Archive for the 'science fiction' Category

Plague in literature

March 17, 2020

Way back in the seventies, I vaguely recall reading a novel called The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton, a competently-written thriller among lots of other similarly well-written ones of the time, which depicted humanity threatened by a deadly virus. I remember nothing else about it, and it has vanished as so many other best-sellers do over time.

51wnFk+aO6L._AC_UY218_ML3_    As a student I also remember reading a rather better novel by Albert CamusLa Peste, or The Plague. Set in Oran, in the then French colony of Algeria, in the 1940s during an outbreak of the plague, it focused on the life and work of a doctor in the beleaguered city, and the psychology and behaviour of a population subjected to such a threat. Humans do not generally come out well in those circumstances; Rieux does his human best.

41kh7MYOOaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    I can remember teaching Daniel Defoe’s novel (note that, novel) A Journal of the Plague Year, which recalls the dreaded year 1665 in London. Again, people behave very badly, very selfishly, and irrationally in the circumstances; in those days there was almost no knowledge of how disease originated or spread, so the effects of the outbreak – almost an annual occurrence but far more devastating in that particular year are particularly horrible.

Defoe’s book is interesting on a number of counts. It is a work of fiction, written by a man who was only a small child in the actual year of the plague outbreak, yet it is presented as a diary account by someone who lived through the events of that year in London, with all sorts of details to emphasise its verisimilitude. Defoe was a journalist by profession, and so knew how to use and present his source material to great effect, and yet this book also has a claim to be one of the very first novels written in the English language.

51w+CUWfm2L._AC_UY218_ML3_    And finally, a novel with which I’m a little more familiar, from having read or listened to the audiobook rather more recently, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, set in England in the 21st century, when the world is devastated by an illness which clears the planet of its human inhabitants. Here is another novel with disease – or rather, the effects of disease – at its centre, but in the romantic vein in which she writes, Shelley is actually far more interested in the picture of a gradually emptying land and its exploration and traversing by a shrinking band of the nation’s elite. It’s as limited a work of science fiction as is her more famous Frankenstein in terms of detailed imagination of the future (although her vision of England as a republic has a certain charm), but absolutely marvellous in the way it can draw the reader into the solipsistic vein of imagining her/himself as the sole survivor of the species with the entire world as their oyster…

Apocalyptic literature is a genre mainly from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, although writers have tended to imagine humanity wiping itself out through warfare rather than being taken unawares by a disease it cannot cure or master.

L0030701 London's dreadful visitation ..., 1665


I’m wondering whether to revisit Camus or Defoe at the moment…have gone with Defoe.

On annihilation

February 1, 2020

A recent death in the family has inevitably had me reflecting on endings, disappearances, and what happens next. And while I have a faith and a spiritual life of sorts, I cannot think that there will be anything to come hereafter, in which I may have any connection to, knowledge or comprehension of this life which I have been enjoying for so long.

Many writers have imagined annihilation on a global scale, especially since 1945 and the first use of nuclear weapons. Think Walter Miller’s superb A Canticle For Leibowitz. Others have imagined environmental disaster, or disease on a pandemic scale. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is my favourite example here. But these writers envisage some survivor(s), rather than the complete disappearance of humanity. Rarely have writers contemplated or explored the idea of annihilation itself.

81m4LsvGXVL._AC_UL320_ML3_    71DcF-BqxUL._AC_UY218_ML3_    There are two literary works – very different from each other – which have chimed in with my thoughts. One is Eugene Ionesco’s masterpiece Le Roi Se Meurt (The King Dies) which I have mentioned a number of times. The king has to die, as must we all, and his time has come, yet he cannot accept the inevitable: he rages against it, even as his kingdom, in pathetic fallacy, disintegrates around him. His two queens assist him: the younger and more beautiful young one urging him to resist, supporting his denial (of the obvious) while the elder strives to get her husband to accept the inevitable. Death cannot be resisted. Amid his mental struggles, the king wants someone to teach him how to die, and is told – in a bleak sentence which has stayed with me for half a century, “Everyone is the first person to die!” For me, there is the profundity of great wisdom and great art in that bald sentence, so terrible when fully contemplated. And in this play, no afterlife is on offer.

The second text which spoke to me is a science fiction novel from the 1940s, Olaf Stapledon’s neglected Last And First Men. It’s a difficult, painful and strangely dull read at times, as well as an absolutely astonishing work of the imagination: Stapledon takes us on a whirlwind imagined history of humanity through (I think) eight very different incarnations of the human species over a period of several billion years, and its existence on several of our solar system’s planets. And as the years whizz by on the clocks of the Time Traveller’s craft in HG Wells’ novel up until the moment of the death of the sun, Stapledon’s journey takes us just as far into the future, but what shocks most is how quickly our own time, the people, places, countries and world we know are left behind in the mists of time. Gone and forgotten forever are all the marvels of our era, the Bachs and the Shakespeares and the Einsteins, gone are the cathedrals and the wonders of the world, ground to dust over millennia by time and geology: how long will the slightest traces of any of our world and our (feeble) achievements be recognisable? Shelley’s Ozymandias comes to mind: ‘Look on my works, ye might, and despair.’

The sense of annihilation is the total vanishing, the utter evanescence of anything connected with us on the scale of the universe, our utter insignificance. And when I contemplate that on an individual or personal level, my mind fails me, quite honestly. For how long will anyone have a memory of me, or my deeds? So then, I’m faced with the question: what is the point? And faced with that insignificance, all I can imagine is to try and live well and care for those close to me and dear to me, to enjoy myself, and do good where I can for as long as I’m able. I came across an old Arab proverb many years ago: “One day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one.” That speaks to my condition.

Philip Pullman: Once Upon a Time in the North

January 1, 2020

51MctBCN2bL._AC_UY218_ML3_   A long time ago, shortly after the completion of the His Dark Materials trilogy, a couple of short books were published, extending and developing parts of the story. I acquired one – Lyra’s Oxford – at the time, but the other I haven’t had until now, and a very welcome stocking-filler it was, too.

Once Upon a Time in the North is a tale of Lee Scoresby’s very early days as an aeronaut, and his first encounter with the bear Jorik as they join forces to outwit various malevolent forces. It was also interesting as the source of an encounter shown in the recent TV adaptation, which I hadn’t recalled from the original trilogy, where Lee quotes legalese to outwit one of the local bureaucrats who are in the pay of the Magisterium…

But the little volume is most enjoyable for what I suppose I’d call the local colour: the development of the characters of Lee and Jorik at a time long before the events of the trilogy, and the atmosphere of the community in the far North which is fleshed out and brought to life. Neither this little book nor the other I’ve mentioned are anything special, but they are an added bonus for those who love the totality of Pullman’s amazing creation…

2019: my year of reading…

December 30, 2019

I’ve not done anywhere near as much reading this last year as I normally would, for a number of reasons, and recently have not felt able to settle down to anything as demanding as a full-length book, so for the last couple of months it has been magazines and online articles, mainly. I have acquired 30 new books this year – so some success on cutting down how many I buy – disposed of a good many more than that, and actually read 53 books in total, so just over one a week. I never imagined the total would drop so low…

I realise on looking through my reading log that I’ve spent a fair amount of time re-reading this year. At the end of 2018, I began working my way through the novels of Philip K Dick again, and got about half-way through them before I got side-tracked; I also re-read some Raymond Chandler, some Garrison Keillor and quite a lot of Ursula Le Guin, prompted by her death earlier in the year. Her work remains as powerful as ever for me, in many different ways. I’m looking forward to tacking her epic Always Coming Home next year.

Why so much re-reading? Looking at my shelves I see that there are so many old favourites still there, which have survived the annual cull of books which head their way to Amnesty International, and I feel drawn to revisit them, and the pleasure I recall in the past. I used to have the feeling, “well, I’d like to re-read that one day…” and move on; nowadays, something follows that thought up with, “get on with it, then!” So I have.

Like many of you, I have a fair number of what might loosely be called “coffee-table books” in a dismissive sort of way: I mean the kind of large format, illustrated books that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a cover-to-cover read, but are for deep browsing; I’ve spent a good deal of time revisiting those this year, too, especially the ones on travel and exploration. Very satisfying.

But it hasn’t been completely a year of re-reads. New discoveries have included R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – there seems to be a good deal of First World War fiction out there that I still haven’t discovered – and John Barton’s marvellous book on the history of the bible, which I really enjoyed and found very thought-provoking, too. And I really liked the French writer Gilbert Sinoué’s Le Livre de Saphir .

Now we come to statistics and awards. For some reason – and I do wish readers would enlighten me – the most popular post of the year by far has been my brief and instant reaction to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Wound in Time, which she wrote to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War. Other posts on poems from that war have also been pretty popular, along with my thoughts on Ismail Kadare’s novel about Stalinism in Albania, Le Grand Hiver. I’m pleased to be reaching such a wide variety of readers, and I still wish I head more from you…

My biggest disappointment this year has been my re-reading of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series; I wish I hadn’t bothered and then I might have retained more of my original admiration for his achievement. When researching for the post I just published on him, I noticed there were some prequels and linked short stories, which I will not be bothering with.

Once again, there is no award for weirdest book: obviously I’m not reading weird books at the moment…

I’ll give Philip Pullman my award for best new novel for The Secret Commonwealth, the second in his Book of Dust series. It is on a par with the first one, and I know I’ll have to wait another couple of years for the last in the series.

I’m cheating a bit here, but my award for best novel goes to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which is coming up for a re-read pretty soon, so that I can dig a bit deeper than just the plot, and admire what she has done in writing a sequel to a novel no-one imagined there could ever be a sequel to. It’s clever, it’s serious, it’s thought-provoking, and for me everything that a good novel should be.

I haven’t read a great deal of non-fiction this year, but John Barton’s A History of the Bible was outstanding in its erudition, its clarity and its honesty. He isn’t afraid to dig deeply or to ask awkward questions, and yet the Christian scriptures are not diminished or undermined by his forensic examination.

Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad is easily my Book of the Year: it’s not a new novel, having been written before I was born and published in a number of incomplete versions in Soviet times. What we finally got this year was a very careful edition which is probably as complete and as accurate as can be with a work completed in such challenging circumstances, excellently translated and introduced, and superbly annotated: a work of love by Robert Chandler. It’s the prequel to the astonishing Life and Fate, which has rightly been called the twentieth century’s War and Peace. Only a Russian could have written it, and it is a tragedy that the horrendous experience of Russians during the Nazi invasion and occupation is not better known and understood in the West.

I wonder what next year will bring? So far, press articles about what’s coming up in the next few months have been rather unpromising. And I don’t have any particular plans in terms of what I want to read, although I am currently enjoying re-visiting old favourites, so there will probably more of those…

Philip Reeve: the Mortal Engines series

December 29, 2019

71nGj+Yiq7L._AC_UY218_ML3_   Many years ago, while I was still teaching, Philip Reeve came to our school and did an inspiring writing workshop with our youngest students. This will have been at the time when this series of books was being published, and I remember thinking at the time that it was all rather in the shadow of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. I binge-read the Reeve series when I was ill at the time and really enjoyed it: having recently been laid up for a couple of days I decided to repeat the experience, and have to say that I was rather disappointed…

It’s a much easier read, with plots that are less complex, although still extremely convoluted and confusing at times, and there are no deeper, underlying meanings for the interested reader to seek out, as there are throughout Pullman’s novels. The idea of constant warfare – Municipal Darwinism – between enormous mobile and travelling cities, is a very imaginative concept and one that Reeve carries off with great verve. He also has child/ adolescent heroes and heroines, who engage the reader, although they do lack a lot of the depth and development of Pullman’s characters. The underlying message is one about the wrecking of the planet through competition: the fixed, mobile, submarine and aerial cities are all vying with each other, screwing the past and the planet in order to survive. Where have we met this before?

I’m aware I’m treating Reeve as in Pullman’s shadow here, but I feel the comparisons are inevitable really. True, the stories are very different: Pullman’s parallel universe echoes our own and develops in a different but recognisable way and gains from the Brechtian effect of involving both alongside each other, whereas Reeve’s universe is set in a fantastical far future which sets his reader in a very different situation.

The target audience is rather different, too, I think. Pullman’s work is clearly accessible to younger readers, who will engage with it at the level on which they are capable and comfortable, and be challenged to grow up through their interaction with his ideas and characters; it’s equally accessible to adults who will be provoked by it in rather different ways. Reeve’s novels are certainly aimed at a young adult readership, but I’m not sure how challenging or satisfying they can be to an adult audience: I read them as pure escapism, and second time around I was rather underwhelmed. Pullman challenges us through encounters with violence and sexuality where Reeve, though acknowledging these aspects, skirts around them somewhat.

Mortal Engines is fast-paced, with multiple and interconnected storylines, and lots of cliff-hangers; shifting from plot to plot keeps use entertained and engaged; Reeve writes well. But there is nothing to slow down mere consumption of the plot: characterisation, apart from the main ones, is rather sketchy. At times I felt he lost control of the story and almost seemed to be making it up as he went along, but in the end I thought he was just about in control of his material: what it all lacked for me was depth.

I also found it hard to cope with the unevenness of tone: the comic character Professor Pennyroyal was annoying throughout and the episodes involving him detracted from Reeve’s attempts to be more serious, emphasising the far-fetched nature of the plot, and involving characters which never engaged our sympathies or loyalty. By the time I reached the final volume I was confused and itching to reach the end: Reeve was no longer master of so many plots and characters, even though he did manage to pull things together in a way in the closing pages, where he briefly explored the notion of humanity as a plague on the planet, and one worthy of being finally eliminated…

So, for me it bears one reading, for the originality of its conception and for being highly entertaining. But the notion of humanity as a scourge on the planet is insufficient to sustain four lengthy novels, and the notional utopia he establishes in the closing pages does not convince. However, he wasn’t writing for me…

On death in literature

December 8, 2019

People die in literature all the time; their deaths are dwelt on for a while, and affect other characters. What occurs rather less often is deliberate and sustained consideration of the subject of death itself, perhaps viewed as too depressing to sustain an entire novel.

You can reflect on death in poetry: John Donne, for instance, does it masterfully in his Holy Sonnet Death Be Not Proud. Donne, Anglican clergyman and Dean of St Paul’s, knows that death is not the end, not ultimately something to be fearful of, because it leads to something far better – heaven and eternal life. He thunders at Death personified, though as a twenty-first century reader I’m not convinced, and I wonder at times how much his seventeenth century readers were.

Eugene Ionesco devotes an entire play to death; of all his works that I’m familiar with, Le Roi Se Meurt, which I had the good fortune to study at A Level (alongside King Lear, which was an interesting comparison) is the play I’ve found most powerful and affecting. The king has come to the end of his life and usefulness and so must die, but first he must accept this, and prepare himself for non-existence. Here, a king is an Everyman figure: powerful he may have been, but he cannot avoid the lot of every human, no matter how lowly. He rages and refuses, attempts to elude and evade; his young Queen supports him in this futility, holding out vain hope, while his other, older Queen must drag him kicking and screaming to face reality. It’s an absurdist drama and gains a great deal of its power from this, with the near-Brechtian alienation effect sharpening the focus on one man and his coming to terms with death. The single line (translated) “Everyone is the first person to die” had a profound effect on me at the age of 17, and I’ve never forgotten it: it gets to the core of the question so directly.

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych is jarring, disturbing: one day Ivan’s life is running normally, the next, he learns he has a fatal illness, which takes its course, and we observe his growing confusion and confusedness in himself as death approaches, as well as the attitudes of family, colleagues and neighbours, whose responses vary from initial concern to eventual boredom, because their lives are continuing normally and they are not (yet) faced with death in such a brutal way. And this is the way we react to knowledge of someone’s approaching end: we may be shocked or upset, and yet are reassured by the knowing that we will survive.

I first read Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars as a teenager, and have come back to it a good number of times; as you might expect, as I’ve grown older, my response to it has changed. I now see how he has attempted to remove death from human experience, not in the manner of the Swiftian Struldbruggs, but through technology: the computer that runs the city of Diaspar (go on, work out the almost-anagram) has perpetuated that city for a thousand million years whilst the rest of Earth has worn out and disappeared. Each citizen has their mental pattern, their brain and memories stored, and is brought back to life every thousand years or so, for another, fresh existence… you die and yet you don’t, being preserved in the computer’s memory banks. I quite like this idea, and could happily while away some hours planning my next existence.

On time…

December 2, 2019

I’ve written about this topic before: it’s one I return to a lot in my thinking, perhaps reflecting the fact that I’m growing older and so have less of it left.

I’ve always been fascinated when staring up at the night sky and the stars, especially in winter. The sense of the vastness of space, the enormous distances to the stars, our lack of knowledge about what and who might be out there, and the unlikelihood of our ever making contact with anyone, all come together to amplify the sense of timelessness or eternity for me: everything is just so big and unfathomable. Science fiction writers have characters and machines travelling across the vastnesses of space so easily; only in Ursula Le Guin’s visions of the worlds of the Ekumen has any writer fully explored the sadness (or the horror) of someone having travelled faster than light, then returning to the world whence they came, where decades or centuries have elapsed, and everyone they knew, parents, loved ones and friends, are long dead… the loneliness of such an existence seems unbearable, and it’s only fiction…

Ancient places on our own planet have a similar effect on me: the vanished world of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire where I live, where monks prayed, chanted and sang for centuries; the Roman remains in Provence where it’s possible to imagine quite vividly how people lived two thousand years ago. Many years ago, when I lived in East London, I watched as the old railway station at Broad Street was demolished and redeveloped; my eye was caught by a plaque on the wall which said that the vanishing station had been built on the site of the old Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam in common parlance) which had been on that spot from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, and I wondered what, from our modern world, would have a chance of remaining in the same spot for seven centuries.

It’s things like this that put the pettiness of our existence into focus for me: we are marvellous, complex and sometimes intelligent beings experiencing the joys and sadnesses of our lives which are but an instant in the time of the universe.

The classic book about time is probably the late Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, a best-seller that featured on so many people’s bookshelves and may well have been the most unread book of all time, so difficult it was to comprehend. I can say that I did, once, read it from cover to cover: what I did not do is understand it. Science, especially physics, actually makes my brain hurt; I tried, and failed.

Somehow the canvas of time came across really effectively for me in Ivan Yefremov’s A For Andromeda, a classic of Soviet science fiction, set over a thousand years in the future, in a world where communism did triumph, succeeding in transforming everyone’s lives. Utopian, certainly, but people need to dream. And in his future world, religion, of course, has vanished into the dustbin of history, is regarded as a quaint piece of the past. And yet, his characters are still capable of being moved by the enormousness of space and the cosmos, experiencing what I can only label powerful spiritual feelings as they look out from our world.

There are writers who can capture the sense of loss over time, bringing to life vanished worlds in their fiction. I experience this particularly in novels set in Eastern Europe, where worlds have literally vanished as a consequence of the upheavals and horrors of the twentieth century. Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life is a very powerful example: a German ship’s captain, wearied after the horrors of the Great War, retreats from the world into the dense forests of one-time East Prussia to live a simple life in a hut on an island in a lake, with only a single companion, and finds peace of a sort; others of Wiechert’s novels are set in this place which vanished forever in 1945. A number of Günter Grass’ novels are set in the Free City of Danzig, another world which disappeared at the same time. Perhaps the saddest moment in The Tin Drum is the suicide of the Jewish toyshop owner as the Nazis tighten their grip on that city: there is no hope, and his is another world gone forever. Lastly I’ll mention Walter Kempowski, whose works are now appearing in English translation; he again pictures the disappearance of that small area of Eastern Europe.

Our existences are transient; we cannot understand the cosmic scale of time and place – we are too little for that. Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, makes an astonishing effort to take human history several billion years into the future. It’s a noble attempt which cannot succeed, hard to read, painful in its reminders of our pettiness. Maybe that’s why most writers stay away from such themes…

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Herland

October 28, 2019

912W443LLKL._AC_UY218_ML3_   Here’s a book I haven’t read for nearly forty years, since I worked on my thesis. Written in 1915, Gilman’s novel presents a socialist, feminist and (involuntarily) separatist utopia, a product of the early twentieth century wave of feminism, and rediscovered by the second, in the 1970s. It’s set up as a three-man expedition who have heard rumours of a dangerous women’s world, so they have to go there, of course. It turns out to be somewhere in an Amazon-type region, on a lofty basalt plateau cut off from the surrounding jungle, so suspiciously like the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

It develops along the usual utopian lines: the visitors from outside discover a well-ordered land of peace and plenty (though a good number of fairly traditional feminine traits still remain there), and they (the men) are initially imprisoned by the women, cannot believe there can be no men, quickly reveal themselves to be rather silly in their attitudes, and have to learn to understand this new world in which they find themselves.

They learn the language and then there is the usual exposition, complicated by the naturally assumed superiority of men from our world and that particular time period. There have been no males of the human species in Herland for two thousand years; parthenogenesis spontaneously developed; there is a cult of maternity which has become their religion, and, the men are told, because there was no outlet for it, sex and sexuality were sublimated, suppressed and quickly vanished from the human experience. The feminists of the 1970s who produced rather different separatist utopias will have found this last development unsatisfactory; the concept of lesbian sexuality is not even hinted at here.

As the men learn – or not – we do come to feel, though it’s by comparison with our own society, that there’s a bit of a feel of the ant-hill or beehive to the world of Herland, happy and healthy though its citizens are, and the exposition ultimately becomes rather tiresome and tedious, just as in many other utopian novels.

I found myself wondering how convincing Gilman’s male characters were; they are types rather than personalities, and perhaps do represent attitudes from a century ago. The women of Herland are aware of the problem of stasis, which must be present in any utopian world, and are debating whether they want to re-establish a two-gender society, now that they have been presented with the potential and opportunity. Romances are developed (rather woodenly) between the three men and three women, marriages contrived (1915, remember!) and the awkward problem of sex and sexual desire rears its head, for the women are basically both uncomprehending and shocked when they encounter it…

As utopias go, it’s an interesting one, asking more questions than it answers, really, and casting a shadow on the world as we know it, which must necessarily seem dark and defective by comparison. Gilman raised the broader question of the differences between male and female attitudes and approaches to many aspects of life, living and society, and foreshadowed much more complex and challenging novels of the 1970s and 1980s where such issues are brought into play much more forcefully – thinking of the novels of Suzy McKee Charnas, for instance.

Worth a read if you happen to come across a copy… didactic rather than entertaining, and Gilman sets herself up for a sequel, which I have not taken the trouble to track down.

ed Niall Ferguson: Virtual History

October 26, 2019

41w7zIAhyvL._AC_UY218_ML3_   As a lifelong reader of SF, I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve known as alternative futures, although some now call them counterfactuals: works where writers imagine what the world would be like if things had gone differently at some point in the past. I suppose the current classic example is Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers were victorious in the Second World War, but there are numerous other examples. A couple of my favourites are Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War, and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, a dark tale set after seven centuries of Nazi power in Europe.

So I came back hopefully to this book which I last read twenty yers ago, only to be seriously disappointed. Niall Ferguson is a historian, albeit one with a far too right-wing take on things for me, and he provides a wide-ranging introductory essay to the subject, offering a taxonomy of counterfactual history, rubbishing Marx along the way, of course. Ultimately I found it impenetrable stuff, with its – no doubt simplified for the general reader – theories of history, and probably of no real interest to anyone except academic historians. In a paperback aimed at the general reader, it was incredibly self-indulgent.

None of the following chapters is fiction. Various historians tackle various moments which they have deemed crucial in history and survey the evidence and reflect on how things might have gone differently and what the consequences might have been. I found that the further they went back into the past the less relevant or interesting they were, so alternative outcomes to the English Civil War or the American revolution or the history of Ireland and Home Rule were tiresome. When they got on to the First and Second World Wars they were more interesting, but I did find myself wondering what historians would make of such musings.

The chapter on what the world might have been like if the Soviet Union had not collapsed was silly, because it was written far too close to the actual events, and the canter through an alternative past three centuries as an afterword failed because it was too telescoped.

I found myself thinking about how fiction does all of this so differently: history has happened, so re-imagining it is a futile exercise in many ways, whereas the fictional imagining of how it might actually have been to live in such alternate universes is creative and entertaining, as well as having the power to make readers think. Rather than being blinded by a snowstorm of hypothetical details in which historians have to locate names we know in order to remain anchored in their subject, we follow real people and daily lives and relationships in those altered worlds. Life in a world that has been under Nazi rule for centuries is grim, yet people have to live, and they still have minds and imagination, still think and act and desire. To hear in passing in that novel that there was once a race called the Jews, and then for the speaker to move on to something else straight away, has a chill-factor that no historian can generate… How Americans live their daily lives in a California occupied by the Japanese is an interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking act of the imagination.

The most interesting thing in this entire book was Dostoevsky’s comment on Brexit:

‘A man can wish upon himself, in full awareness, something harmful, stupid and even completely idiotic… in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things.’

On re-reading Ursula Le Guin

September 17, 2019

81yGpmCphML._AC_UY218_ML1_   We lost one of the greatest SF writers ever when Ursula Le Guin died earlier this year, and I promised myself I’d re-read some of her Hainish novels: I did this in a bit of a binge-read while I was on holiday in the Ardennes a week or so ago, and enjoyed Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed all over again. They are very thought-provoking, and you can see the influence of her family background and personal interest in anthropology.

I found myself trying to decide just how good she was, and what exactly she had achieved. The Library of America publications of her works which have come out recently are helpful because they contain her introductions, and also some interesting notes on the novels. Even in the earliest works, Le Guin manages to create very powerful and very moving characters, which, as many critics have noted, does not often happen in science fiction.

The idea that various Earth-like planets were ‘seeded’ with humanoid life at some point in the very distant past, and left to develop, gave Le Guin scope to explore a range of different aspects of human potential and societal organisation: never didactic, she leaves her reader to make comparisons with our own particular world, and way of living, leaves us to make judgements, too, if we have eyes to see.

The last two books I listed are those that most people would recognise as her best, I think. The Left Hand of Darkness puts our human sexuality under the microscope in a way no other writer has done, through the creation of the Gethenians who are truly androgynous: in a work of fiction, a writer can explore and invite a reader to imagine, in way that no textbook or academic work can. I found this idea so interesting that an analysis of this novel formed a major part of an academic thesis I wrote over 35 years ago now; I found myself wondering if I would write the same way now as I had then…

I also wrote about The Dispossessed in that thesis. Coming back to the novel again, I was taken aback to see how much bleaker her anarchist society was than I had remembered, how much more complex, too. Le Guin’s vision of the future of planet Earth, seen through the eyes of its ambassador on Urras, is truly grim, and chillingly recognisable in where we find ourselves heading now – yet Le Guin wrote over forty years ago. Powerful stuff, indeed.

I have pretty much moved on from my fascination with science fiction of forty years ago. I’ve kept a small number of books that I have come to regard as classics of the genre. But I still stand by what I felt all those years ago when doing my academic research at the Science Fiction Foundation, that the genre can make us think deeply about our world, and perhaps lead us to make it a better one, and I still have Ursula Le Guin up there among the very best writers.

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