Posts Tagged ‘Ursula Le Guin’

2021: My year of reading

December 27, 2021

2021 has been a very conservative reading year. I’ve apparently only bought 20 books (I received another 3 for Christmas), but I have read over 90, so there’s been a lot of re-reading going on, and this has mainly been comfort reading to help me through the strange times we are living in. And the big clear-out also continues, as I get rid of books I know I’m not going to read or refer to again.

I spent quite a while revisiting Richard Brautigan’s novels, which have been in my library since my hippy days. They are light-hearted froth in a lot of ways, and yet some of them are very well-written, and I didn’t decide to get rid of all of them, but kept one or two just in case, as you do. The same is true of Hermann Hesse’s novels: I’ve now re-read all of these apart from The Glass Bead Game, which somehow I can’t face at the moment, even though some think it’s the best of all his works. I have a very vague recollection of it being a bit of a disappointment way back in the 1970s, too. But as I grow older I realise that Hesse’s fiction, and his ideas about the self and personality were pretty influential in my younger years in terms of how I saw myself and the world I lived in, and the connections between Hesse’s characters’ lives and the psychology of Carl Jung has been quite to the forefront when I’ve been re-reading the novels. Necessarily this led to a re-reading of some of Jung as well. In the end, I think the pandemic has caused me to undertake some fairly deep reflection on my entire life, and I know this has been the case for a good number of people.

There have been some new books this year, and a good number of them I read because they were choices of other members of my current book group. I’m a little surprised that I’ve stuck with the group – I like the people a lot – but at other times when I’ve been in a book group, I’ve dropped out fairly quickly because I didn’t like other people choosing my reading matter for me…

I’ve also realised that I read very little travel writing this year, which struck me as rather odd since my own opportunities for travel have been necessarily rather constrained for the past couple of years. I re-read a short and very lovely book Something of his Art, by Horatio Clare who travelled in the footsteps of my hero J S Bach, making the journey on foot from Arnstadt in Thuringia to Lübeck to hear the master organist Dietrich Buxtehude in the early eighteenth century. Clare records his impressions of the walk and reflects on the music and musician.

Discovery: I’ve wrestled with the Tao Te Ching a few times but not really got anywhere. My liking for Ursula Le Guin led me to get her version (ie version rather than translation, with plenty of her annotation and commentary) and I feel I’m now getting somewhere with it and something from it.

Blog report: more visits than ever this year, but this is largely due, as last year, to the number of what I imagine are students of the literature of the Great War reading up about various poems and poets as part of their studies. I’m grateful for their visits, and for everyone else who reads rather more widely in my meanderings through the world of literature, and I enjoy your comments and interactions.

Best SF: Laurent Binet’s Civilisations, although strictly speaking it’s an alternative history rather than science fiction. But a superb ‘what if?’

Best new novel: this has to be the (for me) long-awaited The Books of Jacob, by Olga Tokarczuk, which was a challenging but rewarding read and shows why she is a Nobel-class writer. Looking forward to more from her.

Best non-fiction: I found Adrift, by Amin Maalouf a fascinating account of the current state of the world, and how we got here. He’s a Lebanese writer, mainly a novelist but he has written about history and society before. He anchors so many of our current political problems in the Middle East and the effects that interfering outsiders have had over the past century as they struggled for control over the region and its resources. That’s oversimplifying a great deal, but is a very thought-provoking approach and one which matches the way I have thought about the world and seen it changing over my lifetime. The West’s appalling and cavalier treatment of Palestine is at the heart of so many problems and conflicts…

Best re-read(s): Amin Maalouf again, and Leo The African, his amazing re-creation of the true story of the Muslim boy from Spain at the time of the Reconquista, and his life, travels and adventures. Simply wonderful. Also Jean Giono’s Regain, about the resurrection of a remote village in France, the power of nature and those who live in harmony with it. Another book from my student days.

Next year’s plans: I want to continue with my reading of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and I’ve also made a resolution to read/re-read more history. I shall continue to sort and tidy up my library, and attempt to buy no new books at all… I am allowing myself one exception, which will be the final volume of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy, if it’s published. And lest you think I’m being extremist here, I will point out that I have several feet of as yet unread books on my shelves…

Men don’t read books by women (?)

July 16, 2021

I’ve written about and around the issue of books by men and women, and which I choose to read, before; an article in The Guardian last weekend prompted me to do some more thinking. The premise of the article was that men did not read books by women writers… roughly speaking.

I turned to my shelves and noticed just how large a proportion of the books, of all genres, were by male writers. I cannot deny this, so why is this the case? As someone who spent several years researching into feminism and science fiction as a postgraduate student, it was a sobering realisation. And what women writers have I allowed into my library, and why?

When I consider the classics of fiction, then women writers figure very strongly on the list: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte are right there are the very top and if I were pushed to choose between them and Conrad, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, for example, I’d be hard pressed. And I note that that there are no English males in my list, for the simple reason (pace some of my readers) Dickens and Hardy and the like just aren’t up there for me.

With more recent and contemporary fiction, males do dominate, without a doubt. But then I thought, actually it’s not the gender of a writer that attracts me, it’s the subject-matter, the themes and ideas. So Margaret Atwood is there for her speculative fiction and her feminism, Pat Barker for her brilliant imaginings and psychological insights about the Great War, Ursula Le Guin for her speculative fiction and feminism just like Atwood. And similar reasons for reading Angela Carter, Marge Piercy. Olga Tokarczuk and Agota Kristov are there because I explore Eastern European fiction. And although there are clearly traits that draw me to writers, both male and female, I do also appreciate the qualities of their writing, and what they bring to the human conditions they illuminate.

I looked at the non-fiction section of my library, and found Mary Beard, whose take on the classical period I like very much and have found a most interesting counterbalance to the picture of the ancient world I imbibed as a school student many years ago. And there was Karen Armstrong, whose histories of religion and theology I have found very thought-provoking over the years. I read those authors not because of their gender but because of the subject-matter: theology, religion and history have always interested me deeply.

Somehow I feel as though I’m offering excuses here, as much as explanations or reasons: are there really fewer women writing in the subjects I’ve come to find interesting over the years? I don’t know.

Then I thought about travel-writing, my major more recent area of exploration, and realised how much I have appreciated the women travellers of the last century of so. There’s Ella Maillart, the intrepid Victorian Isabella Bird, Mildred Cable and Francesca French, Edith Durham, Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, Jan Morris… certainly men still dominate the shelves, but the women writers are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most. Here, I suppose, it’s because there’s not the macho posing and posturing a good many of the male travellers have gone in for at times. Instead there is the close observation, detailed description, sharing of the lives of those among whom they travelled, a sense of intimacy and belonging and appreciation of differences. Not that men travelling aren’t capable of those things, but that women do them better and more consistently and have left me with a fuller appreciation of their travelling…

I’m as confused as before. I don’t think any of my choices are gender-driven, though, and I’d be interested to hear what any of my readers think on this question.

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.

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

March 16, 2021

     I’ve wrestled a couple of times with this ancient Chinese wisdom text and felt I’d not really got anywhere: I know it’s partly a cultural thing, in the sense of how my mind has been trained/ trained itself to think over many years, and not finding it easy to tune into the elusive, enigmatic and contradictory ways that eastern sages present their ideas. So, when I discovered that Ursula Le Guin had done a version, I thought perhaps she might succeed where other translators had failed, as far as I’m concerned.

I found her version – and she’s careful to make clear it’s a version, not a translation – more readable, less archaic and arcane in language, and therefore somewhat more accessible, and she provides helpful glosses and explanatory notes on the page as you read, as well as more detailed information at the end.

And yet, as I read through, I still found myself with questions: how, exactly, am I meant to be reading this text? Through from start to finish? Much more slowly? Chapter by chapter? This isn’t by way of a complaint, more of a realisation that I don’t (yet) have a frame of reference from which to access the book.

Some chapters are much more accessible – I think – than others. I have the impression of an ideal being put forward, which is not attainable though to be striven for, but then at other points I’m reading common-sense, practical hints on how to face life. So what, exactly, is the purpose of the book? At the moment, it seems, the intention is to have the reader slow down, and reflect on their life, how they live it and what they get from it, as well as what they offer others.

Having found Le Guin’s approach more accessible, I shall continue with the Tao, alongside other ancient works of wisdom that have in different ways supported my reflections on life: Socrates many years ago made the point I’ve always cherished, that the unexamined life is not worth living. And the one thing I took away from this reading was something of a revelation about my life and career as a teacher, à propos of Lao Tzu’s point about not hoarding: teaching for me was always about giving and sharing the amazing stuff I’d learnt…

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.’

Dreams of utopia – part 2

August 26, 2020

81Ry5hSi3tL._AC_UY218_     I don’t pretend to have reviewed even a small number of all the different texts, or approaches taken, but I do note some similarities: the major issue that needs to be addressed in approaching a better world is the ever-present one of inequality – and it’s not always suggested that the answer is egalitarian communism. Rather it seems that the question of shortages of material or other goods is considered, with a view to removing such shortages by providing those in need with what they lack. In a world of plenty (like ours) this is basic fairness…

Writers nowadays do seem to be much more aware of the difficulties involved in getting there; it’s of little use presenting the reader with a vision of a perfect world, without a hint of how one might move towards it if we decided we really like the idea. So Le Guin’s presentation of the world Anarres (in The Dispossessed) and Callenbach’s Ecotopia – set in California – devote considerable time to how a transition was successfully effected. Not that we should regard these as road maps: we’re talking about works of fiction, after all, but an extension of the mental exercise that is the vision of the utopia in the first place.

Capitalism doesn’t work/isn’t a mechanism or system for getting there, so any utopia means replacing the current system, and herein lies the greatest difficulty: that the entitled, the rich and the powerful will do anything to stay at the top of the pile, including slaughter on a massive scale if necessary, and we should be under no illusions about that. Does this, ethically, draw a line under attempts to change things, or can there be another way? Here is a question that, in my reading, few writers have thoroughly explored.

Divide and conquer: as people have become a little better educated and aware and more politicised, those in power have focused on dividing people to retain and entrench control. This is my personal take on things from half a century or more of observing politics and world history. If you can convince – for example – women, that women’s issues are the most important, or people of other races, that racial issues are the most important, then you divide the potential opposition into smaller and potentially more fragmented groups, whereas things get much more dangerous for the elite if everyone unites and co-operates, in an understanding that the system itself is at the root of the problem. Then, once the system has been changed, addressing all the other issues becomes easier…perhaps. This, of course, is what Marx not only suggested, but perhaps demonstrated in a – fortunately for the powerful – almost unreadable lengthy tome. You need to find a different way of running the world politically and economically, and then seek to address all the other very real and demanding issues next. And the elites, the powerful, will do whatever they can to blur that message, to discredit it, to distract those who suffer, from it. They need to!

The closest any writer has got to addressing – in terms of getting her readers to realise and think about – these issues is, for me, the late Ursula Le Guin in her masterful novel The Dispossessed. She contrasts the rich, glitzy, successful capitalist planet Urras with the anarcho-syndicalist and poor separatist moon Anarres, which is attempting to explore different ways of being and organising. It’s effectively done through the standard utopian trope of having a visitor from one world visit another, and the utopia coming across as preferable by comparison. But Le Guin’s masterstroke is to do this in reverse: Shevek is an anarchist, from the utopian world Anarres which we are meant to admire, and becomes the naive visitor to be seduced by the bright lights of the capitalist paradise his forebears rejected some eight centuries previously. And he is tried, tempted, tested; we think he and his world emerge from the comparison as preferable, but oh the struggle, the constant hard work and alertness demanded to sustain the utopia (which is far from plentiful, far from perfect, but does at least offer equality of a sort). Le Guin leaves us under no illusion that human nature itself, perhaps perverted as it has been over millennia but whatever, craves the promise of stuff, power, wealth: there is a jackdaw primitiveness in us that craves the shiny-shiny… which is what got us and keeps us where we are today…

Dreams of utopia – part 1

August 25, 2020

41CQ2tBHymL._AC_UY218_     I’ve written about utopias (and dystopias) before, in a number of places, and if you’re sufficiently interested you can track down the posts. I’ve been thinking again, in the current incredibly dire and grim state of the world, about our likelihood of ever getting anywhere near one before the planet hawks us up and spits us out for good…

There have been religious utopias, economic utopias, feminist utopias, political utopias, rural utopias, ecological utopias. Writers have visualised happiness for an elite, for the many, for most or even for all, and with or without slaves. They have imagined utopias on this planet and on other, imaginary worlds.

A quest for an ideal or perfect world or society presupposed imperfection of and or dissatisfaction with the current one – a permanent given – and a picture of something better; more thoughtful writers also attempt the really difficult bit, which is to explain how we get/got there, and this always raises another question: why don’t we do it?

I find myself going back in time, to ancient days, when society first settled, became agrarian and was able to accumulate surpluses of food. At this point it seems to have been possible for more powerful individuals to take over and arrogate the surpluses to themselves, and thus to also control the labour that produced food, goods and surpluses. Here we have inequality emerging, and we have to think about whether this was inevitable or necessary. Yet, once it happened it will almost instantly have become a permanent feature of our world and its organisation, for what person or group, having seen what it is possible to do with power and more stuff than others, would not strive to keep things that way? And so it has gone on…

When did this start? In my imagination, I see an equality in the builders of something like Stonehenge, for example, which seems to have been constructed to answer to primitive spiritual needs of a society. But even then, in that lost past, was there not a privileged and powerful priestly class to insist on its construction, and make it happen? And when we come to consider the Pharaohs and their pyramids, it’s clearer that a ruling class used enforced labour to create monuments to themselves.

For me the crux is the point where the inequality emerges, where the lower classes are unable – for whatever reason – to resist or counter its emergence and consolidation. N centuries later, inequality is everywhere rampant, entrenched, and condemns countless millions to misery and impoverishment.

71J-9IfLqQL._AC_UY218_     Utopian visions, nowadays certainly, take issue with inequality and see equality of wealth and opportunity, sharing and co-operation rather than competition as the way to ensure maximum happiness or contentment for the greatest number. And we live in a society which has now shown that it can create sufficient abundance for their to be enough for everyone were it shared out more fairly (not even equally). Nobody needs the wealth of a Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos; they could never spend even a part of it.

Utopias usually imagine a world where warfare is part of the past. A rational consideration demonstrates that war is an obscene waste of money and resources (I refer you to this astonishing graphic if you want concrete evidence) without even thinking about the ethical issue of killing other human beings. Weapons are an ideal capitalist consumer good, for, used as directed, they immediately need replacing with more. And the idea that people make their livelihoods from inventing and constructing ever more horrendous devices for killing and maiming their fellow humans is too sick to think about.

Utopias have imagined technology as capable of providing plenty, a life of comfort and ease for all. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (or Life in the Year 2000) was published in 1887 and combines production and socialist distribution to imagine a marvellous future for humanity. More recently, writers have been aware of technology, production and pollution coming together as more of a threat: I offer Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging, as examples of how continuing on our current track is not such a good idea. And he was writing 40 years ago, before the horrific state of plastic pollution or the enormous threat presented by climate change and global heating became so obvious…

71FUig5zsTL._AC_UY218_     Some recent utopias (and dystopias) have looked to sexual politics as an issue that needs to be addressed. Charlottle Perkins Gilman created a women-only world in Herland a century or more ago. In the 1970s Suzy McKee Charnas first visualised a dystopia from a woman’s viewpoint (Walk to the End of the World) and then proceeded to construct a response (Motherlines). And Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time is a particularly good example of the genre from this perspective, as is Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction generally.

There have been utopias which have looked backwards in a different way, taking refuge in a quieter agrarian past, a rural idyll. William MorrisNews From Nowhere, W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, and Austin Tappan Wright’s magnificent Islandia are all different examples of how this has been done. To be continued…

2019: my year of reading…

December 30, 2019

I’ve not done anywhere near as much reading this last year as I normally would, for a number of reasons, and recently have not felt able to settle down to anything as demanding as a full-length book, so for the last couple of months it has been magazines and online articles, mainly. I have acquired 30 new books this year – so some success on cutting down how many I buy – disposed of a good many more than that, and actually read 53 books in total, so just over one a week. I never imagined the total would drop so low…

I realise on looking through my reading log that I’ve spent a fair amount of time re-reading this year. At the end of 2018, I began working my way through the novels of Philip K Dick again, and got about half-way through them before I got side-tracked; I also re-read some Raymond Chandler, some Garrison Keillor and quite a lot of Ursula Le Guin, prompted by her death earlier in the year. Her work remains as powerful as ever for me, in many different ways. I’m looking forward to tacking her epic Always Coming Home next year.

Why so much re-reading? Looking at my shelves I see that there are so many old favourites still there, which have survived the annual cull of books which head their way to Amnesty International, and I feel drawn to revisit them, and the pleasure I recall in the past. I used to have the feeling, “well, I’d like to re-read that one day…” and move on; nowadays, something follows that thought up with, “get on with it, then!” So I have.

Like many of you, I have a fair number of what might loosely be called “coffee-table books” in a dismissive sort of way: I mean the kind of large format, illustrated books that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a cover-to-cover read, but are for deep browsing; I’ve spent a good deal of time revisiting those this year, too, especially the ones on travel and exploration. Very satisfying.

But it hasn’t been completely a year of re-reads. New discoveries have included R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – there seems to be a good deal of First World War fiction out there that I still haven’t discovered – and John Barton’s marvellous book on the history of the bible, which I really enjoyed and found very thought-provoking, too. And I really liked the French writer Gilbert Sinoué’s Le Livre de Saphir .

Now we come to statistics and awards. For some reason – and I do wish readers would enlighten me – the most popular post of the year by far has been my brief and instant reaction to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Wound in Time, which she wrote to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War. Other posts on poems from that war have also been pretty popular, along with my thoughts on Ismail Kadare’s novel about Stalinism in Albania, Le Grand Hiver. I’m pleased to be reaching such a wide variety of readers, and I still wish I head more from you…

My biggest disappointment this year has been my re-reading of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series; I wish I hadn’t bothered and then I might have retained more of my original admiration for his achievement. When researching for the post I just published on him, I noticed there were some prequels and linked short stories, which I will not be bothering with.

Once again, there is no award for weirdest book: obviously I’m not reading weird books at the moment…

I’ll give Philip Pullman my award for best new novel for The Secret Commonwealth, the second in his Book of Dust series. It is on a par with the first one, and I know I’ll have to wait another couple of years for the last in the series.

I’m cheating a bit here, but my award for best novel goes to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which is coming up for a re-read pretty soon, so that I can dig a bit deeper than just the plot, and admire what she has done in writing a sequel to a novel no-one imagined there could ever be a sequel to. It’s clever, it’s serious, it’s thought-provoking, and for me everything that a good novel should be.

I haven’t read a great deal of non-fiction this year, but John Barton’s A History of the Bible was outstanding in its erudition, its clarity and its honesty. He isn’t afraid to dig deeply or to ask awkward questions, and yet the Christian scriptures are not diminished or undermined by his forensic examination.

Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad is easily my Book of the Year: it’s not a new novel, having been written before I was born and published in a number of incomplete versions in Soviet times. What we finally got this year was a very careful edition which is probably as complete and as accurate as can be with a work completed in such challenging circumstances, excellently translated and introduced, and superbly annotated: a work of love by Robert Chandler. It’s the prequel to the astonishing Life and Fate, which has rightly been called the twentieth century’s War and Peace. Only a Russian could have written it, and it is a tragedy that the horrendous experience of Russians during the Nazi invasion and occupation is not better known and understood in the West.

I wonder what next year will bring? So far, press articles about what’s coming up in the next few months have been rather unpromising. And I don’t have any particular plans in terms of what I want to read, although I am currently enjoying re-visiting old favourites, so there will probably more of those…

On time…

December 2, 2019

I’ve written about this topic before: it’s one I return to a lot in my thinking, perhaps reflecting the fact that I’m growing older and so have less of it left.

I’ve always been fascinated when staring up at the night sky and the stars, especially in winter. The sense of the vastness of space, the enormous distances to the stars, our lack of knowledge about what and who might be out there, and the unlikelihood of our ever making contact with anyone, all come together to amplify the sense of timelessness or eternity for me: everything is just so big and unfathomable. Science fiction writers have characters and machines travelling across the vastnesses of space so easily; only in Ursula Le Guin’s visions of the worlds of the Ekumen has any writer fully explored the sadness (or the horror) of someone having travelled faster than light, then returning to the world whence they came, where decades or centuries have elapsed, and everyone they knew, parents, loved ones and friends, are long dead… the loneliness of such an existence seems unbearable, and it’s only fiction…

Ancient places on our own planet have a similar effect on me: the vanished world of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire where I live, where monks prayed, chanted and sang for centuries; the Roman remains in Provence where it’s possible to imagine quite vividly how people lived two thousand years ago. Many years ago, when I lived in East London, I watched as the old railway station at Broad Street was demolished and redeveloped; my eye was caught by a plaque on the wall which said that the vanishing station had been built on the site of the old Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam in common parlance) which had been on that spot from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, and I wondered what, from our modern world, would have a chance of remaining in the same spot for seven centuries.

It’s things like this that put the pettiness of our existence into focus for me: we are marvellous, complex and sometimes intelligent beings experiencing the joys and sadnesses of our lives which are but an instant in the time of the universe.

The classic book about time is probably the late Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, a best-seller that featured on so many people’s bookshelves and may well have been the most unread book of all time, so difficult it was to comprehend. I can say that I did, once, read it from cover to cover: what I did not do is understand it. Science, especially physics, actually makes my brain hurt; I tried, and failed.

Somehow the canvas of time came across really effectively for me in Ivan Yefremov’s A For Andromeda, a classic of Soviet science fiction, set over a thousand years in the future, in a world where communism did triumph, succeeding in transforming everyone’s lives. Utopian, certainly, but people need to dream. And in his future world, religion, of course, has vanished into the dustbin of history, is regarded as a quaint piece of the past. And yet, his characters are still capable of being moved by the enormousness of space and the cosmos, experiencing what I can only label powerful spiritual feelings as they look out from our world.

There are writers who can capture the sense of loss over time, bringing to life vanished worlds in their fiction. I experience this particularly in novels set in Eastern Europe, where worlds have literally vanished as a consequence of the upheavals and horrors of the twentieth century. Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life is a very powerful example: a German ship’s captain, wearied after the horrors of the Great War, retreats from the world into the dense forests of one-time East Prussia to live a simple life in a hut on an island in a lake, with only a single companion, and finds peace of a sort; others of Wiechert’s novels are set in this place which vanished forever in 1945. A number of Günter Grass’ novels are set in the Free City of Danzig, another world which disappeared at the same time. Perhaps the saddest moment in The Tin Drum is the suicide of the Jewish toyshop owner as the Nazis tighten their grip on that city: there is no hope, and his is another world gone forever. Lastly I’ll mention Walter Kempowski, whose works are now appearing in English translation; he again pictures the disappearance of that small area of Eastern Europe.

Our existences are transient; we cannot understand the cosmic scale of time and place – we are too little for that. Olaf Stapledon, in Last and First Men, makes an astonishing effort to take human history several billion years into the future. It’s a noble attempt which cannot succeed, hard to read, painful in its reminders of our pettiness. Maybe that’s why most writers stay away from such themes…

On re-reading Ursula Le Guin

September 17, 2019

81yGpmCphML._AC_UY218_ML1_   We lost one of the greatest SF writers ever when Ursula Le Guin died earlier this year, and I promised myself I’d re-read some of her Hainish novels: I did this in a bit of a binge-read while I was on holiday in the Ardennes a week or so ago, and enjoyed Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed all over again. They are very thought-provoking, and you can see the influence of her family background and personal interest in anthropology.

I found myself trying to decide just how good she was, and what exactly she had achieved. The Library of America publications of her works which have come out recently are helpful because they contain her introductions, and also some interesting notes on the novels. Even in the earliest works, Le Guin manages to create very powerful and very moving characters, which, as many critics have noted, does not often happen in science fiction.

The idea that various Earth-like planets were ‘seeded’ with humanoid life at some point in the very distant past, and left to develop, gave Le Guin scope to explore a range of different aspects of human potential and societal organisation: never didactic, she leaves her reader to make comparisons with our own particular world, and way of living, leaves us to make judgements, too, if we have eyes to see.

The last two books I listed are those that most people would recognise as her best, I think. The Left Hand of Darkness puts our human sexuality under the microscope in a way no other writer has done, through the creation of the Gethenians who are truly androgynous: in a work of fiction, a writer can explore and invite a reader to imagine, in way that no textbook or academic work can. I found this idea so interesting that an analysis of this novel formed a major part of an academic thesis I wrote over 35 years ago now; I found myself wondering if I would write the same way now as I had then…

I also wrote about The Dispossessed in that thesis. Coming back to the novel again, I was taken aback to see how much bleaker her anarchist society was than I had remembered, how much more complex, too. Le Guin’s vision of the future of planet Earth, seen through the eyes of its ambassador on Urras, is truly grim, and chillingly recognisable in where we find ourselves heading now – yet Le Guin wrote over forty years ago. Powerful stuff, indeed.

I have pretty much moved on from my fascination with science fiction of forty years ago. I’ve kept a small number of books that I have come to regard as classics of the genre. But I still stand by what I felt all those years ago when doing my academic research at the Science Fiction Foundation, that the genre can make us think deeply about our world, and perhaps lead us to make it a better one, and I still have Ursula Le Guin up there among the very best writers.

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