Bradley made her first sale as an adjunct to an amateur fiction contest in Amazing Stories in 1949 with the short story “Outpost“, which was published in Amazing Stories Vol. 23, No. 12, the December 1949 issue.
Bradley has had a long association with lesbian and gender issues. Her first professional short story was published as “Women Only.”
Bradley’s two most noted series are, first, The Mists of Avalon, which has been derided as a feminist version of Camelot and, consequently, not to be indulged in. The second is the Darkover series, which, as it’s a series I’m more familiar with it, I’ll focus on it. The Darkover series is full to the brim on ideas about the social impacts of telepathy. What’s impressed me no end, is that Bradley didn’t write this series in any kind of chronological order. She jumped around the evolving plot line’s linear order of sequence, but still manages to make sense of it all.
Darkover is a planet, far from Earth, settled by humans. The native population is often completely ignored in many stories, but plays an integral element in the developing telepathic abilities of the invading population. For the reader new to Bradley’s Darkover series, I’d recommended starting with Landfall and maybe follow up with Stormqueen. This will give you a useful foundation to the entire series. I suppose, it doesn’t matter what order you read many of her Darkover series books in. They usually hold together pretty good as stand alone works. But there are occasional references to previous times and by beginning with these works, you’ll establish a baseline of information that will hold you in good stead with other works in this series.
Landfall establishes some essential plot work. One of the local flowering plants blooms, during a chinnook-like spring wind, with an over abundance of a psychedelic pollen that produces sexually provocative behavior in the human population that has crash landed on the planet. This pollen is critical in cultivating latent telepathic abilities in the stranded human population. The crash landing forces the colonists to change their cultural imperatives and drives them into creating a genetic breeding program, primarily for survival, but also for developing telepathic abilities.
Landfall has been a disappointment for some women. I’ve read reviews by some feminist critics who have vilified the work, expecting something more radical, apparently, from a woman writer. You’ll have to make up your own mind. I’d suggest, however, that the social mores she was publishing under, in the late 40s and 50s (and later), would require such an approach. Today’s post-modernist writers –either male or female– could expect greater leeway in today’s social setting. I still find her ideas provocative. No doubt some women are offended by the roles of planned breeding that her women characters portrayed. Still, stimulating rage is one way to effect social change so you might suppose that her works still gave some impetus for social change even with the roles that her women characters portray in this imagined society.
Stormqueen explores a young girl developing into womanhood as her telepathic abilities start to bloom. The story takes place generations after landfall in a patriarchal feudal society. The girl finds the primal urge to kill the authors of unwanted attentions a difficult impulse to overcome. The power of her budding mental abilities is linked with her sexuality. Her raging hormones compete with emerging telepathic talents; both are hard to control as the woman awakens within her.
Darkover is not a completely closed system, isolated from the affairs of the rest of the galaxy. The Darkovan native telepathic talents permit them some advantages over an Earth dominated galaxy and they use these talents to forge political alliances. They maintain a perception of feudal inferiority in the face of technologically superior Terrans. Darkovans remain apart from, and yet joined to, the galactic community. Some of the stories in this series explore that connection, but many of her works never acknowledge this connection beyond some references to the off worlder spaceport.
The World Wreckers acknowledges the importance of this off world connection when a corporate body tries to open up Darkover for exploitation; exploitation that has failed miserably in the past.
The Alton Gift (published with Deborah J. Ross) explores the story of a Darkovan planetary ambassador to Earth, Lew Alton. In Exile’s Song, his daughter Margaret Alton, portrays a returning Darkovan patriot. The Shadow Matrix is a direct sequel to this story.
Margaret returns from Earth, trained at a university as a musicologist, to a Darkover she knows nothing about, but has precognitive visions popping into her head. Without any political ambitions, she becomes critical to the on planet political struggles as her telepathic gifts awaken.
Acculturation also requires her to adopt new views on sexual mores. As her telepathy develops, as the invasiveness of others thoughts impinge on her mind, she is confronted by how much her own thoughts are impinging on others. It’s unsettling to all involved and evolving personality traits are frequently in conflict. Not just because of their intrusiveness, but because of the expectations that Darkovan society places on her breeding her gifts into others. Many of the sexual liaisons have incestuous overtones that will duly shock religious right-wing advocates.
Her own religious background was Episcopalian, but she had a brief flirtation with neo-paganism. She also wrote outside the speculative fiction genre, usually classed as gay/lesbian pulp fiction. In 1962, she published “I Am A Lesbian.” Mild by today’s standards, at the time of publication, it was labeled pornographic. She refused to reveal her pseudonym for those titles for a long time.
Her exploration of sexual identities may not be your cup of tea, but for many of those who followed her writing, Bradley was seen a banner to follow. Many of her fans were, and are, quite loyal to her. In fact, many of Bradley’s fans have enthusiastically offered their own writing efforts in Friends of Darkover volumes.
In closing, I’d like to offer up one of her more interesting quotes:
“I wasn’t a child at 13, were you?”
___Marion Zimmer Bradley
I suspect that numerous readers of her works may agree with her, perhaps because they began reading her works at that age.