Marion Zimmer Bradley, Rediscovery

When you’ve be wanting to read a book for several years (or, in this case, reread it) then it sometimes takes on an almost mythical status in the mind. It becomes the best book ever written and then, when the book is finally there, it sort of falls flat.

Well, Rediscovery wasn’t quite that bad but, unfortunately, it wasn’t far off. When I was younger I devoured all the Marion Zimmer Bradley books I could get my hands on – starting from The Mists of Avalon when I was about 12 (usual The Lord of the Rings stage, I think). I loved the slightly mystical language, the feminist emphasis on the importance of women and of course the stories about princesses and magicians and all that. When I had finished all the Avalon books in print at the time I began to read the Darkover novels. The novels are a curious mixture of science fiction, space exploration and conquest and fantasy elements such as psi-powers and laran (the Darkovan word for telepathy). I pilfered the library for books and, when that source ran out, bought them in English for myself. However, for some strange reason, I could never get hold of Rediscovery in English. It was only available in German – until now.

So what is it about? Well. On the planet Darkover the inhabitants, descendants from an old crashed Terran spaceship, have been living in relative peace for a couple of hundred years. They have developed their own feudal society, led by the Comyn, a caste of mostly red-haired people with telepathic powers. And then the Terran (so people from planet Earth) turn up and want to colonize a planet they conceive of as backward and simplistic. Which it is most definitely not.

The story centers around two sets of main characters, a Darkover twin brother and sister and three Terran friends. The Darkovan twins are Comyn and the young man, Lorill, will some day become the most powerful man on the planet. His sister, Leonie, is going into a Tower, essentially designed to control and teach the use of telepathic powers and the base for all ‘magical’ activities on the planet. There used to be many Towers but by the time this story is set, they have all been destroyed – the Ages of Chaos is, a bit like the European Dark Ages, a period of which not much is known. By this time, however, there are only five Towers left and Arilinn, the Tower which Leonie joins, is the most powerful. As people who have read the other books will know, Leonie is to become a ‘sorceress’ and eventually she will become the most powerful woman on the planet. Not bad going. 

The three Terrans are very different. David and Elizabeth are a young couple of anthropologists looking for a planet to settle down on, marry and have lots of children. Their best friend Ysaye is a young woman of African heritage (this is important for the story) who is a computer tech on the spaceship. She is allergic to almost everything and loves the sterility of the spaceship. Because all the members of the original ship that landed on Darkover were Caucasian, none of the Darkovans have ever seen a person with dark skin before which leads to some rather amusing incidents. However, the overall tone of the book is quite somber and the story raises some interesting questions.

As referenced previously, Darkover’s history is defined by a period known as the Ages of Chaos, when the misuse of telepathic powers led to wars and massacres. Since then the Darkovans have observed the Compact which forbids the use of long-distance weapons. Every weapon used must bring the user in equal danger to the one he or she is using it against. Therefore, swords and short bows are allowed whereas the Terran guns are not. Although the Terrans see themselves are far more civilized and progressive, their weapons are seen by the Darkovans as cowardly and weak. Bradley raises interesting questions about weapons of mass destruction here, I think, which, set in the fantasy world of Darkover, only seem transgressive when one seriously thinks about that subject.

Then there are the fires. Darkover’s climate is akin to that of Scandinavia or Siberia. The hills are covered with resinous trees which burn very easily. Therefore, when a forest fire breaks out, feuds are forgotten as everyone tries to save the country from burning up. Bandits join the law-abiding folk in the fire truce but, again, the Terrans don’t look too good. Spoilers here so I won’t tell you what happens though yet again Bradley challenges the modern individualism that seems prevalent in Western society.

Whilst I found it a less easy read than when I was younger and, I continue to appreciate the detail and the intricacy in Darkovan society. I can see that some ideas might challenge a modern reader but, somehow, they also make sense. Although the language is not up to Tolkien’s high literary standard, Marion Zimmer Bradley has created a world just as interesting and fascinating. And that’s why I read and reread her Darkover novels.