Posts Tagged ‘the Hainish stories’

Ursula Le Guin: The Lathe of Heaven

March 5, 2021

     Seriously, if you know your science fiction, and had read this book anonymously (without knowing the author) you’d be very surprised to learn it wasn’t by Philip K Dick, so close does Ursula Le Guin come to his style and his manner of exploring the workings of the human mind and the nature of reality… picking the book up again after some 45 years (!) I was taken aback.

She begins in medias res, dropping us into a future USA where we easily accept all the assumptions she has made; it was also interesting to note that in a novel first published almost 50 years ago, she vectors in the effects of the greenhouse effect and global warming on her part of that country.

It’s the story of a man who realises that his dreams can change the nature of reality. He’s not happy about this, and the psychiatrist and sleep researcher to whom he’s assigned for help quickly realises how this can be exploited… once he’s got over the shock of realising that changes do happen after George Orr has been dreaming. The shrink is basically a good man, with the best of intentions for people and planet, but: is what he’s doing ethical? Are the decisions he makes when influencing Orr’s dreams the right ones? The best laid plans are capable of going awry, and do.

Le Guin creates convincing characters – which Dick doesn’t always do – the states of consciousness are effectively portrayed, and the moral dilemmas and personal consciences of the characters are thoughtfully explored. I found myself at times reminded particularly of Dick’s Eye in the Sky, although altered states of consciousness and the individual’s ability to influence reality are pretty general tropes in his writing.

Le Guin’s interest in Eastern philosophy was woven thoughtfully into her novel, and her concerns for the future of the species, and realisation that there can be no magical short-cuts to utopia, which will be explored at much greater length in the Hainish novels and stories, are already emerging here. This was a novel which I’d stuck in the non-Hainish box as only marginally interesting, one to re-read before I passed it on to a charity shop; I was most surprised by this second encounter.

On feeling oppressed by time…

October 31, 2020

I have realised it’s an aspect of growing older: the further I get in life’s journey, the more oppressed I feel by the very idea of time. At one level, it’s a personal thing. I look back to my early life and my parents, and realise how long ago all those memories are now; when I can say it’s half a century since I did my O levels, that feels overwhelming in a way. I look back to my own children’s early lives – they’re grown, now – and that feels an age away, looking at photographs and thinking, ‘thirty years ago?’…

Literature is interesting (though not particularly helpful) at this point in my reflections. Think of Shelley’s Ozymandias, and how much time has gone by between the making of the statue, now ruined, and the visit of the traveller who brings back the account of what he has seen. Even the situation, in the sands of the desert, feeds into our notions of time measured in the sands of an hourglass, remorselessly slipping away.

Ursula Le Guin is very interesting in the way she presents the pain of the passage of time. In the Hainish stories and science fiction novels, faster-than-light travel and communication is possible, and the officials of the Ekumen, the collective of known worlds peopled by human-like creatures that are sprinkled across the universe, often travel between worlds on journeys that take centuries in real time. This means that a person leaves their world knowing that even if they ever do return to it, their return will be centuries later, and everyone and everything that is familiar to them about home, will no longer exist, or will be radically changed. Ivan Yefremov, in A for Andromeda, takes us a thousand years into the future, to a world where communism and the Soviet way of life rules the planet, has created a utopia for humanity and abolished religion completely, and yet has his characters contemplating similar themes.

Socrates said that the unconsidered life is not worth living, and anyone who spends time reflecting on their life will surely at some time experience how hard it is being aware of both the enormity of the universe in time and space, and the brevity of their own personal existence. For some, religious or spiritual beliefs offer solace; for others, not.

We can look back over centuries, millennia even, of literature, and see same these preoccupations voiced: Horace’s poignant ode to his friend Postumus (even his name evokes mortality!), reflections on life and death in Chaucer, Shakespeare (Hamlet’s famous soliloquy!), Tolstoy… nothing has changed. And I have admired the way that somehow Tolstoy managed to capture the sense of the broad sweep of history and the individual’s place within it, in War and Peace. But, given that better minds than mine have wrestled with time over so much time in the past, I’m not sure I will ever resolve anything… What was one our present becomes our past, the past; becomes history, and then we are part of it. As an Arab sage once said, ‘One day you will only be a story. Make sure that yours is a good one.’

Good intentions

January 2, 2019

A fellow blogger posted a list of books she intends to read in 2019: I was both impressed and challenged. Why could I not plan my reading like this? I have had epic fails in the past. Upon retiring, I though to myself right, let’s have a serious year reading Shakespeare, another studying history, another on science fiction… none of which have come to pass so far.

A little more thinking had me realising that at this stage in my life I’m more of a re-reader than a reader, with the proportion of new books gradually shrinking. And yet, my plans to re-read many old favourites have also come to naught: I would pile up the books I was itching to revisit, maybe tackle a couple of them and then six months later put the pile away back on the shelves, having been side-tracked by something else and the moment having passed.

So, either I lack discipline, or else (I say, to console myself) I follow my instincts and my nose, one thing leading on to another, a bit like the word association exercise allegedly beloved of psychoanalysts. Occasionally one of these strands works itself out completely and I find myself utterly at a loss for what to turn to next, as often the unread pile does not tempt me. At such moments I turn briefly to magazines.

Having said all that, I do have some good intentions for the coming year. I want to re-read all of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish novels and stories, I want to re-read Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, my collection of Raymond Chandler novels and stories… all of that after I’ve finished re-reading Philip K Dick. And to be fair to myself, I have stuck to that one pretty well so far. Also on the list is to revisit Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, for a more considered take on it after a second read.

If I have time, I will also revisit some of Norman Davies’ history books. I also intend to pursue a relatively new interest, reading up on art history: I will try and finish E H Gombrich’s The Story of Art which I began several months ago when I was poorly, and I shall also look out something on the history of church architecture, which has always interested me.

Then there is always the pending pile, by the bed. At the end of this year, should I remember, I will update you on how badly I did….

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.

Ursula Le Guin: Malafrena

September 4, 2017

416GC-gCGbL._AC_US218_This is a curious novel, a work of historical fiction from a master of science fiction, set in an imagined country, Orsinia, which is clearly in Central or Eastern Europe, and blends elements of several countries. It’s set in the early nineteenth century; it was once an independent kingdom, but has come under the autocratic sway of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So, a fictional setting with a background of real events, against which canvas she develops her characters, their philosophies and their lives.

And yet: the same issues as are revealed in her science fiction are revealed in Malafrena, and are explored: individual freedom, individual autonomy, how to respond to power, and what can one person hope to achieve? What is possible? The same questions confront her characters in this novel as face the characters in her utopian novel The Dispossessed; the difference is that in Orsinia they discover how they are circumscribed by realpolitik, whereas there is the chance, in the more open setting of Anarres and Urras, that a different way of doing things, of being, can be explored and developed.

It’s an unnerving novel, I found, because so often it seems disarming. A series of apparently insignificant encounters and conversations a lot of the time, but charged with more power and more significance as connections are made, both in the tale itself and in the reader’s mind. At times there seem to be too many characters to keep track of, at time’s it’s infuriating how a strand of the story I found interesting was just dropped, characters fell off the page: the vastness of the canvas underlines individual insignificance in the face of world events, perhaps? And we know, because of history, that the collective will for change that bursts forth across Europe in 1830 will not succeed, so the author’s purpose must be leading us in other directions: what is real happiness? what do we really want? what would really make the world a better place?

At various points I found a contrast being drawn out, between a young man who thinks that revolution is possible and will make a better world, and an old man who has tried, and who thinks, maybe knows that it’s not possible, it’s not what he had imagined it would be like. There’s something Conradian in either the futility of revolution, or the ways in which revolution warps itself by taking on a life of its own…

And it’s a very good novel, too: once I’d stopped trying to categorise and tame it in my mind and just went with the flow, as it were. I shall certainly come back to it, and soon. This edition appends a series of short stories with the same setting – the Orsinian Tales, but at various different time-points in history, which helps solidify and imaginary place, if that makes sense, and is surely a forerunner of Le Guin’s vast Ekumen, the organisation of worlds across the universe in which her Hainish stories are set. Again, the big ideas are to the fore, and the format allows her to explore many possibilities from many angles. Here is a writer who I think is still underestimated.

Cynical Wednesday

August 30, 2017

Recently I read a thought-provoking article which presented data showing that from the mid-1970s the wealth gap between rich and poor in the West began to widen, and the standard of living of ordinary working people began to stagnate; the article suggested that the reasons for the shift were not clear. And, of course, I cannot now recall where I came across the article…

I have long been interested in the shift from community and collective to the individual, and I’ve often wondered about the late 1960s and early 1970s and the various hippy movements, focused on self-actualisation, freedom, independence from constraints and so on, contrasted with the perhaps more stratified and conformist tendencies in societies in the West before then. Society wasn’t going to tell us what to do and how to behave: that was to be our decision, our choice. And those were very liberating times, for many people and groups, in many different ways. But I have also come to wonder how so much else got thrown away…

The literature of the time focused on pleasure, often through sex and drugs: what mattered was what gave us pleasure, what we enjoyed; we didn’t think much further. I could have happiness, and if I didn’t get it one way, I was free to try another. I think back to the now slightly twee fiction of Richard Brautigan or the novels of Tom Robbins as a couple of examples – hedonistic, unrestricted, totally Western. And slipping back into the past, to Hermann Hesse, much beloved of readers back then: Siddartha, Narziss and Goldmund: all about finding oneself, though perhaps not so self-indulgent as we were; in Narziss and Goldmund two radically different journeys of self-discovery are revealed. Which is the happier, the more fulfilling?

Writers in other countries did not look at things in quite the same way; again, for the sake of illustration I’ll pick a couple of novels I’ve mentioned before: Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat Trilogy. The boot was on the other foot in the Soviet Union; one’s duty to the collective, to society, was more important than the individual’s personal or private happiness. And the heroes and heroines of these books work out the tensions between living their own lives, and their duty to the society to which they belong, of which they are a part.

And then I consider one of the writers whose books I have come to know and love, Ursula Le Guin, who in her Hainish stories, above all perhaps in her novel The Dispossessed, explores the utopian possibilities inherent in striving to get the right balance between individual and society.

Is this where everything started to unravel in the 1970s? Along with the individual drive to self-realisation, the search for happiness, we unleashed the worst kind of selfishness on a massive scale… what matters is me…me…me! If discovering myself means becoming filthy rich, there’s nothing wrong with that; I’ve done it through my own efforts. If you’re not happy, if you’re poor, if you’re ill – do something about it, it’s not my problem, I’m busy being happy myself. And why should I have to pay taxes to help other people? Why should the state interfere in my life? And the politicians and the economists of the times supported and encouraged this approach, for their own selfish ends – Thatcher’s Britain. I know I oversimplify rather, but I think there is something here. In the quest for happiness, wealth, ourselves, everything else becomes disposable: friends, relationships, family – we just tear it all up and start again, convinced that with another attempt we will get it right at last; others may have to live with the consequences of our self-focused decisions, but that’s their problem, not ours.

And, of course, along with all this searching for ourselves and our happiness and fulfilment, have been created endless possibilities for businesses to make money selling us things: sex, drugs, consumer durables, holidays, experiences… because money brings happiness… and shiny-shiny stuff takes our minds off what’s really going on out there. Don’t get me wrong: I’m for freedom and self-discovery and happiness, but not at the cost of steamrollering everyone and everything else out of the way.

Today, as you can see, I feel very cynical. I do feel we threw out the baby with the bathwater in the 1970s. And I, along with millions of others, had the wool pulled over my eyes, was misled. What is to be done, as someone once asked?

Ursula LeGuin: Worlds of Exile and Illusion

September 10, 2015

9780312862114Although a long-standing science fiction fan, I’ve never really got on very well with fantasy. I was a little concerned when I started this volume, which is actually a re-publication of three of her shorter Hainish novels, Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, as it rapidly became clear that there were elements that seemed fantastical… I’d read at least a couple of these many years ago, but had no clear memory of them. I’d read and enjoyed her Earthsea Trilogy very much, but never felt the urge or the need to go back to it, partly because of the magic and fantasy.

The fantasy elements are bearable, in the end, because they never take over the story: LeGuin is always more interested in and focused on the ideas: different human-type races and how they may have evolved over time on different worlds; contact between such races from different planets; the vastness of time and space itself, and the cruelty it inflicts on beings as they travel through space, conscious of the fact that they can never go back to the place they came from, as years, centuries will have elapsed and everyone they once knew will have died, and places will be very different. LeGuin is thinking, no, imagining  a universe where we might like to live but never will, she is conceiving some of the future potentialities of our species – if it survives – as well as confronting the thought that we may not be the first, or the only intelligent (?) species. It takes a powerful imagination, and one miles beyond swashbuckling sword and sorcery that has occasionally bored me to tears when I’ve picked it up by mistake. What is fantastical enriches and illustrates rather than becomes the purpose of the story.

So, an envoy alone on a world tracks down where a rebel base, which threatens the peace of the worlds, lies, and enables its destruction. But Rocannon’s World, and the hero’s story, is of his relations with the inhabitants of that world; though he achieves his goal, he loses the friends he leaves behind, living out his life and dying, apparently forgotten, on an alien world. Small details like this can be very moving, in LeGuin’s work.

In Planet of Exile, two different species learn with great difficulty how to co-exist and co-operate, faced with an implacable foe: LeGuin’s focus is on two individuals, one from each species, who form bonds that surpass each one’s fear of the other, and it’s only in the final novel, City of Illusions, set centuries later, that we learn that interbreeding between the species eventually developed.

The final novel is longer and much more complex, set on an Earth in the far future, dominated by an alien race which keeps its people in quiet but peaceful subjugation: civilisation and progress can be lost, move backwards as well as forwards. There is also the personal quest of the hero, and the losses that must be endured, the people, places and loves who must be left behind…

If you look back to my other posts on Ursula LeGuin’s novels and stories, I think you’ll see that it’s the breadth and scope of her imagination, her sensitivity to relationships between people, and her recognition of the great difficulties involved in creating real progress and real equality, as well as her questioning of our present world and way of life, which make her one of the best science fiction writers I’ve ever read.


Ursula LeGuin: The Word for World is Forest

September 3, 2015

9781473205789LeGuin wrote the story that developed into this novel to express her anger at the US behaviour in the Vietnam War; I was wondering whether I’d be faced with something over-didactic or political. I needn’t have worried – she is superb, as always: it’s a short, and very powerful novel.

It’s another story in the Hainish cycle of novels (if you want to know more, you can find other posts about her stories elsewhere on this site). An entirely forested planet, inhabited by apparently primitive hominids, is being colonised and logged by settlers from Earth, who exploit the natives, and make no attempt to understand them and their ways, although it’s clear their world will eventually be destroyed. LeGuin slowly sets up two clashes, between Davidson, an Earthman whom she has described as truly evil and another who is striving to understand the natives and their ways, and protect them from his own kind, and between the evil Davidson and a native, Selver, who develops the will to resist and ability to fight and passes this on to his people, becoming a god in the process.

LeGuin makes it very sadly clear that no-one escapes the struggle unscathed: the planet’s inhabitants, having learned to kill to liberate their world, can never un-learn this, even though they succeed, and the Earth colonists leave their planet never to return…the evil Davidson has lost his mind, and Lyubov, the anthropologist who hoped to understand the people of the planet and instrumental in saving their world from destruction, loses his life.

LeGuin indirectly criticises the arrogance and ignorance of her own nation, apparently accepts that extreme measures will be taken by people struggling to be free, and shows how, tragically, violence and warfare corrupt all they touch. Forty years later, it seems earthlings are none the wiser.

On feminism

March 19, 2015

I was prodded into thinking about this topic by a former student; I spent several years studying and writing a thesis on feminist science fiction in the nineteen-eighties, and read a good deal of theory, analysis and criticism. Although I’ve never gone back to it, it has informed – I think – my attitudes and behaviours over the years. I have been a little surprised at how some of the key theoretical texts from that time seem now to have faded into obscurity, along with a lot of the literature, too; I suspect that much of it was very much of its time, and has consequently dated. Novelists such as Marge Piercy explored a wide range of different relationships between women and men, and women and women, and she wrote an excellent utopian novel called Woman On The Edge of Time, which I’ve never gone back to (though I’ve often thought I should) unlike other utopias and dystopias I’ve enjoyed.

I have also been struck by the way that feminism has been dismissed, or sidelined, by women and by the media, as if it had done its job and was therefore superseded, no longer necessary. This seems to have been a rather superficial – and therefore not very surprising – response, in a world where responses to so many things are temporary, fashionable and superficial.

I am also beginning to wonder how much one’s attitudes change, or are modified, as one grows older. There are certainly ways in which I perceive myself as rather more reserved, conservative, old-fashioned, although I don’t think that this impinges on my commitment to gender equality as far as that is possible. I am still sent back, as I was thirty or more years ago, to the differences between the biological givens (which technology hasn’t really changed thus far) and the culturally and socially-conditioned attributes of gender, over which we do have rather more control, if we choose to notice, and to take it. Where I think I am more reserved than I once was, is about how much biological gender shapes and affects the ways we interact with and judge the world; though we can be aware of this, I’m unsure of how much we can change, how far we (men or women) can be different.

This is where I have found, and continue to find, the science fiction of Ursula LeGuin most challenging and thought-provoking, showing as it does one of the ways in which this genre can contribute something significant to literature and humanity that no other genre can. She is the only author about whom I wrote then, to whom I have returned. Recognising human biology for what it is and how it shapes us, in her Hainish cycle of novels and short stories, but perhaps most particularly in the award-winning The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin imagines human types on other worlds, whose biology, physiology, psychology, sexuality and culture are very different from our own; it is a stunning effort of the imagination not just to realise such people but also their own problems and shortcomings in relation to each other and to other species. Of course, it’s fantasy, you may say, all imaginary; yes, and it helps us, precisely through the imagination, to reflect on ourselves and perhaps gives us new perspectives, shedding new light on old problems…

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about my reading choices as a male reader. I find myself wondering about gender determinism: just how much freedom do I or any other male have to change the ways in which I think and behave, with the hope of moving towards a fairer world? And then I am also brought back to the Marxist analysis of the gender question, which basically says that feminism, though important, sidelines the real issues facing humanity, which are, of course, class issues. The gender problem will be solved after the revolution… hum! The older I get, and the more history I have lived through, the more I am drawn to thinking that Marx was right about the class issue being primary. But that’s another question

Ursula LeGuin: The Birthday of the World

October 29, 2014

9780060509064As I’ve got older, I’ve sometimes been surprised, when coming back to a writer or a book that I’m familiar with, how vague my recollections have become over time. I’ve always liked Ursula LeGuin: I’d forgotten just how astonishing she is, but this collection of stories brought it back to me.

I’ve mentioned, in recent posts, her Hainish novels and stories, and most of the stories in this collection link into that universe. She has imagined a number of variations on the human species, all descended from the same ancestors way back in time, but that have undergone separate development on their various planets. LeGuin is convincing in a Swiftian or Defoean sense, almost journalistic in the way she writes about these people; we receive glimpses into their possible lives, tantalising us, and then they are left: often her narrators are ambassadors or reporters sending information back to base, as it were, so their writing has a specific purpose, one different from ours as consumers of fiction. Sometimes we are left feeling frustrated, but we have our own imaginations…

LeGuin’s main idea is to explore a whole range of different gender and sexual possibilities in her almost-human types. There are androgynous races, races which are asexual most of the time, but then assume – randomly – a gender temporarily for the purposes of sexual pleasure and/ or procreating, races which have complex marital arrangements and sexual preferences. Yes, it’s all fantasy, if you like, yet LeGuin puts our own world, our own gender and sexual issues under a microscope, in the sense that there could be other possibilities and just because we are what we are doesn’t mean that we can’t think outside our own cultural and social conditioning. She challenges her readers: I wish that rather more of these stories had been available when I was researching my MPhil thesis back in the early 1980s: I had only come across The Left Hand of Darkness then.

There are a couple of other, unconnected stories in the collection; the title story The Birthday of the World imagines life on a spacecraft travelling to an Earth-type planet over a period of two centuries. How does contact with the home planet change, become less relevant as new generations who have never lived on Earth grow and run the ship? Why should their priorities be the same as those of their originators? What can they know of the risks and dangers of life on a planet when they finally get there? Isn’t the luxurious and safe coccoon of the craft a heaven, away from danger. Brilliant!


I’m tempted to go back and re-read everything I have by her…

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