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To Save a World by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Cover art by Romas

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When Marion Zimmer Bradley first began writing, the market for science fiction was primarily magazines, which published short stories. The paperback science fiction market was still in its infancy, and publishers wanted short, tight works that would produce a volume little thicker than a perfect-bound magazine. Many of the earliest novels were fix-ups, in which a series of short stories originally published individually were put together to form a whole greater than the sum of the parts. At the time a novel of 60,000 words was at the upper end of what a publisher would take a look at.

Which meant that MZB had a problem with her original sprawling epic of an exile returning home to face treachery. The problems of storytelling skills not yet fully developed aside, it was simply too long and complex to be marketable in the marketplace of that time, particularly from an unknown. So in an effort to put together something salable, she concentrated in plotting a short, tight novel that would concentrate primarily on a single problem, a single goal. The intricate interrelationships of the Comyn that she had developed over a decade of writing for the dresser drawer were too complex to set forth in such a brief space, so she concentrated only upon the Hasturs and Regis Hastur as their representative in the desperate mission to find a cure for the trailmen's fever before it ravaged the planet yet again.

However, even he would be relegated to the position of supporting character, while the story would focus primarily upon Jay Allison, a mild-mannered Terran scientist who must somehow undertake the daunting mission into the wilds of Darkover. At the time MZB had been reading a novel based upon the theory that every person had a second, alternative personality which in the imagined society was permitted a certain amount of face time. If the human mind really worked that way, MZB reasoned, might Jay Allison be able to bring forward a personality more suited to the job?

So he submits himself to treatment and forth comes tough-guy Jason, who retains Jay's critical skill sets but has an approach to life diametrically opposed to that of the more retiring Jay. He's more than capable of handling the purely physical conflicts with nature that will be part and parcel of the journey into the Hellers to the land of the trailmen, but how will he handle interpersonal ones? Specifically, how will he rise to the challenge of having to deal with a female in a position of authority? Will he be able to defer to her for the good of the mission, or will his tough-guy need to be in charge get in the way of common-sense awareness of her expertise?

Thus MZB created Kyla Raineach, a licensed guide and a Free Amazon. At the time, MZB didn't have that much interest in the internal structure of this organization of emancipated women who entered into typically masculine occupations in an otherwise quite patriarchal society, or even what it would mean to have such an organization in the society she was describing. She just wanted someone for Jason to have to deal with, someone who would present a major challenge that could put the entire mission at risk if he could not overcome his reflexive responses to her. Only many years later, when markets began to change, would she begin to explore the Free Amazons, also known as the Renunciates, in more depth.

For the moment, the important thing was to get a story that would be publishable. And that meant get her characters safely into the Hellers and make contact with the trailmen in order to find the vital biologicals that would enable them to formulate the all-important cure. And if having to deal with a woman in a key position of authority isn't hard enough for tough-guy Jason, he soon discovers that the treatment which brought him forth isn't quite so stable as everyone had taken for granted. Far from it, he's beginning to crumble around the edges and Jay is re-emerging, just as the mission is entering its most critical phase.

The Planet Savers isn't a complex or soul-searching book like some of MZB's later Darkover novels, particularly The Heritage of Hastur and The Shattered Chain, and in her later years MZB was apt to try to disavow it, even regretting having created the plot device of the recurring trailmen's fever. But in a very real way that novel was key to the very existence of the rest of Darkover. If she had not written it well enough to sell, and to do sufficiently well that her publisher was interested in buying more Darkover, the Darkover phenomenon would have died stillborn. But she succeeded, and as a result she was able to finally sell that huge sprawling adventure, if in somewhat edited form, as The Sword of Aldones (it would later be reworked near the end of her career as Sharra's Exile, bringing the skill level up to that of The Heritage of Hastur but losing some of its charm and immediacy in the process). Soon her publisher was asking for yet another Darkover novel.

After writing a few more, MZB was getting quite thoroughly tired of Darkover. She wanted to get away from the world she had created when she was young and didn't know that much about the ins and outs of formal plotting and worldbuilding. So she decided that it was time to write a Darkover story that would permanently foreclose the possibility of ever writing another story in that universe again. She would destroy Darkover.

Not literally of course -- she had no intention of shattering it into a new asteroid belt in the fashion of some of the old space operas (when she wrote it, in 1971, Star Wars and its planet-smashing Death Star were still five years in the future, but there'd been plenty of examples of super-weapons in the early pulps). Rather, this final Darkover story would involve a battle that would destroy everything that made Darkover itself. It is likely she was aware of Frank Herbert's Dune and its theme of ecological transformation -- and even if she hadn't read it, certainly she was aware of the concept of ecology, because it was part of the great intellectual ferment of the late 60's and early 70's which questioned the received wisdom about science, technology and Progress which had been central values of American civilization from the Gilded Age to the 50's.

So it would be an ecological battle, attempting to sabotage the basis of Darkovan survival in such a way that Darkover would be left with no choice but to open the doors to the Terran Empire's trade and industrial development. Thus MZB created the Worldwreckers, a particularly nasty covert organization which specialized in just this sort of destruction. An organization whose founder had an extraordinary and tragic secret which would eventually emerge in the most astonishing way.

But the story of ecological sabotage alone could not carry the novel, just as Frank Herbert had discovered when he tried to write the story of Pardot Kynes enlisting the aid of the Fremen in realizing his dream of transforming Arrakis into a world where greenery could grow in the open. MZB needed more conflicts to interlock with the Empire's covert attempt to bring Darkover to its knees -- conflicts that would not only pit her characters against one another, but against themselves as well.

So she added the storyline of sympathetic Terran scientists developing a new kind of EEG machine that was able to objectively detect and measure the existence of telepathic activity in the brain, which in theory would put an end to the Terrans' endless scoffing at Darkovan laran science. Except there are just enough people who, when confronted with evidence that invalidates a theory they hold near and dear, will seek to discredit or destroy the evidence rather than have to reconsider the theory.

And then there is Keral, who may well be the very last fertile member of Darkover's ancient native race, the chieri. They'd been glimpsed in a few other novels, particularly Star of Danger, but only as mysterious epicene figures seen from a distance, at most met briefly before the protagonists were sent on their way. But now Keral was being sent down to the lowlands in order to seek some hope that his people might not go completely extinct. Long lived, and hermaphroditic, yet because of their telepathy tending to form intense pair-bonds that would not admit casual liaisons with others, they had over the centuries and millennia slipped into an impasse by which they were often unable to come into their fertile periods in tandem. As a result, conception had become increasingly rare, finally falling beneath the replacement rate for even a race so long-lived as to seem effectively immortal to ordinary humans.

Except there is one huge problem -- Keral has developed an emotional attachment to the male protagonist, David Hamilton, a Terran and quite straight. So even as Keral begins the shift from appearing male to becoming a functioning female, David has to deal with his own sense that Keral is at some level really a male who has taken on feminine characteristics, that they are engaging in activities that his culture has taught him to regard as unnatural and disgusting. It was MZB's first tentative delving into issues of homosexuality and homophobia, carefully covered over by the science-fictional element of the alien race capable of shifting back and forth between male and female forms and functionality, but already the themes of the importance of compassion and acceptance were beginning to appear.

And her intent of destroying Darkover for good so it would be impossible to ever write any more stories in it again? It went about as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's idea of throwing Sherlock Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls so that he'd never have to write another story about the consulting detective. When she set forth to write a new novel taking place on a newly discovered planet, it oddly began to morph into a story of the lost ship which had provided Darkover's human population. And with an increasing clamor for further Darkover novels from her fans, she finally surrendered to the inevitable and continued to write about Darkover, although she would also write many novels in other worlds as well.

In addition to these two early Darkover novels, there is also a short story, "The Waterfall." Although MZB had a lifelong detestation of horror, she had a definite appreciation for the finer points of the psychological thriller. To her mind, a story should give the reader chills and a strong desire to leave the light on at bedtime, not the urge to lose one's lunch. And this story is certainly chilling, dealing as it does with deep psychological disturbance along the lines of psychopathy or sociopathy.

Review posted January 14, 2010

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