Reading List: The Heritage of Hastur

The Heritage of Hastur coverWhatever the virtues of The Heritage of Hastur — and to my mind they are limited in the extreme, although apparently enough people thought it had virtues to nominate it for a Nebula Award in 1976 (although not, so far as I can tell, the Hugo Award that the back cover of the edition I read claims) — it is a deeply tedious read. This is, in part, because it contains dialogue like this —

“You’re a licensed matrix mechanic, aren’t you, Lew? What’s that like?”

This I could answer. “You know what a matrix is: a jewel stone that amplifies the resonances of the brain and transmutes psi power into energy …” (32)

— despite the fact that “As you know, Bob” must have been a cliche even in 1975. And in part it’s because Marion Zimmer Bradley is careful never to tell you just once what she can tell you three times. For example:

“Give it up, Regis. Only a catalyst telepath can ever do it safely and I’m not one. As far as I know, there are no catalyst telepaths alive now.” (33)

Two pages later, some narration from the above speaker:

Then he had at least latent laran. Arousing it, though, might be a difficult and painful business. Perhaps a catalyst telepath could have roused it. They had been bred for that work, in the days when Comyn did complex and life-shattering work in the higher-level matrices. I’d never known one. Perhaps the set of genes was extinct. (35)

And a scant three pages on, from the same narrator:

A catalyst telepath probably could have reached him. But in these days, due to inbreeding, indiscriminate marriage with nontelepaths and the disappearance of the old means of stimulating these gifts, the various Comyn psi powers no longer bred true. […] As far as I knew, there were none left alive. (38)

Nor is this the last time we are earnestly informed that a catalyst telepath is urgently needed, but that there are none left alive. The problem with this – or at least, the first problem with it — is that it all rather primes the pump, so that it’s no surprise at all when a catalyst telepath does turn up, and so that it’s blindingly obvious who said catalyst is about fifty pages before Bradley will admit it to us. And the whole novel is as thuddingly obvious as this. It certainly doesn’t help that there’s a complete lack of spark in Bradley’s writing. The Heritage of Hastur tells, according to the back cover, this epic, tragic story:

This is the complex and compelling tale of the early life of Regis Hastur, Darkover’s greatest monarch. But HERITAGE also spins the terrifying and heartbreaking story of those who sought to control the deadly Sharra Matrix, and tells how Lew Alton met and lost his greatest love, Marjorie Scott.

The two narratives are told in alternate chapters, Lew’s in the first person, and Regis’ in the third person. Despite the blurb’s emphasis, I’d say the end result is much more Lew’s book than Regis’; it’s Lew who is sent to investigate rumours of an alliance between a rogue Darkovan kingdom and Terrans, and Lew’s decision to try to use the Sharra Matrix that leads to the novel’s climax. But neither strand lives up to its promise. Here’s the young Regis, resentful of the path laid out before him by his heritage, yearning to escape offworld:

Below him an enormous cargo ship was in the final stages of readying for takeoff, with refuelling cranes being moved away, scaffoldings and loading platforms being wheeled like toys to a distance. The process was quick and efficient. He heard again the waterfall sound, rising to a roar, a scream. The great ship lifted slowly, then more swiftly and finally was gone … out, beyond the stars.

Regis remained motionless, staring at the spot in the sky where the starship had vanished. He knew there were tears in his eyes again but he didn’t care. (45)

Do you feel moved to tears by his experience? ‘cause I don’t. There’s no specificity in this image, no gnarls or details to really ground it; it’s just a generic ship, going through a generic takeoff procedure. There’s nothing to really evoke the gap between Regis’ experience of life and the life he dreams of – or rather, there’s a huge gap, indicated by “… out, beyond the stars”, that we’re left to fill ourselves.

Lew, meanwhile, is our vehicle for experiencing Darkovan psychic life. But here too Bradley’s writing is flat:

His pain tore at me; I was wide open to it. Through the clawing pain I could feel his emotions, fury and a fierce determination, thrusting his will on me. “You will!

I’m not Alton for nothing. Swiftly I thrust back, fighting his attempt to force agreement. “There’s no need for that, father. I’m not your puppet!” (55)

To anyone who’s read – to take a recent example – Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking books, such exchanges will seem rather lacking in intensity, and even plausibility. We’re told that there was “clawing pain”, but the experience is distanced: there’s no sense that Lew still feels that pain, looking back on it, just that he knows it was there at the time. “There’s no need for that, father”, meanwhile, sounds like a polite disagreement over tea, not a fierce riposte in the middle of a psychic duel. (Mind you, this is a novel in which the naughty words are literally censored: “He used a word which made Regis, used as his was to Guard Hall coarseness, gasp aloud and draw away, shaking and almost physically sick” [139]. So perhaps the politeness here shouldn’t be a surprise.) Later, Lew notes that in Darkovan psychic circles you have to get used “to knowing that everyone … can share all your feelings and emotions and desires”; but if there’s one thing that’s notable about Lew’s narrative, it’s that he’s locked inside his own head, with little sense of the experiences of others.

What energy the book does possess comes not from its sentences but from its melodrama; unfortunately, this is almost all psychologically unconvincing. Most notable is the aforementioned relationship between Marjorie – very nearly the novel’s only significant female character – and Lew, which is one of those supremely unconvincing romances in which the participants fall madly in love (and, inevitably, we’re told over and over that they’re madly in love) on the basis of no obvious fellow feeling whatsoever, and which consequently has absolutely no impact when it ends badly. But it infects other relationships as well: we will pass lightly over the honourable but unfortunate attempt at including gay characters, save to note that the insistence that the bad gay is bad for reasons that have nothing to do with his gayness comes, precisely because Bradley repeats it so often, to have an air of protesting too much, while it’s noticeable that the good gay remains chaste for the entire novel.

All of this is a tremendous disappointment. I did not want to dislike The Heritage of Hastur; I actually wanted quite badly to like it, since the planetary romance itch – taking the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s definition of the form, as “Any sf tale whose primary venue (excluding contemporary or near-future versions of Earth) is a planet, and whose plot turns to a significant degree upon the nature of that venue” – is one that I don’t find contemporary sf particularly effective at scratching. And in the abstract, the Darkover setting sounds fine and interesting. Here’s how the Encyclopedia describes it:

[…] perhaps the most significant planetary romance sequence in modern sf […]

Darkover’s inhabitants — partially bred from human colonists of a previous age — successfully resist the Empire’s various attempts to integrate them into a political and economic union. Darkovans have a complex though loosely described anti-technological culture dominated by sects of telepaths conjoined in potent “matrices” around which much of the action of the series is focused. Increasingly, questions of sexual politics begin significantly to shape the sequence, and to cast an ambivalent light upon the gender distortions forced primarily upon women (and the androgyny required by all aspirants to a higher state) through the strange exigencies of Darkovan culture.

[…] Shadowy, complex and confused, the world of Darkover is increasingly a house of many mansions; a few (either writers or readers) seem to feel unwelcome.

This is, indeed, what I want from a planetary romance: a full exploration of an alternate human society. Unfortunately, little of the sophistication claimed here is in evidence in The Heritage of Hastur. The central conflict of the book – and, I gather, the series – has to do with the relationship between Darkover, an early colony that developed its psychic potential as a result of a lack of the materials needed for more mechanistic technology, and the rest of human space, and in particular whether Darkover should join broader human society, or remain separate. This has potential — there is an obviously useful frisson to be generated from the juxtaposition of higher and lower-technology societies, not to mention the more general questions of community identity that this set-up raises – and Heritage is not entirely without moments when you can feel the weight and frustration of, as one character puts it, “living inside a dead past”, the cost of an enforced societal stasis. Even with the flatness of Bradley’s writing, it does add some shading to Regis’ otherwise by-the-numbers reluctance to embrace his destiny.

But there’s a wearying thinness to the cultural construction. We’re told that Darkover’s culture is descended from a mix of Spanish, Gaelic and English colonists; it’s good that we’re told, because to that point, names aside, the lands of the Seven Domains are to all intents and purpose a generically ersatz feudal setting. And while it is rather wonderful, in a pomp-deflating sense, that among all the grandly named nobles there is one that the text regularly insists on referring to as “Bob”, the court of which he is part, which should be (we’re told is) the best of a fusion between Darkovan custom and Terran tech, feels little different to every other place we see. And so on and so forth. Even ignoring the wince-inducing comments about “alien blood” in human lines – I hold out some faint hope that this is explained in other Darkovan books as simply a family mutation, and that Bradley isn’t actually trying to offer up human/alien interbreeding as plausible – it becomes increasingly clear that The Heritage of Hastur is not, in any meaningful sense, science fiction. The Darkovan psychics are functionally wizards, and the Sharra Matrix is your standard immensely powerful but corrupting magic item: what we have here is the most generic of fantasy narratives, complete with a map to travel across, and even some ballads.

This last problem, of course, will only be a problem for some readers. Those who see fantasy and science fiction as straightforwardly interchangeable will (assuming they can get past all the other flaws chronicled above) not be bothered by the idea that Darkover is generic fantasy with sf window-dressing. Me, though, I can’t see the point of it; and to be clear, the problem is not the fantasy so much as the generic. A large part of the point of setting a society such as Darkover within a science-fiction context – for me, the major attraction of planetary romance, which I would not dispute is a kind of fantasy – has to be that it creates a distinct perspective from which to interrogate that society’s values. But all Bradley seems to be interested in is the recreation of too-familiar tropes. In this as in other things, repetition is the novel’s undoing. As The Heritage of Hastur wears on, we’re told with increasing frequency and emphasis that Regis Hastur really is born to lead, while others are born to serve (when a friend offers him his service, it is “a pleasure and a relief” for that friend); and while we may well be meant to greet such statements with scepticism, with Regis only once allowed the faintest of twinges that something might not be right with the distribution of power in his society, clumsiness can’t help but start to look a little like convenience – or even, whatever the Encyclopedia may say about the Darkover series in the round, an endorsement.

10 thoughts on “Reading List: The Heritage of Hastur

  1. Interesting view, and in 2010 I would agree with you.

    But in 1976, when I first read the book, what you call “generic” wasn’t. Terry Brooks had yet to publish the first truly egregious Tokien clone, Dungeons and Dragons was this weird new thing, and Star Trek was still recent enough that people like MZB could get all excited about oh! boy! Earth vs. Medieval Aliens! and it really was new and fresh enough to merit a Nebula nomination.

    At the time, this was high-end SF. Compared to the utter one-dimensionality of the prose of, say, Arthur C. Clarke, the book was considered to be fairly well-written, and its ideas were borderline radical. It was, for the genre and the period, complex and edgy and original. The fact that MZB dared portray gay characters at all was well outside the norm, and the general cultural view of women hadn’t moved much past Yeoman Rand in her tight little miniskirt (and she was radical in concept, too–a woman! on a ship! doing an actual job!). This was real, solid, chewy stuff with a side dish of oo! daring!

    35 years later, yes, it’s generic-yadda-yadda. But generic-now is generic in part because of people imitating this book. It’s a forerunner, not a follower. Back when there wasn’t much else like it, it was Really Cool Stuff.

  2. Compared to the utter one-dimensionality of the prose of, say, Arthur C. Clarke, the book was considered to be fairly well-written

    I can’t agree with you here. For my money, Clarke’s writing is much better than anything in this novel; and even if you disagree, while the fashions of “good writing” change over decades, a lot of the basics do not, and there’s just no way you can justify this as “fairly well written” compared to contemporary works such as by Le Guin, or Tiptree, or M John Harrison.

    I’m well aware that the novel is historically significant, but that’s a little beside my point about its genericity, which is tied much more closely to the quality of the writing. I’m not saying it’s wrong to defend novels on grounds of historical significance — I’m sure the sf community today is making flawed judgments, and I’m sure we won’t know what they are for another thirty years; all we can do is try to be demanding readers, I guess — nor wrong to read works for their historical significance. I’m saying that the historical significance of The Heritage of Hastur is that contemporary praise for it is primarily a sad comment on the standards the sf community of the time was using to pass judgment. Terry Brooks is a good comparison. It’s not, at least for me, the fact that Brooks and Bradley borrow from others that makes them uninteresting; it’s that they do it so badly, they filch various elements and patterns only to reproduce them in the most pedestrian manner imaginable. As for groundbreaking political awareness: it was nominated for a Nebula in the same year as Dhalgren and The Female Man.

  3. I never understand the “Clarke’s prose was flat” meme. It seems completely at odds with my experience of the core books and stories, all of which contain passages of genuine poetry.

  4. Yeah. I wouldn’t want to stand up for Clarke as a great writer, but I think there’s a definite difference between the cool distance of a Clarke and, say, the plain and transparent prose of an Asimov. But that’s a debate for another day. :-)

  5. Even the “plain and transparent prose of as Asimov” was skillfully plain and transparent. It truly read easily, and conveyed what Asimov wanted to convey. Bad prose does not even read easily, and conveys only something in the general neighborhood of what the writer wishes to convey, if that much.

    I would agree that Clarke was better, though. Yes, he did occasionally achieve a sort of cool poetic affect that really worked.

    I see where Judith is coming from. I read THE HERITAGE OF HASTUR when it came out, and between being a teen and something about the times, it didn’t seem too awful. I read a lot of MZB right about then — I guess all of Darkover up to HERITAGE and the next two or three novels after it — and I generally enjoyed them. I will say that even then I was surprised by the Nebula nomination. I returned to Darkover a couple of decades later and found it horrid.

  6. Hi Niall,

    since I will also take part in the SF masterclass, I’m following your blog regularly – great stuff.

    For me « The Heritage of Hastur» this was definitely the weakest of the three novels on the reading list. And I would agree that some of its flaws have little to do with the time it was written, but are really just problems of basic dramaturgy. Too many changes in the plot are foreshadowed too often. We are told over and over again, that things will turn out bad when Lew starts to teach the new circle. To me, the way MZB tried to evoke a dark, fateful atmosphere fellt really clumsy.

    Looking forward to meeeting you.


  7. Likewise! And yes, “problems of basic dramaturgy” — that’s it precisely.

    I finished Winterstrike yesterday, and it’s very much the middle book for me, in terms of interest. And yet at the same time, because it’s contemporary and I know the contemporary field so much better, I can see more to talk about, in some ways.

  8. I didn’t dislike it anything like as much as you did. Yes, it’s not great, and it’s a bit generic, but there is a driving narrative flow that kept me turning the pages. Though, like the first three Star Wars films, it depends a lot on knowing who these people are from the previously published sequel.

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