Darkover Landfall reviewed by Vonda N. McIntyre

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Title: Darkover Landfall reviewed by Vonda N. McIntyre
Creator: Vonda N. McIntyre
Date(s): November 1974
Medium: print
Fandom: Darkover, feminism, science fiction
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Darkover Landfall reviewed by Vonda N. McIntyre was printed in The Witch and the Chameleon #2 in November 1974.

first page of the review as it appeared in The Witch and the Chameleon #2

Darkover Landfall is a book by Marion Zimmer Bradley that centers around a character named Camilla Del Rey and her role in a Colony Expedition Force.

The review sparked a vigorous debate in the zine via letters from fans, as well as Marion Zimmer Bradley herself. It also was what propelled Joanna Russ to write We Who Are About To....

Some of the Reviewer's Main Points

  • the book is a polemic
  • the book is an example of how much MZB hated the feminist movement, but that dislike is based on misunderstandings and distortions
  • birth control is still the responsibility of women; male contraception is never mentioned
  • MZB suspends the belief for her readers: "These "trivial" and easily-corrected technical flaws of fact and unlikely extrapolations make believing MZB virtually impossible when she makes a more significant scientific extrapolation on a major point."
  • MZB is careless with science
  • MZB makes Darkover seem like it was populated by "Scots farmers who dress, act, and speak like mid-1960s hippies"
  • "We are never told how Camilla Del Rey's hormones became "abnormal" in the first place— too much education, perhaps?"

Excerpts from the Original Review

If Darkover Landfall were not such a nearly brilliant book, it would not need reviewing. If it were a potboiler, a churned-out piece of trash, as unfortunately so much sf is, it could be ignored and forgotten. But it is a book written with emotion and conviction, and it is a book with passages of stunning beauty and effect which testify to the ability of the author.

Yet the same author destroyed her own book. She has not written the novel that could have been, but a polemic. In an attempt to prove, justify, and strengthen a particular point of view, she perpetuates some of the cruelest and most crippling myths our society holds in shaky sacredness today.

I disagree with critics who decry "relevance" in science fiction, because I believe that all good fiction is relevant to the human condition. But "relevance" cannot be poured unentered into a story or a novel: the form and the substance must be compatible. Without balance and grace in its use, "relevance" turns into propaganda, which in turn transforms dialogue into lecture, opinion to fact-by-proclamation. Anachronism overpowers invention. This is the process that overtook Darkover Landfall.
In Darkover Landfall, MZB shows that she deeply distrusts and dislikes the feminist movement. This is her privilege. However, she also shows that her distrust and hatred are based on profound misunderstanding and misinterpretation. She has, it seems, taken her views from anti-feminists who believe feminism to be the result of raging hormones, overcrowding, and a pathological hatred of children. (To MZB, feminists are women who reject the idea of bearing and raising children. The truth is that feminists are people who reject the idea that women's lives must consist of nothing but bearing and rearing children, is for some people, MZB included, apparently indistinguishable from the original statement.) To demonstrate the unacceptability of the feminist movement, she sets up a complicated system of plot twists. This complex of unjustified and in some cases ridiculous "givens" is what distorts the structure of her novel to the point where its considerable beauty in setting, scope, and occasionally in characterization is obscured and ultimately destroyed.

The second plot twist is the rationale for the unavailability of abortion. When Camilla Del Rey becomes pregnant, she is forced to remain so by a combination of disapproval (by men) for her reluctance to bear children, and the society's abhorrence for abortion. On earth, MZB claims, "unwanted children were simply never conceived." [p 66]. This is utter nonsense, given the method of contraception she adopted, which requires a trip to a doctor once per month every month without fail. I could easily accept a dislike for abortion in a society, if the background for the response were compelling and compassionate. Here, it is neither. Nor is the claim that abortion is mechanically impossible in the colony's state state of medical technology.

One of the main factors in sucessful fiction is that elusive process, "willing suspension of disbelief." Though it occurs in the reader, it is the responsibility of the writer. Sf writers in particular, creating new worlds whole, must pay particular attention to reality, even in minor detail, to give texture and dimension to their work. Extrapolations must be based on an accurate grasp of fact as we know it (or, conversely, on a direct rejection of reality as we know it, which is even harder, for the farther from reality a fantasy world ventures, the more self-consistent it must be). An error can easily destroy a reader's confidence in the writer or turn a gripping scene into slapstick. Errors can make suspension of disbelief more and more unwilling, and ultimately sap a story of every drop of validity or impact. Bradley demands of herself neither scrupulous scientific accuracy nor self-consistent fantasy.

The fourth main deus-ex-machina plot device is Bradley's analysis of Women's Liberation (given in a man's speech to Camilla Del Rey, who has just discovered she is pregnant):

"Man is a rationalising animal, so sociologists called it 'Women's Liberation' and things like that, but what it amounted to was a pathological reaction to overpopulation and overcrowding. Women who couldn't be allowed to have children, had to be given some other work, for the sake of their mental health. But it wears off.... By the time the baby comes, you'll probably have normal hormones too, and make a good mother." [p 115]

This speech has perhaps the highest density of logical and factual errors of any paragraph in print this side of Erik Von Daniken. First, it Is spectacularly obvious that the feminist movement is a function of societies with a relatively low population density. (If Bradley's hypothesis were accurate, Calcutta would consist of 52% radical feminists.) Second, no one is now preventing women in the feminist movement from having children; and relatively few people are eagerly offering us fulfilling work. The exact opposite is true, and the result has been a strenthenlng of the feminist movement, not a weakening as Bradley would predict.

It is a book in which all conflicts, whether arising from differences in class, power, status, or individual opinion, are interpreted as disagreements between logical, strong, sensible men on the one hand and "stubborn female officers" and pregnant women with "notions" on the other. It is a book with little resonance for anyone who does not agree with its postulates, with no sympathy for or insight into anyone who does not conform to its ideals.

It is a tragedy, for it could have been a masterpiece. Had MZB not decided to use Darkover Landfall as a strike against the feminist movement, she would have put her main characters into real, human conflict requiring real struggle for solution, instead of into symbolic conflict as personifications of opposing philosophies, one of which has the power to resolve problems arbitrarily. She would have created a real and believable interstellar society, fascinating and self-consistent, rather than recreating the social system of mid-20th century USA with its schizophrenic divisions and constricting "ideals." And she might have done it in a way that would have given some insight into the conservative reaction to feminism.

But the book-that-might-have-been is a book by a different writer, one who refused to be blinded by the lure of propaganda and the easy pleasure of setting up straw men (or women) and then knocking them down.


Responses: Printed in "The Witch and the Chameleon"

The Main Letters

The Minor Letters

[Hal Davis, issue #3] Vonda McIntyre's devastating demolition of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover Landfall was the best item in the issue.
[ Jacqueline Lichtenberg, issue #3]: By the way, I flatly disagree with Vonda's review of Darkover Landfall. I know something of what went into that book, and polemics was not one of the ingredients. For every anti-femlnist statement there is a pro-feminist statement elsewhere to balance it and the emphasis is on the TEARING IRONY of technological Woman thrown back to the status of breed cow. In the series later, keepers's pose another kind of problem. The series must he taken as a whole and viewed as asking questions not stating an opinion.
[ Devra Langsam, issue #4]:

I found Witch #3 very interesting. I can't help feeling that I would have agreed with Vonda's review cf Darkover Landfall, because I was very much irritated by the book, and I like Marion Bradley's books very much. Granted that the skills of a spaceship officer are not likely to be too useful to a planet-bound colony, and that if you don't produce a new generation, you won't have anyone to take care of you, produce food, maintain the fires in your old age, still... there must be a more graceful way of working the thing. What particularly got me was the assumption that a woman who miscarried should be let to die, since she wasn't up to producing viable offspring. (as though she had nothing else to offer)... lots of people miscarry and then afterwards carry to term. Further, a new colony, with a limited supply of labour, could very well differentiate between bearers, one set of useful people, and laborers,, another set of useful people - and NO reason why a woman who couldn't bear should not be a childless (but very valuable) laborer.

[ Jacqueline Lichtenberg, issue #4]:

Witch & Chameleon is really growing and looking good, You have gathered some very impressive contributors. And your format and appearance are nice, too.

If that was an editorial comment on page 41 about technology ((Yes.)) then I agree and in many oblique ways I am working in this area myself. However, being a perrenial [sic] maverick, I do not believe (as Marion Bradley does) that a book in a series MUST stand on its own at all costs. I think that considering the cost of publishing, today, it is time to re-think many of our assumptions, and "stand alone" is one of them.

[Avedon Carol, issue #5/6]:

Ah, my mind is clearer now. Poul Anderson and Marion Zimmer Bradley have given me the answers I have been seeking. If I am a "competent, determined" science fiction writer, my gynecologist will not tell me that the pain in my abdomen (which is actually caused by an ovarian cyst) is "nothing" for $25, the creeps who keep tying up my line with obscene phone calls will stop, the auto mechanic will not overcharge me even more than he overcharges everyone else because I refuse to play patty-cake with him, the doctor who delivers my baby will not needlessly slice my perineum, and males who I am merely a cock teaser when they find out I have no intention of going to bed with them.

I guess it is also my fault that I was not raised on a farm, but born instead to the son and daughter of a bunch of Armenian immigrants who learned that a woman must not speak to a man outside of her family until she is married; and that I was raised in the suburbs where the idea of a woman doing anything besides getting married and doing housework was not even discussed. I can't imagine why I was so limited that it never occurred to me that I could be a doctor [...].

... since I am obviously unfit for anything other than mere clerical work, I shall simply have to pray that despite my blatant incompetent, some wierd trick of fate will prevent me from walking into a rapist; or that, even I do get raped, the experience will turn me into a "competent, determined individual," and I will become a doctor anyway.

So, the answer to sexism is this: if we women become "competent, determined individuals," we can be doctors and lawyers and science fiction writers. Incompetent women will still remain secretaries and housewives. Incompetent men will continue to be our gynecologists, psychiatrists, employers, and husbands.
[Cy Chauvin, issue #5/6]:

I've been reading WatCh (I believe that's the abbreviation you mentionedl) 4 and finding it very interesting, particularly Marion Zitnmer Bradley's letter. But the thing that provoked me into writing is an item in Joanna Russ' letter.

Russ says she considers it immoral for human colonists to settle a planet which has a thriving bio-sphere but "which has not evolved sentient beings -— yet. What if aliens had made this decision about Earth back in the Jurassic, on the grounds that the dinosaurs weren't going to amount to much, intellectually speaking? Taking oyer the ecological niche occupied by generalized intelligence prevents the emergence of such a species." Yes, MAYBE that is so, but whether it is truly immoral not to worry over the POSSIBLE occurrence of an intelligent species MILLIONS of years in the future is another question. To be honest, I think Russ' argument is strikingly like one often used against birth control: how can we prevent all these "possible" people from being born, these Beethovens and Newtons and Joyces? I agree with Russ that the idea humans have an "obligation" to take over any habitable planet and populate it is ABSURD, but neither do I see anything more immoral in humans living on such a planet than I see in birth control. It's up to the individual's preference.

[Lisa Tuttle, issue #5/6]:

I found Marion Zimmer Bradley's letter fascinating, sobering, and very revealing. In her discussion of "freedom for women" a key word is "allowed" as in women being "allowed" to type letters in addition to (not instead of, either) scrubbing floors. I think that discussion of how much better we have it now than we did then is just so much dithering (and smug comfort for men, who can congratulate themselves on being liberal) — the point is not how much we will be "allowed" to do, but that this whole business of a masculine-dominated society, with men dictating the limits of freedom to "their" women must be ended.

It is at once frightening and tiresome to discover that there are still women who believe that to take a stand for liberation is to demand the castration (or elimination) of all men. I am glad that MZB learned that the Women's Movement encompasses a wide range of thinking, from "all we want is equal pay for equal work" to female supremacists.

[ Raccoona Sheldon, issue #5/6]:

It interested me greatly to see the genuine generation gap denonstrated between Bradley and the others. I've known some of those strong, inner-directed women who grew up on farms or in small towns and simply decided the world, not themselves was crazy when they hit the social barriers. One of my older friends was a blacksmith and a lumber-jack in winter, did the roughest work to save her family farm while her brothers lounged around holding up the scenery. If she'd been in a city she would have been spat on as a bull dyke. As it was, when she got ready, she married another lumber-jack and had three kids. Still working logs, the two of them worked as a team at everything. She had a sneaky love for making cakes.

I think of her because she just died early, of stroke. Her big strong husband sat by her, saying "Grip my hand, Johnny. Show me your grip." When she weakened, he felt it and cried; and she went.

Such women aren't to be mistaken for "Queen Bees". They don't have the if-I-can-make-it-you-can thing. They aren't competitive with other women. They're just themselves, luck let them grow up unsquashed. I think Bradley is more like that. Whatever taboos she has unconsciously catered to in her writing are superficial, not a basic part of her.

At least, that is the feeling I get, knowing nothing. Of course my instinct is to stick together as much as we can. We know who profits from us excluding each other.

Responses: Printed in Other Fan Spaces

This response fic is discussed in Ted Bryan's 1977 essay in Darkover Newsletter #7. See DARKOVER SPINOFF. Or maybe that should read CONTRARY MOTION—VERY.

Responses: Printed in Academic Spaces

Vonda McIntyre wrote a long and detailed review of Bradley's Darkover Landfall, which criticized the novel for upholding this "old pioneering spirit." Bradley's novel is about a starship of the Colony Expedition Force that crashlands on the wrong planet and is forced to make many decisions about the colonists' future. This involves a decision to treat the women's wombs as communal property to ensure successful propagation of the race. McIntyre's negative review of Darkover Landfall attracted many letters in subsequent issues of "The Witch and the Chameleon." Joanna Russ was one of the correspondents on the subject. In response to Bradley's rebuttal of the McIntyre review Russ wrote, "The question, to put it bluntly, of whether a woman's uterus belongs to her or to the community she happens to find herself in (or rather its male authorities) has been a very hot political issue in the U.S. and some parts of Europe for at least a decade; I am surprised that Bradley didn't expect vehement relations to a novel in which host this question is the central issue of the plot." [1]

Response Fic by Joanna Russ

See We Who Are About To....

Further Reading/Meta


  1. ^ from "The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction," by Justine Larbalestier, 2002, page 150