Editor’s Note: Rhonda Knight is a frequent contributor to WWEnd through her excellent blog series Automata 101 and her new series Outside the Norm. This is Rhonda’s second featured review for the Grand Master Reading Challenge.
Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia Spring has been on my reading list for a long time. I was intrigued by the premise: a planet in a binary system whose long year, or the journey around the brighter, further sun, takes about 2600 Earth years. This means that each change of season is the first that the population has ever seen and seems cataclysmic in a world without any records. This book tells the story of the planet Helliconia as it moves from a world of snow, cold and isolation to a world of warmth, growth, and expansion.
In my opinion, the story does not live up to the premise Aldiss presents. The edition of the novel I read was about 430 pages long. I only became interested in the story around page 230, and unfortunately, I never really became interested in any of the characters, who are generally one-dimensional and whose actions often seem random rather than a part of any greater motivation.
Besides the “human” civilizations on the planet, there are the phagors and Earth humans who observe the planet from above on space station Avernus. He creates the phagors as mankind’s enemy. The phagors are an intelligent type of biped, who evolved separately from the humans. Their society consists of nomadic “herds” that ride on their own domesticated animals. The people on the planet are under continual threat from them. The Earth humans are only watchers. Their observations are beamed to Earth where the activities of Helliconia have become a type of reality show. Earth’s residents, one thousand years in Helliconia’s future, attend public theaters to watch. During the first two-thirds of the book (when the readers are not told about the broadcast function of the space station), the Avernus parts seem disruptive. Only at the end do these Avernus sections add anything to the story. However, Aldiss does not explore the interesting implications that come with the Avernians’ knowledge nor the impact of this reality television back on Earth.
As I read, I starting giving Aldiss the same advice that I give my students when they write academic papers: (1) show, don’t tell; (2) don’t be afraid to cut; and (3) develop your ideas. The first ninety pages of the novel could really benefit from this advice. This section is a prologue of Yuli, the founder of the town that Aldiss will feature in the second part of the novel. Yuli’s adventures are often reported rather than shown. And, in at least one of these reports, Aldiss creates a plot hole that was hard for me to overcome. Yuli’s connection to the latter part of the novel is tangential, and I’m not the only reviewer who has wondered if this part was even necessary.
Aldiss’ strength appears in his ideas that demonstrate how the ecology and the economy of the planet awake. He traces the society of Embruddock’s movement from stationary hunter-gatherers to agrarians to a type of medieval village economy, with the development of bridges, mills and money. The moves that he makes using alien flora and fauna are interesting, but I wish that he’d spent more time showing us how these accomplishments come about. However, it is hard to believe that the community of Embruddock can move from hunter-gathers to medieval tradesmen during one lifetime—no matter how fast the world’s ecology is changing. In the end, Aldiss weaves an interesting symbiosis between the microbes, flora, fauna, and the civilizations on the planet. Unfortunately, this intriguing idea about the symbiosis came too late to make me like the book. I wish the whole book had been dedicated to a clear development of that idea.
Looking at the reading stats in WWEnd, I see that only a few of the members who read Helliconia Spring continued reading Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter. Unfortunately, I will be one of those readers who will not finish the series.
WWEnd member Fred Van Patten got his first GMRC review in just under the wire! Fred is not just a fan of SF/F/H. He’s one of those lucky few who are living the dream of running his own bookstore. If you get up Ohio way stop in and see him at Backlist Books. Tell him you found him on WWEnd.
Hothouse was Brian Aldiss‘ fourth or fifth published novel, and originally appeared as a group of short stories in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The short stories were collectively given the 1962 short fiction Hugo. The book was instrumental in the creation of the role playing game Gamma World, a post-apocalyptic version of Dungeons & Dragons.
The U.S. original version was an abridged version – I actually read the most recent printing by IDW press which I believe preserved the full text of the original U.K. hardcover, albeit with many of the typographical errors so common to modern reprints.
I don’t know what the changes in the U.S. version are, but for 1962, this story has a pretty high level of sexual frankness that was certainly unusual, and probably controversial at the time. The story is so strange, that it will make any plot summary seem ludicrous – but here goes, briefly.
In the far future the earth has stopped rotating, and the side facing the sun has mutated into an enormous jungle. Human beings have devolved into small monkey, or even smaller, sized creatures. Some of the humans ride a mile-long worm to the moon, grow wings, and hatch a plan to bring other humans to the moon. The main character escapes the worm trip, and instead has his brain invaded by a telepathic mushroom that commands him to roam the earth. Eventually they meet up with a talking dolphin that is taken over by the morel also. They hatch a plan to ride the worm to a new planet. The main character, Gren, decides to stay on earth, as the sun is not supposed to go supernova for several generations to come.
This work is highly comparable to J. G. Ballard‘s The Drowning World. Both involve a future heated world with runaway plant and animal growth, and human de-evolution under psychological stress. They differ in that Ballard’s work depicts as few science fiction elements as possible, whereas Aldiss throws in every hashish-laden LSD acid trip idea that ever wafted by. Somewhere out there an enterprising English major is going to use $150,000 of student loan money to write a masters’ thesis contrasting the two with our very own, very "warmed" current world.
Hopefully I can save the taxpayers some money, by merely stating "yes". An out of control climate will result in some major psychological changes—which are happening now. See Katrina for some rather Ballardian encounters, and see Detroit for some Aldiss-style plant revenge.
I can heartily recommend this book as a classic of the genre – it is a thematically complicated work I have just scratched the surface of here, and fully deserves its placement on Pringle’s top 100 list.
Well, you’ve got to grant that Ray Bradbury is not a boring novelist. The entire story of Something Wicked This Way Comes runs almost entirely on enthusiasm. Part morality tale and part freak show, Something Wicked finds something of a happy medium as an exuberant young adult novel, a wild and unstoppable train of delight in every moment of living. The two protagonists Jim and Will live unimpeded lives without any great danger until the day the Dark Train arrives in the middle of the night, at the witching hour. Unfortunately, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show offers more than mere curiosities and entertainments: it offers your heart’s desire… for a price. Are you looking for true love? Your lost youth? Cooger & Dark will give it to you, just take a short ride on this carousel over here.
It’s easy for a reader to lose the overall geography of the novel in favor of its individual parts. Bradbury’s prose oozes with flamboyance and a baroque explosion of literary decoration. Consider this description of a library from the second chapter:
Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever. Invisible, silent, yes, but Jim and Will had the gift of ears and noses as well as the gift of tongues. This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo. There went Miss Wills, the other librarian, through Outer Mongolia, calmly toting fragments of Peiping and Yokohama and the Celebes. Way down the third book corridor, an oldish man whispered his broom along in the dark, mounding the fallen spices…
Arguably, the overall body of the novel takes second place to its members. Bradbury’s prose is such a delight to read that you might find yourself surprised to see a story wrapping itself up in the final chapters.
But what is this novel? A horror story? An allegory of sin and temptation? An exercise in literary gluttony? I would suggest that it’s a little bit of each. The moral, insofar as there is a coherent one at all, concerns the power of a sanguine attitude over the dark despair that comes in the middle of the night when you’re tossing awake in bed. The Dark People could be interpreted as embodiments of ennui or despondency, as noonday devils who twist one’s head around backwards to glare forever at what he has left behind. They feed on the unhappiness of ordinary people, and have so fed for centuries if not millennia. The fact that laughter has such great power over Mr. Dark and his carnival freaks would support this approach to the story.
Most of all, I think that Something Wicked is worth reading for its grab-life-by-the-tail-and-hang-on attitude. It lacks a certain type of literary quality, but makes up for it with spiritedness, like a child who creates a whole imaginative universe using only Legos and crayons. One might need to be in the right mood for this novel, but it’s not an unpleasant mood. Not unpleasant at all.
Scott Lazerus came to Worlds Without End looking for a good list of books. He found David Pringle’s Best 100 Science Fiction Novels list to his liking and is currently working his way through the list. He has posted a bunch of reviews for WWEnd including this latest review for the GMRC.
A. E. Van Vogt’s The Book of Ptath (1947) follows Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan in David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy sequence, and Pringle is unable to resist describing the transition as a movement from the sublime to the ridiculous. In terms of writing style, this description is probably justified: Peake is celebrated for the literary quality of his fantasy, while Van Vogt may be the ultimate pulp writer, but both in their own ways evoke unique and memorable fantasy worlds.
Van Vogt, of course, is much better known for his science fiction than for his fantasy (The Weapon Shops of Isher is a good place to start), and it may be hard to remember (or believe?) now, but Van Vogt was just as important and popular as Heinlein and Asimov during the 1940s Golden Age, when all three were publishing some of the seminal stories in Campbell’s Astounding. As a child, I loved Van Vogt’s dreamlike (and not all that scientific) SF, and always looked forward to encountering his stories in Golden Age anthologies. Reading his stories today, though, it can be a struggle to reconnect to the childlike “sense of wonder” they evoked back then. I can’t help being derailed by seemingly arbitrary character actions and plot developments (not to mention oddly constructed sentences). I find myself having numerous “wait! what?” moments, wherein I’m reading a paragraph that suddenly makes no sense to me, and I have to go back and reread a page or two in order to figure out how the story got to that point. Usually this involves a sudden occurrence or decision that leads a character off in a direction that seems illogical or arbitrary at the moment it happens. Usually, as I’m about to give up in frustration, I’ll be drawn back in by particular details, descriptions, or set pieces. Or previously confusing pieces of plot will begin to sift back together, reminding me of the sheer cosmic scale of Van Vogt’s stories. Details like this:
A great orb of moon it was, mightier than Holroyd had ever seen. It was very near, as if Earth and its silver, shining daughter had drawn closer to each other since the long-forgotten twentieth century. The lowering globe looked ten feet in diameter. It filled the night with radiance.
Two hundred million years in the future, when The Book of Ptath is set, the moon is much closer to the Earth. This fact is never explained and barely referenced again, and it provides a good example of the sort of detail that can cause a double-take in the reader, helping build the realization of how inconceivably far in the future the novel is set. Generally considered fantasy because of the “gods” and “spells” in the story, The Book of Ptath is actually set in the far future of our world rather than in a secondary world or alternate reality. There is a brief reference to the fact that the Earth’s continents have drifted, and the planet now consists of three lands: Gonwonlane (most of the southern hemisphere, population 54 million, and home of Ptath), Accadistran (“where ancient greater Ameriga and the continent of ancient Breton had once been, population 19 billion) and the “outlaw state” of Nushirvan (population 5 billion) on an isthmus between the other two. Why the technology of this future Earth seems to be on a par with the Middle Ages, and how this world could possibly support so many people economically, is never explained, but seems beside the point. The human population exists in the novel only as a faceless mass, and the phenomenal population number functions similarly to the decision to set the story 200,000,000 years in the future. Big numbers help create the sense of scale and amazement Van Vogt is trying to evoke.
In this world, a few individuals have become gods due to the psychic power of the huge population that worships them, though it seems that they began life as humans. (Keep in mind that Van Vogt doesn’t present careful exposition, so this summary is my best attempt to turn his few details into a coherent explanation.) Ptath, the most powerful of the gods, has gone back in history in order to reconnect with his humanity by sharing in the consciousness of individuals throughout time. While inhabiting the mind of a World War II airman whose plane is about to crash in 1944, he is yanked back 200,000,000 years into the future (or, from his point of view, from the distant past to the present) by the goddess Izvestia, one of Ptath’s two wives. Izvestia seems to represent the path that Ptath has been trying to avoid, having lost touch with her human compassion and become focused on manipulating the human population in an effort to increase her power. She is engaged in a somewhat vague plan that involves encouraging a war among the three lands, with the goal of subverting a revolt in Gonwonlane and spreading her power to Accadistran. By pulling Ptath back unexpectedly, while he still shares the consciousness of the airman Holroyd, Izvestia hopes to catch Ptath off balance, break his protective spells and kill him before he can interfere with her plans.
L’onee, Ptath’s second wife, knows of Izvestia’s plans, and manages to keep Ptath/Holroyd from being captured immediately upon his return, allowing him time to get his bearings and begin planning what to do. (The idea of a superman appearing in the world, and having to rediscover his identity and purpose, is repeated in a number of Van Vogt’s stories.) L’onee, whose physical body is held in a dungeon by Izvestia, projects her consciousness into various women along Ptath’s path in order to influence or help him at key moments—an ability the other two gods also make use of during the novel. This shifting of identities is another element that can add to the reader’s disorientation at times.
Ptath’s god powers are weak, because his long absence has led to a decline of worshipers, so he sets out to find the “God Chair” in Nushirvan, which is supposed to have the ability to amplify his powers, before Izvestia can destroy it. In one of my favorite chapters, Van Vogt describes the chair:
It shone. It was so bright it hurt his eyes. It was an enormous misty structure, insubstantial and quivery. Veins of crystal light glittered in it; opalescence clouded its surface; splashes of amber streaked it, and bands of vermilion interlaced with stains of pallid ochre. It glittered like some intricate jewel, and its shape was that of a perfect cube with dimensions of fifteen feet. It floated above the floor. It tantalized; it entranced. It had no relation to the solid realities all around. Holroyd walked toward it, then stood in a maze of fascination, staring up at it. It was distinctly up. The lower surface of the cube flickered at least ten feet above his head.
This is a typical Van Vogt description, first fascinating the reader with the description of the psychedelic chair, then ratcheting up the “sense of wonder” with the simple declaration that “it floated above the floor.” In order to reach the chair, Ptath must, for no apparent reason, climb the wall and along the ceiling on a series of ladder rungs, then drop from the ceiling onto the chair’s seat. Just as we are prepared for the climactic renewal of Ptath’s god power, he drops from the ceiling and falls through the chair onto the floor! It turns out that the chair won’t help him after all, because he hasn’t yet absorbed enough power from the energy of his worshipers… One gets the impression that Van Vogt is making this up as he goes along, in some sort of fever dream. But I actually don’t think this is the case. In the end, all the strange details do cohere, and the reader is rewarded with a unique trip through a strange world that makes sense on its own terms. The oddness of Van Vogt’s style just contributes to the effectiveness of the work.
Early in the novel, when Holroyd is studying maps and histories, trying to make sense of where he is, Van Vogt writes that the “detailed drawings of the continents of long ago had an unreal quality that he couldn’t seem to concentrate on.” This sentence struck me when I read it, because it’s actually a pretty good description of the feeling I get reading A. E. Van Vogt’s writing. It’s probably better not to concentrate too hard, or frustration may set in. But if, as John Lennon suggested, you can “relax and float down stream,” this chaotic and somewhat psychedelic trip will be an enjoyable one.
Long time WWEnd member and Uber User, Emil Jung, has gotten his January GMRC review in just under the wire. He’s an obsessive SF/F reader and as such he’s become a huge supporter of WWEnd. (We often refer to him as our "South African Bureau.") Besides hanging out here, Emil writes poetry on his blog emiljung.posterous.com.
Powers is the third book in The Annals of the Western Shore, a YA series, with Gifts and Voices preceding it, and the only one that can be read as a stand-alone novel (hence my review for the GMRC, although Voices is to me the more accomplished and solid book of the series). However, the ending will be much more meaningful if all three were read in sequence. The books are loosly connected by a couple of characters, Orrec and Gry – we meet them as children in Gifts, and finally as adults in the final chapter of Powers. The seperate stories are set in geographically dispersed areas of the Western Shore and concern characters with different magical abilities, or gifts. The gifts are what make the families of the Uplands different, and even feared as witches by Lowlanders.
Le Guin is in familiar territory when telling Gavir’s story. Like the previous books, the narrative is told from the first-person perspective. Gavir is the house slave of a wealthy, cultured and relatively enlightened and benign family in a town called Arcamand. He has two gifts, the ability to see events that have not yet happened, as a "memory," and the ability to remember anything he has read, able to recite the complete story verbatim. One is clearly supernatural, the other, arguably, not. In the end, though, the magical abilities are less important than the social circumstances of the characters. A thread seems to run through the series: a reluctance, perhaps even a fear, to use these gifts. The question is one of power and the consequences of its use and misuse and of choice. Towards the end, when Gavir is tutored by Dorod, this choice becomes brutaly clear: control and use the power and accept the cruelty that it brings, or find another way. Wisely, early in the book, Gavir’s sister convinces him to never reveal his abilities. It is not a spoiler to reveal that Gavir does find another way.
Initially all is well. Gavir is truly happy and content with life, albeit a life badly distorted by the mechanisms of organised slavery. The first section of the book is clearly recounted by a priviliged slave living in far better conditions generally associated with his kind, even to the extent that he may go to school. With subtelty that’s almost cogent, Le Guin unravels the true nature of the oppressive society, showing just how capricious the amity of the household can be, and how utterly dangerous Gavir’s trust in his owners is. As his character develops, Gavir gradually comes to understand and accept even the betrayal of his trust. At this point Le Guin demonstrates yet again the range and depth of her artistry as Gavir informs us:
"It grieves me that blind hate and rancour should be my last link to Arcamand. I could think now of the people of that house with gratitude for what they had given me – kindness, security, learning, love. I could never think that Sotour or Yaven has or would have betrayed my love. I was able to see, in part at least, why the Mother and the Father had betrayed my trust. The master lives in the same trap as the slave, and may find it even harder to see beyond it. But Torm and his slave-double Hoby never wanted to look beyond it; they valued nothing but power, the most brutal control over people. My escape, if he heard of it, would have rankled Torm bitterly. As for Hoby, always seething with envious hatred, the knowledge that I was going about as a free man would goad him to rageful, vengeful persuit" (page 355, Orion edition 2008).
Where Gavir once may have believed that a social order of master and slave is the natural way of things, he slowly begins to percieve the true injustice of it, and when a horrible tragedy strikes, his life begins to rapidly change. Almost by accident Gavir escapes his slavery, and the narrative transforms into a compelling and riveting journey with equally compelling characters. When Gavir takes to the road, heading back to his people, it’s the beginning of his coming of age journey. He must try to understand the nature of his own talents, but always his past as a slave haunts him, like a shadow. Hoby, who once bullied him before he made his escape, ultimately after many years’ searching, tracks him down. The river crossing explained in a few short paragraphs remains for me one of the most touching and unforgettable narratives in all of Le Guin’s work, a symbolic crossing perhaps every child is destined to make.
"The way to go was plain at first, the clear water showing me the shallows between the shoals. Out of the middle of the water, I looked back once. The horseman had seen us. He was just riding into the river, the water splashing up about his horse’s legs. It was Hoby. I saw his face, round, hard, and heavy, Torm’s face, the Father’s, the face of the slave owner and the slave…. I saw it all in a glance and waded on, crosscurrent, pulling the child with me as best I could…. I knew where I was then. I had been in this river with this burden on my shoulders. I did not look around because I do not look around, I go forward, almost out of my depth, but still touching bottom, and there is the place that looks like the right way to go…." (pages 369-370, Orion edition 2008).
The final two chapters of Powers are just overwhelmingly moving, simply spectacular, and the reason why this series is now one of my favourites, alongside Earthsea. Gavir becomes a character to really like, endearing and respected, not only because of his love for scholarship and reading, but because of Le Guin’s remarkable and canny ability to remember and depict the crises and concerns of adolescence that could easily have been my story. Attentive readers will meet themselves and, sadly, the worst of the societies we live in.
Powers still resonates with me, long after I finished it. Le Guin’s familiar subjects and motifs are still present, as the all-encompassing political concern for the protection and the nurture of human freedom in all aspects of human life, and the urgent need for the creation of a real human community. This is a message I don’t mind young adults hearing. There is no miraculous conversion of slave owners, renouncing their evil, oppressive ways. Like life, there are no easy answers, but in the end, hanging on, things do get better. I, for one, do believe that.
Highly recommended, not only for young adults.
Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd and we’ve invited him to contribute to our blog. This is the latest in Dee’s series of Philip K. Dick reviews that he started on his blog www.potatoweather.blogspot.com. We’ll be posting one every week until he runs out of reviews or gets tired of Philip K. Dick books.
I never care for books that claim to be as pertinent today as the day they were written or to contain a story that could be ripped from today’s headlines. Copies of The Penultimate Truth (1964) do not make those claims, but as we watch the various "Occupy" movements take place, I couldn’t help but think that Philip K. Dick‘s novel described a society badly in need of an Occupy Earth movement.
As is so often the case with PKD novels, there has been an atomic war. I think he places this one in the 1980’s, and he still imagines such a conflict would involve Western democracies and Soviet controlled countries. As bombs drop, much of the fighting is carried on by "leadies," robots manufactured to be soldiers. With spreading radiation, millions of earthlings are moved underground into what are unflatteringly known as Ant Tanks. Now safe from the radiation and destruction, the tankers’ sole function is to manufacture an unending supply of leadies for the war effort.
Several decades pass, the war goes on, and tankers receive nightly news reports of just how bad the situation continues to be. There is just one catch. A treaty ended the war years ago. As radiation hot zones continue to decrease, the ruling elite that has remained topside has decided that life without hundreds of millions of the common sort is not so bad. Let them stay in their ant tanks, producing leadies that go not into the war effort but become the worker bees for that 1% that now live in lavish mansions on thousand acre demesnes. The only real work done by humans is the effort to maintain the illusion that life topside is hell and that the tankers are best off where they are.
But the strains are beginning to show. Radiation has sterilized most of the human race, and the advertising men, government officials, and police agencies that rule the globe are paranoid, bored, and slipping into senility. Down below, tankers realize that certain things just don’t add up. When the chief engineer of the Tom Mix Tank dies of pancreatic cancer, his tank colony is terrified that they will not be able to meet their leadie production quotas. The engineer is flash frozen and the president of the group is sent tunneling to the surface, despite all the dangers, in search of an artiforg pancreas that will save the day.
The Penultimate Truth is one of PKD’s more tightly constructed and coherent narratives. There are plots and counterplots and mysteries; and the characters have coherent motivations. Perhaps readers will miss the wild ride of something like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch but coming after the grab bag of The Simulacra and the perverse incoherence of Lie’s, Inc. I found it a satisfying read. There is a lot of talk as characters explain the situation to one another, and tortuous internal monologues are not uncommon. But this keeps the novel to the 200 page sweet spot and what action set pieces take place are well told. An assassination scene is one of PKD’s most creepily effective episodes. You may want to toss any old portable TV sets you still have lying around after you read it.
One highlight of twisted thinking among the elite topsiders is that if the hoi polloi come streaming back to the surface, another war will be inevitable. Since when did commoners start wars? I think they are mistaking war for some serious ass kicking. If I remember my history correctly, wars are started by those very people who are running PKD’s future earth like a well-oiled but fatally flawed machine.
Rhonda Knight is an Associate Professor of English at Coker College in Hartsville, SC. She teaches Medieval and Renaissance literature as well as composition courses. When she looked over last year’s reading list, she was shocked to see that only 17% of the authors she read were women. This blog will record her attempts to read authors that are generally considered out of the science fiction norm: women, persons of color, and non-U.S. and non-U.K. authors.
When Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions were reprinted in the mid-1970s, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote introductions for each novel. Those introductions contain two passages that tell you everything that you need to know about Rocannon’s World and City of Illusions:
Most of my stories are excuses for a journey. (We shall henceforth respectfully refer to this as the Quest Theme.) I never did care much about plots, all I want is to go from A to B—or, more often, from A to A—by the most difficult and circuitous route. (“Introduction to City of Illusions” in The Language of the Night 147)
But of course fantasy and science fiction are different, just as red and blue are different; they have different frequencies; if you mix them (on paper—I work on paper) you get purple, something else again. Rocannon’s World is definitely purple. (“Introduction to Rocannon’s World” in The Language of the Night 133)
Both novels are about planetary outsiders who must go on a quest. Rocannon, the ethnologist studying Fomalhaut II, is the sole survivor of his expedition group. An unknown alien race blows up his ship and his companions. The destruction of the ship eliminates his mode of communication; therefore, he can’t tell his people that the planet has been attacked. He has no way to protect the indigenous people. Traveling south to the base of the enemy to use their communication equipment to contact his people is his only option. Rocannon assembles a Tolkiensque group, and they begin their quest. The beats of their journey closely resemble Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, outlined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There are helpers, threshold guardians, tests, and even a bit of apotheosis. (Another good website about the monomyth is here.)
Falk’s journey in City of Illusions is a quest to learn who he is. The novel opens with Falk’s discovery by an agrarian society. He has no memory, no language. They foster him and teach him their ways, but he is not of their species. He has amber, cat-like eyes that mark him as alien. After living with these people for five years, his instinct tells him that he must journey west toward the legendary city of Es Toch to learn who he is. Unlike Rocannon, he usually travels alone, but like Rocannon, he encounters tests, helpers and threshold guardians along the way.
I enjoyed the “purpleness” of both novels as they placed the quest myth on unknown, or at least immediately unrecognizable, planets, whose cultures would be at home in high fantasy. In Rocannon’s World, Le Guin enlivens Norse myth with a slice of Tolkien. The Liuar species who travel with Rocannon has two classes: the Olgyior, who are the servants, and the Angyar, who are the lords. They live within a “feudal-heroic culture,” which Le Guin sums up this way: “They were a boastful race, the Angyar: vengeful, overweening, obstinate, illiterate, and lacking any first-person forms for the verb ‘to be unable.’ There were no gods in their legends, only heroes” (4, 37).
Also, on the planet are the Gdemiar, who had a dwarfish culture before the Hainish envoys enhanced their culture to an industrial level, and the Fiia, who live an elvish, agrarian lifestyle. The Fian, Kyo, who has lost his whole village, joins the quest, giving the reader an insight into that culture that we don’t with the Gdemiar.
In City of Illusions Falk’s journey across a post-apocalyptic North American continent exposes him to many cultures we would see in fantasy novels. There are extended-family agrarians, hunter-gatherers, Taoist hermits, and isolationists, all of whom have developed rituals that suit their cultural needs. The isolationists are the Bee-Keepers, “[a] strange lot, literate and laser armed, all clothed alike, men and women, in long shifts of yellow wintercloth marked with a brown cross on the breast” (277). While they treat Falk well, he learns that they capture outside women solely to breed more Bee-Keepers and “worship something called the Dead God, and placate him with sacrifice—murder” (278). Each group Falk encounters serves as either helpers or hinderers on his journey, just as they should in a good quest myth.
The characters and ideas expressed in City of Illusions are much more complex than those in Rocannon’s World. Le Guin’s Taoism is much more pronounced as she queries the difference between truth and lies throughout Falk’s journey. The characters and situations are much more gray than the starker black and white of Rocannon’s World. However, I enjoyed reading Rocannon’s World much more. I liked Rocannon more than Falk, perhaps because Falk is a mystery through most of the book. Both books give us a glimpse of the writer that Le Guin will become. We see her world-building, her fascinating cultures, and her wonderful prose.
Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Matt W. (Mattastrophic), reviews science fiction and fantasy books on his blog Strange Telemetry. Matt is a regular WWEnd contributor and has chimed in with his first GMRC review of one of the all time classics of SF.
The Dispossessed is the fourth book in Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Hainish Cycle, which is a loosely connected series of books, novellas, and short stories utilizing the background of an inter-stellar proto-humanity that seeks to reunite it’s disparate colonies. Although it is the fifth work in the series, chronologically it is the first. Le Guin pulled at hat trick with this one and nabbed the 1974 Nebula and the 1975 Hugo and Locus awards. My only other experience with Le Guin was reading The Left Hand of Darkness (another book in the Hainish cycle) as part of a capstone fiction class for my Bachelor’s degree. We really dug into the book, and one element we looked at particularly closely is the cyclical plot structure in which the protagonist, Genly Ai, ends up where he started, though greatly changed by the experience. Thinking about that reading experience reminded me of what a visiting author said in a lecture that same year: there are two types of stories, someone goes on a trip or a stranger comes to town. Sometimes, though, that stranger is you returning. Indeed, illustrating that appears to be the point of The Dispossessed‘s structure and themes: to take us on a trip to a world similar to ours, but through different eyes so that the familiar becomes strange and we, upon returning from the journey, are changed by the experience. Le Guin has characterized herself and has been characterized as an anthropologist of cultures that never existed, but might in the future, and The Disposessed is a prime example that puts paid to this claim. The science in this book is very soft, but like The Left Hand of Darkness, it delves deep into social structures and hierarchies that characters within her fictional societies have built and struggle within.
The Dispossessed takes place on the planets of Urres and Anarres, which orbit one another in the Tau Ceti star system. Anarres is a desert planet colonized by anarchists who split with Urres. The Anarresti anarchy eschews money, property, and materialism in general, favoring an extremely decentralized government in which an individual is free to do what he/she wants, but is always expected to contribute to the communal whole. Annarresti’s share in both the drudge work like planting crops and waste management as well as the higher-order tasks such as management and even research. Everyone pitches in, and being selfish or "egoizing" is frowned upon. This makes Shevek, our protagonist, somewhat of an outlier. Shevek struggles with being a member of the community and with trying to fulfill his dream of creating a unified theory of space and time. It is his ideas that will make the interstellar communicator, the ansible (an important device in the other parts of the Hainish cycle) possible. But the work isolates him, since few understand it or even want to. He eventually seeks intellectual community with the scientists on Urres, which the Anarrans regard as wicked, materialistic heathens. Shevek risks becoming anathema to his people not only because his theory could reveal the way to bring the communities of star-flung humanity together, but also a way to lower the barriers separating Urres and Anarres. Of course, everyone on Urres wants to be the ones to get their hands on Shevek’s work, and he slowly comes to realize the peril this puts him in. Through Shevek’s anarchist eyes, we see how the people of Urres–particularly the caplitalist, materialist A-Io and the communist nation of Thu (mirroring the United States and Soviet Russia respectively)–are strange and sometimes horrifying, but not irredemable.
What The Dispossessed Does Well
The science in this book is very soft. Indeed, it is pretty much downplayed throughout. Even Shevek’s theories of space-time are not expounded upon beyond some simple analogies. This is pure social science fiction, and it is perhaps best approached with an anthropologist’s eye for social dynamics. Shevek comes from a world where one is brought up from childhood to see everyone as a brother or sister (even one’s biological parents), to treat everyone equally, and to eschew the idea of personal property, and to contribute to one’s society. One of the strengths of this book is in Le Guin’s speculation on how a utopian society of anarchists might function to achieve these goals (anarchy here does not connote an absence of morality or order, but rather a society without institutionalized hierarchies of power and control). Crime is negated by eradicating money and making all property communal and free, therefore there is no need to steal or murder someone for what he/she has. People work as they want to, and given the strong social nature of this society, most people pitch in in some way to contribute. This leads to a large portion of unspecialized labor, but it encourages people to work for what pleases them and what motivates them instead of being chained to the same job. Le Guin incorporates a somewhat strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a tool for reinforcing the anarchic ideals of Anarres. You do not refer to something as "my book" on Annares, but say "the book". You don’t ask, "can I see your book," you say, "can I use the book that you are using"? It gets weird some times when characters say "the mother" instead of "your mother," or "the nose hurts" instead of "my nose hurts," but it’s all geared towards eliminating possessiveness: if the use of language affects cognition and non-linguistic actions, then eliminating possessiveness in speech eliminates it in thought and action, according to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
The plot structure also mirrors this duality: the chapters alternate between Shevek’s time on Urres and his earlier life on Anarres, with situations and themes from these alternating chapters mirroring each other. Just as the two planets orbit one another, Le Guin creates a constant juxtaposition of the two worlds throughout the book. We will see the material excesses, the squalor of the poor, and the "savage civility" (a term I loved from John Masters’ description of the upperclasses in Nightrunners of Bengal) of the Urresti capitalists in one chapter, and how the solidarity of the Anarrans was strenghtened by the way they pull together during a food shortage in the next. Since the social-political situation on Urres is close to that of the Cold-War era Untied States and Soviet Union, Shevek provides a contrasting viewpoint that let’s Le Guin level some pretty incisive criticism about the inequality of men and women, material excess, the petty (and dangerous) nationalism, the governmental and corporate co-opting of science, etc.
The contrast between the two worlds and the way these differences are presented in the alternating plot structure makes Anarres seem a tempting utopia, but thankfully Le Guin complicates the issue. The book is subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia," after all, and Anarres is not perfect. In the generations following the revolution, informal power hierarchies establish themselves, sometimes explicitly–as in the case of the inept yet famous scientist Sabul whom Shevek has to appease to get his theories published–and tacitly, as in peer pressure. This ambiguity is further reinforced by the beauty on Urres, such as the technological wonders of aircraft and spaceships and the general material abundance, which is made possible by the plentiful resources of the planet. Shevek wrestles with these differeneces and moves towards a realization of how he can help revitalize the revolution on his planet, and thus he ends where he began and completes the loop mirrored in his theory of simultaneity and the oft quoted dictum by Anarres’ intellectual founder that "true journey is return." All of this is presented pretty well through conversations (the tenor of which makes me think of Kim Stanley Robinson sans the hard science) and through Shevek’s observations, tinged by his upbringing in a very different society than that of Urres, which leads to scenes that are sometimes hilarious, sometimes disquieting, but always thought provoking. The complications Le Guin adds to the Annaresti anarchy and the startling beauty Shevek occasionally notices on Urres keeps the plot of the themes from being cliche or simplistic.
Where The Disposessed Could Have Been Better
Even though this is a work of social science fiction, sometimes the narrative can feel disembodied as it summarizes situations or stretches of time in Shevek’s life. These scenes do reveal a great deal about Annaresti society, but such exposition can distract from Shevek’s narrative. When Le Guin does delve into an extended scene there is some great characterization done in the dialog, but the lengthy exposition lies between these scenes and bobbing in and out of it left me feeling light headed at times. The alternating chapters also made me feel dizzy as the narrative shifted gears, and for some reason I was frequently drawn in to the scene at the end of a chapter only to be extremely disoriented when the narrative shifted to the other planet and the other time period. Perhaps this disorientation is intended, but it still bothered me during those transitions. This is also a book that is curiously without much visual or technological sensawunda. My memories of The Left Hand of Darkness are punctuated by that pervasive awareness of how cold the planet of Gethen was, and of the strangeness of the neuter people there. More visual or technological play in the book would have added welcome nice spice to the narrative.
The Disposessed is a great book if you know how to approach it. It is social science fiction, so there is not much in the way of action. It is best to approach this book with an anthropologist’s eye, paying attention more to the speculation on social dynamics than to the technological advancements. Still, it’s very thoughtful and incisive, and it illustrates an important facet of SF that readers outside of the genre probably don’t think it can do very well: deep social critique. Although it was written thirty seven years ago, it still feels fresh and interesting. It’s an important piece of SF, and a nice companion to The Left Hand of Darkness.
Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd including his extensive Philip K. Dickathon blog series. He can also be found on his own blog www.potatoweather.blogspot.com. This is Dee’s first GMRC review.
Science fiction writer A. E. van Vogt liked big ideas. In the 1950’s he became head of fellow sf writer L. Ron Hubbard‘s Dianetics Institute, the secular precursor to the Church of Scientology. When Hubbard’s institute failed within a year, van Vogt and his wife formed their own institute and kept it going for the entire decade.
Earlier, the big idea that captivated van Vogt was the Gerneral Semantics program of the Polish count Alfred Korzybski, a program defined in the count’s 800 page self – published book Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. (1933). This was a grand system intended to make people think more clearly, reach better decisions, and create a better world. Much of General Semantics seems like common sense, but the insistence on its "science" is shaky and always prompted as many detractors as followers. Van Vogt was enthusiastically among the latter. Martin Gardner is among those who dismiss the enterprise as "pseudo-science," but there is a still an Institute of General Semantics in Chicago. Of course there is also an International Center of Theosophy, and London is home to the Swedenborg Foundation. Sorry to sound dismissive but I am.
True Believer van Vogt used Kozybski’s ideas as the underlying philosophy of his breakthrough novel The World of Null-A and two sequels, one of which has only been published in France. (Van Vogt, while not as popular as Jerry Lewis, is highly regarded in France.) The story originally appeared serialized in 1945 in Astounding Stories and was published, in hardback and to general acclaim, in 1948. Van Vogt revised the novel again and wrote a new introduction in 1980.
"Null-A" is shorthand for non-Aristotelian, and in his 1980 introduction van Vogt lays out how integral Korsybki’s ideas are to the novel. I will have to take his word for it. The novel reads like a dated sf adventure story involving an intergalactic plot to take over the Sol System. Our hero, Gilbert Gosseyn has lost his identity but is somehow central to the saving the earth. Clunky prose does nothing to help the storytelling. In his introduction, van Vogt makes a statement that is either poorly phrased or breathtaking in its hubris:
"I cannot at the moment recall a novel written prior to Null-A that had a deeper meaning than that which showed on the surface."
A. E. van Vogt earned Grand Master status from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1996, but his reputation has always had significant detractors. Damon Knight wrote a blistering evaluation of van Vogt in the 1950’s that some say finished his career. Other writers, like Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick, write about how significant van Vogt was to their own early immersion in science fiction. Perhaps today van Vogt is of "historical interest only," but I will not make so sweeping a judgment based on this one book. I am certain he earned his Grand Master status, but I am not tempted to delve deeper into his work.