Posts Tagged ‘Islandia’

Can a novel be too long?

May 10, 2020

A brief exchange with a friend a propos of my previous post about the length of Neal Stephenson’s novels has had me thinking about the length of novels in general. Of course, there is the thing about their having to be a certain number of pages nowadays to fit in easily with the printing process, but that’s not what I mean. And let’s set Dickens to one side, as we know he wrote by the yard for serialisation and cash…

I suppose the real question is, does the novel really need all those words? And so one has to consider the writer’s purpose and intentions, and to recognise that those may be very different from our own expectations or demands. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the longest novel I’ve read; I think I’ve read it three times, and enjoyed it each time. Some readers have questioned the need for the lengthy philosophical section with which Tolstoy concludes the novel; for me it is an intrinsic part and thought-provoking reflection on the story he has finished telling. And the novel itself is both a panorama of Russian society and a fictionalised history of one of the major episodes of Russian history. Shortened, it would not be the same thing at all, and I think the same might be said about Middlemarch, which may perhaps be seen as an English novel with a similar scope. In other words, these two novels need to be as long as they are for the reader to be fully immersed in the worlds fictionally created, and to be able to appreciate that the author is doing more than just story-telling.

I had to study the first volume of Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu when I was at university. I read it a couple of times; it was decent enough, and the narrative technique interesting enough to engage me at the time. I remember being astonished at the lengthy and perfectly-formed sentences and the effect they had on one’s consciousness as I worked my way through a page or so to the end of one of them. I was full of intention to read the rest of the sequence, bought and read the first half of volume two, and gave up, never to return to it (this was over 40 years ago now). Why? What went wrong? What was different? In the end I couldn’t make myself interested enough in Proust’s characters and their fates. He was presenting a much narrower section of society, of the world, and not one that I cared that much about. His scope was completely different from Tolstoy’s, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that the books were too long, and that I might have succeeded with a Reader’s Digest-style adaptation, a “condensed book”.

I’ve made myself read a fair amount of Thomas Pynchon. V was interesting enough, as was Gravity’s Rainbow; Mason & Dixon I liked and it’s been on my re-read pile for at least ten years; Against the Day was a useful gap-filler during a bout of pneumonia, but I don’t have the urge to revisit it. These are long novels, but also rather rambling and shapeless, and it is hard to avoid a feeling that the writer is indulging something, and I found it hard to be bothered to find out what. Is there somewhere an urge in American writers to have the size of their novels match the size of the country? Moby Dick was a passable read, once; Don De Lillo’s Underworld irritated the hell out of me for being so long and I was angry with myself for giving in to the blandishments of reviewers and wasting my money on it. It’s almost as if there’s a conscious effort to write the ‘Great American Novel’ rather than to write a good novel and for it to turn out to be judged great much later on. But once again, I’m not sure that editing would have improved any of these…

Fantasy and SF is a different kettle of fish, perhaps. Readers are looking to immerse themselves in a completely different world; pure escapism? And there is the marvel of a good writer’s imagination in play as well, here, for they are creating a world, a setting from scratch that must make us want to stay there and leave our humdrum ordinary world behind. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saw me through a bad, three-day bout of the ‘flu some forty years and more ago. I really enjoyed it, but it’s never called me back. The doorstopper in the field that I have returned to several times is Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, a utopian novel of some 1000 pages which I have always found gripping, although I will admit to occasionally wishing the romance sections had been edited a little. Why does it grip me so much? Because here is a writer thinking at great length about how the world might be a much better place. A utopian novel doesn’t need to come in at a thousand pages, but this one works at that length for me.

I’m realising that I don’t know anywhere near enough about the process of editing and what an editor actually does when they work with an author on a novel. A novel has always appeared to me to be a writer’s personal creation, although obviously mediated by the country and society and times they lived in and numerous other factors too, and so I have maybe naively thought that there wasn’t a lot for an editor to do. Perhaps one of my readers can enlighten me? Once upon a time in a previous existence I did know an editor for one of the major UK publishers, but did not have this conversation with her…

In the end I feel OK about respecting an author’s creation as s/he allows it to emerge in final published form; I’ll read it and either like it or not, and on the basis of that will either feel called to read it again one day, or not. I’m back with what I used to say to my students: there’s no law that says you have to like a novel or a poem (or indeed any work of art). What you need to be able to do is articulate what it is you like or don’t like about it, and ideally support your view with evidence…

True escape from lockdown…

April 17, 2020

Finally some suggestions for the science fiction readers among you, when true escapism is what you crave…the top five science fiction novels in my list.

71FUig5zsTL._AC_UY218_ML3_     Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia. I came across this years ago, when I was researching my master’s thesis at the Science Fiction Foundation, in its previous existence in Barking. It’s a door-stopper (1000+ pages) of a utopia from the earlier decades of the twentieth century, set in a land on Earth but not the Earth as we know it, and at risk because of the machinations of the world we know. Someone from our world explores and grows to love the place… pure escapism, and surprisingly addictive, I have found.

Arthur C Clarke: The City & The Stars. I’ve always felt this to be his best, streets ahead of Childhood’s End, which others have seemed to prefer. It’s stunningly ambitious, for in a sense the humans on Earth in a thousand million years time have what is basically eternal life, as they are captured and encoded in a huge computer, and are regularly brought back to life, re-created, for another existence (an idea which quite appeals to me – at least I’d get all my reading done, then). There are only two settlements left on the planet in the remote future, this one with built-in eternity, and another, which is much closer to our lives at the moment: contact between the two must take place, and contact with an intelligence from another world, too.

916Pcqj+xLL._AC_UY218_ML3_     Walter M Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz. In almost apocalyptic times, the ‘best’ of apocalyptic novels, though completely without any hope at the end. A few survivors eke out a basic existence on the scraps of our world after a nuclear war; civilisation is preserved by an order of monks, and over centuries rebuilds itself until, inevitably, history repeats itself. A creation of the doom-laden Cold War years, it remains a masterpiece among many novels with a similar premise, for its unusual take on survival after armageddon.

Mary Shelley: The Last Man. Miles better than Frankenstein, less hectic in its pace, this is a very relevant tale for the moment, set in a republican England of the late twenty-first century (though not one which we would anticipate today) where a deadly disease gradually wipes out humanity until, as the title suggests, there is finally only one person left. It’s romantic in its notions and in its sweep, as well as playing to everyone’s megalomania: what would you do, and where would you go, when you are the last person left?

51KJD1RCF1L._AC_UY218_ML3_     Ronald Wright: A Scientific Romance. This is an excellent late twentieth-century take on HG WellsThe Time Machine, which takes the traveller north from London to Scotland, where in the far future a world closely resembling that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth seems to have evolved. There have been a number of novels which have played with Wells’ original idea, and this one is an extremely good and cleverly devised tale; I hesitated between it and Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, which manages to blend The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds very skilfully.

If you have been moved or inspired to read any of the novels on any of my lists while you have been in lockdown, which not take a few minutes to say what you thought, in a comment at the end?

Reflections on utopias (2)

August 21, 2018

Boring

There are other problems with utopian novels, in terms of their structure; certainly the novel which started me off raises a number of them. Utopian novels are often rather, or very dull. Rarely do they have more than the most basic of linear plots; there’s very little character development, almost no suspense or excitement; lots is left unexplained because it cannot be explained. What you have is a didactic text, not a novel as we know it, Jim. There’s almost no subtlety. Thus, it cannot be explained how our hero is escaped from the Paris blockade; he’s conveniently hypnotised to sleep while it all happens, after having promised he will never ask about it. When the author thinks we may have had enough of the Oxford student telling his linear story, he shifts to having his Cornwall vicar continue the same linear story. And then, in the mysteriously appearing manuscript, Aleriel himself continues his linear narrative. Subtle it isn’t, dull it becomes. We are never told why it’s so important that the Venusian doesn’t reveal himself to the Martians when he travels around their world…

Two exceptions

If you’re going to describe a perfect world, then what ought to have been a novel soon becomes a geography or history or sociology textbook. Some writers – better writers – realise that a real plot is going to make their novel rather more interesting. I’ll mention two examples. Austen Tappan Wright’s tour-de-force (over a thousand pages) Islandia has a wide range of characters including someone from our world who explores and comes to feel that the utopian society he visits is preferable to his own; he develops real, and romantic relationships with characters from that world, which is under threat in various ways, and he offers his help and skills in various ways as these plot strands beyond his own are played out… in other words there are plots and people to interest us

Ursula Le Guin takes a similar approach in her anarchist utopia The Dispossessed: the home planet Urras is our capitalist earth and Anarres its moon is the breakaway would-be utopia, here a work-in-progress rather than something complete, where everyone, and particularly anyone dissatisfied can see and if they choose reach the glittering alternative: there is a complex dynamic between the two worlds which moves the story along. Do you want the gritty, poor and hard-won utopia or the flesh-pots of capitalism? (I oversimplify, grossly); if you are living in one, does the other seem more attractive? Is it really? What can and should you do about it? Le Guin’s novel is possibly the supreme achievement in the genre, raising, as it does, so many real questions that pertain to us and our society, and making us think deeply about them. Furthermore both these authors succeed in creating a range of fully developed and convincing characters with whom the reader engages: their fates matter to us, played out against the backdrop of their fascinating worlds.

What is the point?

Many writers, including a fair number of cranks, have pictured their visions of a perfect society. As a form, the utopian novel often does not work, at least as a novel, for reasons I’ve listed above. They are of academic interest, perhaps. Some writers do better – see the last two examples. But ultimately, the visions are unachievable, it seems to me, without our giving up a great deal of what we cherish dearly as part of our human nature. Equally, though, we find it very difficult to imagine our species in any way radically different: Brave New World faces us with that possibility very forcefully: the inhabitants of that society are almost all completely happy. Why, then, do we recoil?

There is the issue of transition: whilst writers can imagine a utopia, to convince us that it’s possible to get to it from where we are now, is a much taller order, which fewer writers attempt. Instead we are parachuted into a new world. And no matter how desirable a new world might be, is it achievable without great violence, upheaval and bloodshed? Look at what happened with the Russian Revolution. That’s not to say that to make an attempt is not worth it, merely to underline the difficulties. My utopia will be someone else’s dystopia.

Finally there is the problem of stasis. For better or worse, so far in human history we have known intellectual and material progress, as our minds, understanding and knowledge have developed. There is a dynamism, a power in this which cannot exist in a utopia, which is by nature perfect: there is no further progress to be made. Venusians are eternal. Would we not then be faced with the problem of entropy? Would things not inevitably but slowly disintegrate? Can utopia only ever be a dream?

Further musings and reflections available here and here.

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!

Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia

April 26, 2016

21wAaVQtrxL._AC_US160_51V9sYPAuNL._AC_US160_I first came across a reference to this 1000-page novel when I was researching at the Science Fiction Foundation many years ago; it was out-of-print and unobtainable, but their library had a copy. It seduced me then, as a utopia not quite like the others. At the turn of the millennium it was reissued, and I’ve gone back to my own copy and enjoyed it again.

Wright wrote the book in the 1920s, based on an incredibly detailed invented world he’d imagined and documented in great detail (I’ve heard his efforts compared to Tolkien’s – justified, but very different): Islandia is a nation on a continent somewhere in the southern oceans near Antarctica. It’s about to become part of the land-grab for its natural resources by Western nations in the run-up to the Great War. Two factions in the nation are opposed, one willing to accept the notion of opening up to the world, but naively unaware of the true cost of this, and the other determined to resist, to remain as they have always been, cut off from the outside world, a sort of mediaeval, pastoral utopia. In some ways, the closest resemblance I can think of it William MorrisNews From Nowhere, but Wright surpasses it by a long way.

Into this comes a young, rootless American named consul to Islandia as the US prepares to join the Europeans in getting what it can. Here is the classic way in to the utopia: the outsider slowly falls in love with what he sees, changes sides, eventually comes to make his new life there having helped the nation defeat the external threat. We can see how Islandia is attractive to him.

So far, nothing new. Yet Wright does more than spin a yarn, or offer a plausible route to human happiness, and, the more I think about it, the more the thousand pages is part of its success: it’s compelling because of its length; the leisureliness draws you in and seduces you with the attractiveness of the life the inhabitants seem to enjoy: hard work, good company, contentment.

As it’s an American utopia, the tendency is more individualist, anarchist even, than ours in Europe, but its proponents ask the same basic questions, nevertheless: what IS progress, exactly? Do we NEED it? There is more to life than the treadmill of work, be paid, consume… And they advocate equality for all. I could also see the American federal vs states rights issue coming though: how much should the individual cede to the state? – the minimum possible seems to be the answer.

The major striking thing, for a novel written nearly a century ago now, is its open and honest focus on relations between the sexes, and the nature of sexuality. Again, because we spend so long in Islandia, the issues can be explored at length. At one level I could describe the novel as a bildungsroman: the hero, John Lang, grows up and finds himself in terms of discovering a meaning to life, but also sexually: he experiences three very different relationships with three very different women, and we leave him having finally found happiness in his adopted country.

It’s by no means a flawless novel: there’s somewhat disturbing – to us nowadays, and I don’t think deliberately intended – racism, in that the external threat to Islandia comes from ‘black savages’ armed and put up to it by Germans. Islandia is a small nation and feels rather mediaeval in some ways: there’s no suggestion that its system might work on a larger scale. The important issue of stasis in perfect societies and what to do about it, is admitted but not really resolved. At one point I did find myself wondering, was the novel – elaborate fantasy that it is – written for the author’s own satisfaction rather than a wider readership?

But it is good, and definitely worth a read if you are interested in utopian fiction. I think it’s one of the classics of the genre.

Return to Utopia

February 2, 2016

I’ve written about utopias at various times, in relation to specific books I’ve read, and more generally, too; I’ve been doing some more thinking recently. Utopias have changed over time: originally they were static worlds, because perfect, and if something is perfect, then any change is per se a deterioration. But stasis has its own dangers, too – that way entropy lies. So, more recently there has been more of a sense of a utopia as a work in progress, with at least some projects or activities allowing the dynamism that we recognise as a human attribute to flourish. In Yefremov’s Andromeda, for instance, it’s contact with alien civilisation that’s the great excitement of the moment. Huxley’s Brave New World – which is a utopia – is fixated on maintaining stasis at all costs, but this seems to matter less as the realisation grows that the inhabitants may be happy, but are not human…

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward is a highly organised and regulated socialist utopia in the United States (!); this apparent contradiction got me thinking about the balance between individuals and groups. Because a utopia is a perfect society (or working towards that state) it seems to me that the role and fulfilment of the individual of necessity has to take a subordinate place to the functioning of the society as a whole, and this is an idea that does not sit easily with us in the West at our particular stage of (capitalist) development. An individual utopia just does not seem to be a possibility (at least, I have yet to encounter one in fiction). And utopia is therefore compulsory for all its inhabitants – you cannot just opt out, for there is nothing to opt out to, if you see what I mean; furthermore, if it is a state of (near) perfection, then its members presumably accept that compulsion and consequent limitations on their freedom as individuals. This brings us back to that hoary old chestnut, freedom from versus freedom to…

Inhabitants of Anarres, in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, seem used to being organised by each other in an anarchist state, accepting rotated allocations to society’s more demanding and less pleasant tasks; it’s possible to imagine that humans might behave like that one day, but how do we get there, from where we are now? Transitions to utopia are often the least successful part of an author’s imagining. And what happens to misfits, the awkward ones, those who don’t or won’t or can’t fit? Huxley exiles them to islands; Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time, has her utopia execute criminals who can’t be reformed…

So, a utopia inevitably for us, posits a tension between what is best for individuals and best for the group. And, if the entire world is not part of the utopia, but only part of it is, such as in Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, or Austin Tappan Wright’s monumental Islandia, then the utopia is constantly looking over its metaphorical shoulder to see what the outsider threats might be.

The original, utopian hedonism of the 1960s was naive and its intentions soon subverted by the system which cashed in on rampant individualism in every way possible: if society is a mass of individuals all in pursuit of their own particular happiness or fulfilment, then there are myriad opportunities to sell stuff to each one of them… and that is what happened, on a grand scale, and is still happening: the idea that we might first consider what might be good for the bigger whole – all of society – has become alien territory, and utopia has receded.

I think that is why, to me at least, utopia remains and always will be the stuff of dreams: there are too many of us humans, all programmed to have so many different wants and needs; even if we could share resources out so that everyone had enough – and there is enough to be able to do this – I still can’t see us thereafter agreeing to sublimate ourselves to a greater good. Maybe I’m just having a bad day…

Utopia

July 23, 2014

I’ve been thinking about utopias for a few days, partly in preparation for a possible writing project in the autumn, partly because utopia is a genre to which I regularly return.

When teaching, I occasionally found myself asking a class what they would do if they became world dictator; I would usually throw in a few off-the-wall ideas of my own. It struck me that this is what an utopian vision is, in essence: a writer creates and describes her or his idea of a perfect world – it’s often deathly dull and boring, because it lacks the dynamics imperfection creates in our own, really-existing world.

Why do they do it? Obviously it’s an act of the imagination, wishful thinking, magical thinking in the face of the awfulness of the world we live in. How we get from here to there is almost always where the sticking point is; I have come to see that as an actual impossibility, rather than any of the societies and worlds described in fiction. A world of wars, of inequality, of racism is replaced by one of peace, harmony, equality. And we would all like to live there. Or not.

Democracy is clearly a flawed concept, in our multinational and highly complex world, but of all the options it is the least worst, it seems. But many utopias are based on coercion of some kind, perhaps not physical, but emotional or even chemical, and we need to ask ourselves whether the inhabitants are happy, or sometimes, are they human.

Let’s consider a few examples. An attempt at a taxonomy might slot them into categories such as religious, political, ecological, feminist… Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World is an interesting place to start: is it a utopia or a dystopia (see next post)? Everyone has their allotted place, there is unlimited sex and drugs, even misfits and people who want to be unhappy are catered for. The society was imagined as a response to the chaos of the early twentieth century; Michel Houellebecq in Atomised points out that we now have the technological capacity to realise Brave New World if we choose to. And the people are happy. Yet, in my classes when I taught the novel, although some students decided they would be perfectly happy to live there, we also ended up deciding that the inhabitants of Brave New World were not human as we understood it.

Ursula LeGuin imagines an anarchist utopia in The Dispossessed. It’s one of the best I know. And it’s also grim, constant hard work, and when faced with the temptations a more unequal society can tempt you with, sometimes people opt out. But it’s very good for getting one thinking about the real issues involved in striving for perfection. Ivan Yefremov jumps hundred of years into a future where the whole world in now the Soviet Union: Andromeda portrays a utopia which might perhaps be liveable in – but how would we ever get there? Ernest Callenbach imagined an ecological utopia springing up in 1980s California in Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging; he tries to suggest how people got there, but looking back on the novels, this aspect seems naive in the extreme: the system would not allow it, full stop.

I must return to Austin Tappan Wright‘s monumental 1940s utopia Islandia which I love. As I recall, his focus is also on how one sustains a perfect society against an imperfect and therefore attractive outside world.

Various feminist writers of the 1970s and 1980s imagined utopias. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, much earlier, had created Herland, a society without men, as did Suzy McKee Charnas in Motherlines; Marge Piercy creates an attractive feminist utopia in Woman On The Edge Of Time, in which women and men do manage to co-exist on a rather different basis, but then we learn that they execute misfits… a measure of how difficult it is to deal with those who do not want to be part of your perfect world.

There are lot more which I haven’t mentioned: the ur-text, More’s Utopia from 1516, W H Hudson‘s strange and haunting A Crystal Age, and the satirical Erewhon, by Samuel Butler… it is a fascinating genre, which pushes us to reflect on our own world and its imperfections, and ought to make more of us realise that a good life, a good world has to be striven for, and is very hard work. it’s probably called heaven, probably a figment of our imagination, and when you reach a certain age, you choose to cultivate your garden instead.

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