by Gideon Marcus
Marion Zimmer Bradley is an odd duck.
As a writer for a niche genre (science fiction), as a woman in a male-dominated field, as an occultist mystic in a stolidly Judeo-Christian world (she founded the Aquarian Order of the Restoration), and as someone who pines for the days when the genre was more fantastic, Bradley is many times over a breed apart.
That dislocation from the mainstream of society, even the mainstreams of rarefied slivers of society, has acted as a sort of crucible on her imagination. At the risk of engaging in unlicensed psychoanalysis, it seems that all this pent up desire to escape the real world has turned into a torrent she’s focused at her writing. In the past several years, I’ve marked a focus of her work toward the psychic and the pulpy. It’s hardly hidden – she said as much in the introduction to her first book:
While I was still collecting rejection slips for my early efforts, the fashion changed. Adventures on faraway worlds and strange dimensions went out of fashion, and the new look in science-fiction — emphasis on the science — came in…I think, there is a place, a wish, a need and hunger for the wonder and color of the world way out. The world beyond the stars. The world we won’t live to see.
Except her far futures don’t have many futuristic trappings. Her settings are invariably medieval in flavor, with swashbuckling sword-wielders, hot-blooded heroes and beautiful damsels. It’s pretty clear that this is the world she wants to live in, one of duels and kin-loyalty, where women, while they may be strong, also yield to a man’s will.
We saw it in A Door Through Space, and we see it in the new Ace Double, #F-153. It’s two Bradleys for the price of one (40 cents), and it, beginning to end, has Bradley’s stamp upon it.
The Planet Savers
Really a long novella, The Planet Savers fleshes out the planet of Darkover, briefly mentioned in Bradley’s first novel. In an effeminate, decadent Terran Empire, red-sunned Darkover is the one hold-out of rugged virtue. The Earthers have just one on-world trade enclave; the rest of the planet is ruled by a series of clans, descendants of colonists from a long-distant past. They possess the secret of psychic technology using the mysterious Matrices, devices whose use is only briefly described.
The Darkovans share their world with the Trailmen, aboriginal humanoids who live in the shadowed arboreal span of giant trees. Their branches form a network that spans a good portion of the planet. Whether they are a divergent group of humans or the result of convergent evolution is an open question. Their society is an interesting mix of savage and refined, and I found them more interesting than the mundanely feudal Darkovans (who actually do not feature prominently in this book).
In fact, the star of the book is Jason Allison, a Terran who was raised by Trailmen after a boyhood crash that left him lost and parentless. As such, he is the only one on the planet who can negotiate with the natives to obtain pints of their blood to make serum to fight the “Trailmen’s Plague,” a sort of Darkovan chickenpox that is deadly to non-Trailmen.
There’s only one problem, and this is the genuinely interesting crux of the short book: Jason doesn’t exist.
When Allison fell into the hands of the Trailmen, he was adopted and raised as one of the aboriginals until his maturity, at which point, they felt they needed to let the young man be with his own kind. Allison could not reconcile the alien ways of the Trailmen with the codes of the Terrans; he thus repressed most of his childhood and a great deal of his personality, becoming the priggish Dr. Jay Allison. This resulting persona, while respected for his competence, is a brittle and unlikable soul. He also doesn’t speak the Trailmen language.
This is why the Terrans resort to psychic techniques to tease out the younger Jason persona, carving out a new being, essentially. During the mission, the two personas exchange positions at the fore, in a Hyde and Jekyll fashion. This is represented to great effect by having the Jason portions in first person but the Jay portions in third.
I was surprised to discover that The Planet Savers is a story I glided over in my damning review of the November 1958 Amazing. I suspect I never made it to the novella (which is unchanged from its original publication) after getting turned off by the earlier stories in that issue.
In any event, I enjoyed The Planet Savers, though the relationship between Jason and the fiercely independent yet pliable Darkovan woman sherpa felt tacked on and downright Burroughsian. Three and a half stars.
The Sword of Aldones
Sadly, I cannot say as much for the flip-side novel, a much longer piece. Also set on Darkover, presumably around the same era, it is told from the viewpoint of Lew Aldon, a half-Terran scion of the Aldon clan – a powerful psionic family. He is returning home after years off-planet after an exile caused by political turmoil. He returns to face the Comyn (the council of Darkovan families…I think) to deal with the disposition of a powerful matrix called the Sharra, which he’s smuggled back to Darkover in a decorative sword.
I could not finish The Sword of Aldones, throwing in the towel around page 70. Part of it was the inexpert storytelling, with Lew consistently referring to his fraught past and then explicitly refusing to discuss it. Part of it was the general tone of violence always simmering just under the surface (Bradley must have anger issues – it is a problem I see with all of her work). But mostly, it was its hackneyed, humorless style. The Sword of Aldones might appeal to the sword and spaceship crowd, but it didn’t work at all for me. One star.
And because of that, I’d recommend picking up the old copy of Amazing if you can – it’ll be cheaper.