Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Planet Savers review

Like all avid readers I have a rather long list of books I’d like to one day read. The list grows regularly as I discover authors I’ve never even heard about or when I discover books by authors I’ve already familiar with. Marion Zimmer Bradley is simply one writer of many whose works I’ve never sampled. I choose to start exploring her body of work by tackling one of her longest and most famous series, Darkover.

From what I’ve read online the series varies greatly in basically as many ways as it can. Books will vary in genre either science fiction or fantasy, often a combination of both. Some of the novels are nearly straight up adventure stories with interesting or strange elements while others have fascinating and often controversial themes are the heart of their narrative, particularly her novels dealings with the Renunciates. The series is notorious for having a loosely defined and often contradictory chronology. Speaking of its chronology, the series spans well over two millennia of time with more than one attempt from Earth to colonize the planet Darkover (one of them, at least, being accidental). Some books in the series are standalone novels while some are part of a storyline (some are even part of more than one storyline!). There isn’t even a standard format or length for the books as they also vary from short stories, to novella and longer novels. All of these above elements, while admittedly providing a picture of a convoluted and confusing series, didn’t deter me but what really sealed the deal is that it all just seems to detailed and fascinating. It sounded to me like a world in which you could really immerse yourself and discover Darkover the planet and its inhabitants as well as Darkover the series.

As a reader who really likes variety, Darkover sounds like a series tailor made to me, where one book doesn’t resemble the previous books too closely. Being a fan of comics, I’m also very familiar with long-running series written and illustrated by different creators throughout the years and dealing with difficult continuity not to mention intentional retcons. I’m not bothered by the fact that a series as big as Darkover is sprawling and inaccurate in details from book to book. It’s to be expected but more important I’m not a fan that gives more importance to a series’ consistency and accuracy of details than I give the story itself. Certainly series with grossly inaccurate elements, especially core elements specific to the series, are not only annoying but will turn away potential and existing readers. From what I can tell the inconsistancies of Darkover have to do with the internal history of the world which I am completely fine with considering the series cover several centuries. Details, inside the fictional world, will be forgotten and jumbled up. It’s only natural and acceptable that the writers (Bradley co-wrote several books in the series) aren’t too rigid with certain elements.

My point here is that more than anything else, Darkover seemed to promise not to be a boring read and it could potentially lead itself to be a “new” series for me to explore.

The Planet Savers was originally published
as a story in this issue of Amazing Stories.
I started, as regular readers of Shared Universe Reviews will guess, with the first published work in the series: The Planet Savers. The story originally appeared, in a shorter length, in the November 1958 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. It was first published in novel form in an Ace Double book, along with The Sword of Aldones, another Darkover novel, by Ace Books in 1962. It’s a very short book, truly a novella rather than a novel-length story but it’s as long as it’s need to be. Any longer and the story would feel padded or dragged out.

Set in a time when Darkover has been recolonized by Earth and there is a sustained Terran population on the planet. Dr. Randall Forth is concerned about the 48 year virus, a disease that spreads approximately every 48 years. It’s a serious illness that is often fatal to Terran and Darkovans, but not too native species of Darkover. Trailmen are immune to it but they act as incubators for the disease. The disease is usual pretty mild for the Trailmen and usually fatal for humans, thus the interest in finding a cure as it’s nearly time for another epidemic to start spreading. The Terran colonists are worried that they’ll be nearly wiped out and that Earth won’t provide any assistance to the survivors of the plague. The Terran colonists have the medical knowhow to develop a cure but they need blood samples from the Trailmen to work with.

Dr. Forth enlists the help of Dr. Jay Allison, the best qualified man for the job, with great difficulty. Part of this difficulty is that Dr. Allison’s personality isn’t suited to helping others. He’s a very difficult man to get along with. He’s an individual who has high regard for himself and would rather be alone than in the company of others. The other difficult with enlisting his help, aside from him being an unhelpful man, is that the real help is a repressed personality of his younger self. Dr. Forth manages to manifest that personality within Dr. Allison’s mind and make it the domineering personality. One given control of the body, Jason, as he calls himself, is the very opposite of Dr. Allison.

The mission is quite simple, yet fraught with danger.  Jason and a team made up of Terrans, Darkovan royalty and a Free Amazon guide (I believe she’s what will later be known as a Renunciate) are to travel to the Hellers, a treacherous mountain range that is the home of the Trailmen Nests. The Trailmen are humanoids living nearly exclusively in the trees located in the centre of the Hellers. Their Nests are inaccessible by air due to treacherous air currents. Jason is the perfect choice to lead to the Nests because he lived 8 years of his childhood amongst the Trailmen after his father’s plane crashed in the mountains. He not only knows the mountain passes but he’s familiar with the Trailmen’s language, their customs and he even remembers some of the individuals, namely his foster parents. Once they’ve arrived to the Nests, the crew must enlist volunteers from the Trailmen to travel back to the Terran settlements and assist in the development of a cure.

As you would expect from a story 103 pages in length, the plot is simple but it has a narrative device and a theme that adds quite a bit. The idea that a person can change so radically from one period in their life to another, such as is the case with Jason/Dr. Allison, is a fascinating one. Both Jason and Dr. Allison are the result of nurture, not nature. Their surroundings and their choices allowed for the development of their personalities. Jason’s time with the Trailmen cause him to grow into a specific kind of person. He’s more social, rather brash and straightforward, he’s a little rugged and unpolished but he’s also kind and willingly helpful. On the other hand, the development of Jar Allison and his career in the sciences resulted in his withdrawal form society and his progressed clinical detachment from others. Bradley cleverly uses a different form of narration based on which personality is in control. For the portions dealing with Dr. Allison the story is told in third person but when it’s Jason, it’s told in the first person. It’s a nice way to differentiate from personality to personality but the type narration in use also reinforces some of the elements of each man.

The world of Darkover isn’t very developed yet. In The Planet Savers, the first Darkover story, there is little concrete information provided about the series outside of what is necessary to the plot. However, it’s pretty clear that Earth has recolonized Darkover. It has done so previously at least several hundred years ago as the Darkovans are descended from Terrans who bred with native populations of Darkover. The result was a new breed of individuals who have psychic powers of some sort. Aside from that, the setting of the story is rather unclear.

There is also a very short story included in my edition of The Planet Savers. Titled “Waterfall”, the story tells of a noble Darkovan teenager. She is developing her psychic powers but she is being told that she will not be brought to one of the Towers to develop her powers as one of the older Hastur (Darkovan royalty) women fears the young teen’s powers. Unbeknownst to the woman, the teen is already able to use her psychic abilities to some degree, mostly to influence and harm others. The story is rather dark and negative after the much more hopeful The Planet Savers which is about different people and cultures setting aside their differences and working together for mutuality beneficial reasons. “Waterfall” clearly presents a different facet of the world of Darkover but it’s nice to see that there is yet even more to discover about this series.

My introduction makes it sound like I made up my mind about Darkover before I even took the time to read my first book from the series. I guess there is some truth to that but the book delivered. Not as spectacularly as I’d hoped and part of me is a little underwhelmed by the modest scale of the story, not to mention the execution. Yet The Planet Savers acts as a good sample of what the larger series is about. It feels like a big teaser and it’s apparent that Bradley had thought about Darkover, its inhabitants and the planet’s history for a considerable time before she actually jumped into the fray and pulled out a story to tell. This novella hints are many elements that aren’t properly developed but considering the dozens of novels that were written after this one chances are those elements were explore further. If nothing else, The Planet Savers entertained without overstaying its welcome while providing a good sample of what else can be found by delving into the rest of the series which I plan to do.  

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