It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally finished a book that counts towards SamAnnElizabeth’s When Are You Reading? Challenge. I think the main problem is that I’ve been reading a lot of epic/high fantasy that doesn’t correlate to the challenge’s timeline. Still, here’s my take on Darkover Landfall by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which counts towards the Future time.
I’ve read some of the Darkover books before, so I thought I knew what I was getting into, but this series continues to be an uncomfortable read, thanks mostly to outdated gender roles/expectations.
Darkover Landfall tells of a colonist ship forced to crash land on a planet (the eponymous Darkover). Due to damage to the ship, the colonists (destined for a different planet) and the ship’s crew set up a temporary encampment and begin to explore the uncharted planet. The group out exploring is afflicted by a ‘ghost wind’ that causes hallucinations and acts as a sort of aphrodisiac. Later on, it affects the entirety of the colonists and ship crew, with disastrous results: during the madness, someone destroys the ship’s computers, rendering them incapable of fixing the damaged ship. Colonists and crew alike must now figure out how to have a society on a planet low in minerals, with poor soil, colder weather, limited technology, the periodic ghost wind – and two shy native species.
Later books in the world’s timeline develop both native species more, as well as psychic talents hinted at during this book. But Darkover Landfall is more concerned with a social commentary on what happens when a futuristic society finds itself forced to resort to a more primitive society.
While the social commentary itself is interesting – use of technology and what should be preserved, gender roles, and governing systems – it is also incredibly problematic. Bradley writes about women having more issues getting pregnant, carrying to term, and delivering healthy children, although apparently sperm is unaffected by whatever troubles the female half of human reproduction. Because of this problem, women who get pregnant are not permitted to abort, nor are women given a choice about trying to get pregnant. The character Camilla Del Rey, upon finding herself pregnant after the ghost winds strike, wishes to abort her child because she doesn’t wish to give up her career. She is told, however, that she is expected not only to carry the child to term but to also then try to have even more children and, further, that while pregnant she may not work – they need her resting and focusing on the baby.
Having read other Darkover books, I wasn’t expecting a masterwork of feminism. Far from it, as a matter of fact, since I know the world of Darkover descends into a medieval lifestyle and women get treated as chattel, brood mares, and valued only for what they can bring to marriage alliances and what psychic abilities they can pass onto their children. Also, it is a book from the 70’s. However, I was still expecting some kind of commentary on the descent into this kind of society, especially since the characters are coming from a futuristic world and the book is being written by someone who has written books that challenge gender roles.
Unfortunately, there is no challenging of gender roles. Camilla Del Rey (mentioned above) may start the book as the second officer on the spaceship but her choices are taken from her and no one seems to see any issue with this. Further, another character has a sexual encounter with one of the alien races on the planet and everyone else on the world – mostly the males, but also several females – consider her claim of such to be a fabrication or dream brought on by the ghost wind. They are all convinced she simply had sex with one of the other human males and can’t remember which one or does not wish to name him. There is never any consideration that she is anything but hysterical or mentally unhinged. Normally I might not highlight this as problematical in a feminist way, but since no one else in the book who is affected by the ghost wind is treated as any more hysterical or unhinged than the rest, I found it to be yet more indications of the troubling portrayal of women and their roles in the book as a whole.
On the whole, not a book I would recommend and not one I particularly enjoyed.