Saturday, May 19, 2007

Things That Bug Me About Darkover

Note: these are off the cuff, and probably were addressed thirty years ago in a book I didn't read. They're also probably not fair, given that the important details of the world were thought up by a very young woman more than fifty years ago. (They also only really apply to the far end of the timeline, though the Adventures of the Super-Powerful Romantic Gorgeous Aristocrats Who Can Eat Massive Amounts of Good Food While the Peasants Starve has always made my hand itch for a gun.) And they shouldn't be taken to say anything about my enjoyment of the Darkover novels as books; it's often the things I enjoy reading the most that drive me batty when I start thinking about the world they imply.

Also: I've been poking at this for several months now, and I'm posting it now because it's a Saturday, and I always need to dig up a post for Saturday.

1) Physical: The entire planet seems to be no larger than France. (It's ruled by seven aristocratic families, and the fastest transport and communications, in most circumstances, is by horseback. No one ever has to travel by ship from a far-away area, and no region has a notably different climate. It's the size of a European country, at best.) It also all seems to have precisely the same, bad, climate. Does this mean the entire rest of the planet is uninhabitable to humans for some obscure reason? Or are these people just too dumb to move to the tropics?

This is "it was raining on Beldar 7" territory, in spades.

2) Economic: Even the resources of a rainy, "metal-poor" planet are quite substantial, although -- since the entire population seems to top out at maybe thirty or forty million -- they might not have the warm bodies to exploit much of it.

Presumably the "Terran Federation" is not a monolithic entity, and some individual operations would be willing to work with Darkovrans to exploit some of those resources -- perhaps the ones on the other 99% of the planet that we never see.

And I find it a little hard to believe that no Darkovran learned anything about extra-planetary technology (or, apparently, ever wanted to), so that when "all the Terrans leave" (rolls eyes heavily) no one left on the planet knows how to do anything.

(Really, the entire Darkovran economy is a maze of unexamined assumptions and ridiculous bald assertions.)

To find an in-story reason to explain this, I have to imagine that the Darkovran overlords would much rather see generations of peasants die horribly in various ways than tamper one bit with their precious privileges, which brings me to...

3) Political: The Darkover novels are generally about the kind of people who should, as a class, be stood up against a wall and shot as the first act of the revolution. (Oh, sure, our heroes and heroines are always the good aristocrats, but even in context they're not that wonderful.) They've exploited, marginalized, and outright starved to death their working class for hundreds if not thousands of years by now. The few luxuries available on the planet are all held closely by the ruling aristocrats. They've long ago squandered any possible good will, and their oh-so-special laran powers are used primarily for pointless two-finger exercises in the resource-sucking Towers, or put to bad use in scheming among the aristocrats, or (and this seems to my cynical mind to be the most common option) used to seduce and abandon young farmgirls.

Bluntly: they have no sense that good government is required of them, and they rule a peasant population with an iron fist. What to do?

Shoot 'em. Shoot 'em all, and any vaguely democratic soviet the lower classes put into place has got to be a better solution for the vast majority of the population. We'd also get some kind of industrialization that way, which can't hurt. (What, is it going to ruin the climate? Of Darkover? I laugh hollowly.)

4) The Compact: I'm sure The Bomb lay behind this idea (especially given when Bradley started writing), but it's quite ironic how it works. Historically, distance weapons have acted to allow the weak to confront the powerful on something like an equal basis -- a lord might have a fine horse, expensive armor, a big piece of sharp cutlery and years of experience using it, but he's just as vulnerable to a longbow's shaft as anyone else. On Darkover, though, the total ban on distance weapons is presented as a way to protect the poor innocent peasants from nasty ol' laran weapons...although regular laran is still pretty much only in the hands of the aforementioned inbred decadent aristocrats, who would also have the good swords and horses and guards and so on. But, really, peasants, it's all for your benefit, so just lie back and think of Darkover...

Let's be honest and call a spade a spade: Darkover is a fantasy kingdom with irregular starship service to Earth. That's the only way any of this makes sense. The problem is: although I do like reading fantasy, I keep trying to put Darkover into the "SF" bucket in my head, and it just doesn't fit there. Maybe ranting here will help...


James Nicoll said...

The first point is addressed in the books. Most of Darkover is uninhabitable and covered by ice-sheets.

I'm not really sure what prevents precipitation from getting to the Dry Lands

Joe Sherry said...

I agree with much of what you said about Darkover. There are more than a couple issues with the series, though I've enjoyed reading it over the years.

Points 2 - 4 I would say are all pretty much on the money: the major political, economic, and compact related issues are to protect the powers and privileges of the comyn, the ruling class.

Though, the Compact issue about distance weapons...I can accept that as something to protect everyone on Darkover and not just the the peasants. Those laran based distance weapons were presumably out of control and killed both regular citizens and the comyn. Potentially the comyn realized that if they didn't ban distance weapons, and distance based laran, the peasants would rise up en masse and take down the comyn. Everything is self preservation.

The physical issue is an interesting one. I was under the impression that there was some sort of physical boundary with no access to oceans (so no shipbuilding) that held the Darkoverans in their France shaped world. I figure France is in the north latitudes so that the mountain boundary to the north and west brings them to an arctic region.

There is no reason, however, that the rest of the planet wouldn't hold some other habitable land.

James Nicoll said...

"Presumably the "Terran Federation" is not a monolithic entity, and some individual operations would be willing to work with Darkovrans to exploit some of those resources -- perhaps the ones on the other 99% of the planet that we never see."

We do see such a company in The World Wreckers but their idea of how to open trade relations involves trashing the local economy and ecologies of the worlds that they want access to.

Andrew Wheeler said...

James: Thanks for the pointer to the map, it's very...convenient.) I guess no other landmasses happen to have any bits sticking into Darkover's clearly very, very tiny habitable zone, he said, with heavy sarcasm.

(I've never seen a planet that looked more like a candidate for Big Tech Terraforming than this one.)

Joe: I don't think the Comyn ever did anything out of a consideration for anyone else's interests, honestly, but it would be nice to dream that way.

No, they're stereotypical decadent, self-absorbed aristocrats, I'm afraid -- the kind that are all-too-common in SFF.

David Goldfarb said...

Would it be wrong of me to point out that the adjective should be "Darkovan" and not "Darkovran"?

Anonymous said...

Darkover was settled for what, two thousand years?

How many peasant revolts did France have in two thousand years? I remember one of them being kind of important.

James Nicoll said...

"I don't think the Comyn ever did anything out of a consideration for anyone else's interests, honestly, but it would be nice to dream that way."

Ah, but they claim to.

You know who they remind me of, kind of? Poul Anderson's Maurai, determined to protect people from industrialism while lecturing them on the rightness of the Maurai way.

Joe Sherry said...

Andrew: I agree. Most everything that the Comyn ever said in the series had nothing to do with protecting the smallfolk.

Nice map...I still kind of think that there is something to the South that is even more temperate and habitable and since the southern coast is, well, a coast someone has to have taken it on themselves to explore.

Two thousand years and nobody wondered what was south?

Or...was there a scene from the Terran perspective which showed the rest of the planet to be inhospitable. Just seems a bit funky to me.

Sandra said...

Oddly, I never thought of the Darkover books as anything other than fantasy, and a number of them are romance/fantasy hybrids.

James Nicoll said...

Over at my LJ, someone suggested that the map of Darkover I posted is rotated 90 degrees, which may mean that the habitable spot has ice to the north and south, implying an equatorial location.

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