The Contraband Incident: The strange case of Marion Zimmer Bradley

Catherine Coker

Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The late Marion Zimmer Bradley once said of her own most famous fictional world, "I didn't invent Darkover, I discovered it." Unlike most authors, who at best enjoy their admirers' activities, and at worst try to end them, Bradley and her sizable community of fans collaborated in the publication of a large body of work fairly harmoniously for over two decades. However, this collaboration came to an abrupt end in 1992 with an event that can be referred to as the Contraband Incident. As this overview will explain, it is a cautionary tale which illustrates how fan activity can do real emotional and monetary damage to the creator-author.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan fiction; Copyright

Coker, Catherine. 2011. "The Contraband Incident: The Strange Case of Marion Zimmer Bradley." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6. doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0236.

1. Introduction

[1.1] When fans create a new work from the preexisting material of their fandom, they are doing so for their own, sometimes disparate purposes. And while most authors at best enjoy their admirers' activities, and at worst actively try to force them to end it, very few are interested in engaging with it meaningfully. Most restrict themselves to short statements in interviews or on their official Web sites. The late Marion Zimmer Bradley, however, was quite different. She said of her own most famous fictional world, "I didn't invent Darkover, I discovered it." From the 1970s through the early 1990s, Bradley actively engaged with her fans by editing their stories and publishing them in fanzines, holding contests for fan works created in her universe, and finally professionally publishing, with DAW Books, 12 anthologies of fan-written stories. In most of these works, the fan authors did not seek to subvert Bradley's writings. On the contrary, many of them wanted her to approve of their works—which she largely did. In a few cases, she would even say of a story that it was now part of the canon of Darkover (note 1). The truly remarkable thing about Bradley and her sizable community of fans, especially the group called the Friends of Darkover, is that they not only collaborated in the publication of a large body of work but did so fairly harmoniously for over two decades.

[1.2] This collaboration ended abruptly in 1992 when a fan named Jean Lamb wrote a novel titled Masks, starring one of Bradley's minor characters, Danvan Hastur, and published it in an issue of a fanzine called Moon Phases, edited by Nina Boal. The custom at the time was to send Bradley a copy of such a fannish work; Bradley wrote a response to Lamb, commenting on what she thought worked and what didn't, and closed saying she had enjoyed the novel. Reportedly, Lamb felt spurned, and when Bradley announced the forthcoming publication of her next Darkover novel, tentatively titled Contraband, she threatened to sue, saying that Bradley had stolen material from her fan novel. Nervous, Bradley's publisher dropped her contract, and Contraband was not published. Heartbroken, Bradley moved to dissolve the Friends of Darkover as well as other, less organized fan groups, and fans ceased trying to professionally publish their Darkover fan fiction. Currently, the DAW anthologies are out of print, possibly due to lingering legal issues. In November 2009, I interviewed Nina Boal, who edited Lamb's novel. She described Lamb as feeling "convinced Marion wasn't paying enough attention to Danvan. And it was like he was a real character, a person" whom she had to rescue from the author in order to "do right by him." As this overview of what can be called the Contraband Incident will explain, this cautionary tale illustrates how fan activity can do real emotional and monetary damage to the creator-author.

2. The Friends of Darkover: A short history

[2.1] The group known as the Friends of Darkover began as a way for fans to maintain contact with one another; its newsletters listed members' full addresses. The group was born in the 1970s, when Bradley's Darkover novels were appearing regularly—approximately one a year after 1974. Bradley herself worked closely with the group, promoting it in the back of her books and both editing and contributing to its publications. Members could keep each other apprised of upcoming conventions and Bradley's appearances at them, and exchange opinions and theories about her works, while she wrote comments, provided excerpts from her own forthcoming works, and kept them informed of what she was up to in op-ed pieces that read a lot like modern blog posts.

[2.2] The group was prolific in its output, publishing a wide variety of material, including 70 issues of its newsletter, over a dozen collections of fiction and poetry, numerous nonfiction zines that collected essays on both Darkover and a variety of other topics, including Star Trek and linguistics, and a poetry pamphlet that appeared closer in format to letterpress print work than the mimeographs and photocopies of most traditional zines (Coker 2008). Altogether, the group probably issued over a hundred unique publications, several of which were in such demand that they were reprinted.

[2.3] In 1988 Bradley and her staff founded a professional publication, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine, and their time and effort were diverted to it. (It was published quarterly until 2000, just after Bradley's death.) The Friends of Darkover suffered as a result of continuing fallout from the Contraband Incident. The group was officially dissolved in 1992. Many of the Darkover fans continue to keep in contact, however, at the yearly DarkoverCon meeting. Around 300 fans attend each year, including a number of those who were at the first conventions, back in the 1970s.

3. The Contraband Incident

[3.1] The case of Bradley and of Contraband has perhaps attained the status of a fable whose moral is "Be careful, because this could happen to you." Though the incident has been discussed in fandom, the trade journals, such as Locus and Science Fiction Chronicle, do not appear to have taken notice of it. Thus the information I present here is taken from interviews I conducted and from accounts I was able to locate in the Friends' fanzines like the Darkover Newsletter.

[3.2] In 1992 Bradley was working on her novel Contraband, which, according to Nina Boal, was to be the story of "the two Raphaels," who are mentioned as historical background characters in several Darkover novels. "We were all looking forward to it," said Boal, "and there was a little bit about Danvan" in it. This was the character who had captured Lamb's imagination. Bradley, having read and enjoyed Masks, contacted her. According to Lamb, Bradley offered her money to use portions of her book in Bradley's own work. She told me via e-mail that

[3.3] I was unable to determine how much of the novel I wrote was going to be used. The offer consisted of a few hundred dollars and a mention in a dedication, in exchange for my signing an agreement not to sue for copyright infringement. This seemed a bit open-ended, and I consulted with my agent…he didn't think much of it, given that my agreement not to sue did not mention how much or how little of the book was going to be used. I then responded with a counteroffer, which asked for either more money or a shared byline, unless the amount of my work being used could be clarified. If Ms. Bradley was going to use some ideas from the book, then she was free to do so without any cost, but if there was going to be a lot of my writing used, then I wanted to be compensated fairly.

[3.4] According to Boal,

[3.5] Jean told me this first-hand on the phone. There were lots of letters I wrote to the Darkover Newsletter. I said I'd be honored [to have Bradley use her work] and others wrote the same thing. And Jean crossed me off her list of friends and was outraged, and she was outraged after the letters we published…Fans get wrapped up and it's like [the characters are] real people, and they're ours. You have to be very careful about characters—they aren't in the real realm.

[3.6] Bradley stated in 1992,

[3.7] I'm sorry that things have come to this. I never wanted to have to keep a "professional distance" from my fans, and for more than twenty years I didn't need to. But I guess even the longest streak of good luck runs out eventually, and sometimes one bad apple does spoil the whole barrel. I regret having to give up a novel that I had already started work on, and I apologize to all of you who wanted to read it. (Darkover Newsletter, no. 58, 5)

[3.8] In 1993 she announced that DAW Books had canceled its contract for the novel. It is not known how much of the novel had been completed, though Bradley had been working on it for 2 years: it has been described as consisting, at that time, of a set of notes, an outline, or a completed draft. Allegedly Bradley gave her material to Mercedes Lackey, so that Lackey might complete it after her death, but this has not been substantiated (note 2).

4. The fans' view of the Contraband Incident

[4.1] After DAW Books announced its decision to cancel the publication of Contraband, Bradley wrote several summations of events in consecutive issues of the Darkover Newsletter, and fans continued to discuss them for several months in that venue. Early letters were particularly passionate in championing Bradley and in offering her support. Later letters published in the zine focused more on the legal ramifications of the incident, such as fans no longer being able to send Bradley fan works and she no longer being able to read them. Ann Sharp, then the editor of the Darkover Newsletter, directed those fans still publishing zines to send them to Boston University, where Bradley deposited her manuscripts; a bright side of the incident is that a number of fanzines that might not otherwise have been collected are thus now in library holdings.

[4.2] As is not uncommon after such events in fandom, the blowback against Lamb was immediate and vitriolic. A typical comment in the Darkover Newsletter in 1993 read:

[4.3] I was delighted to see the collection of letters in this DNL about that Person who spoiled it all for the rest of us. I hope someone has sent her a copy. She needs to know just what she has done to so many people in addition to Marion. Where else can we submit stories and get rejection letter [sic] that we keep and cherish? Who else is there to encourage new writers? There are more writers out there, only needing a Marion to give them the boost they need to get started. I wonder how many unwritten/unpublished books will have died aborning because they didn't have MZB to encourage them? There are always the S&S anthologies, and Fantasy, but somehow, playing in Marion's world was special.

[4.4] Ann Sharp responded (in italics), "The Person's subscription hasn't expired!" (Darkover Newsletter, no. 62, 8–9).

[4.5] It took almost a decade for tempers to cool over the issue. The incident came up on the newsgroup in 2001, in a discussion of fan use under the subject line "Copyrighted stuff/unauthorized/etc." (and also on rec.arts.sf.written that March, in a thread in which Lamb posted her own version of events). A poster named Shomeret recounted the following version of events on on May 2:

[4.6] Darkover fanzines were routinely sent to MZB and she read them. She asked a fanfic author if she could use an idea from her fan novella in exchange for an acknowledgment. The fanfic author demanded full collaborator's credit and 50% of the royalties. Neither MZB nor her publisher were willing to consider this ultimatum. When MZB refused, the fan threatened to sue. At that point, MZB consulted with a lawyer, withdrew her permission for fanfic and destroyed her novel. This incident has had an ongoing impact.

[4.7] Another poster, named Leslie, responded:

[4.8] *Sigh* That does sound like Marion. I knew her, back when I lived near Berkeley, and yes, she always did have a tendency toward hysteria—and a touch of paranoia. Damn, all she had to do was say: "Okay, fool—I'll just cut your idea out of the book and write around it, and you don't even get a mention. Goodbye." And if the book was so dependent on the fan's input that it couldn't be rewritten, then she damn-well should have given the fan collaborator's credit—but negotiated about the percentage of royalties. Either of those options would have been sensible. *Sigh* But Marion really wasn't a sensible person.

[4.9] In the past decade, the incident has periodically come up in discussions of fan activities, but Bradley is now usually seen as being as much at fault as Lamb. This evolution of attitude is notable given the period of time involved, and it will be interesting to see how it will continue. Since the attitudes of most authors toward fan works have been largely (if not entirely) shaped by Bradley's example, the admission that even beloved authors can be as culpable in events as their fans may continue to change how we think about fan works. Recent developments such as Napster and YouTube have fundamentally shifted the public's idea of how artistic work should be treated, and transformative works are becoming increasingly accepted. In 2008 the unpublished draft of Stephenie Meyer's work in progress, Midnight Sun, was leaked and placed online by fans. In retaliation, Meyer announced that she was killing the book and posted a copy of the text on her own Web site. In 2010, Diana Gabaldon posted (and subsequently deleted) a lengthy blog entry decrying fan fic and asking fans not to write or publish it. However, an increasing number of authors, many of whom once read or wrote fan fic themselves, see fan works as a phenomenon that simply exists, neither good nor evil. Perhaps that is the best way to view it.

5. Acknowledgments

[5.1] I cannot thank the following individuals enough for their help with this essay: Judy Gerjuoy, for organizing the annual DarkoverCon meetings, at which fans can still gather to enjoy science fiction and Bradley's work in particular; Nina Boal, for talking with me at several DarkoverCons as well as consenting to being interviewed for this project (November 26, 2009), and for sharing several e-mail conversations; and Jean Lamb, for allowing me to interview her via e-mail and for speaking frankly about a topic which is still a source of contention for many.

6. Notes

1. Bradley discussed the canonical status of fan stories fairly regularly in her introductions to the DAW anthology volumes; see, for example, Floss (1987).

2. In 1993, Bradley wrote, "I'm afraid that Contraband, the novel involved in this unfortunate affair, is dead—at least, for my lifetime. The fan tried to get Mercedes Lackey to read it [the novel] but she refused, so it's possible that Misty could write it after my death. I'm leaving her the notes I made on it before I read the fan's story" (Darkover Newsletter, no. 60, 10).

7. Works cited

Coker, Catherine. 2008. "The Friends of Darkover: An Annotated Bibliography and History." Foundation 37 (104): 42–66.

Floss, Patricia. 1987. "The Other Side of the Mirror." In "The Other Side of the Mirror" and Other Darkover Stories, ed. Marion Zimmer Bradley, 13–79. New York: DAW Books.

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