Archive for the 'science fiction' Category

Ursula Le Guin : The Wave in the Mind

February 25, 2018

51xBAmhj48L._AC_US218_It was refreshing to read some of Le Guin‘s more recent essays, after the rather dated The Language of the Night. I did not know she could be funny, but she had me laughing out loud several times during her first piece. This collection offers fascinating glimpses into the real Ursula Le Guin, her life and her past, and what has influenced and impressed her. It’s an obvious truism to say she writes well; it’s her humane and respectful but wise tone and manner that I appreciated. But I could not share her enthusiasm for J R R Tolkien or Cordwainer Smith

There is an excellent and quite technical chapter on stress and rhythm in poetry and prose which is exemplary in its clarity of explanation and illustration; I wished I’d had access to it when I was teaching practical criticism. She also makes a strong case for the importance and value of reading aloud as opposed to mere reading, when thinking about how writers use language, as well as being thought-provoking in opposing read stories to viewed ones, and the different effects they have on the consumers of those stories.

She explores the blurring and blurred boundaries between fiction and non-fiction writing, which I had never really thought about in depth until I came across the writings of Svetlana Alexievich, which some have criticised for doing precisely this. And I am wondering how serious an issue it is when what is presented as fact or reality is permeated by artistic licence. As I recall, Alexievich hints that this is what she occasionally does, but even so… should fiction and non-fiction be kept strictly apart? or is this only an issue for us now, in the times of fake news?

Le Guin is a committed and feminist writer who writes from her long life and experience, which has given her much wisdom; she writes thoughtfully about body image and how we think about ourselves, and although I have read a fair amount on this topic, I’ve not encountered anything so measured, reflective and meaningful as her contribution. Similarly, she reflects on and analyses the nature of communication between humans; she offers no answers, but asks the right questions, enabling an intelligent reader to move forward.

There is also a good deal of reflection on her life as a writer, and advice and suggestions to would-be writers. I did find myself musing several times on whether, after a life of only writing non-fiction, I might try and do some creative writing. I won’t say the collection is an easy read, but it was a very satisfying one, particularly because at the end of it, I felt that I knew one of my favourite writers in a different way.

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Mary Shelley: Frankenstein

February 21, 2018

51GET68hBaL._AC_US218_41oH4CCckML._AC_US218_It’s 200 years this year since Mary Shelley‘s ground-breaking novel Frankenstein was first published. I have memories of teaching it at GCSE, in an interesting coursework task that involved students having to compare a pre and post-1914 text, so I paired Shelley’s novel up with Daniel KeyesFlowers for Algernon and had students explore the question of scientists’ responsibilities, as well as how the narratives were presented and developed.

I have always thought Frankenstein counted as science fiction: the writer explores an idea that does not exist in our world but that perhaps might one day; scientists were already experimenting then with the effects of electric currents on limbs and muscles. Shelley creates the scientist’s excitement at achieving something never done before – the creation of life in the laboratory. She was treading on sensitive and controversial ground, just as Darwin was to do a couple of generations later, meddling in God’s territory, as it was then thought to be. But the centre of her novel is not what the scientist does and achieves, but what he overlooks…

Victor Frankenstein forgets – or doesn’t even begin to think about – the fact that when he creates new life he creates a human being that will have wants and needs, hopes and desires just like any other, and when that creature is limited in what he can do and have by his physical repulsiveness to others, he resents this bitterly and reacts against it in unexpected ways…

Shelley realises, early on in the days of scientific progress, that a scientist does not work in a vacuum, that scientists change the potential of our world, and that responsibilities are attached to such changes. Scientists today are very much apt to be ignorant of just this; scientists prostitute themselves in the service of governments and multinational corporations without regard to the consequences of what they do. There is the excitement of pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge and capability, which I can understand and sympathise with, but knowledge is not value-neutral. And there is the rather pathetic response often proffered: well, if I didn’t do it, someone else would…

And so there are scientists who earn their daily bread by developing undetectable anti-personnel mines in bright colours that attract children to pick them up, scientists that work on ways of making highly profitable edible goods that bear no resemblance to food and we know it and are positively bad for people’s health… I could go on.

And yet, Shelley forces her hero to interact with his creation: the two cannot be separated, as the creature pursues its creator, demanding that he take responsibility for what he has made, who he has made, and Victor Frankenstein is brought to face the complexity of what his creature has asked him to do, its repercussions, his full responsibility. We know how it ends: I often wish some of today’s scientists and engineers might share the consequences of their work..

Frankenstein is a novel, and for me it has its flaws: the pace and the written style is hectic and exhausting to read, with the emotional pitch sustained at a very high level for too long. It is, however, very cleverly structured, with layers of narrative nested within each other like the layers of an onion, as the reader is distanced from characters and events. And it has that superb and haunting ending, so brilliantly filmed in the original screen version in the 1930s, of creator and creature inseparable in the Arctic wastes…

Mary Shelley’s foray into what we now call science fiction did not end with Frankenstein: for me, The Last Man is much better, a novel which looks two centuries into the future to late twenty-first century republican Britain, laid waste by a disease which wipes out all of the human race except one man.

K & Z Weinersmith: Soonish

February 15, 2018

51hyU-PQsYL._AC_US218_When I actively think about it, I have to be astonished at the rate of technological change in my lifetime (I almost wrote ‘technological progress’ there, but paused…): from the black bakelite ‘push button B’ telephone to a miniature computer in my pocket, from being taken to visit the first electronic calculator in the district by our school maths teacher to… my laptop, from a black and white television with two channels to streaming almost anything on demand, from a children’s encyclopaedia to the internet.

This was an unexpected book – a birthday present – and I do like being surprised. The authors review and explain changes in various areas of technology that are in development and may affect our lives sooner or later… hence the title. They are very good at explaining why current ideas, machines and materials work, what their limitations are, and where it may be possible to go next. A good deal of very serious and hard science is presented and explained pretty clearly, with some humour, in a way that a non-scientist like me can usually understand (though not always without feeling a headache coming on). The chapters are helpfully arranged in size order, as the authors move from technological developments in space down to the micro-level, within the human body. The difficulties involved in automating certain complex processes are explained, and various routes and solutions are evaluated.

What surprised me quite a lot was the remarkable overlap between where science currently seems to be heading, and science fiction that I’ve read over my lifetime, for example everyday objects that can communicate with the user, such as abound in the novels and stories of Philip K Dick. You may be thinking, well, isn’t it obvious that SF would foreshadow what is coming up in reality? but not so. Much of what has happened in the recent past SF did not foresee, especially the incredibly rapid progresses in computing power and miniaturisation. You can read novels set a century in our future where they are using computers we would have found obsolete in the 1990s…

It may well be related to my age, but a good deal of what is up-and-coming scared the daylights out of me, particularly in the area of food; augmented reality (AR), which I’m quite interested in along with VR, also seemed pretty scary in terms of its full potential. As an arts and humanities person first of all, I’ve always been a little unsure of whether scientists are fully aware of the complexities and implications of what they are doing. We shall see – or rather, it’s probably the next generation that will…

Ursula Le Guin: The Language of the Night

February 8, 2018

517awu8bS6L._AC_US218_I’ve had this collection of essays for over thirty years, and finally dug them out to read after the death of the author, realising I’d never read anything other than her fiction. It’s an annoying book in many ways. Firstly, it’s a very bitty collection, of essays, speeches and early introductions to some of her novels; secondly, it’s broken up by numerous ‘introductions’ from the editor which do nothing other than add a little context, but fragment the whole, and lastly, the pieces are all from forty to fifty years old; some have dated badly.

Quite a lot of it is quite preachy, as in those long-gone days, the case still needed to be made for science fiction as a real branch of literature. Le Guin also makes a very strong case for fantasy, which is where she began, and I got rather fed up of her constant championing of Tolkien. I have problems with the entire genre, and whilst The Lord of the Rings was a cracking good read once (forty years ago, in two days, during a nasty dose of flu) I have never felt moved to return to it… She is good and interesting in analysing the language and style of fantasy.

Things improved as I progressed through the essays; she’s interesting on the genesis of Islandia, one of my all-time favourites, and a strong advocate for Zamyatin‘s We, which I must return to sometime soon. She also champions another of my all-time favourites, Philip K Dick, long before many thought him worthy of real acclaim. As a practitioner of the genre, Le Guin has a lot to say that is worth reading on the nature of the SF genre and its limitations, and becomes more personal and more revealing when she comes to reflect on her own creative processes and writing methods, which not many writers do.

Similarly, as a woman who wrote both before and after the advent of the new feminist consciousness of the 1960s/70s, she reflects thoughtfully on her own shortcomings as perceived by some feminists of the time, who took her to task for basically writing about men, even in androgynous societies she created, such as in The Left Hand of Darkness. The essay ‘Is Gender Necessary?‘ is a landmark. Such honesty and openness is rare in a writer, and for me is a mark of her greatness.

However, in the end I must say that a good deal of this collection is necessarily very dated, and if you are interested in any of her thoughts on either the genre or her own writing, skim-reading is recommended.

Astonished to notice this edition sells for £98 (used) on a certain website… make me a sensible offer!

Ursula Le Guin

January 24, 2018

I knew that one morning I would wake to the news that Ursula Le Guin had died, and that did nothing to lessen the shock of this morning’s news. A woman who had been the greatest living writer of science fiction is no longer with us.

As I’ve written elsewhere, my acquaintance with SF began during my childhood; at university I moved on to adult SF, and it was then that, moving on from the rockets and intergalactic exploration, I first encountered her work. Many people have enthused about her Earthsea trilogy, which is more fantasy than SF; I did enjoy it but have never felt the need to return to it, although it is still on my shelves somewhere. It was what I call her speculative fiction that always attracted me, and in my research degrees, I spent a serious amount of time and space exploring and analysing her work.

The best literature, and the best SF, makes you think. Otherwise, what’s the point? Speculative fiction asks the ‘what if?’ questions that attract the curious, and with her anthropological background, Ursula Le Guin encourages us to think about aspects of our humanity, our gender and our sexuality. Other writers have done the same, but I think she was a pioneer in the field.

Over time, Le Guin created an entire universe – the Ekumen – populated with a number of different worlds, all homes to slightly different variants of human beings, at various different stages in their developments as societies and civilisations, perhaps all descended originally from one race, the Hainish, after whom all the stories and novels in the group are known, the Hainish cycle. Some communication and some actual contact between these worlds has become possible. This huge canvas allows Le Guin to explore a range of different issues that plague our world, such as gender and sexual differences, reproduction, political organisation, wars and violence, authority, the environment…

My two favourites have always been The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. The former explores how society and economy is and might be organised, using a planet whose society largely reflects our current capitalist world with all its oppressions and evils, and its moon, to which those who reject such a way of life have fled. We see the difficulties they encounter on a harsher world, trying to build a more equal society along anarchist lines: their way of life has always seemed challenging but more attractive to me, and to many readers. As a writer of speculative fiction, Le Guin is encouraging us to imagine, to think other ways of being and to accept that they aren’t easy or utopian, but they are possible and available to us with effort. And, unlike some writers in the broader genre, she writes well, creates vivid places and characters with which we can fall in love, with whom we can empathise.

The Left Hand of Darkness works differently: we humans cannot ever become the andogynous inhabitants of the planet Gethen who randomly assume male or female gender on a regular cycle. But we are pushed to re-think many of our attitudes and preconceptions about biological gender and social conditioning through the Earth-born character’s experiences as he visits the planet. It’s a marvellous story, a masterwork of the imagination.

And then there are all the other novels and stories, not just in the Hainish cycle. And all her essays, which I have not yet read, but which are now on my list, along with a re-read of her fiction. I have warmed to her humanity, her humane-ness if you like, I have been made to think deeply, and I have been entertained; I cannot ask any more from a writer. A day to be sad, and deeply grateful.

2017: my year of reading

December 30, 2017

Time for my annual look back over the year that’s almost over: my big blue book tells me that I’ve managed to acquire 37 more books this year, and that I’ve read 63 thus far. It doesn’t tell me how many I’ve disposed of, however. Both totals are slightly up on the previous year, I note, which shows I haven’t managed to curb my book-buying habits as much as I’d hoped or intended.

A major achievement this year was finally getting to the end of my reading of Montaigne‘s essays, which I had begun a couple of years back, and paused several times. It has been very comforting to share the mind of someone so thoughtful, knowledgeable and humane. In a way, I see him as an inspiration when I write, and strive to pull my scattered thoughts together: someone to look up to, most certainly. Since there are so many essays and I can’t see myself ever re-reading them all, I have carefully noted which were my favourites.

My awards for 2017:

Most disappointing read: Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars. I’d had great hopes of this and the rest of the series, having put it off for quite a few years, but it was a let-down when I eventually got to it, and I can’t see I’ll be bothering with the rest of them.

No award this year for Weirdest Book. I have come across no real weirdness this year.

61f7iyJLzGL._AC_US218_A necessary distinction in the fiction category: Best New Novel is Philip Pullman‘s La Belle Sauvage, of course, and you can read my review here and see why. I’m hoping that the next book in the series will appear in 2018, since he’s actually finished writing it, and hopefully the final one not too long after that. It’s nice having something to look forward to. The distinction was to allow me to list Ursula Le Guin‘s Malafrena as a Best Novel, because it was another one I’d held off reading for a long time, and this time was well worth the wait, a brilliant, moving and carefully-crafted historical novel from a writer who I love as a writer of SF.

51hWEeFhq1L._AC_US218_Several books get mentions in the non-fiction category this year. Erika Mann‘s collection of stories When the Lights Go Out is so rooted in the reality of daily life in Germany as the Nazi grip tightened that I’d hesitate to class it as fiction, though it technically is. It’s chilling in its ordinariness, its smallness and yet the inescapability of the evil. Richard Byrd‘s Alone, a travel book, is about his several months alone in winter at an isolated weather station in Antarctica. What was so powerful and mesmerising about it was the way he accidentally gave himself severe carbon monoxide poisoning quite early on in his stay, and his incredible struggle to survive. knowing that the source of heat he depends on for survival, will also kill him.

51BZSRipcpL._AC_US218_But, Book of the Year in any category goes to Svetlana Alexievich‘s stunning The Unwomanly Face of War, truly a masterpiece. It’s gruellingly difficult to read – you need a really strong stomach – and it’s a powerful antidote to any attempts at apologetics for German behaviour in the Second World War. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks that war is any sort of answer to any of our problems.

Resolutions: I have a lot more history to read this coming year, and I’ve had much pleasure from returning to my old collection of SF, so I hope to continue with some of that, too. And I’ve decided that instead of buying books when I fancy, I will compile a list of books I covet each month and at the end of that month, award myself one from that list. Wish me luck! (By the way, that’s new books only…)

James E Gunn: The Listeners

December 29, 2017

51ZnpgDj6xL._AC_US218_I last read this one in 1979! So, having completely forgotten it for so long, I wasn’t expecting much; how wrong I was. It’s a masterly series of linked short stories set in a project scanning the universe for communications from other civilisations, other intelligent species. The lives and work of the various characters are interwoven with thoughts and reflections on the possibilities inherent in there either being other life-forms somewhere else or on our species being alone; Gunn imagines contact is eventually made and also succeeds in making us care about his main characters and their work, in an astonishingly powerful and quite erudite novel.

I’ve come across no other novels or stories by Gunn in my life of reading SF, so I looked him up; still alive in his nineties, apparently, and this particular novel a runner-up for a major award when it was published. Although life elsewhere is a standard trope of SF, the long and painstaking search for it, and philosophical implications are not. The novel was published in 1972, and this was the time when people like Carl Sagan were setting up the SETI project.

The communication Gunn imagines from intelligent life in the Capella star-system strongly resembles the drawings and coded information we sent out from Earth on the Voyager spacecraft five years later in 1977. To me, science and research has always been a double-edged sword; to be sure, we advance the sum of human knowledge and understanding, and this is a good thing, but so much that is discovered can be and has been perverted to evil ends, either in the development of weapons of mass destruction, or tools that enhance our lives whilst wrecking our environment. Against this background, I’ve always felt that the exploration of space and the search for life elsewhere is one of the best things that we do, one of the most useful things on which we can expend time and resources; I’ve never felt it to be a waste of money, given the obscene size of the ‘defence’ budgets of so-called civilised nations… And, when I find myself reflecting on the fact that I won’t be around for ever, one of the things I realise I would really like to be around for would be when we finally contact other intelligences, or when we get to Mars. I still rate humans landing on the Moon as the greatest event of my lifetime.

So, once contact is made, humans panic and fear. Will aliens invade and enslave us? Politicians’ first instinct is to suppress news, and to refuse to respond to the message; calmness eventually prevails and a reply is sent, but ninety years are needed for our message to reach its destination and a reply to come back, and here we are faced with a different issue – our attention-span. The SETI project in the novel was threatened with closure, having existed for 50 years without making any contact; 90 years for a reply to come back is beyond a human life-span, let alone any politician or manager’s working life. How does anyone cope, how do you sustain the necessary infrastructure for long enough to receive and respond? Our short lives and the nature of capitalism make us short-termists par excellence…

Gunn’s novel, which I’m sure has been long forgotten about by everyone except compilers of SF reference books, is another example of what the genre is best at: making us think. What if? I’d love to know…

John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids

December 29, 2017

41XXnBs1XZL._AC_US218_This – probably the best-known of Wyndham‘s novels – was turned into a film with an abysmal ending at some point in the 1960s, when black and white films were still being made. As a novel, it works well because of its first-person narrative. A puzzling start, with the narrator in hospital surrounded by everyone else blinded by a super-bright comet, is followed by a lengthy and tedious but necessary flashback as the history and origins of the triffids is outlined, along with some rather crude Cold War propaganda and attitudes, which later turn out to be rather more prescient than it initially seemed: were the triffids a sinister product of biological and genetic manipulation in a laboratory somewhere, and were the bright lights which blinded everyone another sinister Cold War weapon which went off by accident?…. we are in the hands of a read science-fiction writer here, no doubt.

Triffids are deadly, mobile and carnivorous plants which can communicate with each other; without sight, humans are doomed, so here we are in disaster-novel territory, though not one quite so appallingly horrifying as Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, a novel which I honestly don’t think I could face reading again…

Wyndham’s characters and their attitudes are seriously dated now – the novel was published in 1951 – but his plot is plausible, even convincing in its development once the premise of the triffids is accepted. Changes to people’s behaviour and morals would be necessary if the species were to survive and regenerate after the collapse of civilisation, and many novels of this era consider this problem from a number of angles – think Walter Miller‘s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or George Stewart‘s Earth Abides. These are real questions, though framed in 1950s terms. We are inevitably soon in survival of the fittest territory; various attempts at group survival fail, in London and in the countryside, particularly ones run along millenarist, Christian fundamentalist lines. Among many of the survivors a curious hope in the Americans coming to the rescue is seen…

There can be no satisfactory ending to such a novel, of course, only a glimpse of hope and optimism, which is where Wyndham perhaps differs from other writers of the time and genre who are rather more pessimistic; a settlement on an island large enough to be self-sufficient, and from which the deadly plants can be eliminated, is possibly a start.

John Wyndham: The Chrysalids

December 20, 2017

A long time since I last read this one, and for my money it’s still the best of Wyndham‘s SF novels. Despite being written over sixty years ago, it hasn’t dated badly; the post-nuclear apocalyptic scenario is still pretty convincing, as is the concern with genetic mutations from that time, and the religious screwball craziness of the United States is as valid as ever…

Nuclear war has devastated the Eastern US, where the story is set; little or nothing is known of further afield. Mutations are rife, among humans, animals and crops, and in the region where the story is set, formerly north-eastern Canada, are seen as punishment for man’s sins that led to the ‘Tribulation’ some three centuries ago, and in this fundamentalist Christian society are ruthlessly extirpated and destroyed.

Wyndham writes well, and his story has a leisurely pace, fitting the sort of times and paces he’s creating; his master-stroke is his careful choice of an adolescent as his narrator, and one who gradually comes to realise that actually he carries a mutation, along with a handful of others nearby. It’s not a visible one, however – it’s a form of telepathy and ability to read and tune into the thoughts of others similarly affected. This puts them in considerable, though not immediate danger.

Eventually they are betrayed and have to flee, and come into contact with a whole society of telepaths who have colonised New Zealand and rebuilt a technological society; they come to their rescue. And yet, Wyndham leaves us with a sense of unease at the end, too, because although our endangered few from Canada are rescued and taken to a place where they will no longer be at risk of extermination, the Zealanders seem cold, calculating, almost un-human… as of course they actually are if though-reading and telepathy are widespread in their world, and they are very ready to dismiss those who are not, as primitives…

This is what’s different about good SF – see my previous post – there’s a reasonable plot, some decent characterisation, in that I actually cared about the fate of some of the characters, and the futuristic or science-fictional elements are rather more plausible. There’s material to make a reader think; we are challenged by the idea that a better future for some may not be for all…

On bad SF

December 20, 2017

I’ve waited several days before writing this post, trying to assess just how bad the novel is…

The characters and their relationships are cardboard cut-outs, without any depth or subtlety, indeed with barely any psychological credibility at all. The plot is pretty tenuous: four scientists are sent back twelve thousand years in time, for four years, to observe and monitor primitive tribes. They build trust, and interfere. There is much vulgarised anthropology and linguistics, too, such that even I, as an expert in neither field, could see through. The time-travel elements were barely credible, if that makes sense, even for a topic so incredible in itself. And then, a totally unbelievable deus ex machina at the end…

Why is it so bad? Although I briefly considered, a couple of times, giving the book up as a waste of valuable eyeball time, I didn’t. And that, it seemed to me, is the thing about SF, even a lot of really bad SF: the ideas are seductive. Time-travel is such an interesting concept – when would I travel to, given the opportunity? What happens when present encounters past? How will a writer develop his plot?

SF is the literature of ideas par excellence, and some of it is brilliant. I haven’t forgotten Theodore Sturgeon‘s comment that ‘95% of science fiction is crap, but then 95% of everything is crap’. If time travel were possible – and I don’t, for one moment believe that it is – then one can imagine all sorts of things it would be great to explore and find out. And apart from the where and the when, there are the more complex questions of interference in the past: what happens if you meet your grandfather? kill one of your ancestors accidentally? killed Hitler or Stalin or some other tyrant in their younger days?. What about the psychological effects on the travellers? What happens if you get stuck in another time period and cannot return? All these questions have been explored in different ways, by rather better writers than Farmer. There was even a children’s TV series in my younger days, called The Time Tunnel, which I remember watching with great fascination.

Good SF challenges our existing world, and existing attitudes and beliefs, and if it’s going to do any of these things meaningfully, then it needs to be carefully researched. Reading the thin and barely credible anthropological stuff in this novel, I was reminded of Ursula Le Guin‘s fiction: her father was an anthropologist, and when she creates various possible variations on human beings, there’s a level of credibility and interest which makes any of the novels or stories in the Hainish series gripping and intellectually challenging…

I suppose this novel was no worse than Barbara Cartland among the world of love stories, or some of the S&F novels of the seventies. I didn’t waste too much time on it, but I was shocked at how poor it was.

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