Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

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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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!

On reading – or not reading – fantasy (continued)

August 27, 2016

51-r1hfIqeL._AC_US174_And then I remembered Philip Pullman, and Philip Reeve and Jorge Luis Borges, and therefore needed to think a bit more…

The Northern Lights trilogy is surely fantasy – it’s certainly not science fiction in any extrapolative sense that I know, and yet it’s also anchored in our reality, in the sense that it’s set in a parallel universe (or even several of these) resembling our own but different in key ideas, too. So there is an Oxford University that’s not quite like the one a couple of hundred miles from here, and the idea that humans can have souls that are creatures and physically visible is intriguing, fascinating even, but definitely not within the realms of the possible or probable. Philip Reeve’s rapacious mobile cities are a marvellous setting for his novels. And Borges’ imagination is utterly out of this world, flights of fantasy and imagination that are vertiginous, bizarre, thought-provoking… and lightyears from reality. The Library of Babel contains every book that has been and could be written in its myriad rooms, and, thanks to a computer programmer with an imagination, can actually be visited here.

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So, I’m at least partly back with my choices and my prejudices here, having been used to looking down on fantasy as being less serious than real science fiction, or any other form of literature. Having had my fill of Tolkien at a very early age and never having felt moved to bother with Harry Potter (cue gasps from various directions) I’ve sidelined a whole genre. Just like I’ve sidelined various other kinds of writing which you haven’t read me blogging about, and about which I’m now old enough to use the feeble excuse ‘I don’t have the eyeball time for that…’

More seriously, now. The Name of the Wind was slow to start and took a long while to get into, but once I did, I found myself enjoying it much more than I expected to. Most of the novel is actually ‘backstory’, its narration rather crudely contrived, but well-told and engaging; when the real story occasionally intrudes, it’s much cruder and less interesting. It was a good yarn, escapist, with some interesting characters, encounters, rivalries and so forth. I wanted to know what happened, so plot drew me inexorably to the end. What the book didn’t do – couldn’t do? – and what I think left me ultimately unsatisfied, was to make me think. Because the characters and their adventures, entertaining as they were, didn’t really matter to me. There are clearly intended to be several more very long volumes in a series, but I was not convinced that the writer fully knew how he intended to develop or conclude his story.

To try and flesh this judgement out further, I’ll draw a comparison with The Northern Lights. The idea of, the possibility of parallel universes I find fascinating: how might they be just oh so slightly different from our own? The idea of sin or evil being seen as physical matter in the ‘dust’ and its link to the ideas of innocence and experience in the Blakean sense nags away at me each time I re-read. To be able to shift from one universe to another. The idea that organised religion is some overt conspiracy to enslave the mind and spirit, that we may perhaps seek to free ourselves from. I know I oversimplify grossly here, but these are exciting ideas to wrangle with, and Pullman draws me in, interests me, makes me really care about all his characters, and leaves me gutted as the hero and heroine part forever… this is fantasy of another order. And I cannot get away from the feeling that it’s because Pullman’s novels are somehow connected to and anchored in our world even while not being of it, that engages me so deeply…

On not reading fantasy

August 26, 2016

I’m not really a reader of fantasy. I devoured Lord of the Rings forty years ago; it took me two days while I had ‘flu, and I’ve never been tempted to go back to it. I really enjoyed Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (back when it was only a trilogy) but again, haven’t been tempted to revisit. I’ve just read Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind which was recommended and lent to me. It got me thinking: what have I got against fantasy?

As stories, they’re fine – they draw you along, you want to know what’s going to happen. The characters are inevitably interesting, because they bear little resemblance to reality: you never know what you’re going to get, and verisimilitude isn’t high on the list of fantasy writers. Although they can be a bit thin or wooden at times, if truth be told. It’s a similarity fantasy shares with science-fiction: characterisation has never been a strongpoint. Places and settings are interesting, too, though for some reason almost inevitably mediaeval. A setting in some imaginary, yet at the same time recognisable past, helps sustain an air of mystery – those days are so long ago that not everything can be known…a time of potions and poisons and spells and superstitions. However, because the world is so different from our own, alien if you like, many things about it require lengthy explanations, just as various elements of utopias do; this explaining can be interestingly or tiresomely done.

Ultimately, I think that it’s the lack of any anchor in reality as I know it that lessens my interest. This may seem strange given my penchant for SF, which I’ve blogged about before, but it bears thinking about. Science fiction does have links to our actual existing world. It may connect on the technological level, but moving us a few years into the future. It may speculate, or extrapolate from current events and issues, considering possible futures for us and our world. It may even attempt to visualise a utopia, and how such a state may be attained.

Fantasy allows itself a much freer rein: there will be a world, which in some ways bears a physical resemblance to our own, in that it will have human beings of a sort, though perhaps endowed with powers which do not exist on our world; it will have families, houses, towns and villages just as we do, and flora and fauna, though again these may or may not be the ones we know: they can be invented quite freely just for difference’ sake… Inevitably there will be conflicts, though conducted with weapons we may not recognise, and against all kinds of unrecognisable foes. Because the world is mediaeval, heroes (of the ancient kind) are possible.

Is there something wrong with me, that I cannot or do not want to cope with so many unknowns? Or is it, more likely, just force of habit, reading patterns developed and honed over a lifetime, that have no place for fantasy in the same way that they have no room for Mills and Boon? Perhaps I cannot empathise sufficiently with characters and situations too far from my own experience. I do need to care in some way about the people in the stories I read, and for that to happen, there need to be some connections with me and my world. Perhaps I’m saying that for me, reading serves a different purpose?

I can’t claim that I don’t like my literature to be escapist, when I can immerse myself in detective fiction, or science fiction. And yet, I don’t choose to read fantasy. What is going on?

To be continued…

The myth of realism (2)

January 17, 2016

continued]

One of the things that is interesting to follow in the history of the novel is how, over time, novelists collectively learned and developed their craft. They learned to write detailed description to create a convincing and vivid sense of place. Nowadays, in our much more visual world, equipped with a vast stock of visual images stored in our memory, many readers tend to find these sections of early novels dull or boring, tiresome or tedious, but in their day they were very necessary. Writers learned how to write life-like dialogue, getting the tenses right, separating out the verbs of saying from the actual words spoken, focusing on how people actually spoke with each other. Just ask yourself, did people in Jane Austen’s time really talk to each other like that? And, as psychology began to develop as a science, writers began to strive to create psychologically plausible characters, and to explore their inner worlds. (Did you notice how many times I avoided using the word ‘realistic’ in that paragraph?)

In some ways, George Eliot‘s Middlemarch strikes me as a decent example of a realist novel, in the sense of attempting to portray a full cross-section of the society of its time: there is a place, and people from all walks of life, all social classes. The focus narrows down when you turn to a more naturalistic novel like Zola‘s Germinal, where the detailed picture of nineteenth century miners’ life and working conditions is no doubt impeccably accurate, but rather more in isolation from the rest of society, apart from conflict with the bosses.

Twentieth century writers zero in on the psychological angle because it is something new, something which fiction hasn’t had the chance to explore before: they take us inside the minds of characters, trying to portray their motivations, and their darker sides, too. I have always found Joyce‘s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a wonderful example of this. He successfully takes us inside the mind of a would-be artist, someone who sees himself as different from others around him, a Catholic boy wracked with torments about the penalties for his sexual sins. And the idea of the stream of consciousness, the mind pouring itself uncensored, unedited (which, of course, it isn’t) onto the page is a very powerful one.

Novelists are always in search of something new to explore, some angle on a story no-one else has yet developed. But is there anything left? Has the novel run out of steam and ideas? Avid readers of this blog (if there are any) will probably realise that I think it has. It’s a long time since I came across something genuinely new. Ben Marcus‘ superbly surrealistic The Age of Wire and String was probably one, but travelling too far down that route exposes a writer to the risk of becoming incomprehensible…

And then there’s SF and fantasy. The more into fantasy you stray, the fewer holds are barred, the more one can invent, but however fantastical the creatures or the location, writers are hemmed in and restricted by the fact that they are human. Thus, Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, wonderfully filmed by Tarkovsky, loses us in an alien world rather than exploring and enlightening us.

to be concluded]

 

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