Changing the Map: The Lingering Gloom of Darkover

What do you do when the world you love is tainted by the unforgivable sins of the creator?

How do I talk about Darkover and its place on the speculative fiction map? Do I relegate Darkover, a world I loved (with some of the strongest females and female societies created) to the nether ends of the universe? Do I hope it lingers in unforgiving obscurity due to the sins of its author?

Is art a child and thus given a clean slate separate from a parent’s sins? How do I reconcile?

Darkover is a gloomy, cold world, lit by a dying red sun, mostly winter, with a wall of ice long before Westeros and Mr. Martin. It, and the brutality that happened should have warned us that “winter is coming” long ago.

Plenty of writers are assholes, some so much so that I can’t separate their platform from their work, their persona from their creations. Those assholes that are alive, I will not financially support. I’m sure you have your own list and your own solutions.

But. Darkover. I can’t do Changing the Map columns without addressing an important female contribution of the creation of a world and a struggle for an utopian female society without addressing Darkover, and I WILL NOT address Darkover without addressing the grievous sins of its creator, Marion Zimmer Bradley, who through her direct and indirect actions violated her daughter, among others.

I’m not going to get into that in depth. If you want more information I suggest reading this from Jim C. Hines, who says it much better than me: Rape, Abuse, and Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Darkover books are set in the world of a dying sun, based around the struggles of an inherent caste system gifted with “laran” (mind powers) and the presence of the Terran Empire. This is a series based on the struggle between what amounts to magic and gods/goddesses, and technology.

However, within the male dominated society of the planet Darkover, the “Free Amazons” have carved out a place for women and a good part of the series deals with their struggles to create an idyllic society for women. Like the island of Themyscira from Wonder Woman, which has to be an influence, this is an attempt at carving out female space.

Darkover started with the publication of The Planet Savers in 1962 as a novel (originally published as a novella in Amazing Stories). The first Renunciate book appeared in 1976 — The Shattered Chain, and tells three women’s experiences with the Guild of the Renunciates — Rohana Ardais: Comynara, M’Magda Lorne: Terran Agent, and the third ‘Joelle n’ha Melora: Free Amazon.

I met them as a Science Fiction Bookclub Edition — The Oath of the Renunciates — 1983, which included The Shattered Chain and Thendara House.

I was fascinated with the Amazons — strong female characters, flawed to be sure and thus human, struggling to live with the invasions (of technology or of magic or both), forming a utopian female society in the midst of patriarchy. An utopian society that unlike Themyscira, allowed male/female relationships as well.

Their oath swore them to each other, forsaking the protection of any man, for any reason. Appealing!

They weren’t perfect, but the Renunciates TRIED. I wanted to be one of them — and so did quite a few other women. The Friends of Darkover fan club formed and among them, more than a few Free Amazon guilds. Many went on to create IRL communes to try to apply the principles of the Renunciates to this world, in much the same vein as Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein had earlier inspired the Church of All Worlds.

The novels continued to be mainly written by Marion Zimmer Bradley, but she also opened up Darkover to become a shared world of sorts, with many in the community creating their own stories about various aspects of Darkover society. The official association ceased in 1992, when arguments about right ownerships shut down the series and its associated anthologies, a situation that has happened in multiple fandoms (see Star Trek for another prime example). For more on this, see Darkover Newsletter Archive (Issue 58) and for a nicely detailed analysis: MZB vs. Fan Fiction by Jim C. Hines.

Marion Zimmer Bradley died in 1999. Moira Greyland, MZB’s daughter, came forward in 2014.

So how do I reconcile my love for the Free Amazons — a society standing for the rights of women — with the vile abuse of children?

I was, and still am, severely pissed and conflicted.

Perhaps some hope is offered for reconciliation in a fictional world (a world very real to me and many others) by the theories of reconciliation learned from the real world, as strange as that may be.

Reconciliation theory derived from the moral quandary of apartheid South Africa and how to live with the past, while moving forward and ensuring “Never Again.”

Reconciliation theory contains eight major parts, briefly listed below. Many are not applicable — either because MZB is dead, or because we did not commit the actions — and thus cannot redeem them.

  1. Apologies
  2. Memorials (to the victims)
  3. Truth Telling — Who suffered and who did it.
  4. Amnesties — because the value of truth and the future is more important then the past. Does not preclude punishment. Just acknowledges you can’t kill everyone without making crap even crappier.
  5. Trials and Punishment — again, applies only to the living
  6. Lustration — “Lustration refers to legal measures that permit or require the investigation of individuals running for public office to see if they collaborated with the previous repressive regime. Collaboration is established on the basis of past crimes or membership in a political group.”
  7. Reparations — monetary
  8. Forgiveness

As a group of Darkover fans, most of these don’t apply to us. But some quite definitely do weigh upon our shoulders and can have application in the greater world of fandom. Memorials, Truth Telling, and Lustration.

We remember that though we loved this world and admired its creator, she befouled children, including her daughter.

Truth telling — We talk about what happened and give voice to the victims. We provide space and safety for them and their stories, however they chose to voice them (or not).

Lustration — We make sure that this never happens again by making certain that no one who caused it to happen or permitted it are in any way allowed to serve the community. In our case this would include con boards, panels, etc. We are not silencing their voices; we are saying no, not in our community.

But Darkover. I just don’t know. I love this world, the Renunciates will always have a large hold on my heart, but it’s tainted enough that I don’t think I can travel there without examining the text and disturbing the enjoyment of the reading. AND I DON’T THINK I SHOULD.

PS: Goddamnit Kevin Spacey.


From this day forth, I renounce the right to marry save as a freemate. No man shall bind me di catenas and I will dwell in no man’s household as a barragana.

I swear that I am prepared to defend myself by force if I am attacked by force, and that I shall turn to no man for protection.

From this day forth I swear I shall never again be known by the name of any man, be he father, guardian, lover or husband, but simply and solely as the daughter of my mother.

From this day forth I swear I will bear no child to any man save for my own pleasure and at my own time and choice; I will bear no child to any man for house or heritage, clan or inheritance, pride or prosperity; I swear that I alone will determine the rearing and fosterage of any child I bear, without regard to any man’s place, position or pride.

From this day forth I renounce allegiance to any family, clan, household, warden or liege lord, and take oath that I owe allegiance only to the laws of the land as a free citizen must; to the kingdom, the crown and the Gods.

I shall appeal to no man as of right, for protection, support or succor: but shall owe allegiance only to my oath-mother, to my sisters in the Guild and to my employer for the season of my employment

And I further swear that the members of the Guild of Free Amazons shall be to me, each and every one, as my mother, my sister or my daughter, born of one blood with me, and that no woman sealed by oath to the Guild shall appeal to me in vain.

[First complete compilation of the Oath of the Free Amazons in Marion Zimmer Bradley and the Friends of Darkover: An Anthology. Ed. Marion Zimmer Bradley (New York: DAW Books, 1985) 16-22.]

1 Comment

  • Shara White November 14, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    What eerie timing on this piece.


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