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Recommended Books

February 1994

"Benchmark of Excellence"


When you spend money on the recommendation of a reviewer, you should know at least as much about that reviewer's benchmark of excellence as you do about the political editorial slant of the newspaper or tv newsmagazine from which you get your "information."

Over the last year, I have mentioned in passing that my personal benchmark of excellence is derived from the books of Marion Zimmer Bradley, personal friend, mentor, writing instructor, and initiator.

Twenty years ago, when I was struggling to learn characterization and plotting, she gave me three books by Dion Fortune, Sane Occultism, Psychic Self Defense and The Mystical Qabalah. At that time they were rare, but I promptly completed my Dion Fortune collection. That opened up to me the entire world of Tarot, Astrology, the Occult and the Esoteric.

On the strength of just the very beginning of that study, my writing improved so much that my second novel, Unto Zeor, Forever, won the 1979 Galaxy Award for Spirituality in Science Fiction.

Marion Zimmer Bradley has been selling her sf/f for nearly forty years and her work has revolutionized the field. Her bibliography is too long to quote here, but many of her books are constantly being reprinted. When I first began collecting her novels in the '60's, they were very, very rare. Most professional sf book dealers and collectors had never heard of her. Today, her novel of the priestesses whose magic supported King Arthur's throne, Mists of Avalon, is the top selling trade paperback in the United States. It has a million copies in print and has not yet been issued as a mass market (i.e. cheap) paperback. It sold 76,000 copies in hardcover -- a monumental achievement.

Mists of Avalon is an international best seller, topping the lists in Germany and competing heavily in England. And it has a sequel coming out in the U.S. in hardcover from Viking in April of '94, The Forest House. There will be a third novel, The Forests of Avalon.

Her agent has just cut a million dollar deal (not MZB'S first, either) for two unwritten books not yet sold to the US market. One is focused on the historical character El Cid.

This is where she is today, writing gigantic international best sellers that introduce the general reading public to the basic concepts of the magical view of the universe. In these new books, the initiated reader can still find nuggets of wisdom and insight most readers won't notice.

These books are entertainment, not instruction. They are flights of imagination. They tend to depict things as we feel they ought to be, not as they are. Yet the mechanism behind the depiction has a comfortable familiarity for the initiate. You can learn a lot about yourself by the way you react to MZB's writing.

With one caveat. The MZB byline spans decades during which the science fiction field revolutionized itself several times. A writer who makes a living from writing can only write what sells, and MZB has supported her family through thick and thin by her writing. She has done everything from edit an astrology magazine to writing throwaways under other bylines.

She began her professional career in the days of "neck-up" sf adventures aimed at overly intelligent teenage boys in the grip of the adolescent terror of emotion. From her own early teen years, she began to evolve a story background which eventually became Darkover. She began to sell her Darkover stories before there was such a thing as "Adult Fantasy." And that was twenty years before the word "feminism" was coined -- nevertheless, she was a feminist and helped introduce the first of the female heros into sf. She began writing in the days when one did not mention religion in sf, and sold her first novel which is about the doings of a Darkovan goddess, Sharra. Now she has published whole books that pivot on the peculiarly Darkovan religion.

Thus some earlier titles may irritate some younger readers, and some later titles may irritate some older readers. If you are an older reader who is still young at heart, you may find no irritation at all, but just pure joy in the discovery of someone who sees the world as you do, and whose world view has grown as yours has.

I "grew up" on MZB's mythical/mystical planet Darkover, and as we've discovered the feminist nooks and crannies of that culture, I have become more feminist. I find Darkover a familiar and comfortable place to go for inspiration.

Today, there are many anthologies of stories set on Darkover, written by new as well as established writers and edited by MZB. These anthologies, all from DAW Books, continue to come out, and backlist titles still sell. The Darkovan mythos grows and grows.

Though Darkover has been the most prominent sf/f achievement of her career, MZB has always written in and kept an interest in other fantasy worlds. When financial success came her way after publication of her 1940's/50's circus historical, Catchtrap, she began a magazine to foster the growth of new fantasy writers. Today Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine places stories in award categories quite regularly. You can subscribe for $16/year, and the address is P. O. Box 249, Berkeley, CA 94701.

And there are two conventions revolving around MZB's work. The first began 16 years ago in Brooklyn, a convention engineered by three Darkover fans. I was the first Guest of Honor, mostly because I came up with the name for the event -- Darkover Grand Council Meeting. At that time, I was Keeper of Keeper's Tower -- a register for small, local organizations of Darkover fans all over the country called Councils (after the Darkovan Council) and tied together through the newsletter MZB put out for "The Friends of Darkover." Though I no longer serve in Keeper's Tower, the newsletter still exists.

Darkover Grand Council meets over Thanksgiving weekend each year. As I write this, I have just come back from #16 filled with nostalgia and amazement at the ever growing vigor surrounding this fandom.

While very similar to most sf conventions, Darkover is different from them all. In similarity, it has a dealer's room filled with books and crafts, and an art show where you can buy paintings from professionals and amateurs. It has two tracks of main programming devoted to panels and discussions with writers and artists, plus an author's reading track. It has a music program track and a workshop track. It fills its hotel, and has many all night parties.

In addition to all this, it also has an esoteric program track programmed by the founder of Ecumenicon, Charles Butler. The Order of the Michaelines, which I've mentioned here before in connection with Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels and The Adept Series, meets regularly at Darkover.

There are esoteric workshops in everything from healing to sword dance. I did two main track panels plus five and a half hours on the esoteric track teaching Tarot from a kaballistic standpoint and its use as a plotting tool for writers. One student came up to me and said that she and some others had taken material I'd presented in prior workshops and created their own workshop -- and that a student of theirs had blossomed as a healer because of this work.

The interesting difference this convention has from other sf/f conventions is that almost everyone there has read and deeply enjoyed both the novels of MZB and those of Katherine Kurtz. One can talk in terms of Darkover and Deryni and be instantly understood.

For information on Darkover Grand Council send a self-addressed stamped envelope with your request to Armida Council, Box 7203, Silver Spring Md., 20907. You probably will not hear anything from them until summer '94. The convention is usually held just north of Baltimore, Maryland on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday following Thanksgiving. Membership is strictly limited, so it's a good idea to buy advance memberships.

There is another gathering of Darkover aficionados which has a wider focus. It's called Fantasy Worlds Festival, and the next one will be April 22-24, 1994, at the Berkeley Marina Marriott, Berkeley California. The Guests of Honor will be Mercedes Lackey (whose books I highly recommend though I've rarely mentioned them here) and Larry Dixon. The memberships are $35 until April 1, and $40 at the door. Advance memberships can be mailed to Marion Zimmer Bradley Ltd., PO Box 72, Berkeley, CA 94701.

In these pages, I have often pointed out that fiction reading is part of any serious study of the occult. I have sketched here how one woman's fiction has energized this field.

From a series, Darkover, that, in the 60's, faced hard uphill slogging to find its audience, we now have a growing number of anthologies in the series by a diversity of authors creating an ever expanding mythos. We have a professional magazine where new and established writers can present their own original fantasy universes, and we have two conventions where those who share this reading background can expect to find people to talk to who understand what they're saying.

The body of work that MZB is still creating is my personal benchmark of excellence in the field of fiction. Although she and I disagree on many points, and I don't seriously expect everyone to enjoy every single one of MZB's books, I consider all her titles essential reading for the serious student of the occult. The Darkover series in itself is important because it provides a discussion of the problem scouring at the roots of our civilization -- the dynamic conflict between the scientific/technological view of reality and the magical view of reality.

But over and above that, the novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley are just plain good fun to read. She tells a rip-roaring good tale with a powerful and intricate intimate adventure dynamic, and rarely if ever is a problem resolved with simple violence. There may be arcane battles and mortal combat, with spectacle and danger everywhere, but in the end the winner is the one who accepts the hard lessons meted out by divine justice.

I mentioned Ecumenicon above. That gathering this year will be three days of lectures, workshops and rituals focused around the themes of Beltane and its counterparts in other faith traditions. Ecumenicon VII, July 14-17, 1994 at the Ramada Renaissance Hotel, Herndon VA (near Dulles Airport). Before May 15, it's $40, before June 30 it's $45 and walk in registration is $50. Ecumenicon Foundation, 5400 Eisenhower Ave., Alexandria Virginia 22304.

If you're interested in the general science fiction and fantasy conventions where authors and readers get together and talk, party, and buy books, subscribe to Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. Subscriptions are $38 for 12 issues, payable to Locus Publications. Locus Publications, POB 13305, Oakland CA 94661. Fax 510-339-8144.

In almost every issue, Locus publishes a listing of the current sf/f conventions here and around the world. There is one happening somewhere almost every weekend.

Locus also publishes lists of all the sf/f titles forthcoming for the next few months from all the major publishers.

While I'm doing sources of information, I want to remind you that the Star Trek Welcommittee can provide you contact with Star Trek fandom, Star Trek convention listings, fanzine listings, and more information than you'll ever want to know about what Star Trek fans are doing. STWelcommittee Mailroom, POB 12, Saranac MI 48881.

The avalanche of ST novels continues apace. And most of them are on the best seller lists. Diane Duane has a new ST:TNG novel in hardcover from Pocket Books called Dark Mirror, which is also out on audio tape. Diane Duane and Peter David are among the top authors currently publishing in the professional ST field.




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