Popular fantasy writer Marion Zimmer Bradley (born 1930) is considered a pioneer in the field of woman-based science fiction, creating strong, independent female protagonists in her many popular novels and short stories.
Beginning her career in the 1950s, author Marion Zimmer Bradley has built almost a cult following on the heels of her popular "Darkover" books. While largely ignored by mainstream reviewers, Bradley's fiction has been embraced by her fans as what Feminist Writers essayist Nancy Jesser calls "one of the early manifestations of proto-feminist science fiction." In her writing, the prolific Bradley has worked in several genres, including Gothic novels, teleplays, children's books, lesbian novels, and bibliographies of gay and lesbian fiction. She addresses such issues as gender, technology, alienation, the evolution of society, culture, and human relationships by placing her characters in highly imaginary worlds, many with a Celtic flavor.
Began Professional Writing Career at Age 17
Bradley, who was born in Albany, New York, on June 3, 1930, knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer. Fascinated by the science-fiction writing of the era, she started her own amateur science-fiction magazine before she was even out of high school. However, Bradley was too practical to think that a young woman could make writing her life's work; after graduating from high school she enrolled at New York State College with the intention of becoming a teacher. But her marriage to Robert Alden Bradley in 1949 would put a halt to these career plans, and the birth of a son would occupy much of her time during the 1950s. It was not until 1964 that the industrious Bradley completed her education, graduating from Abilene, Texas's Hardin-Simmons University with a triple bachelor's degree in English, Spanish, and psychology. She then attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley for another three years. Meanwhile, she continued to write, composing short stories and experimenting with longer works containing science-fiction and fantasy elements.
In 1949, the same year she got married, Bradley sold her first story to a sci-fi publication. Three years later she began what she considers her "professional" writing career, with the sale of yet another story to the magazine Vortex Science Fiction. Throughout the remainder of the 1950s she managed to juggle the demands of motherhood-at the time moms were expected to stay at home-with her desire to write. Bradley would not publish her first full-length book until 1961, when the sci-fi novel The Door through Space was released. This novel seemed to open a floodgate for Bradley; in 1962 alone her byline would appear on five different volumes: three novels under her own name and two other works under various pseudonyms. While readers might marvel at how Bradley could be so prolific, at least one of the novels published in 1962-The Planet Savers-had actually made its first appearance serialized in the pages of Amazing Science Fiction Stories three years earlier. Now in book form, The Planet Savers would become the first of Bradley's "Darkover" novels.
The World of Darkover
The 20 novels that comprise the bulk of the "Darkover" series are among Bradley's most popular works of fiction. The series is named after a lost colony wherein social habits and technology develop independently of the earthlings who established it because it was overlooked for many generations. In addition to developing psychic abilities, Darkoverians have divided along gender lines: a patriarchal society exists apart from a woman-centered society of "Free Amazons." In Bradley's futuristic world, nothing is gained without sacrifice. According to Susan M. Shwartz in The Feminine Eye: Science Fiction and the Women Who Write It, "For every gain, there is a risk; choice involves a testing of will and courage … on Darkover any attempt at change of progress carries with it the need for pain-filled choice." Clearly, to survive within such a world Bradley's protagonists-particularly the female characters her readers most closely identify with-must be strong, intelligent, and determined.
Among the most popular Darkover novels are 1965's Star of Danger, 1976's The Shattered Chain, and Heirs of Hammerfell, a more recent work published in 1989. The Shattered Chain is agreed upon by most critics as among the best of the series. It is the story of a quest, a traditional story form in which the main character must surmount a series of obstacles on her way to achieving her goals. In Bradley's version, Lady Rohana, a member of the privileged ruling class, attempts to free a friend from a tribe of men who chain women up to demonstrate their power over them. To accomplish her task, Rohana gains the help of the Free Amazons, but only at the cost of reassessing her own life and values.
The Darkover novels occupied much of Bradley's time during the 1960s and 1970s, although she also managed to find the time to publish a collection of short fiction, The Dark Intruder and Other Stories, as well as several volumes of literary criticism. Bradley's personal life was undergoing transition during this period as well; she divorced her first husband in 1964, and married for a second time shortly thereafter. She and her second husband, Walter Henry Breen, would raise three children (Bradley's son from her first marriage, plus a son and daughter of their own) before divorcing in 1990. The demands of parenthood on her limited time may have multiplied, but they did little to staunch Bradley's enthusiasm for writing-or her published output. Perhaps these demands are at the root of her efforts to find, through the dilemmas of her fictional female protagonists, that ideal balance between a woman's duty to self and her obligations to others. She published over 30 books between 1965 and 1980, and in 1984 undertook a long-term project: editing a series of short-story collections for New York-based DAW publishers under the Sword and Sorceress title.
A Sci-Fi Writer in King Arthur's Court
Hailed by several critics as Bradley's most notable novel, The Mists of Avalon was published in 1983 and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 16 weeks. Taking place in Arthurian Britain, called Britannia, the novel features such well-known female characters as Morgan Le Fay and the Lady of the Lake, given heightened strength of will under Bradley's pen as they perform their parts in the tragic legend of King Arthur. Although published afterward, the novels The Forest House and Lady of Avalon serve as precursors to The Mists of Avalon, detailing the chain of events leading up to the events surrounding Bradley's version of the King Arthur legend. The Forest House tells of the relationship between the priestess Eilan and Gaius Marcellius, an officer in the Roman occupation army with whom she conceives a son, Gawan. Lady of Avalon finds Britannia now firmly ruled by the Romans, with Christian priests working to gain strides with the population against the ancient Druidic religions. In The Mists of Avalon-a lengthy volume of over 850 pages-the Arthurian legends are retold from the perspective of the enchantress Morgaine, a follower of the ways of wicca and a priestess of the ancient Goddess religion. Despite her powers, Morgaine is unable to defend the ancient goddesses against the inexorable crush of Christianity, and her failure embitters her. She must watch as womankind reverts from a respected sex to a berated one, condemned as the source of original sin by the patriarchal Christian teachings.
Fantasy as a Means to Discover a Different Truth
Women of another quasi-mythic period of history fall under Bradley's scrutiny in The Firebrand, which she published in 1987. Taking the written history surrounding the Trojan War as her starting point, Bradley weaves a tale of heroism as Kassandra, daughter of the King of Troy and an Amazon, attempts to save her kingdom from patriarchal Dorian invaders. In this novel, as in much of her work, Bradley constructs an alternative to the male-dominated "reality" passed down through traditional written histories. She admitted in an interview with Lisa See of Publishers Weekly that the transition from the bronze to the iron age did indeed cause the destruction of such Cretan cities as Mycenae, the home of the legendary ruler Agamemnon. But Bradley believes that in viewing this period of history objectively-"as though no one had ever written about [it] before"-another history is revealed. "Here were two cultures that should have been ruled by female twins-Helen and Klytemnestra," she stated to See. "And what do you know? When they married Menelaus and Agamemnon, the men took over their cities." This interest in viewing the past through a different perspective-a perspective that might ultimately reveal hidden truths-is at the heart of Bradley's intent as a writer.
In response to her many fans, Bradley began the Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine in 1988. While she has remained active as an editor, working on her magazine as well as editing the annual Sword and Sorcery anthology for DAW, her output as a novelist has decreased in recent years due to health issues. Still, imaginative fictions such as 1995's Ghostlight and its sequel, Witchlight, continue to issue from Bradley's pen on occasion, to the pleasure of her many fans. Interestingly, from her home in Berkeley, California, Bradley has also managed to extend the Darkover saga beyond her own novels by inviting others to create their own vision of her mythic world. Under her editorship, anthologies such as Domains of Darkover and Towers of Darkover allow other writers to navigate Bradley's fantastic worlds, taking new paths, creating characters with fresh viewpoints, and entertaining readers with alternative renditions of Bradley's sci-fi saga.
Further Reading on Marion Zimmer Bradley
Arbur, Rosemarie, Leigh Brackett, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography, Hall, 1982.
Feminist Writers, St. James Press, 1996, pp. 60-63.
Spivak, Charlotte, Merlin's Daughters: Contemporary Women Writers of Fantasy, Greenwood Press, 1987.
Staicar, Tom, editor, The Feminine Eye: Science Fiction and the Women Who Write It, F. Ungar, 1982.
Wise, S., The Darkover Dilemma: Problems of the Darkover Series, T-K Graphics, 1976.
Extrapolation, summer 1993.
Journal of Popular Culture, summer 1993, pp. 67-80.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 3, 1983.
Publishers Weekly, October 30, 1987.
Science Fiction Review, summer, 1983.
New York Times Book Review, January 30, 1983.
West Coast Review of Books, number 5, 1986.
Marion Zimmer Bradley Homepage, http: //www.mzb.fm.com (March 15, 1998).