – including the captain. The death of whom also forces a lottery for a new captain, and Gildoran is picked – the youngest person to hold the post, and the most inexperienced. As the situation worsens on the new world, leading to injury and further deaths, Gildoran tries desperately hard to hold the crew together and find the cause…

Bradley’s Darkover novels are still being produced – 2013 sees the publication of The Children of Kings, the second book of the second Darkover trilogy written by Deborah J Ross (both of which were allegedly “in progress” fourteen years before when Bradley died). Bradley also managed to edit four editions of the Sword and Sorceress anthology after her death. In other words, she has become a brand, and she is likely to be remembered for her contribution to fantasy and for Darkover and its countless sequels. This is just as well since Endless Voyage is not an especially good novel and, despite being published as an “Ace SF Special” is probably best left to languish in obscurity.

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