Obituary: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Jack Adrian
Wednesday 29 September 1999 23:02 BST

ALTHOUGH MARION Zimmer Bradley was a celebrated, highly successful and influential writer of both science fiction and fantasy, she was, throughout a career that lasted nearly half a century (from short stories published in 1953 to novels and edited anthologies that will be issued in the new millennium), never at all sanguine about her many talents. As she once admitted, "I never particularly wanted a career as a writer." On another occasion she said, somewhat ruefully, "I seem to have fallen into writing science fiction."

This intelligence comes as something of a shock as one contemplates Bradley's output over the years: nearly 50 novels in the SF and fantasy genres, over 20 anthologies as editor, a good three handfuls of books under the label "miscellaneous" (including what can only be termed "feminist pornography"), volumes of very good short stories, multi-collaborations, and at least one translation of a work by the absurdly prolific Lope de Vega (El Villano in su Rincon, privately printed in 1971). However unenthusiastic about writing she may have been, she was at least eclectic - and certainly adventurous in real, as opposed to her creative, life, at one stage, when younger, doubling as a target for a carnival knife-thrower.

In many ways Bradley had an odd, out-of-kilter life. Married twice, and producing three children, she had an unequivocal natural bent towards her own sex - one of her earliest books, issued under the pseudonym "Lee Chapman" by Monarch Books in Connecticut, a cheap (in every sense of the word) publisher of paperback originals, was I am a Lesbian (1962). Other novels for Monarch along the same lines were The Strange Women (1962), My Sister, My Love (1963) and Twilight Lovers (1964), all as by "Miriam Gardner", as well as No Adam For Eve (1966), as by "John Dexter," for Corinth Books, an outfit that crashed when it began reprinting old hero- pulp magazine novels without permission.

At the same time she could hammer out teleplay novelisations such as In the Steps of the Master (1973) for Grosset and Dunlap, a strait-laced firm whose directors would doubtless have fainted en masse if they had understood Bradley's true sensibilities.

Both her marriages were dissolved, that to her first husband Robert Bradley lasting 14 years. Her second husband was the numismatist Walter Breen (author of the standard reference work Complete Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Coins), from whom she lived apart for many years before finally divorcing in 1990. Breen died in 1993, while serving a three-year sentence in the California Institute for Men for child molestation.

Marion Zimmer Bradley was born in 1930. Her father was Leslie Zimmer, a farmer and carpenter; her mother, who strongly influenced her development, the historian Evelyn Parkhurst Conklin. Bradley attended New York State College for Teachers from which she dropped out after two years (1946- 48). Two decades later she went to Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas, gaining a BA in 1964. She also went to the University of California, Berkeley.

She trained not only as a psychologist but a parapsychologist, and was a drop-out from not one but three departments of education, "owing to deep disillusion". She also trained as a singer, and was deeply devoted to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

During the 1950s, as a young wife with a small son, she became immersed in that strange, and peculiarly American, phenomenon known as "SF fandom", writing for a variety of roneoed fanzines for nothing, but also professional SF digest magazines for the going rate of two or three cents a word. Her earliest novels consisted of exciting but largely unremarkable essays in swashbuckling space opera (in Falcons of Narabedla, 1964, the hero is hurled into the future to battle a sinister race who rule via prionic mutants; Seven from the Stars, 1961, features alien castaways on Earth).

She was chiefly inspired not only by women writers such as Catherine (C.L.) Moore, who wrote a remarkable series of dramatic and atmospheric tales of a female adventurer called Shambleau on Mars, and Leigh Brackett, who wrote SF, fantasy and hardboiled detective fiction and whose chief claim to fame is as co-writer with William Faulkner of the super screenplay of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, but also British concocters of exotic fantasy and adventure Rider Haggard and Anthony Hope. All these influences went into her creation of the planet Darkover, where Terran colonists have, over many centuries, developed psi powers.

Gradually the Darkover saga began to take over Bradley's creative imagination, becoming more and more sophisticated and intelligent as the years have gone by. In Darkover anthologies other hands have contributed new stories. There are regular Darkover conventions, organised by the "Friends of Darkover". Bradley was as baffled by this as by much else in her life, observing, "I am perpetually surprised that I can make money at [writing], and people seem to like what I write."

One of her finest novels was The Mists of Avalon (1983), a re-telling of the Arthurian myth from the unusual perspective of Guinevere and Morgan le Fay. This thoughtful and intelligently written novel received the Locus Award for Best Fantasy in 1984. Other "re-arrangings" of familiar material were The Firebrand (1987), the Trojan War as viewed by Cassandra; and two novels which could only have been devised by a self-confessed "opera nut": The Forest House (1993, published in the UK before the US), Bradley's take on Bellini's Norma, and Night's Daughter (1985), a rendering of Mozart's Magic Flute.

In 1988 Bradley launched what she likely considered her crowning achievement, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. She was an experienced and gifted editor who genuinely empathised with first-time writers, and nursed many raw young talents in the fantasy fiction field. But then, as she so often admitted, when denying any particular talent for writing, "I'd rather edit or teach."

Marion Eleanor Zimmer, writer and editor: born Albany, New York 3 June 1930; married 1949 Robert Bradley (one son; marriage dissolved 1964), 1964 Walter Breen (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1990); died Berkeley, California 25 September 1999.

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