Darkover reread: The Planet Savers

I’ve started rereading of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books, in chronological order (the order they were written, not the order in which they take place, which would be a different but also-interesting exercise).

That meant I started with The Planet Savers, written in the late 50s. I could say that this is the worst Darkover book ever written, but I’m not sure that’s really true.

I’m not sure this is really a Darkover book.

This book was written in the 50s, first appeared in Amazing Stories, and the edition that was published there is available via project Gutenberg. Which is how I know the editor of the magazine dubbed this story MZB’s “triumphant return” to the magazine, and her best story yet.

What I remember from my first read (when I think this was one of the last Darkover books I read, after having already inhaled everything else I could find) was that I hated the prose and the story in equal part, but took heart from the fact that the author over a couple decades, got from this book to some books I genuinely loved, because that gave me hope my early writing would turn into something more, too. (My first story sale was to a Darkover anthology, so Darkover has always been a little tied up in my own journey as a writer.)

The story–it’s more of a novella or novelette than novel–is about Jay Allison, a Terran physician working on Darkover who, because he spent his childhood among the planet’s tree-dwelling trailmen, who incubate a mild form of a virus that turns deadly among humans, is the planet’s only hope for mounting an expedition to convince the trailmen to come back to Terran HQ where they can donate their blood so Allison can develop a vaccine.

The problem is, Jay Allison has grown up into an arrogant jerk who hates all Darkovans and can’t possibly lead an expedition of them into the mountains where the trailmen are. So the obvious solution is … to bring out his repressed, nicer, younger, more impulsive personality, and let it go on the mission for him!

Angst ensues! Our protagonist’s two personalities have no memory of each others’ actions, but they hate each other anyway! But the mission is the thing, and they’ll both do anything to make it succeed!

This doesn’t feel like Darkover (not that Darkover has ever been opposed to angst of its own), but like a more generic work of pulp fiction. Whatever it was that made Darkover feel alive and real and like itself isn’t here yet.

Yet things that will turn into the trappings of Darkover later are all over the place: the matrices, the telepaths, the compact against distance weapons, the free amazons, the impenetrable Wall Around the World. Many of the character names are familiar too: Lerrys Ridenow, Rafe Scott, Regis Hastur … but these aren’t actually the characters we’ll meet and come to care about in later books, but other, more generic characters who happen to have the same names.

There were also some once-standard SF trappings that my teen and 20-something Darkover-loving self didn’t notice at all but that my current self is much more attuned to, because conventions and expectations have not only changed over the past half century, but also over the past couple decades:

– Fair-skinned aristocracy: Check. (Maybe redheads weren’t considered as anglo then as now?)
– Homo sapiens, aka humans, as the pinnacle of evolution on all worlds, everywhere: Check.
– “But you’re a woman!” Check.

My recollection is that the first of these things remains true for the entire series, while the second and third sort of remain true and sort of get revisited.

Anyway, Jay Allison’s mission succeeds of course, the trailmen agree to help our party after our white human protagonist gives them a good talking to, and said protagonist wins the girl, who wasn’t really on the mission because we needed her awesome free-amazon mountain-climbing skills, but to give him someone to fall in love with.

Also, the protagonist’s two personalities are re-integrated into one, because apparently all he really needed to do to bring the disparate pieces of his true self together was to punch out Regis Hastur.

But it’s okay. It isn’t really Regis Hastur.

What this feels like to me is a seed novel, a sort of 0th draft for the Darkover books, filled with rough ideas and concepts that would later be mined to create actual Darkover novels. Not a triumphant return–not even close–but a beginning place from which things would later grow.

4 thoughts on “Darkover reread: The Planet Savers”

  1. Thank you for this. I’d forgotten what I’d liked about the Darkovers and only remembered what annoyed me, mostly about non-MZB later books. I think I might go back on a revisit, to see how she got “Darkover in itself” into the words.

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