Posts Tagged ‘Ursula LeGuin’

Ursula LeGuin: The Telling

October 7, 2015

51pnzOxgvHL._AA160_I think I’ve now got to the end of all Ursula LeGuin‘s Hainish stories with a re-read of this novel, which I have to say I don’t think is one of her best, as the plot is a bit thin.

She writes about a world where developments seem to echo what took place in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and in Tibet since the Chinese occupied the country, exploring the importance of one’s cultural past to a people, as well as the consequences of trying to erase a people’s past wholesale, with the damage that ensues. The issues are complicated by enforced development (echoes of The Great Leap Forward, perhaps) so perhaps you can see that I have found it just a little too obvious and didactic in places.

Having said that, nothing LeGuin writes is trite or trivial, and The Telling is no exception: there is plenty to make one think here. The envoy from another planet this time is from Earth, but a future Earth where the consequences of religious fundamentalism that we see so much of nowadays has not really played itself out.

So here are some familiar LeGuin tropes: what is religion, and how useful is it to a people, what is one’s past and one’s history and how important is that? Along with reflections on comsumerism and planetary destruction, and what rights one has to interfere in the affairs of other places, peoples or worlds, there is plenty to dwell on. And one nugget, which is perhaps easily overlooked: her imagined world is a single continent, therefore a single nation, so there are no aliens, no-one is different, or an outsider…

Overall, it’s clear, as LeGuin has herself said previously, there is no definite plan or construct to the series of stories and novels (quite considerable, as you have seen if you’ve followed all my posts). The idea of a league of worlds, a loose-knit federation, the Ekumen as she sometimes calls it, is an appealing one, romantic in a sense when it’s created and described by a writer of her talent. It has given her the opportunity to reflect on, and present to her readers, all sorts of gender- and culture-related issues which cause any intelligent reader to consider their own world and how it might be different. This is one of the things that good science fiction does best; it’s seen most convincingly in LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, and it was the brilliance of those two novels that led me to hunt out everything she has written in the Hainish cycle.

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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.

American literature and me

August 28, 2015

American literature was part of my study syllabus at university, and I remember enjoying it very much, at times more than the Eng Lit I was also reading, but I cannot now remember why, apart from the lifelong love of Mark Twain it gave me. I liked his adventurous and pioneering life, his wide-roaming travels, and the ways in which he brought his own childhood to life in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One got a sense of the relative innocence of the times, and the incredible freedom available then, too. I taught Tom Sawyer whenever I could at school, and I think my pupils enjoyed it mostly, identifying with the adventures, the rebellion, the dangers and the finding of a fortune.

It’s the American Dream, par excellence, of course, in the days when perhaps it still was available to everyone; Huck’s decision to light out for the territory is an astonishing breath of freedom and escape from a stifling world. Twain also conveys his love for the physical landscape and the vastness of the United States: Life on the Mississippi is his tribute, and I can thoroughly recommend the excellent Librivox recording of it.

I read Moby Dick and was suitably awed by it at the time, but have felt no call to re-read it. On the other hand, Walden bored me to tears as an undergraduate, and I only came to appreciate it in later years. Its magic was a little dimmed by the discovery that the cabin in the woods, though isolated, was not that far from civilisation, and Thoreau was able to take his washing home for his mother to do… Emerson and the transcendentalists left me cold; I loved Poe and his macabre tales. In the twentieth century, I could not get into Faulkner, and though I tackled a lot of Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby left me, and still leaves me, utterly unmoved.

More recent writings I have warmed to include those of Garrison Keillor; again, his tales capture some of the original innocence of bygone days and the back of beyond. In my hippy days I loved the vague and lyrical weirdness of Richard Brautigan, but have not gone back to him despite the books still lying on my bookshelf. You can keep Don de Lillo.

If I had to nominate a single twentieth century American classic, it would undoubtedly be Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, Catch-22, which will stand up to any number of re-readings; satire, history and gut-churning realism, it destroys the illusion of a ‘good’ war and forces the reader to engage with the complexity of the issues.

Science fiction has been an enormous part of American literature in the past fifty or sixty years and the US contribution to the development and flourishing of the genre should not be overlooked or underestimated: let’s mention Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Philip Dick and Ursula LeGuin just for the record… and then there’s detective fiction and Raymond Chandler

For me, American literature epitomises freedom and independence; the proclaims a sense of space and freedom to experiment, to be able to rewind or go back to start in so many ways, if one’s original ideas don’t work, and this is not the way we tend to think or to view life here, I feel. There’s a sense of power, too, which comes from living in a country which is also a continent: there are no enemies bigger than you, no possibility of invasion and conquest – again, how unlike Europe – ironically the US thereby actually becomes more isolated, more insular, and that’s something we know about here in England too.

The profound differences between the dynamism, violence and openness of the US continue to astonish me; perhaps I am naive, but I sometimes feel the almost-shared language has hidden these differences from this Brit…

China Mieville: The City and the City

May 11, 2015

9780330534192I really enjoyed this novel when I first read it five years ago. It scrambled my brain then, and a re-read hoping to make things a bit clearer produced the same effect, as well as convincing me at the end that it really is brilliant.

It’s a detective story/ thriller with a science fiction twist to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything like Gibson & Sterling’s The Difference Engine, for example. Mieville sets the story in a city, recognisably East European or Balkans post 1989, but with a difference: it’s two cities in two different countries, but which in some way overlap in places in time and space, occupying the same spaces whilst alongside each other. And if that isn’t clear, then perhaps you’ll understand why I say it scrambled my brain, and perhaps it will be clearer if you read it… or not. Contact via the interstices must not happen, and such breaches are ruthlessly dealt with.

At one level you find political allegories linking to our world and think of Palestine/ Israel, or Croatia/ Serbia perhaps, but only fleetingly. There are also hints that the confusion is the result of some alien presence many centuries ago – reminiscent of the chaos left behind in the Zone in the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic, filmed as Stalker. Then I found myself reminded of Ursula LeGuin’s Hainish civilisation seeding planets across the galaxy.

A lone detective investigates a murder which is not what it seems, and involves the spaces between; he has a helpful Watson-type female companion in the first half of the story, but then the roles swap when the investigation takes him to the other country and he must play second fiddle to his detective chaperone from the other national crime squad.

It’s fast-paced, but the extra concepts make the plot more complex and add further twists and complications; out hero eventually ends up in breach of the rules, where he discovers that, even in the spaces in-between, things are not what they seem, and his life is changed for ever as a result. Not all the loose ends are tied up – they rarely are in a novel like this – but the sheer originality of the plot and the ideas blow you away. I’ve written about another of his novels, Embassytown, here, and he’s definitely on my watch list.

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.

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

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…

HG Wells: A Modern Utopia

December 28, 2014

31jXQnYp8HL._AA160_I’d meant to read this utopian vision for a long while; finally got round to it, and admit it was interesting but that’s about it. In many ways, it’s a curiosity from almost a century ago, but Wells was a socialist and it was interesting to see how he elaborated his vision.

Since he wrote several SF novels, it wasn’t too surprising to see him use the parallel universe trope as the vehicle for his perfect world, another Earth somewhere on the other side of the universe, that had developed oh so much more logically and sensibly compared with our own, and Wells as narrator, and his scientist companion found themselves transported there inexplicably, possibly through some wish-fulfilment fantasy…

Any utopia reflects the time and place of its origin, and these reflections usually provide the most interesting glimpses, to my mind. Wells does realise that the problem with most utopias to his date was that they were static rather than dynamic, and for him, this will not do: stasis means regression, and so his ideal world must always be striving to advance and develop. There is, of course, a contradiction in terms here, but we will let that pass. Wells is right that a static world would be unremittingly tedious, and Huxley was to try and address this issue in Brave New World, though not in ways to the liking of his readers.

Wells also recognises that not everyone will be willingly dragged into the perfect future: there will be the idle, the reluctant and the downright awkward, and he thinks about how these may be dealt with; Huxley steals his ideas. He writes at some length about how dull many utopias are because they remain on the general level, hectoring and didactic, and proceeds to do pretty much the same himself; the bringing to life of the utopia by presenting real individuals enjoying it just does not happen.

I was probably most astonished to find that religion persists in Wells’ utopia; not because I am anti-religion, but because I had imagined he would wish it away as a relic of a superstitious past. Not so – a belief in a deity and spiritual forces helping to raise the quality of life is very much part of the future, although not along the specifically Christian lines we might recognise. Race, racism and the betterment of the species, through selective breeding and eugenics, are all addressed, as they needed to be in the innocent days of the early twentieth century, and Wells reflects quite casually on ideas such as the extermination of inferior and undesirable races…

Somewhere in an earlier post you will find my thoughts on Ursula LeGuin‘s utopia, The Dispossessed, which speaks most strongly and powerfully to me of all the utopias I have read, though I suppose I must also admit that it will come to be seen as a product of its time in due course. Utopian literature is a necessary recognition of the real imperfections of our actually-existing world, a desire for it to be better, usually derived from the imagination of someone who will never be in a position to bring it about. Deep in the psyche of our species is the ability to dream of a better world, accompanied by the inability practically to do anything about it…

Gender and reading (again)

November 29, 2014

I’ve written on this topic before, but a news story this week, about recent research that shows we tend to read books written by our own gender, has had me thinking about the subject again. I did some quick (and not very systematic) research that showed that by far the greater proportion of books on my shelves were by men, and that, according to my reading log, this year only 21 out of 78 read books so far were by women…

Somewhere I’d fondly imagined that I might have done rather better: for instance, I spent the best part of three years in an earlier existence researching Feminism and Science Fiction (you will have to go to the Science Fiction Foundation in Liverpool to access a copy of my thesis) and that says something, to me at least, where my sympathies lie.

Considering my bookshelves more closely: pre-twentieth century, there’s some kind of a balance, with Jane Austen and George Eliot fully represented: I have a picture of the nineteenth as a women’s century in literature; certainly the two already named tower above Dickens and Hardy for me. When it comes to the twentieth century fiction, men win. In science fiction, it’s not so clear, particularly given my thesis, and if I were to award my prize for achievement in twentieth century SF, at the moment it would go to Ursula LeGuin, as you might guess from some of my recent posts, although Philip Dick would come a very close second. Again, with my travel writing section, men far outdistance women writers, but if I had to choose my favourites, they would be women travellers such as Ella Maillart and Isabella Bird.

Then I tried thinking about what is actually going on. More books, quantity-wise, are written by men. I’m a boy, so I like boys’ books? Simplistic, but some topics or subjects naturally appeal more to males than females, and I can’t be that much of an exception. I make those choices, and to a certain extent, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy happening here. Historically, there’s always a sorting and sifting process going on with fiction in terms of what will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting that so much of the fiction written by women in the nineteenth century is at the top of the pile. Does this mean that Margaret Atwood and Pat Barker (to name but two) will stand out from the last century?

In the end, though it feels like a cop-out, I have to say that I don’t choose books by the gender of their authors, I choose books because they look tempting and I want to read them, and though I suppose if I went through my reading journal for the forty years for which it exists I’d still find a preponderance of books written by men, the books by women I have read have always made me think. Women do write about different things, differently, and inevitably pose a challenge to the other gender.

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