Darkover Landfall, Marion Zimmer Bradley (1972)
Review by Joachim Boaz
Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999), most famous for her Arthurian fantasy novel Mists of Avalon (1983) from late in her career, published countless SF works starting in the late 1940s. Her first novel The Planet Savers (1958) introduced readers to the massive and complex Darkover sequence of works — by far her most famous and iconic contribution to SF.
Darkover Landfall is a somewhat routine adventure (with a good dose of social commentary) which, according to internal chronology, is the beginning of the vast Darkover series. Although I cannot speak for the rest of the sequence as this is the first of Bradley’s novels I’ve read, I found Darkover Landfall a problematic and inarticulate novel despite the always seductive colonizing an alien world premise.
Sometime near the end of the 21st century a colony ship is thrown off course due to a gravitational storm and crashes on an unknown planet. The original destination was an already established colony. However, the new planet they find themselves stranded on, Cottman IV, has yet to be even surveyed and contains inhospitable mountains, mysterious natives, frequent forest fires, strange clouds of mind-altering pollen, and few useful or easily accessible metals. Over the course of the novel, both the crew and the colonists are forced to reconcile themselves to a difficult new life where rescue is virtually impossible. However, this new life will be a much more primitive one due to the lack of natural resources.
Imbued into the standard colonizing a new world plot are often successful attempts at social commentary (at least in the first half of the novel): for example, themes related to the “Terran Bill of Rights” that governs society on Earth: “No law shall be made or formulated abridging the rights of any human being to equal work regardless of racial origin, religion or sex” (p17). Rafael MacAran, one of the main characters, is forced to abandon his traditionalist/sexist views of women after he is ordered to take along female scientists on his survey trips despite his hollow protestations: “I asked for men on this trip. It’s some mighty rough ground” (p17). He of course tells himself that “he is no male chauvinist” (p15) but takes along men who are physically unable to make the difficult journeys across the mountain ranges.
There is also a running commentary on the effects of overpopulation on Earth and how the social positions that were created by it have to be abandoned in the new colony. Bradley postulates that in an overpopulated future where birth control is easy to access and universally accepted, “a wave of feeling had made abortion completely unthinkable. Unwanted children were simply never conceived” (p60) (her discussion does not include rape). Women have children only when they want to. However, on alien planets, according to Bradley’s biological extrapolations, the fertility of women is lower and this choice has to be addressed.
This biological principle the novel adheres to, i.e. fertility is lower for women on alien worlds due to mysterious planetary effects, segues into a very troubling theme: does the individual woman or her male dominated community control her uterus. Bradley’s answer is straightforward — the community. Considering how most of the novel is concerned with pointing out the hypocrisy of sexist men, such a stance strikes me as bizarre. Camilla, the second in command of the colony ship, is forced to acquiesce to societal demands that she deliver her child — remember, there’s no birth control…
This is further compounded by a periodic flare-up of a mind-altering pollen cloud that causes everyone to have massive orgies. In short, pregnancy results whether a woman wants to get pregnant or not — not only does she have to keep the child, she has to refrain from any physical labor while she is pregnant! For example, “Colony women have to be pampered” (p100) due to the potential infertility, stretches of low fertility, and the potential health defects of the fetus (caused by working?). In short, the egalitarian Terran Bill of Rights referenced above has to be abandoned. In Earth societies where a lack of medical advances (in the current day and the past) made pregnancy extremely dangerous to the mother and child, the mother is still forced to work in order to provide for her family. This would definitely be the case on a resource poor planet! Not only is Bradley’s extrapolation of the role of women in a low-technology colonial society poorly researched, but is also socially regressive.
As Bradley’s fellow SF novelists Vonda McIntyre and Joanna Russ pointed out in articles on the novel, her discussion of the role of the female colonists — who are mysteriously the only gender whose fertility is decreased by the alien environment — is often frustrating. Russ’ early complaints even categorized it as antifeminist… I have not found any indication that there was a satirical intention on Bradley’s part.
Also, the fantasy-imbued world — for example, fairy-like aliens who live in the woods and strange telepathy enhancing crystals — will not appeal to everyone.
Vaguely recommended for fans of straightforward pulp SF adventures imbued with a good dose of social commentary. Although neither the plot nor the commentary is altogether successful.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.