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04 February 2013 @ 11:33 am
Darkover reread: The Bloody Sun  

ETA: This is a reread of the original, 1964 edition of The Bloody Sun, which is the one I read first, not knowing a later edition was already available. I’m also planning to reread the 70s rewrite when I come to it in the chronology. Realized last night I forgot to clarify!

This isn’t the first Darkover book I ever read. It’s the second.

The first was Darkover Landfall, handed to me by a friend who’d been trying to get me to read Darkover for ages. When she asked what I thought of it afterwards, I must have told her the truth, because she shoved the Bloody Sun at me and said something like, “Really I should have given you this one first! It’s better! I only gave you the other one because it takes place first!” (Chronologically–Darkover Landfall was actually written later.)

So I gave Darkover one more try, and if The Bloody Sun wasn’t my first Darkover book, it was the book that hooked me on the series. From its second person prologue (“This is the way it was. You were an orphan of space. For all you knew, you might have been born on one of the Big Ships …”) I was thoroughly pulled into this world.

I continued to be pulled in every time I reread the book, and I was pulled in this time, too. I was struck as I read on past the prologue by how real Darkover feels in this book. Bradley gives a level of sensory detail that wasn’t in The Planet Savers or The Sword of Aldones, and she integrates those details into the narrative more smoothly, too. I can feel, hear, and smell Darkover in this book. I’m there.

I can also see why this was the sort of story that teen me loved. Jeff Kerwin, a loner born on Darkover (not on one of the big ships after all) but shipped off to Terra when he was 12, finds his way back to his birth planet, discovers his roots and his family, and finds a place where for the first time in his life he truly belongs, all with an appropriate amount of danger and angst along the way. It’s a classic sort of story, and there are reasons for that.

(PG-13 content about sex and its politics on Darkover ahead)

Aside from a slightly dated tone, this book would probably read just fine to adult me, if not for the ongoing issue of the book’s attitude toward its female characters.

Reading 60s MZB is actually way better in this regard than reading Heinlein of the same era–where the last Heinlein I attempted made me rant and rage and throw the book across the room, MZB handles things just enough better that I can step back and engage with and think about the problems in a more measured way. It’s also fascinating, reading these early books, to remember that Darkover fandom ultimately wound up being largely female, and to think about how it might have gotten there.

In the intro chapters of the Bloody Sun, we hear about the women on the other worlds Jeff has visited as a member of the Terran spaceforce, but only in relation to the men around them. Specifically, these women are described as either off-limits to men (“albino women … cloistered behind high walls” on Kerwin’s first world) or accessible to them (“a world where men carried knives and the women wore bells in their ears, chiming a wicked allure … plenty of fights, and plenty of women” on his second world). For Jeff Kerwin, as for Lew Alton, women exist entirely in relation to men, and fall into these two bins: Available. Off-limits. There’s nothing else.

When Jeff finally reaches Darkover, he goes drinking with a fellow spaceman, who goes on and on about all the women he’s had (available women), while Jeff chastises a Darkovan woman for throwing herself at him (an available woman who he thinks should have more pride and be an off-limits one), and … and around that point I stopped reading and went off to immerse myself in some girl friendly YA because after three books of only-men-are-real 60s Darkover I needed a break. :-)

I eventually returned to The Bloody Sun, where Jeff eventually makes his way to a tower of telepaths working for the good of Darkover, finds his people and his place and his latent telepathic abilities, and joins a telepathic circle where there are only two women, and one of whom is available (Taniquiel) and one is very strongly off-limits (Elorie).

Taniquiel almost won me over when she took Jeff–who freaks out when he sees her with another man after they’d already been intimate–to task for wanting her exclusively. How dare he see her as property to be owned? she demanded. What kind of barbarian world did he come from, that he would see her as a thing to be owned? It seemed a downright progressive statement, that it should be up to her, not Jeff, who she’s with.

But only a few sentences later, Kennard, the older Darkovan who is in many ways Jeff’s mentor (as well as Lew Alton’s father, though Lew isn’t in this book), says, basically, that of course Taniquiel is going to be with men other than Jeff, because as an empath she can feel every man’s needs, and being a woman of course she feels compelled to meet those needs, because … well, because I guess women just have the compulsion to make men happy in their DNA, or something.

I facepalmed pretty hard there, though I didn’t actually throw the book anywhere.

Of course eventually Jeff leaves available Tanquiel and falls for the forbidden Elorie (just as Lew fell for the forbidden Callina), only in this book, it’s creepier, because Elorie is described as childlife pretty much up until the moment she throws herself at Jeff and leaves the tower with him. I still remember, when I first read this book years ago, thinking Elorie was 12 or maybe 15, and so being really disconcerted when she wound up with Jeff. Knowing this isn’t strictly true helped, but only a little.

As in earlier books, in this one Darkovans still believe that women, unlike men, can’t safely do high-level telepathic work if they’re sexually active, even if they hold off before doing energy-draining things, so Elorie’s throwing herself at Jeff means swearing off her entire life’s work at a time when the tower needs her. This is a big deal, big enough a deal that it turns out Jeff’s mother was murdered for doing the same thing. Big enough a deal that, since the fate of Darkover at this particular juncture depends on Elorie’s work in the tower, I wondered just why she did it. Jeff just didn’t seem worth it, much as I was in sympathy with him in many other ways.

Elorie and Jeff both declare, by way of explanation, that avoiding sexual relations is just too high a price for any woman to pay. I actually found this a problematic: because cloistering adult women and denying them sexual relations is deeply problematic, especially if their level of consent and understanding is unclear; but the conviction that no adult woman can possibly be happy and have a full life–or even a tolerable one–without sex feels just as problematic.

In the end, of course, Jeff and Elorie prove that cloistering powerful female telepaths isn’t necessary anyway, and Darkover is saved (for a time–the narrative reminds us repeatedly change is still coming), and everyone lives happily ever after.

Mostly, that was enough–I did enjoy this book. But alongside the main narrative, there’s a thread (that I’m not sure is subtle enough to be subtext) about women not only wanting but by their very nature needing to meet men’s desires that’s deeply creepy, all the more so because the book is significantly better written than the two before it.

Mirrored from Desert Dispatches: Wordpress Edition.

the most saint-obsessed Jew you'll ever meetrymenhild on February 5th, 2013 02:21 am (UTC)
I didn't read the Bloody Sun until very late in my Darkover reading. That is, I discovered Darkover with Hawkmistress! in early high school, imprinted on the Free Amazons/Renunciates and on the Sisterhood of the Sword, 'shipped Magda/Jaelle ten years before I learned the concept of slash...

and somehow missed The Bloody Sun until midway through grad school. So I read it and realized it was the missing piece I'd never caught between the Forbidden Tower-Renunciates generation and the Regis-Lew generation. I was delighted to see Magda's cameo, although I knew I was reading out of writing order and this Magda came first.

Because I largely read Darkover as a high school student, I hadn't noticed all the failure modes of feminism in the series at the time. When I got to Bloody Sun, it was hard for me to tell which of the problems with gender politics were a result of the book's place early in the series, and which were common to most of the series.
Comrade Cat: space-solar flarecomrade_cat on February 5th, 2013 08:42 am (UTC)
Because I largely read Darkover as a high school student, I hadn't noticed all the failure modes of feminism in the series at the time.

Yikes! Yeah I basically did the same thing. Except I haven't gone back and looked at it in years and a lot of this is catching me by surprise. Most of what I remember was the Renunciates/Free Amazons stuff, especially from Thendara House, which was my favourite Darkover book.

But only a few sentences later, Kennard, the older Darkovan who is in many ways Jeff’s mentor (as well as Lew Alton’s father, though Lew isn’t in this book), says, basically, that of course Taniquiel is going to be with men other than Jeff, because as an empath she can feel every man’s needs, and being a woman of course she feels compelled to meet those needs, because … well, because I guess women just have the compulsion to make men happy in their DNA, or something.

Janni, just to nitpick, how is it clear that Kennard is speaking for the author? I recall Bradley writing characters with different viewpoints on Darkovan gender studies, for instance Rohana Ardais (who seemed to be a fan favourite, at least from the short story introductions and author comments and stuff, but who always seemed kind of boring to me, because hey, Free Amazons get pants and swords!) and Jaelle arguing about women's roles in society and the responsibilities of nobility with psi talents, etc.

I mean, it sounds like Bradley did have some weird subtext going on, but I wouldn't put it past her to just have old Darkovan guys have creepy opinions. On the other hand, The Bloody Sun is not one of the Darkover books I read.

Did Bradley's treatment of women get better as time went on?
(Deleted comment)
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on February 5th, 2013 08:28 pm (UTC)
To be fair, this happened to a lot of female writers. Including, to a lesser extent and in different ways, Le Guin, and if she could not see it, it was very hard to see from inside indeed.

And even with the feminist issues with these books ... they really are better than some other books of the time.

It's fascinating how strongly these books are reflecting a male gaze. I'm sure most of it really wasn't conscious at all.

And yeah, about the two versions. Realized from all these comments that I forgot to clarify that I read the 1964 version for this post--which was the version high school me read too, unaware there'd already been a rewrite, what with the lack of Internet and a reliance on used bookstores.

I'm looking forward to reading the newer version when I get to it on the timeline, too.
Comrade Cat: general-rock spiralcomrade_cat on February 6th, 2013 09:48 am (UTC)
I didn't know about the two versions either.

Can you elaborate about what happened with Le Guin's writing due to second wave feminism? I haven't read a lot of her early stuff. I thought she must have had some different ideas on feminism and sex anyway, between Tehanu and The Other Wind, but that's a lot later.

I'm sure Bradley was tons better than some of the crap out there.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on February 6th, 2013 07:26 pm (UTC)
I'm thinking mostly of Earthsea, mostly because I know it better, where Le Guin created a wizard's academy made up entirely of men while denouncing women's magic as weak and corrupt. By the third book the story's take is beginning to shift, and then of course in Tehanu and later books she revisited it entirely, not by adding women to the academy, but by exploring their role in her world more.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on February 5th, 2013 08:24 pm (UTC)
I actually have no idea whether Kennard is speaking for the author (I know what we say as writers is not always what's we're consciously thinking) .. what I know is that the narrative seems sympathetic to Kennard, and never challenges or undercuts his statement, and even seems to support it, which isn't ... quite ... the same thing.

I can't honestly remember if it got better, though I strongly suspect so. My first reading of these books was out of order, and as a high schooler I missed most of the subtext anyway.

Lots of books have failures around their female characters that I didn't see until I was an adult. I even remain fond of some of these books. But once you start seeing this stuff, you just can't unsee it.
Comrade Cat: general-lincoln boom boxcomrade_cat on February 6th, 2013 09:51 am (UTC)
That's a good distinction about the author and the narrative. And avoids getting stuck in arguments about the death of the author also. I think I shall use that from now on.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on February 6th, 2013 07:29 pm (UTC)
Heh. I'm actually strongly in the death of the author camp ... mostly because I feel like I can't ever know what the author is thinking, only what the story is telling me.

Or, even if the author does tell me what they meant, it doesn't matter, because the story I read is still the story I read, and knowing what they wanted me to read doesn't change that, though it may be interesting in its own right.

(I also think the story I read is as much about me as about the words on the page. Every reader reads a different book, but that's a whole other subject ...)
Comrade Cat: writing-rocks fall everyone diescomrade_cat on February 7th, 2013 04:23 am (UTC)
I think my imaginary author is a little less dead than yours....still morbid though. But people on both extremes have strong feelings about their position.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on February 5th, 2013 08:20 pm (UTC)
It is a connector sort of book, isn't it? Hadn't thought of that before. Though we never do get Cleindori's generation on the page, oddly, since Forbidden Tower is about the generation before her instead of after.

I noticed none of the feminism issues in high school, at all. I think I did read The Shattered Chain either next or right after The Forbidden Tower, so just thought of the free amazons as having always been a part of Darkover. (And to be fair, the first appearance of one is actually in The Planet Savers ... sort of.) I did have the sense that the renunciates were meant to be sort of radical, which even by the late 80s they weren't quite, so that did puzzle me a little.

I think Magda was added to the 1970s rewrite (I forgot until I saw your post to clarify that this reread is of an earlier edition--MZB later updated it, but I didn't know about the update when I discovered Darkover), so she might have come after Shattered Chain, after all.

I think Hawkmistress would be a pretty good entry story. I have fond memories of that one, and many others seem to, too.
Comrade Cat: general-leaf structure yellow purple grecomrade_cat on February 6th, 2013 10:04 am (UTC)
Hawkmistress was okay. Thendara House remains my favourite, I wish I liked City of Sorcery better. I remember really liking one of the versions of Lew Alton's story (I spent a long time a few years ago trying to figure out which one I'd read, never did figure out a definitive answer). I think I ended up reading more Darkover short stories than books possibly.

I remember disliking Stormqueen a lot because the portrayal of the storm-talented girl's sexuality disturbed me a lot, but I have no idea if there was any male gaze around that or if I was just feeling societally-induced distaste over discussion of mentally slow people's sexuality or something else. I would have to go back and reread it.
BookWenchqueenbookwench on February 11th, 2013 04:12 am (UTC)
I also had no idea there were 2 versions--I think what I read must have been the later version, but I'm not completely sure.

I wonder what the changes were?

I noticed some of the interesting-mixed-with-really-problematic gender stuff at the time, but I was more focused on the mystery plot. I'm such a sucker for that kind of "hero/heroine goes back home and has to unravel the secrets of his/her past" plot, as well as the rebels-against-the-big-oppressive-system plot, which this book also has.
Janni Lee Simner: Iceland/fogjanni on February 11th, 2013 04:45 pm (UTC)
The main changes I remember have to do with adding more continuity-oriented material to tie The Bloody Sun to the other books, but it's been ages--will be interesting to see what I notice on reread.

I love a good unravel-the-secrets-of-my-past plot. Definitely one of the things that made me love The Bloody Sun when I first read it.