Marion Zimmer Bradley Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s early years fit the conventional mold of the science-fiction and fantasy genres in which she was publishing. However, as she matured as a writer, she explored unconventional themes, particularly in the areas of religion and sexuality. She also moved away from hard science fiction into more traditional fantasy. Many of her characters possess psychic abilities or other kinds of powers that set them apart from others. Most of the criticism published on Bradley’s work has focused on her as a woman writer and as a creator of female characters who is concerned with women’s issues. Among her most memorable female characters are Morgaine from The Mists of Avalon and the members of her female sisterhoods, such as the Free Amazons of Darkover. Although Bradley did not call herself a feminist, she has been both criticized and applauded by others who have applied that label to her.

Darkover Landfall

Darkover Landfall is not the first book Bradley published about Darkover, but it is the first book in the chronological order of that series. Darkover Landfall details the origin of humans on the planet Darkover. A colonization ship, heading for another planet, crashes on the inhospitable planet. While trying to repair their ship, the crew and colonists are exposed to the Ghost Wind, a natural occurrence that spreads a psychoactive pollen over the crash party. The pollen activates latent psychic abilities, but, even more distressingly, it lowers sexual inhibitions. Various sexual unions occur among the survivors. Eventually, they realize that they will have to make their home on the world.

The plot is a fairly conventional one for a science-fiction novel. This book shows Bradley’s interest in and use of psychic abilities in her novels. On a nonconventional level, the book, without giving details, explores alternate sexualities and alternate standards of marriage and partnerships. For the colonists to ensure a broad gene pool, everyone must have children with different partners. The biggest controversy raised by the novel when it appeared, however, stemmed from the fact that Camilla Del Rey, the first officer, is forbidden to have an abortion when she wishes one. If it had not been for the crash, her peers would have had no problem with her choice, but because the colonists know that fertility and infant survival rates will be low for the first several years on their new planet, they force her to have the child. This position, although defended in the world of the book, sparked controversy and ire among Bradley’s fans, feminists, and other writers. It was not until her later books that Bradley changed their minds.

The Shattered Chain

The Shattered Chain is another Darkover novel, but it differs from earlier works because it focuses on the Free Amazons, or Renunciates, of Darkover. Centuries after the crash of the starship, Darkover has become a planet with a harsh caste system and a mostly feudal political and economic system. Women have few or no rights in most of this society. The exception is the Free Amazons. The Free Amazons have renounced their allegiance to and reliance on their former families and men. They renounce marriage, swearing an oath that they will give themselves to men and will have children only when they want to. They are often ridiculed by Darkoveran society. This novel in many ways answers the criticisms leveled at Bradley after the publication of Darkover Landfall. In this novel, the women are theprotagonists and the capable characters.

The story is told in three sections, with twelve years separating part 1 from part 2. Parts 1 and 2 focus on rescues. In the first part, Rohanna Ardais, a telepathic noblewoman, hires the Free Amazons to rescue her abducted kinswoman because the men in her family have given up on her. Melora, Rohanna’s cousin, is trapped in a Dry Town. In the Dry Towns, all women are chained, wearing the outward sign that they belong to the men. The Free Amazons rescue Melora and her daughter Jaelle so that Jaelle will not be chained. In part 2, Magda Lorne, a Terran sociologist, impersonates a Free Amazon to ransom her male friend, Peter Haldane, from a thief. She meets the grown Jaelle and her band and is forced to pledge the oath of the Amazons. She then realizes that she believes the oath. Part 3 focuses on the ramifications of Magda and Jaelle’s oath.

While the first two parts of this novel carry most of the action for the story, it is the last section that reveals Bradley’s themes. Throughout part 3, the three female protagonists confront the choices they have made and the prices they have paid or will pay. Rohanna renounced her freedom of choice for security in marriage. Jaelle gained her freedom but renounced the ability ever to marry. Magda has to renounce her Terran allegiance to live as a Free Amazon....

(The entire section is 2006 words.)