Book Review: Darkover Landfall, Marion Zimmer Bradley (1972)

(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1972 edition)

3/5 (Average)

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 (1972) 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.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

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 pollens, 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” (17).  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” (17).  He of course tells himself that “he is no male chauvinist” (15) 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 (for my extensive list of overpopulation themed SF — here).  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” (60) (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” (100) 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.

Final Thoughts

As Bradley’s fellow SF novelists Vonda McIntrye 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.

(George Barr’s cover for the 1976 edition)

(Melvyn Grant’s cover for the 1978 edition)

(Ron Walotsky’s cover for the 1984 edition)

(Romas Kukalis’ cover for the 2004 edition)

For more reviews consult the INDEX

25 thoughts on “Book Review: Darkover Landfall, Marion Zimmer Bradley (1972)

  1. Darkover Landfall was written well after the first of her Darkover novels were published. It was written almost as an afterthought when her publishers asked that the first arrival of the colonists be explained. If you want to experience Darkover the way it was meant to be, start with “The Bloody Sun” instead. The original novel of the 1960s was rewritten in the 1970s by Bradley and is a strong, entertaining novel. There is a reason why Darkover has become an iconic part of science fiction and fantasy, you’ll see why if you read a few of the other more famous novels of this long running series.

    • I understand this completely… I do plan on reading others in the series but only started here because it’s chronologically the beginning (and I happened to find it on the shelf of my local used book store).

      Were you frustrated with her social message in Darkover Landfall as well?

      • I was not. MZB is a well known feminist, she almost defined the field with her writings. Because I had started with “The Bloody Sun” and read other novels in the series first, I understood where the storyline of this novel fell. I will admit that it is not the best representation of the Darkover novels, but I would not call myself frustrated by the book, but rather the publisher that keeps putting it as “first” on the reading list. It doesn’t really belong in the pole position.

        • But the argument she used in this novel was not a “feminist” argument. Both Joanna Russ and Vonda McIntyre found it rather anti-feminist — women have no control of their bodies and due to the orgy causing pollen (or whatever it is) thus have no control over their own pregnancies! And the fact that they then are required to bare the children and not work at all….

          • Perhaps, but you need to remember the time that it was written in and that the novel was the beginning of the story arc of the series. Part of the culture of Darkover is that men do have dominion over women during certain ages, but this changes over time and later there were societies of women that “bucked the system”, as it were, where women gained freedom of their own.

            In Landfall, the colonists were on an alien world dealing with a deadly survival situation. It created the situation where the future Darkovan culture was to grow from. This particular novel does not display the rich culture that MZB created in her better novels, a series that spans 30 years of writing and is continued by other authors to this day.

      • (well, as for the time it was written there were many progressive works by the early 70s — Le Guin, Russ, Merril, etc — but yes, there were definitely less when she was writing the earlier installments).

        Ah, I suspected it might have to do with a larger story arc….. So, the culture described is thus more of a culture derived from our own — or rather, her own day. But still, there’s a marked shift from the Earth society which the colony is derived which is simply not believable.

        Thanks for the comment.

  2. I haven’t read more than a few short stories by MZB, though I acquired several of the Darkover novels at a library bag sale, if only because they were so prevalent there and I needed to fill the bag up with some ballast. They’re all pretty late in the series (primarily from the Renunciates trilogy, and a few non-Darkover standalones), so very heavy themes of feminism, lesbianism, gender studies, etc.

    Darkover’s always come across as a more fantasy (and more feminist) version of Leigh Brackett’s sword-and-planet novels. Though with McCaffrey’s Pern and LeGuin’s early novels (thinking Rocannon’s World), that “high-fantasy world with a SF/crashed spaceship background” was a pretty popular trope for the ’70s.

  3. Joachim, I have only read one MZB novel, a variation on the Frederick Brown story `Arena` called HUNTERS OF THE RED MOON [I think]. It was one of those fun, brainless books the young teen me read in a day. I had an adult friend, a raging feminist, who read every MZB novel as it came out. If you look at MZB`s life and nonfiction pieces, you find some rather…`diverse` opinions on women, and her marriage to an openly gay man marked a turn in her writing. Later she wrote the ragingly feminist MISTS OF AVALON, which that same friend bought me in hardcover; I had to bail on it, as it was, IMHO, unreadable unless one shared her particular feminist ax to grind. I found writers Delany, Ellison, LeGuin, `Andre Norton`and a few others had far more believable female characters who were simply smart, forceful, interesting and active, living in societies where women and men simply had different roles. The writers` feminism was worked into the worldview expressed in the stories.MZB, not so much.

    • I really enjoy feminist SF — even if it is more forceful/polemical (but this one really isn’t that polemical). For example, I’ve read three Joanna Russ novels and loved them all (especially We Who Are About To…).

      And yes, I expect people’s opinions change over their life.

      As for the Andre Norton novels I’ve read, none have had female characters at all so I can’t judge her writing on that note.

  4. I’ve noticed on rereads that many of Bradley’s novels have contradictory messages; they seem to swing between arguing with social barriers and embracing them. But many of her stories have something, some kind of thorny complexity that really brings her worlds to life. Sometimes I think they work because of the strange contradictions. I haven’t read Darkover Landfall for a long time; I don’t think it was one of the better ones. I’d be a little afraid to read it now.

    • I found none of this intriguing complexity in this particular volume… Again, the consensus seems to be that it is not one of her best by a long shot. I am willing to try one of her better novels.

  5. Joachim, MZB published some opinion pieces in the 70s which would have gotten a man run out of town for their overt male chauvanism. Then she seemed to COMPLETELY change her opinions ala Heinlein, who was a liberal when he was with his first wife and headed rightward along with his second. I find those writers most interesting whose life experiences are wildly different from mine [Delany`s upper-middle-class bisexual Marxist etc., Russ`s full-strength feminism] and which shape their work without inserting undigested speechifying [which turns me off from modern sf]. SF that lays out arguments through plot and characterization [people shaped by living in repressive distopias, for example] seemed to be celebrated for a brief time in the 70s; now SF writers are bashed for not espousing the party line in their personal lives–the early MZB wouldn`t last five minutes today.

  6. I read this book back during my teenage years. Luckily by then I had already read several of MZB’s work. My favorite was Thendara House, although the defining book for Darkover’s Renunciate Saga has always been The Shattered Chain.

    MZB was pushed into writing this book long after the Darkover novels had been successful. It hardly makes a good impression. I have to say the book only sets up the walls that her future characters will have to bring down. Hopefully you won’t stop reading here.

  7. Just a general observation that so much of the early sci fi works have us searching the cosmos for habitable planets to escape to because of what we have done to this planet. So many of much later works have us colonizing the cosmos because we can, a more eager and enthusiastic trope. I wonder if the near future sci fi works will again be of the warning variety, seeing as how we seem to be about to destroy the planet again, this time because of commerce and not nuclear war.

    • I somewhat disagree — so much early SF (i.e. pre-1960) has us colonizing the cosmos because we can. Then more along these lines “habitable planets to escape to because of what we have done to this planet” — but, there is still stuff written like this now. And then after the 70s it becomes somewhat more optimistic again.

      But, I find many of these generalizations somewhat useless — due to their generality. For example, there has always been a strand in dystopia related to ecological destruction even during a time of nuclear fear.

  8. Pingback: Darkover Landfall, Marion Zimmer Bradley | SF Mistressworks

  9. Isn’t it interesting that the putative “first novel” of the series (albeit, written after several later in the narrative arc are published), is considered simplistic. Wouldn’t it be fun to consider MZB purposefully writing a rather simple story as an introduction to the much more complex, contradictory and more “real” novels that camel later, as a “nod” to a kind of performative writing writ large, in terms of the entire Darkover canon?

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