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).