Posts Tagged ‘Hainist novels and stories’

Ursula Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

February 6, 2022

     I’m always glad to re-read anything by Ursula Le Guin. This time, it’s for my book group, and it’s also only a couple of years since I last read this one. Since then, I’ve learnt rather more about her background in anthropology, which casts an interesting light on her ‘thought experiments’ as she calls them, in the range of Hainish novels and stories. It’s the way she can make the reader think about our own particular species of humanity, its greatnesses and limitations, by imagining variations on the template, particularly in this novel in terms of gender and sexuality, that is the great success of her oeuvre.

The Left Hand of Darkness was written over half a century ago now, in the early days of the second feminist wave, and Le Guin’s later reflections on what and how she wrote back then are also interesting: she acknowledges that she comes across as having made the reader picture the androgynous Estraven as basically male, and being focused only on heterosexuality in her imagined society… However, what struck me most in reading around the novel this time was that she apparently started off with the premise of a planet which did nthought experiments,ot know war, and the androgyny of the inhabitants only came along after that.

We see the Envoy’s awkwardness – he is apparently a Terran, as we are – faced with the Gethenians; he cannot grasp the implications of their sexuality and often seems to put them down or demean them for not being clearly one gender or the other; this is significant, as clearly we are invited to remove our own blinkers when he is narrating the story.

So this novel is an anthropological experiment as much as a political story, with obvious undertones of the Cold War era whence it originates. The science fiction elements include faster-than-light travel and the ansible, an instant communication device which keeps the many planets of the Ekumen in contact with each other. Parts of the anthropological experiment are the skill of ‘foretelling’, and also ‘mind speech’, both of which are self-explanatory. The two nations of the planet which concern us are very different, one clearly a Soviet-style state and the other almost mediaeval; the well-intentioned Estraven, who can see what becoming part of the Ekumen will mean for his fellow-humans, attempts well-intentioned manipulations and duplicity, which inevitably lead to personal and political misunderstandings and disaster.

The title of the novel comes from the Tao Te Ching, and Le Guin produced what she called a ‘version’ of it in English; I have to say that when I read it, I felt that for the first time I was attaining some understanding of its wisdom. I came across a reference to someone writing a biography of Le Guin; I’m not normally one for reading biography but I shall be keeping an eye open for that, most certainly.

Finally I have to mention how well Le Guin writes; this is no run-of-the-mill, plot driven science fiction with wooden characters and stilted writing. This is literature that deserves to last, and, at the moment, I think it will.

James Blish: The Seedling Stars

March 21, 2021

     Found this one that I bought in 1977 and apparently hadn’t read. It’s a set of four loosely linked tales about adapted humans, with the basic premise that finding habitable earth-like planets is pretty unlikely, terraforming planets is very long-term and costly, and therefore the way to go is to manipulate humans so that they can live in radically different conditions. And yet Blish’s adapted humans think and emote just like us ordinary humans in hard SF… I found this just a little unconvincing, really. The novel dated from the mid-1950s, and yet already there is the notion that humans are outgrowing, and wearing out, their own planet.

As I read this moderately interesting novel of ideas – for that’s basically what it is, nothing plot-wise to sustain a reader’s attention here – I was struck by the progression from Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, where humans modify themselves in order to colonise planets, in the sweep of a story of humanity across several billion years, to Blish in this novel, exploring a similar idea, but focusing on smaller groups of individuals in a more limited time-frame, with the similar idea of humanity ‘seeding’ other worlds with intelligent life. And then I realised what Ursula Le Guin had done, picking up the same idea in a much more sophisticated manner in her Hainish novels and stories. In those, the Hainish, in the distant past, seeded many worlds across the universe with variations on the human form; these eventually re-discover each other and form a loose association called the Ekumen, and homo sapiens here on planet Earth is merely one of the results of the Hainish seeding. And then, with her background in anthropology, she can put homo sapiens under the microscope.

It’s good to see how writers play with each other’s ideas, develop and vary them, and provide us with more food for thought in different ways. I can acknowledge Blish’s part in this sequence, and I liked the final twist at the end where the racism that had always blighted humanity’s time on Earth, re-appeared as the different human types re-connected with each other, and the ‘original’ Terrans demonstrated their innate sense of superiority once again… But ultimately Blish is too much hard science, and unconvincing would-be humans for me.

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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