Marion Zimmer Bradley,
To Save a World
(DAW, 2004)

Marion Zimmer Bradley holds a well-earned place in the history of fantasy and science fiction, both for her prolific production of well-knit books and for her propensity to challenge accepted norms, particularly those related to gender and sexuality. While perhaps by purely "literary" standards she was not the most accomplished writer in the genre, she was a talented storyteller, both fearless and sensitive. The Darkover novels, in particular, have built an enthusiastic following, being as they are science fiction books that read as often as not as "sword and sorcery" fantasy.

To Save a World is a welcome reissue of two Darkover novels, The World Wreckers (1962) and The Planet Savers (1971), plus the short story, "The Waterfall."

The Planet Savers is the story of Jason Allison, who as "Jay" is a doctor with the Terran enclave on Darkover. Allison's history is unique: orphaned as a young child in the plane crash that killed his father, he was raised by the trailmen, humanoid but not human, until he was in his teens, then taken back to human society where he entered medical school. Along the way, he has developed a distaste for things Darkovan and a deep hatred of the nonhuman inhabitants of the planet, which has led him to repress his memories and to develop a subsidiary personality to accommodate them. It is also the beginnings of a recurring plague that is a childhood ailment among the trailmen and an almost universally lethal disease among humans; the only possibility of stemming it is to enlist the aid of the trailmen in developing a vaccine, and Jason, Allison's alternate personality, is the only one who can do it.

The World Wreckers presents Darkover with an external and very subtle threat, one that is familiar to those who have witnessed the ongoing destruction of our own environment in the name of profit (perhaps more extremely drawn than present reality -- although given some recent headlines, one wonders). Someone is trying to damage Darkover enough that the Darkovans will be forced to enter fully into the Terran Empire, with all the possibilities for exploitation that implies. Jason Allison reappears in a subsidiary role; more prominent are Regis-Rafael Hastur, the protagonist of The Heritage of Hastur; Dr. David Hamilton, a latent telepath who begins as a subject in a study and becomes one of the researchers; Keral, one of the chieri, the almost mythical nonhuman species that not only achieved and abandoned a high civilization on Darkover but spread themselves throughout the galaxy; and the bad guy, Andrea Closson, the "world wrecker" who is behind the attempted assassinations of the Comyn caste of telepaths and the environmental destruction of the planet.

The World Wreckers perhaps gives the best view of Bradley's perennial themes, focusing as it does on the varieties of love. The wrinkle is that the chieri, aside from being inhumanly beautiful and effectively immortal, are fully functional hermaphrodites. (Legend also attributes to them the introduction of psychic powers into the Comyn.) The developing relationship between David Hamilton and Keral is echoed by the relationship between two of the test subjects, David Conner and Missy Gentry (who, no surprise, is revealed fairly early on as one of the abandoned chieri): Missy, who has passed as female for hundreds of years, begins a shift to a male state, while Keral, whom David initially perceives as male, begins a transit to female state as he/she grows closer to David, although David still thinks of him as male. As Conner says to David: "It's Missy I love, care about, need. Not the fact that she has a body I happened to enjoy going to bed with. ... I happen to love Missy -- love her. Or him. Or it, if you prefer. Which means I care about what happens to her, whether I bang her or not."

It is worth noting here, by the by, that The World Wreckers was originally published in 1971; The Heritage of Hastur, which has as a major focus the development of Regis' feelings for Danilo Syrtis, his liegeman and bodyguard, was published in 1973; Bradley's exploration of this theme, however, really begins with a 1963 story, "Another Rib," (her collaborator was Juanita Colson, writing as John J. Wells), in which the authors explored sensitively and positively the emotional reality of love between men, making Bradley one of the earliest to enter territory that was not only largely unexplored in speculative fiction at the time, but forbidden.

"The Waterfall," a short story of Darkover, is unsettling, an exploration of evil in the person of a girl who is discovering the power of her abilities both as a telepath and as a young woman. Dating from 1976, the story seems to fall squarely within the definition of evil portrayed by more recent writers, most notably C.J. Cherryh and Anne Bishop: evil is, quite simply put, the abuse of power. Quite honestly, I don't think it's a very good story, although it might have served well as the genesis of a longer treatment of this idea.

In Darkover, Bradley created a world that gives a lot of room for arguing political and social philosophy, from race relations through sexuality to environmental issues and the horrors of war (which she quite often links together). The two novels included in this omnibus are solidly situated in the canon, and for those who might not be familiar with the series, could serve as a good introduction to a fascinating universe. Somehow, I missed them when I first encountered the series, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to read them.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 2 April 2005

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