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Darkover: First Contact by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Cover art by Romas

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This volume continues DAW Books' reissuing the early Darkover novels in omnibus format, combining two or three novels that are each too small to be published on their own in today's market to make a book of substantial size. This volume joins two books that center around the theme of first contact, one from relatively early in MZB's career and the other from her later period, but before health problems began to make inroads on her writing ability.

When MZB started writing Darkover Landfall, she didn't even intend to write a Darkover novel at all. In fact, she was quite thoroughly sick of writing Darkover novels and had tried to put them behind her by writing The World Wreckers, her personal equivalent to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's throwing Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls. However, as a professional writer she needed to keep producing new work in order to maintain her income stream, and with Donald A. Wolheim leaving Ace to found his own imprint, he was hungry for new science fiction from writers he knew to be able to produce good work.

So she pulled out an old idea from her files, about humans encountering an ancient race who required them to prove their worthiness to be considered people. And of course that test was not an intellectual one, but a biological one -- humans had to prove themselves to be a lost colony of this ancient race, which meant that they had to be able to successfully breed with these ancients. The story was supposed to revolve around the woman who was selected for the experiment and her conflict with her husband as it became increasingly obvious that it was indeed succeeding. However, the story refused to come to life no matter how hard she worked at it.

Finally MZB decided to add an additional complication, namely that the humans had crashlanded upon the homeworld of the ancient race and could not simply pack up and leave if they proved unworthy. Suddenly the story shifted in her hands, with the question of the common heritage of the Terran castaways and the ancient race who'd once traveled to the stars but have given up such things becoming secondary to the more pressing issues of survival. Should they make it their first priority to repair the wrecked spaceship so they may continue their journey to their original destination, an established colony some distance onward? Or should they focus their limited resources, both material and human, on making sure they can survive on this planet if it should prove impossible to repair the starship?

Suddenly the story sprang to life, and she was able to write it through to the end with no further hitches. Only as Ms. Bradley was nearing the end did Wolheim suggest that she change a few details to set it on Darkover because a known series would sell better. Thus Darkover Landfall doesn't have the feeling that the author's trying too hard to explain everything which so often mars prequels. In fact, there are some notable contradictions -- the system is described as having only three planets, as opposed to Darkover being known to the Terran Empire as Cottman IV, the fourth planet of Cotman's Star. However, the writing is sufficiently compelling that even dedicated fans have been willing to overlook the discrepancy, even finding ways to explain why the number of planets was miscounted in the haste of getting the ship set down on the marginally habitable world with something resembling safety.

Instead, the harshest criticism of Darkover Landfall would come as MZB became known as one of the leading writers of feminist science fiction, particularly after she wrote The Shattered Chain, her groundbreaking novel of the Renunciates, more often known as the Free Amazons of Darkover. In particular, a number of women took umbrage that Camilla should be denied an abortion when she became pregnant as a result of the Ghost Wind. To them it was an affront to every woman's personhood, a return to the ugly days when women were property, little more than two-footed livestock for the purpose of producing babies. But MZB saw it as a matter of the group's well-being overriding the wishes of any one individual in a survival situation -- particularly when medical resources were desperately scarce and could be better put to use saving a woman who could not carry to term, or some other desperate situation, rather than a purely elective abortion by a woman who did not wish to deal with an unexpected pregnancy that had resulted from a psychedelic drug. Or as Spock put it so succinctly in the climax of The Wrath of Khan, "The needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."

Similarly, Two to Conquor bothered many readers who had come to see MZB as the doyen of feminist science fiction authors. MZB had long disdained the standard action-adventure trope often seen in early science fiction and fantasy of the bad-boy hero who rapes and pillages his way through the story, for whom the principal female character is little more than a bad-conduct prize to be awarded at the end. How could she possibly be writing a novel with just that sort of character as the principal protagonist?

However, Bard mac Fianna, by courtesy called di Asturian, is more than the stereotypical male action hero. Unlike so many interchangeable bulging-thewed bullies who tromp their way through so many science fiction and fantasy worlds slaying everything that gets in their way and taking every woman who strikes their fancy, Bard actually has an interior life. And the entire story revolves around the internal conflict of his profound personal insecurities and the tough-guy image he strives to project. And as is the case with many troubled bullies here in the Primary World, his frequent resort to strong drink as a way of anesthetizing his frustrations only exacerbate his problems.

And that's exactly how his troubles start, when he's a fosterling at the castle of King Ardrin of Asturias, one of the many tiny realms settled Darkover has torn itself into during the time of the Hundred Kingdoms. Big for his age with excellent muscles and reflexes, Bard has already proven himself in combat although he's yet to attain his sixteenth birthday, and his prowess at arms has led the king to honor him with the scarlet cord of a warrior and the position of royal banner-bearer. And Bard is to be wed to the king's own daughter Carlina, setting him high in the king's favor. A very high honor for someone born to the king's brother not from his lawful wife or even from a regular concubine, but from a casual liaison.

But Carlina is frightened by Bard's roughness and quick temper, particularly when he's been drinking. By much pleading with her father she's convinced him to delay the actual marriage until she has completed her fifteenth year, a stipulation Bard greatly resents. He has already been having his way with some of the serving women, and blaming them when they complain of his unwelcome attentions. It doesn't help that he has some minor laran, not enough to make him a strong telepath but just enough to enable him to telepathicly force wills, particularly when he's filled with desire. So their handfasting goes no further than the betrothal -- there will be no consummation until the formal di catinas wedding in a year.

Thus it is in a very bad frame of mind that Bard rides out at the head of a troop of picked men to intercept a caravan bearing the napalm-like clingfire on its way to an enemy's stronghold. The frustrating presence of two unavailable women, the leroni who are to assist the mission with their psionic powers, only exacerbates Bard's steadily growing anger. Throughout the entire battle MZB takes us into Bard's mind, letting us feel with him every humiliation, every blow to his touchy pride made worse by his insecurity about his place, and the defense mechanisms by which he reassures himself that it is everybody else's fault but his own, by which he rejects the promptings of both conscience and common sense to make amends after he offends his foster-brother Beltran, son of the king, in the aftermath of the battle against Dry-Town mercenaries.

And while many of the books that MZB so strenuously objected to would have had their heroes continue to get their way by bullying, MZB brings Bard to the logical consequences of this systematic pattern of attitudes and behaviors. By the Midwinter festival his festering anger against not only Beltran, but everybody he considers to be responsible for his troubles erupts into an ugly fight. He's been drinking, and it has fired his desire while reducing his judgment, leading him to pressure his promised bride to take advantage of the traditional license permitted on the festival night and consummate their handfasting half a year early. A pressure she resists strenuously enough to attract the attention of her brother Beltran, who remonstrates with Bard.

But Bard is already at the boiling point, and he sees in the gesture evidence that Beltran intends to supplant him in Carlina's affections, to instead give her to his friend Geremy Hastur, laranzu and hostage from the lowlands. The quarrel quickly turns ugly, and in a fit of rage Bard plunges his dagger into Geremy's leg, cutting deep. And it's not the ordinary blunt-tipped knife he carries while at home and has used since childhood to cut his meat. Rather it is the ornate dagger he took as prize of war from a Dry-Town mercenary he killed in that fateful mission to intercept the clingfire. A weapon coated with the treacherous poison the Dry-Towners favor, which can cripple or kill even from the smallest scratch.

Suddenly Bard is in more trouble than he's ever imagined in his life, held under house arrest while Geremy raves with poison-induced delirium, hanging between life and death. Only when it is clear that Geremy will indeed survive, if only as a cripple with a withered leg unable to bear weight, is Bard summoned to face the king's justice. During the forty days of his imprisonment he has had ample time to think over his rashness, yet while he has his regrets, they are only for the consequences he will face. He has not truly examined his own role in the altercation, the way his touchy pride and quick temper led him to act rashly. Instead he sees himself first and foremost as a victim of others' scheming, and thus it is with defiant pride that he comes before the king. A pride that only angers his sovereign further and leads to King Ardrin levying an unusually heavy penalty -- seven years' exile and outlawry as a kin-maimer.

Thus Bard spends the next six and a half years learning the arts of war in a much harsher school than the armies of his uncle, as he sells his sword wherever there is trouble. And on Darkover in the time of the Hundred Kingdoms there is never lack of work for any man who has a good hand with a sword and is willing to follow orders. His lusts and hot temper have led to ugly breaks with some of his employers, but never bad enough that he could not find work elsewhere.

And then the news comes that King Ardrin is dead, and thus that sentence of outlawry is no more. So Bard leaves his employment in the high Hellers to return home to the Kilghard Hills, where his father tells him of the chaos that has befallen the kingdom of Asturias since the old man's death. A situation that offers opportunity greater than either of them would have dreamed possible seven years earlier, an opportunity that Bard's experience will set him in good stead to grasp.

Except there is only one of him, and he cannot be everywhere. But his father has a desperate solution, drawing upon one of the great principles of laran science, that everything except a starstone has exactly one exact double somewhere in space and time. By the proper use of a special set of matrices they will seek Bard's double and bring him to the castle -- and to preserve the secret of his double they are willing to kill the matrix workers who make it possible.

That double is Paul Harrell, the Terran we met in the brief prolog -- the reason this novel should appear in an omnibus with the theme of first contact. Like Bard, Paul is a testosterone-driven bad boy. However, he doesn't seem to have the extreme insecurities which drive Bard to misogyny and blame-shifting. Rather, he is a man in desperate need of a frontier, of dangers against which he can bump his nose. Frustrated by the safe, domesticated societies of Terra and Alpha where every motion he makes is fenced in by rules, he led a rebellion that ended in a shootout so violent there could be no question of Rehab (psychological conditioning), but only the stasis box, a sort of indefinite suspended animation.

And Darkover in the time of the Hundred Kingdoms is just the sort of world that offers him endless opportunities for the dangers he craves. So he's quite happy to be presented as Bard's kinsman, a casual by-blow who has been brought from whatever croft he was raised in to help lead Bard's armies. And soon he is masquerading as Bard himself at need, as Asturias begins to absorb the neighboring tiny kingdoms and thus set itself on a collision course with the Hasturs and with Varzil the Good, who seeks to put an end to the horrors of laran warfare.

And then Bard decides to have Paul, who as a Terran is immune to certain types of psionic weapons such as enchantments set upon places, to go to the forbidden Isle of Silence and retrieve Carlina for him. An act that will set both men on the road to their own personal crises of conscience that will remake them from the ground up.

Some people believe that the afterlife will be Heaven for the good and Hell for the bad not because of any specific rewards or torments, but because we will each have all our rationalizations stripped away and see ourselves as we really are, our actions in all their consequences. But on Darkover, the existence of laran means that such revelations don't have to wait for one to pass through the veil of death. And just as MZB has delved into the inner insecurities and weaknesses which Bard has persistently covered with an appearance of strength, she also offers us the hope of redemption that can happen when those falsehoods are cast aside and the truth of one's actions and their consequences is faced squarely.

Review posted January 14, 2010.

Buy Darkover: First Contact (Darkover Omnibus: Darkover Landfall & Two to Conquer) from Amazon.com