Monthly Archives: April 2014

Last Proofs!

The final proofs have arrived in my in-box.  It looks like we’re still on schedule for the late July UK release date (late Sept in the US).  Bad news:  this is my last chance to catch any typos.  Good news:  I CAN’T add anything else, no matter how tempted!

I’m kind of wishing the description I wrote for Amazon was a little less wordy, though: 

“Religion in Science Fiction investigates the history of the representations of religion in science fiction literature. Space travel, futuristic societies, and non-human cultures are traditional themes in science fiction. Speculating on the societal impacts of as-yet-undiscovered technologies is, after all, one of the distinguishing characteristics of science fiction literature. A more surprising theme may be a parallel exploration of religion: its institutional nature, social functions, and the tensions between religious and scientific worldviews. Steven Hrotic investigates the representations of religion in 19th century proto-science fiction, and genre science fiction from the 1920s through the end of the century. Taken together, he argues that these stories tell an overarching story–a ‘metanarrative’–of an evolving respect for religion, paralleling a decline in the belief that science will lead us to an ideal (and religion-free) future. Science fiction’s metanarrative represents more than simply a shift in popular perceptions of religion: it also serves as a model for cognitive anthropology, providing new insights into how groups and identities form in a globalized world, and into how crucial a role narratives may play. Ironically, this same perspective suggests that science fiction, as it was in the 20th century, may no longer exist.”



Visiting Darkover


[photo:  S. Hrotic]

Marion Zimmer Bradley (along with Heinlein and Susan Cooper) is one of those authors I seem to re-discover every five or six years: her “Darkover” books in particular.

I’d intended to write tonight about religion in Darkover, but decided to explain first a little bit about the series as a whole.  They can be a bit daunting for the uninitiated: there are around forty of them—depending on how inclusive one wants to be—published from the late 1950s to the present … despite the fact that MZB died in 1999. In style, they vary quite a bit: science fiction’s changed significantly since she started writing. Plus, a couple early books were completely re-written, a couple others may or may not be Darkover books, and there are eighteen (and counting) volumes of apocrypha (i.e., volumes of stories written by others and novels written posthumously to MZB’s outlines). Add to this the fact that MZB wasn’t terribly concerned with keeping details consistent between books, and that (let’s be honest) some are better than others, and it’s hard to know where to start … or when to stop, for that matter.

So, I’d like to suggest three different strategies for introducing oneself to the world of Darkover, depending on one’s preferences.

One possibility, especially for fans of “swords and sorcery” in the style of Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, is to read the first eight in the order in which they were written:

  • The Planet Savers (1962, including material first published in 1958)
  • The Sword of Aldones (1962, not the 1981 version published as Sharra’s Exile)
  • The Bloody Sun (1964, not the 1979 version)
  • Star of Danger (1965)
  • The Winds of Darkover (1970)
  • The World Wreckers (1971)
  • Darkover Landfall (1972)
  • The Spell Sword (1974)

Then stop (or at least take a break): the series (and science fiction) changes significantly after that. Sadly, I think The Sword of Aldones and the original The Bloody Sun are out of print, but they’re still easily located.

For me, though, MZB’s claim to fame is based on the middle of the series, especially recommended if you’re a fan of 1970s era “poli-sci-fi”: think Frank Herbert’s Dune. In that case, I’d suggest starting with The Spell Sword:


[Photo:  S. Hrotic.  Books:  borrowed from D. Wilcox, c. 1983]

  • The Spell Sword (1974)
  • Forbidden Tower (1977)
  • The Bloody Sun (1979 version)
  • The Heritage of Hastur (1975)
  • Sharra’s Exile (1981)

Note that for these, I think it’s better to read them in order of the internal chronology, rather than in the order in which they were written. Unlike the first set, these are less episodic adventure and more historical epic: a generations’ long social upheaval viewed through the eyes of key figures and their descendents. Then, if you wish, you can fill in some of the historical back story (e.g., with good but unessential books like Stormqueen!, Hawkmistress! and Two to Conquer), or view the same period from an alternative perspective: the sub-series focused on the Renunciates guild of women rebelling against the traditional patriarchy (especially Thendara House).

Or, if you’re more casually curious—or just wants a good, light read and have finished Mercedes Lackey—read MZB’s last trilogy: Exile’s Song, The Shadow Matrix, Traitor’s Sun. These pick up the story about fifteen years after the events of Sharra’s Exile, and were written about fifteen years later, too: they’re quite different in tone (think a really good fantasy romance), and work well alone. In fact, the only disadvantage to using these to introduce Darkover is that they would spoil the endings for all the mid-career books.

So, have at it! For the record, I’m half-way through Sharra’s Exile … again.

The Joy of Genre (part one)

Sherlock Holmes: Jeremy Brett

I must confess, I love cover songs—the more bizarrely genre-bending the better. (Think the Hayseed Dixies’ covers of AC/DC, or Ministry’s version of “Lay Lady Lay.”) From the popularity of The Voice and American Idol it seems I’m not alone—millions tune in to hear not entirely new music, but new versions of old songs. There is an important lesson here: it’s very easy to enjoy variations on familiar themes: ‘easy’ in a cognitive sense, in that little effort is needed, and (thus) having broad appeal. I’d argue that there’s a ‘sweet spot’ between a too-perfect copy (and therefore boring) and extreme originality (and therefore, requiring more effort to comprehend).

This ‘theme and variation’ approach seems particularly relevant to understanding genre fictions as sets of literary conventions: mysteries, horror, science fiction, and many others. Gary Wolfe noted that the genres with easier-to-summarize (and therefore communicate and learn) conventions (Westerns, Romance) made the transition from pulp magazines to books more quickly than “fantastic” genres like Science Fiction and Horror—and it’s obvious that the former require less effort to ‘learn,’ since most of the conventions are this-worldly. Western writers don’t have to invent Arizona; SF writers continually re-invented Mars, building new variations on their predecessors’; fully appreciating an author like K.S. Robinson requires one not just understand his world, but all the other ‘Marses’ which came first.

On second thought, that’s not quite true: there are additional levels of appreciation possible when one is familiar with the genre—it’s not that one level is ‘better’ or ‘deeper,’ just that there are more options available. Familiarity with a genre can ruin a novel, too, as one may not be able to appreciate an author’s world without being distracted by comparisons, especially with particularly derivative works.

My point here isn’t that authors use rules of composition to create narratives in this-or-that genre, but that for the reader, these conventions are a significant part of the fun: Thomas Disch pointed out that genres are as much or more about the audience’s expectations than the author’s inspirations. In this sense, genres have a very long history. The stories about the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh isn’t an epic Babylonian poem, but a tradition of epic poems about a well-known hero dating back centuries to the Sumerians. (See Andrew George’s version.) The existence of this tradition both facilitates the creation of new stories—it gives the author a framework on which to build—but also constrains the options: it seems unlikely that a Babylonian author would attempt to portray Gilgamesh as a bookish fellow afraid of conflict. Constraints like these affect more than ‘fictional’ stories: Ales Chalupa (2014) described how difficult it is for modern historians to discern what the oracular Pythia at Delphi was really like, as contemporary accounts are “problematic sources which rather than rendering a neutral and disinterested description of Delphic divinatory practices follow conventions typical for the particular literary genre.”

Somewhat more familiar, consider the armchair mystery novel. Even those who aren’t fans of the genre know the basic themes of the narrative: someone has been murdered, the reader will encounter descriptions of facts about that murder, and the story will climax by revealing the identity of the murderer. Most people would probably even be able to recognize some of the taboos: the death cannot have been an accident or suicide; nor can the murderer be the detective investigating the murder, a character who isn’t described before the denouement, the narrator, nor (for goodness’ sake) the butler. Many ‘inside’ the genre have put a great deal of thought into these rules (House 2002). The Detection Club (which included as members the famous mystery authors Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and G.K. Chesterton) described in c. 1930 the characteristics of a true mystery novel, including that the author play fair with the audience by not withholding key evidence, and that s/he not rely on “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or Act of God” to solve the mystery (Brunsdale 2010: 88). Note that the Detection Club didn’t invent the rules so much as recognize and formalize conventions already in place, and that the rules were not taken too seriously: one member, Agatha Christie, is rather (in)famous for breaking the rules (e.g., in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Fans, too, enjoy displaying and debating the rules (see e.g.,

The ‘rules’ of a mystery novel are not the only appealing characteristic. House (2002) describes more implicit assumptions, not often included in formal lists of the rules but certainly understood: that part of the satisfaction of the story is its function as a puzzle (this is what distinguishes a mystery from a spy novel), and that “justice must prevail” (p. 140). W.H. Auden, after describing the essential elements of a detective novel (“the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detective” [1962: 149]), wrote:

“The magic formula is an innocence which is discovered to contain guilt; then a suspicion of being the guilty one; and finally a real innocence from which the guilty other has been expelled, a cure affected, not by me or my neighbors, but by the miraculous intervention of a genius from outside . . . The fantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the fantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law” (Auden 1962: 158).

Perhaps understanding the appeal of genres requires we distinguish between the particular rules themselves, and the fact that the genre has rules at all.  There may be something about the structure of these stories that is appealing, for example, mystery novels may reassure us through the restoration of innocence; science fiction may help us feel better about change. Separate from this, it appears that the existence of rules—learning them, recognizing them, playing with them—may produce a certain satisfaction all its own.


Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

Auden, W.H. (1962). The guilty vicarage. In The dyer’s hand and other essays (pp. 146-158). New York: Random House.

Brunsdale, M. (2010). Icons of mystery and crime detection: From sleuths to superheroes. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood.

Chalupa, A. (2014). Pythiai and inspired divination in the Delphic Oracle: Can cognitive science provide us with access to “dead minds”? Journal of Cognitive Historiography 1(1): 24-51.

House, K. (2002). Mysteries: Rules of the genre. Available at

Wolfe, G.K. (2011). Evaporating genres: Essays on fantastic literature. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.