The Witch and the Chameleon "Darkover Landfall" Letter by Joanna Russ (1975)

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Title: The Witch and the Chameleon "Darkover Landfall" Letter by Joanna Russ (1975)
Creator: Joanna Russ
Date(s): September 1975
Medium: print
Fandom: Darkover, feminism, science fiction
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The Witch and the Chameleon "Darkover Landfall" Letter by Joanna Russ (1975) was printed in The Witch and the Chameleon #4.

It is one of the many responses to Vonda McIntyre's review of Marion Zimmer Bradley's book, Darkover Landfall. See the excerpts of this review, as well as many other responses at Darkover Landfall reviewed by Vonda N. McIntyre.

See excerpts from some of the longer letter responses to the review at The Main Letters.

Some Topics Discussed

  • MZB didn't really understand the issues raised in McIntyre's review of "Darkover Landfall"
  • it's never wise to respond directly to the reviewer: "I've received cries of pain myself, but it seems to me something more than a writer's inevitable hurt that drives Bradley to silly statement that McIntyre must be indulging a personal dislike or that critics ought to be "objective.""
  • the "very hot topic today" of who a woman's uterus belongs to: the woman or to the community she finds herself in "or rather its male authorities"
  • These themes "are hardly unique in SF or daring; many, many writers now share them. Woman as Doomed Loser (just because she is female), far from being an advance, goes back to Miriam stricken with leprosy by God because she was pushy."
  • a whole lot more


Marion Zimmer Bradley's letter fluthers about, as if she did not really understand the issues discussed in Vonda Mclntyre's review, so perhaps it's worth going over them again. (The statements that a writer sells well, that she didn't deliberately write anti-feminist propaganda, and that she doesn't know if Mclntyre is married, while possibly quite true, are irrelevant to the real issues).

Female students of mine have complained to me violently about Darkover Landfall in just these terms. If it is logical for Camilla to become pregnant (as Bradley says) why the psychedelic spores or pollen, the effects of which the orgy everybody goes into produce her first pregnancy? Unless we're to believe that every strange planet invariably features psychedelic spores. Clearly the book wishes to place "technological woman" (Jacqueline Lichtenberg's words) in the position of "breed cow". As given, this is fine. The community might more simply demand that Camilla get pregnant. But what kind of confusion is it that leads Bradley to describe this as her characters' natural "interactions" when they are all zonked?

I think Bradley's whole letter is oddly confused. If the biological details of life on Darkover are what constitute the "harsh and necessary" facts of the heroine's plight what on earth is an author doing with the defence that she has "a poor eye for details"? Bradley then says that she would not "stoop" to attack feminism (i.e. feminism is low7) and that her work has been honoured for its feminism (i.e. feminism is high?) and that she herself la a feminist.
What's going on? I think there is a very common conviction, not only in SF, that books are written outside a social context, to be read outside a social context. The book explicitly sets up a situation in which a woman who doesn't want children (let alone the semi-invalid ism of spending most of her life in bed to avoid miscarriage) is forced to do so —- not by physical necessity but by the moral decisions of other people. The first decision, one I consider abominably immoral, is that human colonists have a rightful claim on any planet with a thriving biosphere but which has not evolved sentient inhabitants 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 over the ecological niche occupied by generalized intelligence prevents the emergence of such a species. In addition the newcomers inevitably change the ecological structure of the biosphere. The colonists in Darkover Landfall like most in SF, act as if they had an unquestioned obligation (not even a right) to latch on to any ownerless real estate and breed like mad. This is like taking over a house near the L.A. freeway on the grounds that your car has run out of gas and the owner doesn't happen to be around, and anyway, they've only dug the foundation.
The second decision is the decision to deny the heroine an abortion and then coerce her into spending her life flat on her hack and pregnant in the name of the survival of the species. "Women have often been called "the servant of the species" but considering that their daughters will grow up to be women, and hence servants, the word "species" is a little tricky there. It really means that women are the servants of their sons, i.e. one-half the race is servant to the other half.
What is Bradley's example of "Necessity"? The Depression of the 1930's! It certainly was not a physical necessity as, say, an avalanche is, or a forest fire; boom and bust is a regular and even predictable product of the capitalist economic system, which is not the only kind there is (as economists have been reminding us even since), and which is maintained by a great many human choices, many of them our own. Means of dealing with the Depression varied from jumping out of windows to joining the Communist party, with all sorts in between. "Necessity" seems to be often used as a cover for somebody's, unethical behaviour toward somebody else.
Now novels can't be written (or read) without ethical, political, and social assumptions of all kinds, because both novelists and readers are human. Darkover Landfall is anti-feminist in the sense that it is yet another story of Woman-as-Loser (because of her biology) and as such hardly invites one to challenge all the values and laws and taboos attached to that biology. If Lichtenberg appreciated the "TEARING IRONY" of technological woman thrown back to . . . breed cow" she might try the tragic beauty of Madam Butterfly, who commits suicide because she is faithful, or Anna Karenina, who commits suicide because she isn't, or Ophelia who goes mad when she loses her love, or Sylvia Plath who put her head in a gas oven, or Anne Sexton, ditto (with insanity to boot), or Play it as it Lays (abuse, bleakness, insanity, and a retarded daughter) or Such Good Friends (abuse, abuse, abuse) or Diary of a Mad Housewife (abuse, masochism, and capitulation) or the latest ad in the Sunday Times book section (full-page no less) in which an alienated, neurotic, lonely woman picks men up in sidles bars until one of them kills her. Somebody must love the tearing irony of all these women, always losing. It's not surprising that some women get angry at seeing it. done again. And again. And again.

Let us write Lightunder Arrival On a high-gravity planet a ship crashes; men who exert themselves get heart disease and become lifelong invalids or die; our hero, who wishes to climb mountains and measure air currents, is forbidden this by the female doctor of the ship. During a bout of hallucinogenic spores in which everybody goes more or less gaga, Cam (short for Camus) climbs mountains like mad, but afterwards develops the unmistakable symptoms of angina pectoris. He minds. Another man wanders into the forest and is seduced by an autochthonous, sentient female into building a small temple to a local god. He gets angina too, but doesn't mind; he likes being in bed a lot. Somehow Cam had few friends among the colonists and most of the crew in authority are female the women do all the heavy work. We end with the hero, in bed, nitro pills close to hand, though when he does walk, his walk has a spring in it and his back is straight. Biology is destiny.

If I wrote that book and had it published, would it be regarded as a polemic? Would it be called feminist? Would it be called vengeful? You can bet your boots it would. But it is the same book, with everybody's sex changed and one crucial fact suppressed, the one Darkover makes use of. Darkover suppresses the one I make use of. The difference between the two books lies in the social context in which they are written and read, i.e. the real world's status quo.

What human beings can do, wrecked on a planet which reduces female fertility, kills men with heart disease in their thirties, ruins, everyone's arches and lower back, is a legitimate SF theme and can be handles in many ways. What, for example, is the Buddhist answer? The Taoist answer? But to falsify biology (which Bradley does grossly in assuming that high gravity will have no effect on men, and no other effects on anyone) and to drag Anatomy-is-Destiny out of three-thousand-year-old mothballs in order to do so, is not an answer. Or an advance. It's the old you-can't-win slap in the face again.

And that is why Mclntyre was so angry.