March 2016

I'll begin this blog post with a note on the author of the book: Marion Zimmer Bradley. I've been dragging my heels on moving along with my re-read of all the fiction on the shelves, and it's because Bradley was next up and a little while ago I learnt a couple of unpleasant things about her. Firstly, her second husband (Walter Breen) was convicted twice and eventually imprisoned for child sex abuse, and Bradley was aware of and aided his actions. Secondly, once discussion of Breen became current again in 2014 the daughter of Bradley and Breen came forward to say that Bradley was herself an abuser.

Immediately on reading about this I could think of at least one character and situation in her Darkover series that I would re-evaluate with this new information. And more generally - one of the things I'd liked about the Darkover books was that I thought she'd been portraying a world where just like the real one you can't always spot the monsters at first glance. Effectively, I used to think she was saying "just because someone does good things too, doesn't stop them being a monster"; and now I think she just had a different working definition of "monster". So not only has someone who was one of my favourite authors fallen off her pedestal and been revealed as a thoroughly unpleasant person; but also even before starting my re-read I'm pretty sure that the artist can't be separated from her art in this case. I decided to re-read them anyway, because they were favourites and I'd rather see what I actually think rather than make assumptions based on memories from a decade or so ago when I last read them. But having started this re-read: they're definitely coming off the shelves once I've re-read them (into a box rather than disposed of, for nostalgia for the perspective I can't read them with any more).


So, onward to the book. Darkover Landfall is the first in the internal chronology of the Darkover series, but was the 7th of them to be published (in 1972). I generally prefer to re-read series in chronological order, even if I buy the books in publication order - not that I did that in this case, I didn't start buying them till the 90s and picked them up as I saw them in shops. The basic premise of the Darkover series is that a colony ship sent out from Earth goes off course and crashlands on the planet Darkover. They have no contact with Earth for over(? around? the chronology is unclear) a thousand years during which they develop their own civilisation, which is heavily influenced by the Gaelic roots of the original colonists & crew. And on this planet psychic powers such as telepathy work - this is part innate human talent (it's a very 60s sort of series in origin), part due to interbreeding with a native species (see previous parenthetical remark), part due to the plants and geology of the planet (ditto). So you have this pseudo-feudal society with psychic technology who forget they came from anywhere but Darkover, and eventually the Terran multi-planet Empire rediscover them. The novels set after that deal in large part with culture shock and culture clash - mind-powers vs. science, the different sorts of sexism in the two societies, etc.

It's a series that hits a lot of my buttons - things I'm a sucker for in science fiction include: generation ships or lost colonies, psychic powers as a replacement for tech, culture shock and looking at our own culture through the eyes of the alien. Bradley also manages a sense of time and history - something I wrote about when I talked about Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz. The way later characters talk about past events is never quite the same as the way the book about those events told the story - things pass from current affairs, to history, to fable and you can see it happening in the books.

I think if I'd started with Darkover Landfall, I wouldn't've continued reading the series - to me any appeal it had relies on enjoying reading about the way things "really happened" as opposed to how they're later remembered. The story itself I've always found rather unsettling and odd. Once their ship crash lands on the wrong planet the crew & colonists have to come to terms with the fact that they're now stranded on this rather inhospitable world: it has a climate that is only just habitable all year round, and it is very metal poor meaning their advanced tech won't be viable for long. There's the obvious conflict between "must make the best of what we have" and "must devote all resources to getting the hell outta here", and nobody is particularly happy with the situation. And then the kireseth flowers bloom - their pollen is a potent hallucinogen that also lowers your inhibitions and enchances any latent psychic talent. Some members of the crew just have lots of happy sex, one meets a chieri (a native and reclusive intelligent species of the planet) and then has happy sex, others have sex they're not happy with (to varying degrees of unhappy ranging from "oh dear" to "oh my dear god no what have I done!!?!"). It's a very 60s/70s sort of story ...

The way I remembered this book was "it's the 'alien sex pollen makes them do it' one", which is a pretty accurate summary to be honest. But on the plus side, it was nowhere near as rape-y as I'd feared, in that all the sex we're told about is things that the participants wanted to do even if in some cases they were suppressing that desire until the kireseth bloomed. On the other hand ... just because you want to, doesn't mean you should. And in the light of the child sex abuse allegations and convictions for Bradley and her husband it's to say the least an unsettling theme for the book.

To my eyes reading it now it was atrociously sexist. Not just a little bit here and there, but woven right through the entire fabric of the novel. Which surprised me, because Bradley is often held up as a feminist SFF author and this book comes across as far from feminist. It's possible that as I wasn't even born when the book was written I'm missing the nuance that would tell me she was critiquing the sexism and not buying into it ... but if there's nuance and critique there, it's pretty well buried. It's not just stuff like Rafe MacAran thinking of women as inherently incapable of any manual labour or physical exertion, where Bradley might be making the point that he's wrong. It's also stuff like the way Judy (who has sex with the chieri) isn't believed by anyone - yes, this might be because it happens under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug; but in context it also comes across as dismissing her as a silly woman who's obviously making shit up. And it's stuff like the paean to the joys of motherhood as the one true path to fulfilment for all women and doubly necessary here because it's also the strict duty of every woman of childbearing age to pop out the sprogs now and forever more so that the colony survives. Any woman who isn't joyous at the thought of pregnancy and babies is psychologically damaged and brainwashed. And this is one of the ways in which the society of Earth is sick. Apparently. Again, this is in the mouths and minds of the characters of the novel, and perhaps Bradley was intending one to see it as ludicrous. I just don't think that comes across tho - if this was a trope she was intending to undermine, I don't think she succeeded.

It made me think, as I was reading it, of "We Who Are About to..." by Joanna Russ which was published 4 years after Darkover Landfall. I've not actually read Russ's book, but I know the plot from osmosis (and a double check on wikipedia that I had the right book in mind!). In it a spaceship crash lands on a remote planet with no rescue forthcoming. The men propose that they should all make babies and build a civilisation, but the female protagonist sees that there is no way they can survive long term and has no intention of spending the rest of her fertile life being an unwilling baby-machine to no purpose. It escalates (violently) from there. Was Darkover Landfall one of the books Russ was reacting to? There are definitely resonances between the two books (as far as I can tell having not read one of them, of course).

I was going to say more about specific scenes and so on, but I think I'm just going around in circles. I never was particularly keen on this book, but I think that's moved into active dislike now I'm a bit older and bit more critical about what I read (rather than just swallowing it whole).

Back in the summer while In Our Time wasn't airing new episodes we dug back through the archives and found a (rare) Egyptian related one that we didn't think we'd listened to before - about Akhenaten, which aired in 2009. The experts on the programme were Richard Parkinson (British Museum), Elizabeth Frood (University of Oxford) and Kate Spence (University of Cambridge). (As it's so old affiliations of the experts have probably changed.)

They started with a little bit of scene setting and overview of Akhenaten's reign, placing him in context. He was one of the Pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom period. This was a particularly prosperous time in Egypt's history, Akhenaten's father Amenhotep III in particular can be considered as ruling over a Golden Age. When Akhenaten came to the throne he seemed much like a conventional Pharaoh. He initially used the more traditional name Amenhotep IV, and built and decorated traditional seeming temple architecture. But the experts pointed out that one initial sign of the differences that were to come is that his temple decoration only has scenes of himself offering to solar deities rather than to the full suite of the Egyptian pantheon. After only a few years his reign becomes more unconventional - first he starts to transition from the old state religion to a new one that only worships the Aten (the sun disc) via himself and his wife. Then he moves the capital from Thebes to a brand new city he orders built at the site we now call Amarna. The old religion is abolished, and the name of Amun (the previous chief deity) is removed from all inscriptions. When Akhenaten died in Year 17 of his reign (c.1335 BCE) there was a period of chaos which ended with the restoration of the old religion, and an attempt to remove Akhenaten's name from history.

As you can tell from that précis Akhenaten made sweeping changes to Egyptian life and culture. The way they discussed it on the programme made me think of Pol Pot in Cambodia, or Mao's Cultural Revolution in China: a top down concerted effort to erase and reset the cultural history of a nation. Most of the rest of the programme was spent discussing these changes and the impact they had on Egyptians of the time. They broke down the changes into four major areas: changes to the religion, changes to the art, changes to the language, and the movement of the political centre of the country.

Religious change had happened in Egypt before, but generally as a slow process involving different gods becoming more or less prominent over a long period of time (for instance Amun wasn't always the main state god and didn't really move into that position until the New Kingdom). Akhenaten's changes were abrupt and went far beyond just which god was most important. The large pantheon was replaced with the single god, the Aten. Gone were anthropomorphic representations of deities - the Aten was only to be shown as a sun disc with rays reaching to give life to the Pharaoh and his wife. And gone was all the accumulated mythology associated with the old gods. Even the architectural style of the temples was different - the old temples were dark enclosed places, the new ones were larger, exposed to the sunlight and more airy in feel. The changes were all designed to honour the sun as the source of everything needed for life. One of the experts (Frood, I think?) suggested that Akhenaten's new belief system might even have been more of a natural philosophy than a religion - that he was something more akin to an atheist than we generally think. There was also a general consensus amongst the experts that there was a megalomaniac flavour to his new religion - the Pharaoh was now centred in both the religion and the art. Instead of symbolic scenes of hunting or fishing one the walls nobles' tombs from this era there are scenes of the Pharaoh giving gifts to the noble in question. The cult is as much about Akhenaten as it is about the Aten.

The art of Akhenaten's reign is also a great departure from previous Egyptian art styles. Once he changes the state religion depictions of the Pharaoh become really quite weird to our eyes. He is depicted with pendulous breasts, wide hips and a strangely elongated face. At one time scholars thought that this meant Akhenaten was deformed, but nowadays the consensus is that it was just an art style not a direct representation of how he really looked. Backing this up is that Nefertiti is also depicted that way in some places. But in other ways the new art feels less alien to us than the standard Egyptian style. Akhenaten and Nefertiti are frequently depicted with their children, sharing tender family moments, rather than just in formal unrealistic poses. The linguistic changes in the Akhenaten era also follow this increased informality - even texts such as the Hymn to the Aten, which is very much in a formal context, are written with an informal style. The experts suggested that this might reflect the actual speech patterns of the time.

On the boundary stelae for the new city at Amarna Akhenaten justifies the move of his capital by referring things having been "bad" at Thebes - tho he doesn't explain what he means by bad. He also says that the site was picked because the Aten told him to build his city there. It's notable that from the river at that point there's a stretch of the cliff face that looks like a horizon hieroglyph, which may be one of the ways that the Aten indicated the right site. More pragmatically, it's in a central location between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, which is politically useful. The site hadn't been used for settlement before, and wasn't afterwards until much much closer to the modern day. One of the experts (I forget who) said that that's because it's a stupid place to put a city! It's poor in resources, and mostly desert, so didn't long outlast Akhenaten himself. This is rather good for modern archaeologists, as it gives a snapshot of Egypt at a particular brief time period and it's not been significantly disturbed or built on since.

The impact of all these changes on the elite of society was significant, and probably rather traumatic. The Egyptian culture was very conservative. Their concept of Ma'at, or order, made a religious necessity out of doing things they way they had been done before. So normally a Pharaoh would make a big deal out of how he was doing things as his father and his father's father etc had done before him. Even if what he was doing wasn't actually the same as what his father had done ... But Akhenaten was overtly bringing in something new and saying it was better than what had gone before. Not everyone would've been upset, of course, and some may well have welcomed the changes - there are definitely high ranking individuals who change their names to reflect the new beliefs, although we can't tell if this was for pragmatic reasons or religious belief. But the old certainties were gone, the festivals that measured out the year weren't happening, the familiar symbolism wasn't used any more, and the comforting idea of an afterlife forever with the gods wasn't there any more. They did talk about the lower levels of society a bit - but didn't really talk about how the loss of the festivals would affect them, which I was a bit surprised by. I'd've thought that would've been one of the areas that would have a lot of impact on your average peasant - measuring out the year by when you see the priests process with the god's shrine. They did talk about the shrines to the old gods that have been found in private houses in Akhenaten's new city - signs that the change from old to new religion wasn't complete. But they didn't talk about the idea that the household and state religions were separate things - so I'm not sure if they disagreed with this or if there just wasn't time to discuss it.

One thing they did discuss is how we know just enough about this period and it's just familiar enough in feel that people project their own desires onto the evidence we do have. For instance, Akhenaten has often been held up as the "world's first monotheist" and then turned into Moses or inspiration for Moses or something that lets the theoriser believe that "obviously" he's prefiguring Judaism or even Christianity with his new religion. The experts then danced delicately round the point that Akhenaten being an atheist or natural philosopher is also one of these situations - it's just it's the one that appeals most to modern archaeologists rather than early 20th Century ones.

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