Posts Tagged ‘the Hainish cycle’

Ursula LeGuin: Four Ways to Forgiveness

March 30, 2015

512VerrEiIL._AA160_Catching up with unread Ursula LeGuin stories has been more of an eye-opener than I had expected, and has certainly confirmed my feeling that she is probably the most thoughtful and imaginative writer of science fiction I’ve ever come across.

I’ve read several volumes of stories over the last few months (posts here, here and here), all part of her Hainish cycle, and I think this is the last volume (if you know different, please let me know!). The stories are loosely linked by the ideas of betrayal and forgiveness, which makes them moving enough before you start to think about the broader issues she is approaching.

The Hainish civilisation is three million years old, we learn, and has gone through many, different, peaceful stages. Two million years previously it had seeded various suitable planets in the vicinity; those worlds are now coming into contact with each other, having developed differently physically, socially and culturally; there is a very loose-knit federation of planets called the Ekumen. This complex – and not completely developed – system gives LeGuin enormous scope to reflect on how humans live, or don’t live, together. One realises that her father’s having been an anthropologist has perhaps shaped LeGuin’s approach to science fiction somewhat.

The four stories in this book comes across as tantalising fragments, disjointed, disconnected and yet that doesn’t do them justice: there are numerous subtle links and connections between them as she explores and recognises how hard and yet how necessary it is for peoples to understand how they develop and are conditioned over time, and how a deliberate effort to change behaviours may be needed. She puts gender relationships, relations between races, and issues about slavery and freedom under her microscope. This may make LeGuin seem didactic; only a limited and churlish response would stop there, however. She is optimistic about people and the possibility of emotional as well as scientific and technological progress.

Ideas: a world that has not known a war for several millennia; that it’s fine to be part of your own limited and circumscribed little world if that is where you are happy, but that the entire universe is open to you if you want that; that hard and painful choices have to be made and that we cope with them and move on, as what is important to us in our lives changes as we grow older. In many ways, as I read the stories, I came to think that they are actually deeper, more profound and more challenging in a way than the fully-fledged novels, such as The Dispossessed, or The Left Hand of Darkness are. If you haven’t read any of her science fiction, you have missed something great.

Arkady & Boris Strugatsky: Hard To Be A God

February 1, 2015

51igRYl2qoL._AA160_ A14HOeYaWZL._SX75_CR,0,0,75,75_This Soviet science fiction novel, just like Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda, starts from what now appears a very strange premise: utopia has been established on Earth, and it is a soviet utopia. That is, the whole planet flourishes happily under communism. Unlike Andromeda, which presents and explores this utopia in some detail, in Hard to be a God, we only get fleeting references back to the home planet, for this novel is set on a violent, savage, feudal world.

A group of observers from Earth, who are also participants in and therefore members of this primitive society and its barbaric feudal wars, slaughters and power struggles, confront the problem of how such a world might be nudged towards more civilised behaviours. The observers, and indeed the authors themselves, reflect on parallels with various moments in Earth’s history. Their knowledge, technology and weaponry is far advanced compared with that of the planet, so their status, though concealed, is god-like, and presents them with serious moral dilemmas and conflicts.

We are not in Ray Bradbury’s ‘butterfly effect’ territory, where absolutely no interference is permitted for fear it irrevocably change the future pattern of events. Rather, given the observers’ superior knowledge, what should be done for the best? And, god-like though their powers may feel, they cannot predict the future or potential outcomes of their actions.

The premise struck me as quite similar to the Ekumen of Ursula LeGuin’s Hainish novels and stories, where, again, observers from more advanced worlds are present on other planets: the idea occurred to Soviet and American writers at about the same time. Let’s hear it for serendipity.

Next question is, of course, what if that happens – or did happen at some point in the past – to us on planet Earth? And also, what if someone realised, or worked out in some way, that this was going on? As one of the characters in Hard to be a God actually does; another has at some point been told, but does not really understand what it means.

The novel develops rather slowly and it took a while to see where the writers were heading with their idea: I thought it was just going to be mediaeval sword and sorcery nonsense and would have given up had I not read and enjoyed other of the Strugatsky’s novels and known that there would be something worth waiting for. I was not disappointed: the ending is powerful, the framing carefully done and the overall effect very thought-provoking.

I gather that the story has been filmed: thanks to Jack Avery for the nudge to read the book, which had languished for 30 years on my bookshelf…

Usrula LeGuin: A Fisherman of the Inland Sea

October 22, 2014

31+OgXW2LGL._AA160_I’m following on from my post of a couple of days ago, really. LeGuin‘s subject is in many ways a fairly recherché one: what kind of communication, co-operation or collaboration might be possible between different species of humans on other worlds, in the context of the novels and short stories known as her ‘Hainish‘ series. Of course, the cultural and gender issues explored are meant to have us also reflect on ourselves here on Earth and how much we can really know and understand; LeGuin advocates caution, as well as openness, tolerance, understanding and (perhaps) acceptance. We also need to consider how far it might be either prudent or moral to take this…

Various writers have explored contact with alien species and what we might be able to understand: the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris was turned into a demanding, perhaps impenetrable film, as was the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (Stalker). Even if or when communication were established, what would we actually be able to understand? We are into epistemological and metaphysical territory before we know it…

I’ve always thought that one of the most amazing and worthwhile things that humans do is to explore, and I often feel a thrill at the thought that my lifetime coincides with our beginning to explore cosmos and seek out other life and intelligence. I enjoy the insights offered by scientists such as Professor Brian Cox in his current TV series Human Universe, and then also feel a sadness that although I was in on the beginning of space exploration, I will not be around when we do make contact with other life forms.

LeGuin also has me reflecting on the differences between the novel and the short story, both of which she does wonderfully well. My expectations of the development of plot, character and ideas towards a resolution at the end of a novel are so different from what I find in a short story, where a single track moves relatively swiftly towards closure. I think what I lose in complexity, and in depth of escape from my reality, I perhaps gain in terms of the sharper and more detailed (because uninterrupted) focus on a single idea, character or event. I will need to take my thinking further: after years of ignoring and down-playing the short story in general, I am finding new things.

If you have enjoyed any of LeGuin’s novels or stories, then I think there is something for you in both the collections I’ve read recently. I’m awaiting delivery of another volume.

Ursula LeGuin: The Wind’s Twelve Quarters

October 19, 2014

51CTnN8CWPL._AA160_I’ve enjoyed Ursula LeGuin’s science fiction for many years, The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness being among my all-time favourites. Something recently prompted me to look her up on the internet, and part from discovering that she will be eighty-five in a few days, the bibliography suggested several volumes of short stories that I immediately wanted to read.

Her imagined worlds are carefully constructed, starting from the premise that, many thousands of years ago, lots of worlds (Earth-type planets) were ‘seeded’ with different types of hominid races by one highly developed species; these races and planets are gradually reaching a level of development where they are discovering each other and coming into contact. There is a loose federation of worlds. What this very clever set-up does is allow LeGuin to put our specific Earth humans (us) under a microscope by comparing them with other possible tracks of the development of a similar species. I’ll make this a bit clearer by referring to The Left Hand of Darkness as a particularly good example: it is set on a planet where the humans are both male and female – androgynous – and at certain times, depending on a range of factors, temporarily ‘become’ one or other gender. Sex, sexuality, gender and relationships are clearly going to be rather different from what we are familiar with, and if you add a visitor from our Earth, then you have the possibility to explore many aspects of our own lives and conditioning…

Similarly, in The Dispossessed (you will find an entire post devoted to this fascinating novel somewhere on this blog if you search for it) LeGuin imagines a society run along truly anarchist lines: it is hard work, but appealing in many ways, especially when contrasted with a society like our own.

Anyway, I discovered that, along with the several novels I was familiar with that are set in the Hainish worlds, there are also many short stories that look at various aspects of those worlds, vignettes, if you like, rather than complex narratives. And they are a wonderful addition, that I was previously unaware of. LeGuin is obviously a highly political (with a small ‘p’) writer; she is also able to touch the reader (this reader) very powerfully through the worlds, the peoples and the complex relationships that she sets up in a few pages: I like the characters and their worlds and was drawn in and involved very rapidly. She moves beyond the narrower confines of more traditional science fiction very quickly, and, for me, does what a good writer in any genre should do: she makes me think.

So, this was a very enjoyable collection of stories, whether you are familiar with either of the two novels I’ve mentioned above or not. I’m already onto the next collection…

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