Working in any type of speculative fiction setting—
But what happens when an author ends up writing in this same world for decades at a time, while around the writer, cultures and attitudes change? Tolkien, for one, despaired of ever unifying his earliest visions of Middle-Earth with the later Lord of the Rings and his final philosophical beliefs; Le Guin returned to Earthsea to reexamine the gender roles created in the earliest books of that series, writing sequels that satisfied some readers and upset others.
As illustrative of this problem is Marion Zimmer Bradley, creator of the highly successful Darkover novels, which appeared between 1958 (The Planet Savers) and 1989 (The Heirs of Hammerfell). (Other Darkover books, co-written with Bradley or written entirely by other authors, have appeared since, but for the purposes of this essay, I am focusing on the books written solely by Bradley.) The Darkover series itself contains a few "series within series": the Renunciate trilogy (The Shattered Chain, Thendara House, and City of Sorcery); the Children of Hastur novels (The Heritage of Hastur and Sharra's Exile); and the Forbidden Tower novels (The Spell Sword and The Forbidden Tower). Bradley claimed that she wrote each book to be entirely self-sufficient, but a prior knowledge of other books is helpful before reading some of the books, most notably Thendara House. At the same time, reading all the books plays up the multiple inconsistencies between books, particularly when characters from one book appear in another, directly contradicting what was said elsewhere.
Bradley did not write her Darkover novels in chronological order: as she noted in her brief introduction to Sharra's Exile, "[…] I began with an attempt to solve the final problems of the society: each novel thus suggested one laid in an earlier time, in an attempt to explain how the society had reached that point." This created its own problems: "Unfortunately, that meant that relatively mature novels, early in the chronology of Darkover, were followed by books written when I was much younger and relatively less skilled at storytelling." (1) Indeed, the first published Darkover books are typically shorter, less complex, and less thoughtful than the later books. And the poetic touches that seized the 16 year old's imagination—
By 1974, the author already found herself confronting questions about the internal consistency and chronology of Darkover. Calling these questions "nitpicking," she noted at the end of The Spell Sword:
I do not really think of them as a "series" but rather of Darkover as a familiar world about which I like writing novels, and to which the readers seem to like returning. Where absolute consistency might damage the self-sufficiency of any given book, I have quite frankly sacrificed consistency. I make no apologies for this. (2)
Whether or not consistency, in minor or major things, might have damaged the self-sufficiency of any of the books is questionable, but in the following year, Bradley took matters further, making what she later termed "a landmark decision": she would not be bound by what she had written in previous books. In the late 1970s and 1980s, her books almost seemed focused on rewriting Darkover entirely: the acceptance of an aristocratic telepathic caste, so prominent in the 1960s, came under deep questioning, and in the Renunciate series, Bradley took a deep look at, and questioned and rewrote, the patriarchal assumptions in her early books.
Despite this, Darkover's most general history remained relatively consistent. Initially inhabited by non-human races, including the cheiri, aliens capable of extremely long life and telepathy, the planet was discovered by humans during a crash landing (described in Darkover Landfall), and later rediscovered by humans a few thousand years later (Darkover time) or a few hundred years later ("Terran"/Earth time.) Bradley explained away the time discrepancy by stating that the earliest faster-than-light drives warped time and space, in effect allowing the first landfall to occur thousands of years in the past. Between the two landfalls, Darkover abandoned its former system of government for a more feudal society with structured gender roles. Bradley would later use the contrasting societies to explore feminist issues, gender roles and sexual relationships. Much later—
Key to Darkover society was the presence of laran, explained in varying ways as inherited traits from cheiri, or psychic powers held by most humans, or latent powers that could be enhanced with cheiri blood or training. The debate over whether laran is inherently part of the human race or not continues in all books: one of the most tedious parts of the series is the constant surprise from Darkover natives that "Terrans"—
It was perhaps this very static nature of the two societies that makes the inconsistency of the internal chronology between books and characters so maddening. For if the general history of Darkover remained consistent, the internal chronology between books did not. In some cases, this chronology proves impossible to unravel within a single book, as in Thendara House, where characters and the plot struggle to understand just how long the Terran Andrew Carr has been missing in action.
In other cases, these problems occurred because of the order in which the books were written. In Star of Danger, for instance, published in 1964, young Larry Montray is assured that Terrans have never managed to contact or make inroads into the ruling Comyn culture. This statement is directly contracted in multiple other books, perhaps first in The Shattered Chain, published in 1976, but supposedly set about 45 to 60 years before Star of Danger, where two Terran agents, Magdalen Lorne and Peter Haldane, spend several months at a Comyn estate. In the sequels to The Shattered Chain, Magda ends up living permanently on one of these estates, making the "latter" statement, actually written first, dead wrong. Bradley clarified that the Terran Empire had had difficulties setting up an Intelligence Service on the planet (in Bradley's books, this Intelligence Service focuses as much on anthropology as on the sorts of activities associated with the CIA), but the books never explain why. No one seems aware of the earlier acts of this Intelligence Service, or why the Terrans continue to be inexplicably unaware of who the Comyn—
As a young teenage reader, I found these inconsistencies tremendously frustrating. As an adult reader and writer, I still find the inconsistencies frustrating, but I also wonder if perhaps those very inconsistencies are not partly responsible for Darkover's popularity. For despite these inconsistencies, the Darkover series proved popular, even spawning a fandom and extensive fanfiction, some later edited and formally published with Bradley's approval. (3) Bradley herself, noting that the majority of Darkover fanfiction (or as she termed it, amateur fiction) was written by women, theorized that Darkover's popularity occurred because women were not encouraged to create their own worlds, and therefore created fictions in worlds created by others, starting with Star Trek and continuing to Darkover. (4) This idea may contain some truth, but Darkover's followers did and do not consist only of fanfic writers. Certainly Bradley's portrayal of lesbian, gay and bisexual characters, innovative at the time, won her fans among queer readers.
Too, Darkover's very inconsistency allowed it to be endlessly altered to fit a reader's perceptions or needs. After all, these inconsistencies in some ways mirror our own untidy world. And a culture that could simultaneously offer independent warrior maidens who broke off from their patriarchal societies along with aristocratic women content to remain pampered could offer something for every reader: warriors and battle scenes in Two to Conquer, mountain bandits, female merchants and explorers in Thendara House and City of Sorcery, outright magic in Winds of Darkover, aliens (especially in the earlier books), political fighting and comparative politics and governing methods (The Heritage of Hastur and Sharra's Exile), spaceships, swordfights, and sheer romance (The Spell Sword, Winds of Darkover, Stormqueen). Serious feminist discourse could be followed by a coming of age adventure story (Hawkmistress!). In a sense, Darkover could offer the ultimate in wish fulfillment and comfort to readers—
More to the point, however, I wonder if Darkover's popularity stems precisely from Bradley's willingness to rewrite, to create, to admit that the culture she created in the 1960s was not the culture she wanted to create or discuss in the 1980s. If that freedom brought frustrations to readers, it also allowed Bradley to use her poetic, colorful, and frozen world to discuss issues of culture shock, culture clash, and feminism, while allowing her to shift her stories to fit with the times and issues around her. If some of the Darkover novels now read excessively as products of the 1970s, and even if Darkovan/Terran societies were portrayed as largely static in books set in the later chronology, the series as a whole could slip in and out of time, and reflect the different societies that Bradley was living in.
I'll admit that although in my own fiction I attempt to stay consistent, I sometimes envy Bradley for the freedom she was able to bring to her works, liberated by the knowledge that she, at least, did not feel restrained by the expectations of fans or her past words—