City of Sorcery, Marion Zimmer Bradley

cityofsorceryCity of Sorcery, Marion Zimmer Bradley (1984)
Review by Diarmuid Verrier

This is one of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. I read MZB’s Avalon books when I was in my early teens and remember enjoying them. What, I wondered, would I make of her sci-fi?

A preliminary note from the author positions it as a standalone novel. However, I’m not sure I agree with this claim. Almost all of the characters have complex and involved back stories and inter-relations, and the world itself has a social structure that is very different from our own and essential for understanding people’s motivations. If you read the book as part of a sequence, this would all be fine. Of course, this was not the case for me. I had to struggle through rather a lot of awkward, and frankly inefficient, info-dumping in the first few chapters, and I still felt that I was missing something at various points in the book. None of this stopped me from appreciating the central thrust of the narrative, which involves a group of women journeying towards a mysterious city that may or may not exist, but I do think a lot of the content that relied on events and characters from previous books could have been cut without damaging the plot unduly, making it easier for a newbie like me to get up to speed.

The Darkover world is as former colony of Earth. The two worlds were separated for millennia, before being reunited relatively recently (presumably the first book in the series deals with this). In the meanwhile, Earth has continued to rely on high technology (including the space travel that allowed them to return to Darkover), while Darkover has returned to a mediaeval level of technology. On the plus side, they’ve also figured out how to unlock their latent psychic powers (this mix of sci-fi, a fantasy world, and psychic powers just screams “1980s” to me for some reason). There’s also strict and conservative gender role segregation. The exact nature of how society works is quite unclear (based on the information in just this novel) – there seem to be a number of dominant lineages within which particular psychic powers inhere, and ubiquitous lesbian relationships that exist parallel to procreation-orientated bonds. In this book, all of the protagonists (and antagonists) are women, making it even harder to appreciate just how men and women interact in this society.

The focus on gender roles, and the preponderance of women characters in the book make it (and the series overall) a valuable contribution to a generally male-dominated genre. I certainly found many aspects of plotting and characterisation refreshingly different from what I’m used to. Foremost amongst these was the sense of camaraderie on the journey between all of the women. There’s a theory that suggests that when women are presented with stressors they respond by strengthening social bonds (“tending and befriending”). The amount of care and love demonstrated by the characters for one another here, as they have to surmount challenge after challenge, would never be seen in a group of male travellers. There’s a scene where the group “hugs it out”, another where one character spontaneously gives a little gift to her lover, and a (sensible but generally unnoted) obsession with bathing. The “womanliness” of the book comes through in other ways too. For example, at one point one of the women curses another: “I hope the headman’s wife goes into labour tomorrow with an obstructed transverse birth!”. I found this pretty peculiar – awkward and artificial sounding and grotesquely vicious – but, again, not something that one would expect to read in any other SF novel.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The characters are all flawed (often arrogant or smug), but generally likeable once the book gets going; the world, and the focus on gender issues that’s built into it, is interesting and refreshing; and the set pieces – the fights scenes and the perils encountered on the glacial mountains – are lively and convincing. My main problem is that, though presented as a standalone novel, it is anything but. Even well into the book, you are presented with details that are unexplained and given no context (Camilla has six fingers? Vanessa has animal eyes?) leaving the reader feeling somewhat adrift. More importantly, The book is all journey and no destination. The characters only really meet the antagonists of the novel in the last 50 pages, and only reach the eponymous City of Sorcery at the very end. The book finishes just when it feels like it’s getting started. It would be like calling The Two Towers (the middle volume of The Lord of the Rings) a standalone book. I would be happy to return to the world of Darkover, but, next time, I’ll treat it for what it is – a progressive series.

This review originally appeared on Consumed Media.

Darkover Landfall, Marion Zimmer Bradley

darkoverDarkover 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.

Endless Voyage, Marion Zimmer Bradley

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.