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The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

April 15, 2014

TheLeftHandOfDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Isaac Yuen

“Estraven stood there in harness beside me looking at that magnificent and unspeakable desolation. ‘I am glad I have lived to see this,’ he said.

I felt as he did. It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” (p 220)

In a foreword, Le Guin describes The Left Hand of Darkness beginning life as a thought experiment, a story that grew out of a series of “what ifs”. One of those hypotheticals concerned place: What if a world was in the midst of an ice age? The result: Gethen, in all its frozen splendour. Rereading the novel, I was struck by the bleak beauty of this fictional planet, brought all the more into focus during the second half of the story as the main characters embarked on their bitter winter journey across the Gobrin ice.

Having a better appreciation for prose and imagery now than I did when I first read the book, I was finally able to perceive this world as Ai and Estraven experienced it, journeying along in spirit as they traversed through a “deep cold porridge of rain-sodden snow”, trekked past a volcano with “worms of fire crawl down its black sides”, and sledged over a glacier that resembled “an abruptly frozen, storm-raised sea”. The raw fury of nature is on display on Gethen.

“But the ice did not care how hard we worked. Why should it? Proportion is kept.” (p 257)

In a book filled with unforgettable quotes, Ai’s realization as he struggles across the ice stands is seared into my memory. Bordering on poetry, these three short statements help me keep my own cares and concerns in perspective, remind me of humanity’s collective insignificance in the face of nature’s vast indifference. For me, the passage serves as a perennial source for both humility and awe.

Along the way, Le Guin inserts metaphors from her fictional Gethenian myths into her character’s accounts of their adventure. In those instances, I see the landscape come alive, transforming into a being that pants smoke from fiery mouths, belches soot and stink from its depths, uses ice to scrape raw earthen bones, and yells hate in a blizzard’s tongue. Le Guin, like her creation Estraven, knows how to spin a good yarn:

“Our hosts got Estraven to tell them the whole tale of our crossing of the Ice. He told it as only a person of an oral-literature tradition can tell a story, so that it became a saga, full of traditional locutions and even episodes, yet exact and vivid, from the sulphurous fire and dark of the pass between Drumner and Dremegole to the screaming gusts from mountain-gaps that swept the Bay of Guthen; with comic interludes, such as his fall into the crevasse, and mystical ones, when he spoke of the sounds and silences of the Ice, of the shadowless weather, of the night’s darkness.” (p 276)

In a talk hosted by Orion magazine, author Rebecca Solnit spoke of the power of blending nature writing with anthropology, stating that to truly understand a place requires an understanding of a people’s connection to that place. The daughter of renowned anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, Le Guin grasped this more than most. Her treatment of Gethen as both setting and character, as an agent that shapes people and is in turn given meaning, infuses her world with a vivid and vital quality. As a result, Ai and Estraven’s entirely fictional expedition stands as one of my favourite pieces of nature, travel, and mythic writing, and a gold standard I wish to strive for in my writing practice.

The ambisexual nature of Gethenians has profound effects on their outlook and behaviour. In a world inhabited by potentials that can become either men or women with every 26 day cycle, humanity is not separated into two hard halves. With no inclination towards dividing the world into strong and weak, dominant and submissive, active and passive, exploitation on the individual, societal, and environmental level seems to be drastically lessened.

Another fascinating outcome is that war is unknown in Gethenian society. There are assassinations, blood feuds, and skirmishes, but no large-scale conflicts. Yet Gethen is by no means a utopia. Although diminished, exploitation is not entirely eliminated. Power relationships are still prominent on this warless world: Politicians still jockey for prestige in Karhide, while the Orgota state has no qualms about committing atrocities on its own people for the sake of the greater good.

By creating a planet of androgynes and exploring its sociological ramifications, Le Guin managed to create a race as alien as any imagined in science fiction. An observer from the Ekumen summarizes this vast difference in another one of my favourite passages:

“A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.” (p 95)

I always get a kick out of that last line. The Left Hand of Darkness was a groundbreaking piece of work when it used the science-fiction genre to ask these questions, but they are no less relevant today as gender roles continue to shift in societies across the world. What is the connection between one’s gender and one’s humanity? Do qualities that make for good human beings have anything to do with gender? Can we separate learned differences from the innate ones? Can we see and treat people not only as men or women, but also as human beings?

Le Guin is wise not to attribute these enormous differences solely on physiology; her characters speculate that the harsh environment also plays a major factor in shaping Gethenian society and outlook:

“And in the end, the dominant factor in Gethenian life is not sex or any other human thing: it is their environment, their cold world. Here man has a crueler enemy even than himself.” (p 96)

With much of their energies focused on surviving on a marginal world, the Gethenians have developed slowly, having never gone through an industrial revolution, not achieving “in thirty centuries what Terra once achieved in thirty decades” (p 99). Yet their slowness and caution brings certain advantages. Gethenians have found ways to live within their world’s carrying capacity. Their global population has been stable for over a millennia. They use centuries-old sustainable stewardship practices to manage their forests. Much of the technologies featured throughout the story emphasize economy, durability, and function: A portable stove/heater/lamp that could run for fourteen months straight; sledge runners coated with polymers that cut drag resistance to nothing; architecture designed for optimal function in deep snow.

With little room for experimentation living on an unforgiving world, Gethenians have adopted a worldview that focuses less on progress, and more on presence. As a world obsessed with the former, we would fare well to devote more attention to the latter.

The Left Hand of Darkness is told through a series of documents, with the bulk of the tale consisting of Ai’s report to the Ekumen and Estraven’s journal entries to her people. Interspersed between these two main tellings are shorter, self-contained stories, ranging from ethnological musings from the first Ekumen observers to Karhidish tales and legends. There’s even an Orgota creation myth thrown into the mix.

This narrative structure makes for tricky first readings. I remembered being confused at the insertion of seemingly random tales, which on the surface seem to have little to do with the main plot. But with a repeat reading, I saw how each perspective added another layer to the overall story, whether it be providing context to an alien world, setting up recurring themes, or foreshadowing in subtle fashion what is to come. For example, an Ekumenical report speculates on how Gethen and its people came to be. An ancient Karhidish story of a feud between two domains alludes to Estraven’s own past and her unspoken secret. These interludes are a clever way to add depth and complexity to the world and its characters.

“The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story.” (p 1-2)

One of the (many) things I love about The Left Hand of Darkness is its acknowledgement of diversity in viewpoints. The multiple narratives help to remind me that a range of perspectives are often necessary to convey a story in its entirety. From lore to report to hearth tale, each is treated as a legitimate way of seeing the world and is accepted as a crucial piece to a larger, more meaningful truth. By seeing the same events occur through the eyes of Ai and Estraven, the story also illustrates how difficult it can be to communicate with another across gender, culture, and worldview, and how easily motivations and intentions can be misconstrued. It helps cultivate empathy and understanding, encourages me not to so quickly criticize or dismiss others, and to better listen to others who may have more in common with me than I initially believe.

“Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou.” (p 259)

For me, connection and change are the central themes in The Left Hand of Darkness, which at its heart is a story of two exiles coming together to find companionship. Their story has a rocky beginning: Ai mistrusts and misjudges Estraven’s motives, while Estraven is frustrated at Ai’s ignorance. Over the first half of the novel, misunderstandings pile up between the two, despite the fact that they both in reality want the same thing: An alliance between Gethen and the Ekumen.

But after Estraven rescues Ai from Pulefen Farm and they embark on a journey across the ice, they learn, as Estraven muses, “to pull together”. Much of this work is internal, revolving around Ai realizing and overcoming his own prejudices towards Estraven, who was the only Gethenian who was receptive to Ai’s mission when he first arrived:

“For [Estraven] was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance. I had not been willing to give it. I had been afraid to give it. I had not wanted to give my trust and friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.” (p 248)

As Ai comes to accept Estraven as she is, he becomes less absorbed, more aware of his actions on his companion, and a wiser and more appreciative person. His companionship with Estraven profoundly changes him and how he perceives the alien world that is now his home. For me, Ai’s growth highlights the notion that one’s own wholeness of being can arise from a relationship in which both parties strive to accept one another. At first, this seems to be a contradiction: How can one discover oneself through another?

The Left Hand of Darkness suggests that it is through love, defined not as physical intimacy or shared affinities, but rather as the risky act taken to accept another wholly into our being, that we come to know ourselves. To willingly embark on the journey to change from the isolating and defensive mindset of “Self and Other” to the receptive and vulnerable mindset of “I and Thou” is a vital step towards becoming a person who is at ease with oneself. In this way and form, love is not only a powerful tool for connection, but also for self-knowledge and growth.

Le Guin carries this definition even further in the novel, suggesting that this love on the personal level, between individuals, must be the foundation for any lasting societal, international, or universal relations. Idealistic? Definitely. But this is a story of “what ifs”, and the world as it is can probably use such a dose of optimism.

The Left Hand of Darkness, through the beauty of its prose, the craftsmanship of its narrative, the complexities of its world and characters, and the enduring relevance of its ideas, remains a masterwork almost a half century after its publication. It has grown over time into one of my favourite novels. I urge those who have not read it to give it a try, to be patient and open with it, and those who have read it to return to the world of Gethen and rediscover a gem of an Ekostory.

This review originally appeared on Ekostories.

The Crystal Singer, Anne McCaffrey

April 10, 2014

McCaffrey- Crystal SingerThe Crystal Singer, Anne McCaffrey (1982)
Review by Mike Dalke

Prior to Anne McCaffrey’s death in November 2011, I had heard only good things about the author’s work – her ability to snare the reader with wonder and enrapture the reader in adventure. With her passing, I took advice from a number of posts on Amazon’s Science Fiction forum and bought one of the author’s novels: The Crystal Singer. The synopsis is obviously science fiction but the word “crystal” carries many fantasy connotations with it, a cousin of the science fiction genre which I scorn. When taking the rest of McCaffrey’s bibliography into scope, words like “dragon”, “unicorn” and “Pegasus” are notable, all of which instantly turn me off… but her popular Dragons of Pern series, often recommended by others, is a testament to her talent, so I assumed. Regardless, after two years of sitting on my shelf, the book found its way into my hands in December’s to-read stack.

Rear cover synopsis:

“Killashandra thought her world had ended when she was told she would never become a concert singer. And then she met the stranger from off-world.

He said he was a Crystal Singer – one of the unique ones of the Galaxy—and when Killashandra tried to find out what a Crystal Singer was the answers were vague, obtuse. All she could discover was that they were special people, shrouded in mystery, and danger, and beauty – and something altogether incomprehensible.

It was then that she decided she too must try and become a Crystal Singer.”

A promising student of vocal talent for 10 years, the culmination of Killashandra’s study ends with damning praise from Maestro Valdi: “You have the gift of perfect pitch, your musicality is faultless … But there is that burr in your voice which becomes intolerable in the higher register” (p 10). Her dreams shattered by her one mentor, she dwells upon a life of unfulfilled dreams and pathetic careers when compared to her idealized ambition of becoming a top-rank concert singer. Sulking at the Fuertan spaceport restaurant and sipping wine for her jangled nerves, her talent is serendipitously recognized when the piercing whine of descending craft disturbs her extra-perceptive senses and an enigmatic Crystal Singer named Carrik enters himself into her life, her abating lonesomeness, and her future.

Given ample warning of a Crystal Singer’s lifelong dedication to art and idiosyncratic solitude, Killashandra Ree (Killa) shrugs off the advice and follows a whimsy compulsion to attain the status of Crystal Singer. Her aspiration is multiplied by the luxurious lifestyle Carrik pours upon her and even more so by the unfortunate injuries he sustains when the faulty screech of an ascending craft predictably explodes, rendering Carrik unconscious and likely to never revive. Even with the Maestro’s damning words of a Crystal Singer as a “silicate spider paralyzing its prey, a crystal cuckoo pushing the promising fledglings from their nests” (p 33), Killa follows the disabled Carrik to the home of Crystal Singers – Ballybran – where she will strive to learn to become a Crystal Singer like Carrik.

However, one does not simply become a Crystal Singer. One must be accepted by the Heptite Guild (with its 4,425 singer members and 20,007 support staff) and, most importantly, one must be exposed to the planet’s crystal spore symbiote, a “carbon-silicate occurring in the unorthodox environmental economy of Ballybran” which improves human “visual acuity, tactile perceptions, nerve conduction and cellular adaptation” (p 72). The transition is not without its own peril, where some under its transition experience a failed change leading to sensual loss or even death; then there are others, a select few without any prerequisite for doing so, undergo a Milekey transition (named after one of the founders) where they exhibit no ill effects – only a greatly enhanced corporeal tactility. Killa, the envy of her fellow recruits, is lucky enough to experience a Milekey transition and is able to be first out in the field with crystals glimmering near her very eye: shards of pink, slivers of green and splinters of the most sought-after crystal in human space – the Black Quartz.

The crystals, some exclusive to Ballybran, are used in a variety of industries ranging from “integrated circuit substrates” to “musical instruments” and applied to “tachyon drive systems” (p 24). The legendary and outrageously expensive black crystal has its own specific function, a utilization which human space cannot live without: instantaneous communication across five hundred light years. When black quartz is segmented, the parts of the crystal are still “able to achieve simultaneous synchronization” (p 24) with its counterparts when subjected to “synchronized magnetic induction” (p 48), thus allowing for the “most effective and accurate communications network known in the galaxy” (p 121-122).

The cutting of crystal, whether the lowly pink or the resplendent black, is a solitary affair done by a singer in their own claimed tract on the planet. Killa already has the reputation of being resonant with Black Quartz having handled it from one singer’s supply whose ship crashed onto the Guild’s headquarters. With an uncanny inkling, Killa ventures out to stake her own claim on the planet of Ballybran where crystal could make her fortune or be her demise. Some of her former classmates steep in jealousy of her meteoric rise to minor singer fame; another more authoritative figure, Guild Master Lanzecki, first acts avuncularly towards the promising pupil but when her talents begin to develop, so too does their relationship.

Self-pressured by her quest for professional glory, clearly on the road to crystal fame, Killa does not indulge in childish temerarious acts of whim. Rather than openly socialize with her peers on a bonhomous plain, Killa is reserved, favoring her cultural sense of privacy, yet autonomously finds herself in submission to the electrifyingly erotic kisses of Lanzecki and the alluring captivation of the soulfully resonant Black Quartz. Her last prandial intemperance is Yarran beer. Frequently consuming the semi-narcotic brew, she doesn’t allow herself to gormandize herself into inebriation; reservation defines her.

Her ascent to singer stardom peaks when she is guided under the tutelage of the experienced yet absent-minded Moksoon. His grace of cut and dexterity of handling gives Killa what she needs for her first jaunt on her own tract of land, the same tract where the Black Quartz originated. Armed with her cutter, a piezo-electirc device tuned by her perfect pitch, Killa is ready to unburden herself of the surmountable debt which the Guild places on all cadets; Killa’s debt is soon to be absolved but her vernal duty to humanity nulls the bounty of her first crystal trove. Thence, after her debacle, Killa is called to duty during a time when all crystal singers are at their most vulnerable: Ballybran’s epic planet-wide mach storm during the three-moon syzygy and spring equinox.

Will this reprieve be a blessing in disguise?

According to The Crystal Singer’s Wikipedia page (see here), the novel is partly autobiographical as Anne McCaffrey herself had also trained as a vocalist but eventually “suffered a crisis when she was informed that a flaw in her voice would limit her in that avocation”… much like Killasandra. So, it seems McCaffrey attempted to intertwine part of her life story and the mysticism of crystals with speculative crystal science. Regardless of my distaste for crystals, lutes, cloaks, and other figurative fantasy language, The Crystal Singer is actually a solid through and through success with the only fault being repetitiveness.

According Google’s Ngram Viewer, “crystal” was a more popular word in literature in the early 1960s but much less than the 1970s and 1980s. I have a friend of an older generation who adores crystals and all their mystical properties. He’ll talk on and on about the benefits of using crystals and the auspiciousness of finding natural crystals. It really puts me off and I have no idea how he goes on about when I have nothing to add to the conversation without being rude and saying, “Jesus, that’s all bullshit!” Typically, when crystals are used in science fiction I see it as a weak inclusion to any plot, like no other idea could have been thought up; prime irksome examples of such are:

  • the “crystal nodes” in Pohl & Williamson’s Reefs of Space (1963),
  • the “mysterious alien crystal” in Greenleaf’s The Pandora Stone (1984), and
  • the “crystal flute” in Van Scoyc’s Cloudcry (1977).

However, McCaffrey’s inclusion of crystals in her plot is central rather that peripheral, occasionally returning to the science or use of the crystals in her fictional universe. Because of Killa’s rapture singing and gazing at her crystals, because the Guild of singers is held almost sacrosanct, the mystical affiliation with crystal cannot be ignored. Not all applications of the crystal sound plausible, like the instantaneous transmission of data between sections of the same Black Quartz (quantum entanglement [Einstein’s spooky action at a distance]?). Crystals aren’t beyond the scope of our modern understanding of physics… I doubt any planet’s geography could produce physics-bending materials. Also, the cutting device which is tonally linked to the perfect pitch vocalist cutter sounds a bit silly, but I tried to put it behind me and be immersed in the fine narrative.

The narrative is very easy to become lost in for two reasons: first, McCaffrey’s writing is beautiful, engaging, emotive, and descriptive; last, McCaffrey is deft with her plot which has no notable crests or troughs in the “action”. The 302 pages feel like seamless plateau, far from featureless but even and tempered (not in the musical sense). Each of the thirteen chapters, lasting 22 pages on average, continue on without pause until its end, but even then the chapter divisions are flawless… more of a pause in thought than a chronological gap. It’s a breeze to read!

But her writing isn’t all flowers, crystals, and verbose language. McCaffrey has one knick in her grammar armor which annoys me greatly: she over uses the emphatic did before simple present tense verbs (verb 1). A smattering of examples: “I did remember that all right” (p 26), “I did tap data retrieval” (p 47), “She did cast surreptitious glances” (p 55), “her nervous system tingled with the after effect, she did groan” (p 63), “The drink did clear the last miasma of the threshold test” (p 63), “I did hear her come out” (p 93), “She did skim along the first ridges” (p 99). Either McCaffrey is being overly emphatic or she has chosen to present past tense actions by using did + verb 1 rather than simply using verb 2 forms. Either way, it got under my skin.

Lastly, it seems as if Killasandra likes her beer; more specifically, she likes loves Yarran beer. How much does she like it? Well, it’s mentioned 38 times (according to my count). Maybe the beer her more sociable, making Killa come out from her cocoon of privacy which she is used to thereby characterizing her as a butterfly. But 38 times? That’s a bit overkill.

If you’re not distracted by the emphatic use of did and the over abundant Yarran beer, then The Crystal Singer should be an easy, breezy read full of wonderment and growth. Don’t expect a crescendo, an escalation, a fitting conclusion, a chase scene or bodice ripping. McCaffrey sets the pace slow and steady, kind of like a placid boat ride with your grandparents… just shinier, more entertaining.

This review originally appeared on Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature.

City of Sorcery, Marion Zimmer Bradley

April 8, 2014

cityofsorceryCity of Sorcery, Marion Zimmer Bradley (1984)
Review by Diarmuid Verrier

This is one of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. I read MZB’s Avalon books when I was in my early teens and remember enjoying them. What, I wondered, would I make of her sci-fi?

A preliminary note from the author positions it as a standalone novel. However, I’m not sure I agree with this claim. Almost all of the characters have complex and involved back stories and inter-relations, and the world itself has a social structure that is very different from our own and essential for understanding people’s motivations. If you read the book as part of a sequence, this would all be fine. Of course, this was not the case for me. I had to struggle through rather a lot of awkward, and frankly inefficient, info-dumping in the first few chapters, and I still felt that I was missing something at various points in the book. None of this stopped me from appreciating the central thrust of the narrative, which involves a group of women journeying towards a mysterious city that may or may not exist, but I do think a lot of the content that relied on events and characters from previous books could have been cut without damaging the plot unduly, making it easier for a newbie like me to get up to speed.

The Darkover world is as former colony of Earth. The two worlds were separated for millennia, before being reunited relatively recently (presumably the first book in the series deals with this). In the meanwhile, Earth has continued to rely on high technology (including the space travel that allowed them to return to Darkover), while Darkover has returned to a mediaeval level of technology. On the plus side, they’ve also figured out how to unlock their latent psychic powers (this mix of sci-fi, a fantasy world, and psychic powers just screams “1980s” to me for some reason). There’s also strict and conservative gender role segregation. The exact nature of how society works is quite unclear (based on the information in just this novel) – there seem to be a number of dominant lineages within which particular psychic powers inhere, and ubiquitous lesbian relationships that exist parallel to procreation-orientated bonds. In this book, all of the protagonists (and antagonists) are women, making it even harder to appreciate just how men and women interact in this society.

The focus on gender roles, and the preponderance of women characters in the book make it (and the series overall) a valuable contribution to a generally male-dominated genre. I certainly found many aspects of plotting and characterisation refreshingly different from what I’m used to. Foremost amongst these was the sense of camaraderie on the journey between all of the women. There’s a theory that suggests that when women are presented with stressors they respond by strengthening social bonds (“tending and befriending”). The amount of care and love demonstrated by the characters for one another here, as they have to surmount challenge after challenge, would never be seen in a group of male travellers. There’s a scene where the group “hugs it out”, another where one character spontaneously gives a little gift to her lover, and a (sensible but generally unnoted) obsession with bathing. The “womanliness” of the book comes through in other ways too. For example, at one point one of the women curses another: “I hope the headman’s wife goes into labour tomorrow with an obstructed transverse birth!”. I found this pretty peculiar – awkward and artificial sounding and grotesquely vicious – but, again, not something that one would expect to read in any other SF novel.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The characters are all flawed (often arrogant or smug), but generally likeable once the book gets going; the world, and the focus on gender issues that’s built into it, is interesting and refreshing; and the set pieces – the fights scenes and the perils encountered on the glacial mountains – are lively and convincing. My main problem is that, though presented as a standalone novel, it is anything but. Even well into the book, you are presented with details that are unexplained and given no context (Camilla has six fingers? Vanessa has animal eyes?) leaving the reader feeling somewhat adrift. More importantly, The book is all journey and no destination. The characters only really meet the antagonists of the novel in the last 50 pages, and only reach the eponymous City of Sorcery at the very end. The book finishes just when it feels like it’s getting started. It would be like calling The Two Towers (the middle volume of The Lord of the Rings) a standalone book. I would be happy to return to the world of Darkover, but, next time, I’ll treat it for what it is – a progressive series.

This review originally appeared on Consumed Media.

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

April 3, 2014

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late The Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Paul Weimer

“What is right for the community is right even unto death for the individual. There is no individual, there is only the community.”

In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, in isolated Appalachia, a powerful extended family is determined to survive. Crop failure. Climate change. Ecological and environmental collapse. Pandemic, social upheaval and worse. All of this threatens the end of humanity, and indeed of most animal species in the bargain.This community builds itself a safehold to survive the turbulence and save a remnant of humanity in the bargain.

When it turns out the pandemics have left everyone in the extended family infertile, the only solution that presents itself to save humanity is to clone the members of the extended family (and their local livestock as well). The clones can carry humanity ahead a generation or three, and then the ordinary course of marriage and mating can resume the community’s usual social structures. However, once born, the clones have their own

ideas on what humanity should be, and how it should go forward. Ideas very different than their parents…

The novel, like the region of Gaul, is divided into three parts. In the first portion, we are witness to the apocalypse in progress, as David, a scientist, and his family in the Shenandoah Valley, hit upon the idea of using cloning to get around the infertility that threatens the end of this stub end of humanity. It is he, and his former teacher, who both perfect the cloning process and discover that the clones, coming to maturity, have their own ideas of what the future of humanity in their community should be.

In the middle portion of the book, we focus on a clone-descendant of one of David’s cousins, Molly. Molly is a member of a five-clone group of sisters, as everyone in the community now exists as members of four to ten brothers or sister clone groups. The concept of individuality has dissipated considerably, as the clones act and think together. However, a problem has arisen. The technology in the community is failing, especially the technology which allows the cloning new members of the community. Only one solution is logical: an expedition to the outside world to find needed supplies. A mixed group of single members from various clone groups is deemed necessary to have the skills needed to accomplish the mission. However, while on the quest, the clones, separated from their clone-sisters and brothers, develop a completely new problem: individuality.

The final part of the book focuses on Mark. The illicit child of Molly and one of the other members of the expedition to Washington, he is the only individual in the community of clones and is utterly alien to them. However, the clones show a distinct lack of imagination and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Fortunately, the single individual Mark has no such problems, and so an uneasy relationship is developed, but one that cannot last forever.

The novel’s major thematic tension, as I alluded to in the quote, is the good of the one versus the good of the many. Are they always in opposition? What good is the individual and individuality to a community? This theme is tied up with ideas of isolation and estrangement as characters in all three time periods come to terms with the boundaries of their community, and cross them.

The novel introduces a number of ideas even as it deeply explores the themes revolving around individuality versus collective good. The clones have difficulty being apart from each other and, furthermore, have a limited sort of ESP with each other. Tales of twins being able to know what each other is thinking is explored here and formalized as an ability of the clone groups. Years before Alan Weismans The World Without Us, this novel beautifully and hauntingly describes the reclamation of the Earth from Man by the surviving bits of nature. While animals do not do well, the plant kingdom makes out very well in this apocalypse.

There have been plenty of apocalypses in science fiction, before and after When Late The Sweet Birds Sang. Wilhelm’s community of clones is one of the most unusual, and one of the most serious and thoughtful meditations on what it means to be human, and the best ways to be human.

This review originally appeared on The Skiffy and Fanty Show.

Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle

April 1, 2014

Ash - A Secret HistoryAsh: A Secret History, Mary Gentle (2000)
Review by Adam Whitehead

In the year 2000, an academic named Pierce Ratcliff is putting together a fresh history of Ash, a 15th Century female mercenary captain whom mainstream history has largely ignored, but whose exploits have been of interest to a small number of historians. In preparing this new history, Radcliffe undertakes a fresh translation of the original historical texts. As he translates each chapter and sends it to his editor, they discuss the intriguing historical oddities within each chapter: references to the ‘Green Christ’, the ‘Visigoth Empire’ and ‘Carthage’, which of course had been destroyed many centuries before that time. But as the translations continue, very strange things start happening in the real world as well…

In 1476 the Lion Azure are one of the most famed and sought-after mercenary companies in Europe. Led by the female warrior Ash, they have become an elite force famed for getting out of tight spots and pulling off improbable victories. Contracted by the Holy Roman Empire to fight a war against Burgundy, Ash’s leadership is threatened by a political attempt to marry her off to a high-ranking German nobleman, but this is put aside when a great threat arises: the armies of Carthage have swept into southern Europe in an invasion twenty years in the planning, crushing everything in their path.

Ash: A Secret History is an enormous book, both literally in its shelf-destroying size and in terms of its scope, which takes in two separate narratives unfolding in completely different styles and formats in two different time-periods. Ratcliff’s story unfolds purely in reproduced emails between him, his editor and a couple of other correspondents, whilst Ash’s story (allegedly the manuscript Ratcliff is translating) is in a more traditional prose style. As Ash’s story unfolds, it starts off as an apparently purely historical account and then diverges from history as we know it. However, it cannot be dismissed merely as an alternate history, as Ratcliff and his editor share the reader’s befuddlement as the differences between real history and the one described in the text become apparent, accompanied by some unusual archaeological discoveries in the present. This storytelling device is well-used throughout the book, and helps break up its gigantic length into much more manageable chunks.

Ash’s story is very well-told. Rather than adopt an authentic-sounding 15th Century voice, Gentle instead tells the story if it had been translated into a modern style, complete with vast reams of modern swearing and the usage of modern military terminology. This seems to upset some readers, who find it jarring, but I found it enjoyable and it certainly adds to the readability of a complex and at times heavy-going novel. Whilst Gentle skimps on the language, the attitudes and mores of 15th Century Europe appear to be more authentic, with Ash having to prove her worthiness to every king, duke or general she meets. Gentle definitely doesn’t hold back on the violence, though. Injuries are painfully described and Ash’s childhood filled with abuse and pain is related matter-of-factly. Characterisation is strong throughout the novel, with Ash and her band of soldiers (Erikson could learn a bit from these books about how to distinguish soldiers from one another) and the various secondary characters very well-realised.

Mary Gentle handles all of these factors well, and manages to get across her story in convincing detail. This isn’t strictly a historical novel, or an alternate history, or a fantasy, but it combines elements of all of these with hard science fiction to create something quite unusual. In fact, it’s borderline genius, genre-bending and mixing elements in a manner that hasn’t been pulled off so successfully before.

There are some issues which prevent me from giving this ‘classic’ status. It is too long. There are way too many staffing/strategy meetings with the characters sitting around talking about the plot rather than moving things on and this becomes especially notable in the last third of the novel. The first two sections moved quickly and with a good sense of pace, taking in dozens of different locations and characters. The latter third is mostly set in a single city under siege and the story becomes interminably dull at times, so much so that when the climax comes it’s something of a surprise. I suspect some readers may feel sold a little short on the end of the 15th Century storyline, which is a bit perfunctory and obvious-in-hindsight. However, the 20th Century story, told in much less detail and with the reader only getting to know the characters through their emails and correspondence, is more interestingly done and its conclusion is very effective, a good example of how less can sometimes be more.

Ash: A Secret History is an immense, epic story of science, history, love, war and family spanning centuries and realities, but without losing its essentially human heart in the well-drawn characters. A superior work of speculative fiction, I’m surprised it’s not mentioned more often in modern discussions of the genre. The book is available from Gollancz in the UK in its one-volume format, but in the USA is published in four volumes: A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, The Wild Machines and Lost Burgundy. Gentle’s later Ilario duology (The Lion’s Eye and The Stone Golem; published in the UK as a single volume, Ilario: The Lion’s Eye) is set in the same universe.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Extra(ordinary) People, Joanna Russ

March 27, 2014

Extra(ordinary)_People_coverExtra(ordinary) People, Joanna Russ (1984)
Review by Ian Sales

Recent years have seen the works of Joanna Russ rightly reclaimed as classics of science fiction. During her heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s, she was very successful, garnering eight nominations for the Nebula Award and winning once, but earning only two nominations for the Hugo, one of which was a win. Her The Female Man (1975) has long been considered an important work – and is now in the SF Masterworks series –  but much of her short fiction no longer seems so popular. This is a shame, as it is considerably better than that of many of her contemporaries, and large number of her stories have stood the test of time well. The five pieces of fiction in Extra(ordinary) People are excellent examples of this.

‘Souls’ (1982) was Russ’s only Hugo win. I read and reviewed it last year – see here – and on reread, the clues scattered throughout the text suggesting that the Abbess Radegunde is far from usual for the time the story is set not only seem more obvious… but also indicate she is almost non-human – reading at the age of two, for example. Then there’s the ease with which she addresses the raiding Vikings, even going so far as to crack a blue joke with them. But that unsettling sense that, despite the setting, Radegunde is a science-fictional creation still doesn’t help when it comes to deciphering what is really going on. It’s as if Russ deliberately offers an obvious reading of the strange figures in the wood – ie, aliens or time-travellers – but some of the foreshadowing doesn’t quite fit, and Radegunde’s subsequent revenge on Thorvald, the leader of the Vikings, undermines that assumption yet further:

“I cannot make long thy life – that gift is beyond me – but I give thee this: to the end of thy days, long or short, thou wilt know the Presence about thee always, as I do, and thou wilt know that it is neither good nor evil, as I do, and this knowing will trouble and frighten thee always, as it does me, and so about this one thing, as about many another, Thorvald Peacemaker will never have peace.” (p 54)

‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ (1982) was shortlisted for the Nebula. It first appeared in Speculations, an anthology in which the authors’ names were given in code, and needed to be deciphered to determine who had written which. It’s tempting to wonder if Russ’s story was considered easily identifiable. Certainly, like much of her short fiction, it requires work by the reader – there is a lot happening, but very little is explained. This is one of Russ’s strengths, and a reason why much of her fiction continues to be readable today. ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ is written in the form of a journal by the eponymous young gentleman, who is travelling from London to New York aboard the SS President Hayes. It is June 1885, and he is accompanied by a twelve-year-old Spanish girl, Maria-Dolores. Except the young gentleman is not a young gentleman, and nor is Maria-Dolores who she purports to be. When one of the passengers, whom the young gentleman describes in his diary as “Dr Bumble”, takes a fancy to young man, a fancy he cannot explain, he decides it is because the young gentleman is in fact a woman in disguise. Except…

“An actress? Half a head taller than yourself? Where in Europe, on what possible stage? And this business of dye for the skin – which doesn’t smell, won’t wash off, and can’t be detected even in the most intimate contact, not even by a medical man?” (p 87)

There are clues throughout ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ which indicate the young gentleman and Maria-Dolores could either or both be male or female, but the last page suggests their identities are not so easily categorised. Like ‘Souls’, ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ reads for much of its length like historical fiction, and only takes an unexpected swerve into genre in its final pages. And, also like ‘Souls’, it resists an easy reading, genre or otherwise. It has become one of my new favourite pieces of short fiction.

The narrator of ‘Bodies’ (1984) is a resurrectee in the distant future, and she is writing a letter to another such person. Both are from the twentieth century – James, the recipient of the letter, from London in 1930, and the letter writer from Portland in the 1970s – and they have been resurrected two thousand years later. And it’s a world neither can really understand – not that its inhabitants understand them either. For one thing, it’s hinted they have non-binary genders. The letter-writer is asking James for understanding, that he accept his new life and come to terms with it, but she’s also explaining that she’s lonely, that she too finds this future world strange and alienating and that she needs his company. Like the preceding two stories in this collection, ‘Bodies’ is a story which needs work by the reader, and while it suffers a little because its setting is not historical but an invented future and so prone to feeling dated, it does showcase the strong voice which characterises much of Russ’s fiction. This story is original to the collection.

‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’ (1983) is another epistolary story, this time from a woman who has been sent undercover to a parallel Earth. In the world of the story, an infinite sequence of parallel realities have been discovered, where “the relation of cause to effect” varies by distance from the narrator’s “prime” Earth, called Ru 1.0. The narrator has been sent to Ru +0.892437521, which she has nicknamed Ruritania, disguised as a demon prince (ie, a male demon), called Ashmedai, in order to subtly steer local politics. Unfortunately, things don’t go quite according to plan – there’s a princess involved, of course – and then it transpires Ru 1.0 isn’t 1.0, after all. Again, Russ uses the letter format to put across the voice of her narrating character, and while it’s tempting to claim there’s a Russ “type” in protagonists, much as other sf authors of the same era relied on a handful of characters for their fictions, the narrator of ‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’ and, say, ‘Bodies’, do possess a characteristic forthrightness. ‘What Did You Do During the Revolution, Grandma?’ originally appeared in The Seattle Review.

‘Everyday Depressions’ (1984) is also original to Extra(ordinary) People and is structured as a series of witty letters by a writer to her editor in which she outlines the plot, and her thoughts regarding, a book she may or may not write. The novel will be a Gothic romance – there are numerous references to the literature of that time, such as Jane Austen’s novels – albeit between two women. There’s also a character called Alice Tiptree (obviously a reference to Alice Sheldon). In fact, the story is full of literary references and in-jokes and, while not at all genre, it makes a number of important points about gender politics and sexuality.

Between 1959 and 1996,  Joanna  Russ wrote fifty-six pieces of short fiction, and yet only three collections of her fiction have to date been published. There’s no denying the impact Russ had on the genre, nor the quality of her writing – which strikes me as more than reason enough for a volume of her collected short fiction. Recently, Ursula K Le Guin has had a two-volume collection of short stories published, there are plenty of male sf authors with complete collections available; and yet it seems only in recent years has Russ’s career been given the attention it rightly deserves. For such an outspoken author, this seems… peculiar. Perhaps it was her message, perhaps too many people didn’t want to hear it. Whatever the reason, the time is clearly right for Russ to be represented by more than just The Female Man. And the proof of that is in Extra(ordinary) People just as much as it is in any other piece of Russ’s short fiction. ‘Souls’ is an award winner and an excellent novella; ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ immediately became one of my favourite pieces of short science fiction. Let’s have Russ’s short fiction back in print, please. She was very, very good at it, and the genre needs to celebrate its good writers – not the ones its readers remember fondly from when they were thirteen years old…

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

March 25, 2014

TheLeftHandOfDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Chris White

“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

So begins Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. The story is one of an ice-planet named Gethen (Winter), and the arrival there of an Envoy from a vast human empire (although that’s an odd way of describing the Ekumen League of Worlds), sent alone to invite the humans of Winter into their collective. After all, “One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion”.

The Envoy lands in the kingdom of Karhide, where all kings are mad. The inhabitants of Winter have evolved in a singular (or rather, a binary) way – no Gethenian is male or female. They are neuters, until they reach kemmer (which is analogous to animals being in heat), and they rapidly change gender (or gain gender, I suppose.) Which leads to great sentences like “The King was pregnant”.

It also leads to a near-complete misunderstanding of social cues, and even between the two humans – “Ai was exhausted and enraged. He looked ready to cry, but did not. I believe he considers crying either evil or shameful. Even when he was very ill and weak, the first days of our escape, he hid his face from me when he wept. Reasons personal, racial, social, sexual – how can I guess why Ai must not weep?” It is a fantastic exercise in the social and psychological snags between two alien minds, even when so similar.

Ursula Le Guin writes beautiful science fiction, my favourite style of science fiction: anthropological science fiction. From the Kingdom of Karhide to its rival, Orgoreyn, she explores different political extremes as well. Karhide, an aristocracy, torn by power struggles at court and with a complex system of honour and social positioning, is dysfunctional, “Karhide is not a nation but a family quarrel”, especially when seen alongside Orgoreyn, at least at first. Orgoreyn is a socialist nightmare, is dystopian.

“He was a hard shrewd jovial politician, whose acts of kindness served his interest and whose interest was himself. His type is panhuman. I had met him on Earth, and on Hain, and on Ollul. I expect to meet him in Hell.”

With Estroven exiled, the Envoy departs for Orgoreyn with the King’s words still in his ears: “…you’re not a traitor, you’ve merely been the tool of one. I don’t punish tools. They do harm only in the hands of a bad workman”.

This review originally appeared on Chris White Writes.

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