Deborah Ross solicited me to write a story for a new Darkover anthology a while back, and was very understanding about extending the deadline when I had a grad school-related crisis. Thank you, Deborah!

The anthology is out now. My story is a novelette (10K) about a genetically engineered sex slave and an emmasca (intersex person). It features food porn, hurt-comfort, psychic powers, and wilderness survival (typical Rachel tropes), and an asshole father (mandatory Darkover trope.) Also rabbithorns. I assume those are rabbits with horns.

Here's me describing my story in slightly more detail.

The anthology also features Janni Simner, Judith Tarr, Kari Sperring, and other excellent authors. If you like Darkover, you will probably like it.

Stars of Darkover (Darkover anthology Book 14)
I have a story in an upcoming Darkover anthology, Stars of Darkover! I was so excited to be invited to write for it. I'm also excited to read everyone else's stories.

My story, "The Fountain's Choice," is set in the Stormqueen! era, when there was lots of genetic engineering and decadence. It's about an emmasca and a riyachiya (an intersex person and a genetically engineered sex slave, neither of them entirely human), and I had a lot of fun writing it. It was a bit of a Yuletide-esque experience, complete with firing off multiple peculiar canon questions to an expert (in this case, Deborah, the editor), like "Exactly how long would it take to walk from x location to y location?" and "Is it obvious from birth that a baby is an emmasca?"
This was always my favorite of the Darkover series, and will probably remain so. It's the sequel to The Shattered Chain, which I will get around to reading eventually, but those events are helpfully recapped in TH so you don't need to read them in order. I would avoid the awful and depressing sequel, City of Sorcery.

This is one of my favorite story archetypes, "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse." In The Shattered Chain, Terran (but partially Darkovan-raised) agent Magda has to travel across Darkover to rescue her ex-husband, Peter Haldane. Because Darkover is so sexist, the only way she can travel alone is to disguise herself as a Free Amazon (aka Renunciate), which is an organization of women who renounce men's protection and men's names. She gets caught by some real Renunciates, including a woman named Jaelle, who force her to take the Renunciate's oath for real. They all rescue Peter Haldane, Jaelle and Magda bond, Jaelle and Peter get married, and Magda decides to honor her oath and join the Renunciates.

When Thendara House opens, Jaelle has moved into the Terran Zone with Peter, and Magda is about to move into Thendara House with the Renunciates, to stay inside the house (which in many ways resembles a 1970s feminist commune, if some members were mercenary soldiers) for a six-month period of feminist boot camp. Most of the novel is split between Magda's story and Jaelle's, though they interact occasionally within it and there's an adventure story toward the end that they're both involved in. But the meat of the book is two women having culture shock as they trade each other's lives.

For all the unlikeliness of Thendara House, it is MZB's most believable creation. The women's personalities are vivid and the day-to-day tasks are even more so, and Magda's culture shock gives her extra obstacles to struggle with in secret, as only the Guild Mother knows she's Terran. The tedium, petty squabbles, and uncomfortable living conditions in the commune make the women's idealism seem even more convincing and admirable. Like any boot camp story, it's about the protagonist being torn down and built up and becoming a stronger person, and as I read it, mostly I was glad it wasn't me and sometimes I wished it was. Plus, there are martial arts, a sword fight, consciousness-raising sessions, psychic powers, and lesbian sex. Camilla, the emmasca (neutered woman, whatever that means) who falls in love with Magda, is my favorite character, and I am always sorry as I read that Magda loves someone else more. All the same, TH is just about the only place in Darkover where women have sex because they want to have sex, so enjoy it.

Jaelle's counterpoint story is more problematic because Terran society is less internally consistent than that of the Renunciates. Peter Haldane is a narcissistic, controlling sexist pig, so it is incredible that both Jaelle and Magda would have married him. Moreover, all the Terrans are sexist in exactly the same way that 1950s America was sexist: it is impossible for Jaelle to get her name into the computer system as anything other than "Mrs. Peter Haldane," and no one will address her as anything else. People come from all these different planets, some with higher gravity or a brighter sun, but it's inconceivable to them that a woman could keep her own name after she's married? Jaelle reports to a female superior (Cholayna, who is very cool), but all the other female Terrans are either wives or coffee-fetchers for men. At various points Darkovan society is blamed for the inability of female agents to get promoted, as Darkovans won't take them seriously, but since Terrans also don't take women seriously this seems a big cop-out.

Toward the end, Jaelle gets in trouble, Magda goes to the rescue, and then all these characters from The Forbidden Tower show up, rather out of the blue. I never remember this section when re-reading the book until I get to it, and it's because it seems to come from a different book. The heart of Thendara House is the eponymous house and what it does to Magda. However, I have to ask... does Jaelle actually have a child by Damon? Is that Cleindori, or is Cleindori the little blonde girl who makes a brief appearance at the end, or has she not been born yet at that point? This is all going to come to a tragic end, isn't it?
I read this as part of an omnibus, To Save a World, which also included The Planet Savers and a short story, "The Waterfall." The latter demonstrates both MZB's often weird and creepy sexual politics, and that she was not very good at short stories. A psychic young woman gets rejected by a Tower because the Keeper senses something off about her. So she goes back home, where a serving man tries to rape her, then relents when he realizes that she's a lady and not another servant. If this was supposed to make him more sympathetic, it backfired. She then has consensual sex with him, then claims he raped her and has him killed. If this was supposed to make me feel sorry for him, it didn't work. Turns out she's a psychic vampire who feeds on fear and death. If this was supposed to make me feel anything other than grossed out by the entire story, it failed.

The World Wreckers is one of the earlier Darkover books in terms of when MZB wrote it, but is late in terms of Darkovan time, being set after Sharra's Exile. It reads rather oddly as a result, as MZB clearly got better ideas later (and wrote them better too), and so events and characterization doesn't quite mesh with what was portrayed in later books about earlier events. For instance, in this book Regis Hastur is not gay.

A horrifying corporation, the World Wreckers, has been hired to do what they do, which is destroy the environment and economy of a world to force it to join the Terran Empire to get the help it needs to survive. The mysterious woman in charge of World Wreckers starts her Darkover operation by mass-murdering telepaths, burning down the forests (which also causes a number of deaths), and planting a virus that destroys the fertility of the soil. The eventual explanation of why she's so mean does not make her more sympathetic in my eyes, because she's still a genocidal mass murderer, and she does not deserve the forgiveness she gets. (Yes, yes, I am sympathetic toward at least one other fictional mass murderer, but Hakkai had better reasons, was insane at the time, and most of his victims deserved it anyway. Also he is a more convincing and sympathetically drawn character. Cuter, too.)

So Regis and the Terrans send for non-Darkover psychics to figure out how psychic talents work, because this will help them. Somehow. This turns into the most interesting part of the book, as two of the male psychics get romantically involved with hermaphroditic aliens, and all four parties must overcome prejudices, fears, and difficulties in order to make their relationships succeed. This is a really nice theme, and the best part of the book. Generally speaking, though, this is an attempt at a less pulpy and more serious book with emotional depth, more like The Heritage of Hastur than Wings of Darkover, and she didn't quite have the writing chops to pull it off at that time. It's fine for what it is, but there's a definite feeling of more ambition than skill.

So far, in this reading and re-reading binge, my favorites have been The Heritage of Hastur, Stormqueen! Star of Danger, and The Bloody Sun. In case anyone's keeping track. Thendara House (an old favorite), Hawkmistress, or The Forbidden Tower will be next. Does anyone like The Shattered Chain? I was thinking of skipping it because I recall disliking it, but maybe I should read it before Thendara House.
The Planet Savers is hardly long enough to be considered a novella these days, but was MZB's first published work on Darkover. Every forty-eight years, a massive plague hits Darkover and kills eighty percent of the population. I know, I know, that makes no sense that they could have any sort of civilization under those circumstances, so I will assume that MZB was unclear about how bad it was and meant that it had eighty percent mortality but most people had a natural immunity and never got it. Or something. Sensibly, she forgets all about the plague in every subsequent book. Anyway, the reclusive non-human Darkover native trailmen get a mild version as children, so someone needs to get their cooperation so the Terrans can devise a cure.

An uptight doctor is the only person anywhere who speaks the language of the trailmen, having been raised by them when his father's plane crashed into their jungle city, but he now hates them and won't cooperate. So a psychiatrist gives him multiple personality disorder in order to produce a version of him who loves the trailmen and is dying to help out. Also featuring a Free Amazon and the first appearance of Regis Hastur. Fun but very much a first try.

Sharra's Exile is also a first try of sorts, being a totally rewritten version of The Sword of Aldones, which MZB wrote when she was fifteen and which I haven't read. Yet. It's a sequel to The Heritage of Hastur, and, as [ profile] coffeeandink points out, does not have enough of the sweet true love of Regis and Danilo. It has other problems too, such as an unwieldy melding of plausible political maneuvering and purple pulpisms. One moment everyone's squabbling over the Alton inheritance, the next moment Gods are running around and people are randomly dropping dead.

Anyway, tortured, one-handed Lew Alton is back, mentally bound to the evil Sharra matrix and enmeshed in a telepathic relationship with his father that's even more fucked-up than it was before he lost his hand, if that's possible. At one point he has incestuous fantasies about his father. Eeeew! Lew/Kennard, now there's a pairing that will never be popular. Anyway, Lew's wife (yes, he sort of randomly obtains a Darkovan wife while offplanet) gives birth to a dead mutant monster baby because Sharra ruined Lew's sperm, then runs off, then Kennard charges Lew with the Alton estate and drops dead, so Lew goes back to Darkover and finds that he'd been drugged and raped while under the influence of Sharra and so had a baby golden-eyed girl with laran by a half-chieri woman (apparently the sperm problem happened later), and meanwhile he's half in love with a Keeper, and...

This is a book with lots of "ands"...

...Aaaaand the only thing that will stop Sharra is the Sword of Aldones in the Dungeon of Dread Tower of Hali, which is warded so carefully that the only way to get it is to teleport in the Terran duplicate (this is so dumb I'm having trouble explaining it, but everything in the world has a duplicate but a matrix, and Lew just happened to meet a nurse offplanet who is the duplicate of someone he knows on Darkover) so they teleport her in, and more stuff happens.

I once more must echo [ profile] coffeeandink in the view that the best part of the book was Regis getting put in charge of the entire planet.
This is all [ profile] coffeeandink's fault. Who would have thought that my hunger for pulp sf with psychic powers and adventures and exotic landscapes and culture shock, which has gone so long denied because most of what's written in the genre is so clunky that I can't read it, would be satisfied by, of all people, Marion Zimmer Badley? True, her prose sometimes clunks, but not so loudly that I can't read it. Although I do wish that she had stopped herself from the over-use of "somehow," which I keep wanting to redline: "Somehow he knew the storm was unnatural," "Somehow, she was able to tap into a surge of power," "He somehow found the strength to go on--" in every case, the sentence would be better without the somehow. And yet somehow, I continue to read.

I liked both of these a lot. The nice thing about re-reading books I last read when I was fifteen is that I don't recall what happened in any of them, but I have very very vague recollections of which I thought sucked, so I can avoid them and just read the ones I recall liking. Stormqueen! is an exception: I didn't actually ever read the whole thing. I had a bad feeling a few chapters in, flipped to the end, and was so disturbed that I never read the rest. So with that one, I went in knowing what happened, but not how or why.

The Heritage of Hastur concerns the sweet true love between two teenage boys, depressed crown prince (sort of) Regis Hastur, who can't use his telepathic powers, and Danilo Syrtis, abused cadet and catalyst telepath. You see how neatly that works? Their story is very reminiscent of oldish coming-out novels, full of fraught moments and silences and memories of the first time a boy knew he was different. Only it's all so much more fun when there's telepathy involved. The villain here, six-fingered Dyan Ardais, is rather more complex and interesting than evil older sadistic gay child-molesting predators usually are.

There is second story going on, involving Regis' childhood pal Lew Alton, now grown-up and suffering from a common affliction of MZB's male protagonists, the tendency to cut off their noses to spite their faces. This is generally expressed in the form of "I am so rebellious that if an authority figure wants me to do something, I'll do the opposite, even if we both really want the same thing." After a fight with his admittedly overbearing father Kennard Alton, Lew takes off for the notorious clan of Aldaran, and there discovers that there's a reason why everyone thinks Aldaran is bad news. (Do we ever learn what exactly was the reason they were banished?) I can't help feeling that a great deal of tragedy and trauma would have been averted if Lew had just given a chance to the perfectly nice woman his father was trying to set him up with, whom he rejected solely because society would have approved of the match.

Stormqueen! takes place way earlier, but also involves crazy Aldarans meddling with powers they can't control, which also leads to disastrous results. It also is the first indication that no one should ever name their girl baby Dorilys.

In the Ages of Chaos before the coming of the Terrans, laran has been enhanced to a fantastic degree by a eugenics program which favors strength over stability, so people are born with incredible powers, but tend to die at birth, drop dead at puberty, go insane, or be unable to control their powers and cause huge amounts of trouble before going insane or dropping dead. Oh, and they've also developed a whole range of nasty laran-powered or laran-created weapons, including napalm. And they can directly manipulate genes, and thus created some non-human sex slaves. It's all very oppressive and decadent.

Dorilys Aldaran is a little girl who can call lightning, but isn't so good with controlling it. Her increasingly nutty father calls in several psychics to teach her to control her powers, but it's a big struggle and the neighboring kingdom is trying to seize his, and everything goes horribly, horribly, horribly wrong. Oh, and there's incest. Why does everything I've read in the last few months involve incest?
Lew Alton, Regis Hastur, et al: "Dyan Ardais broke my elbow! Dyan Ardais ruins the lives of innocent cadets! Dyan Ardais rapes twelve small boys before breakfast every morning!"

Kennard Alton: "Now, now, everyone's got their little quirks."

Regis Hastur: "And also, Dyan Ardais made illegal use of telepathy for the purposes of sexual harassment."

Kennard Alton: "OMG! He must be stopped!"
This is all
[ profile] coffeeandink's fault.

These are a set of old (1965-1970) sf novels about Darkover, a vividly evoked lost colony where, due to interbreeding with native psychic aliens, a caste of red-headed telepaths evolved, used their psychic powers to commit massively destructive acts, then renounced all weapons that kill at a distance and most of their psychic technology, became sexist semi-feudal semi-barbarians, and then get rediscovered by the Terran empire and have to deal with questions of who has the better culture and whose culture will come to dominate the planet. [ profile] coffeeandink explains it much better than that.

I was fond of Darkover when I was a teenager, but didn't re-read many of them as an adult for fear that they would be awful, until Mely inspired me. They hold up much better than I had expected.

All three of these have more or less the same plot-- a red-headed male Terran or half-Terran or Darkovan who thinks he's a Terran comes to Darkover, re-connects with his heritage, discoveres that he has psychic powers, male-bonds with red-headed psychic Darkovans and/or falls in love with a red-headed psychic Darkovan woman. But these all read quite differently and don't seem repetitive. I enjoyed all three of these very much, but probably Star of Danger the most.

Read more... )


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