Saturday, 20 March 2010

Review: Darkover Landfall - Marion Zimmer Bradley



I am going through quite a phase with Marion at the moment, and it was her Avalon series that got me hooked on her work. So I decided to give Darkover a go as well. In terms of internal chronology, Darkover Landfall is the first book in the series and tells the story of the first earthlings stranded on Darkover following the crash landing of their spaceship. Landfall was first published in 1972 - ten years after the publication of "The Planet Savers", Bradley's first Darkover novel.




Darkover: First Contact (Darkover Omnibus: Darkover Landfall & Two to Conquer)


Don't expect too much in terms of storyline, this book is intended to set the scene and fill a chronological gap providing the reader with background info on the initial phase of the planet's colonisation: Who were the first humans on Darkover? How did they end up there? Why did they stay? What were their first impressions of the planet and which challenges - both in terms of internal / social as well as external / environmental - did they face? In line with this, Landfall is mainly concerned with the exploration of various themes, whilst the characters remain superficially drawn. Giving a thorough synopsis of the book would give away too much of its content. Below, I will briefly summarise some - but not all - of the plot and introduce Bradley's main themes.


What happens when a group of highly skilled and educated humans get stranded on an uncharted, seemingly inhospitable planet? The group consists of the spaceship's crew and a number of colonists, originally on their way to be dropped off on another planet. Whilst the astronauts are keen to get the spaceship up and running again, the colonists are more inclined to accommodate their fate and make the best of their predicament by settling on Darkover.


Darkover, however, isn't everybody's cup of tea. Due to a lack of metal deposits, it is unlikely  that it would ever support the requirement's of a technologically advanced society, its climate is subjet to severe - and mostly freezing - temperatures and it is already inhabited by two other, humanoid species. Each of these characteristics on their own is reason enough not to earmark the planet for potential colonisation. What's more, Darkover's "powers" seem to gradually set free psychic abilities in its new inhabitants and a strange "Ghostwind" causes barriers between the individuals to temporarily break down, thereby leading to mass orgies with at times grave consequences.

However, when it becomes clear that the spaceship is not salvageable, the colonists, a bunch of red - haired Scots from the Outer Hebrides, take the lead and get everybody "winter - ready". Adapting to life on the planet is not easy, especially not for the spaceship's tech - savvy crew. On Darkover, the colonists' skills as food growers and house builders are sought after and essential in ensuring survival, whilst the crew members' scientific and engineering backgrounds are as good as obsolete for all but future generations. This is what I loosely term Bradley's "back - to - basics theme" and it  permeates Landfall throughout, culminating in the settlers' recognition that a society governed by the principles of scientific knowledge and technological innovation is not a viable option for the organisation of life on Darkover.

Bradley's depiction of this dichotomy (skilled manual labour versus academic education) moves to another level when she explores the effects of the newly regained telepathic abilities on her protagonists. Whilst some are at ease with being guided by their gut - feelings, others, such as the spaceship's captain, find it much harder to come to terms with the existence of these powers. Hard science and its principles are thus pitted against the powerful forces of psychic intuition.


One final point worth mentioning is Bradley's engagement with the pivotal role of women and their significantly altered attitudes towards motherhood. Darkover's chemical composition has rendered all hormone - based contraceptive methods ineffective and due to above - mentioned "get - togethers" a large number of females have become pregnant. When it becomes clear that there is no escape from the planet, all pregnant women are literally forced to continue their pregnancies in order to ensure the colony's survival. Initially, this goes against the grain amongst those women who tend to have a rather sanitised attitude towards motherhood. As we move through the book, this attitude gradually changes. Rather than viewing motherhood as an inferior choice, which is to be avoided at all costs - the dominant viewpoint held by the spaceship's first officer -, its true value is uncovered by the characters in the end.


My verdict: Darkover Landfall was a highly enjoyable read and a good starting point for getting a feel of the series. It certainly got me hooked and more Darkover novels are on the way.  Bradley's work undoubtedly differs from the more technology - oriented novels in the genre, as she views human development as a function of its environment and focuses on exploring the effects of alien environments on societal norms and values. Written in the 1970s, Darkover clearly reflects the concerns and technical advances of a different era, but Bradley's ideas are still contemporary for a 21st century audience.













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