The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)the-dispossessed
Review by Adam Whitehead

Shevek is a brilliant physicist from the barren anarchist world of Anarres. His work could revolutionise interstellar society, permitting instantaneous communication – maybe even instantaneous travel – between the worlds of humanity. But, in contrast to the idealism of Anarres, he finds his work undervalued and even repressed by jealous colleagues. Frustrated, he travels to Anarres’s capitalist sister world of Urras, hoping to find more tolerance there but instead becoming embroiled in politics, rebellion and war.

The Dispossessed is widely considered to be one of Ursula Le Guin’s finest novels and is arguably her most ambitious work. The book asks nothing less than how best should human society function and by what means. Le Guin picks two popular models, that of a semi-communist state and a capitalist one, and pits them against one another. She is not interested in ‘proving’ the values of one over the other, instead comparing and contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of both and also the affect they have on the individual, particularly on the individual who has a great, transformational idea but whom is seen by others purely as a pawn or something to be crushed.

The novel relies on this thematic idea to sustain it, but the actual plot structure is also intriguing. The book alternates chapters between the present-day storyline (Shevek on Urras) and events in his past (Shevek growing up on Anarres). We see the present-day Shevek as being an open-minded, questioning individual and how he has changed from his earlier incarnation as a blinkered man who accepts dogmatic ideas as fact (such as the notion that Urras is a corrupt capitalist state that will one day destroy itself), with later Anarres chapter depicting his shift in belief and motivation. Le Guin constantly has Shevek developing as a character even as she develops her ideas and the setting of the two worlds.

The novel’s greatest strength is its depiction of someone who seeks simple answers and is instead rewarded with having his worldview broadened and made more complicated. Shevek sees Urras as the answer to all his problems but instead of the utopia he was hoping for he finds a cluster of nations all feuding with one another (at one point fighting a Vietnam-style proxy war between two superpowers with the rulers acknowledging that nothing will change, only thousands dying for no real goal). Anarres is not rose-painted either: the world is desolate, the people poor and, for all of their freedom of choice, are often forced into jobs and roles they despise and are not well suited-for. The book is sometimes criticised for condemning capitalism and promoting communism/anarchism, but it’s more complex than that. Le Guin’s argument appears to be that all human societies are prone to dysfunction and corruption, no matter how well-meaning people are.

The novel’s ending is intriguing, as Shevek’s conflicted views are commented upon by an outsider (an ambassador from an Earth ruined by war and ecological disaster) and her analysis spurs him to reconsider his approach. However, the book somewhat abruptly ends before Shevek’s return to Anarres with him not having reached a conclusion. This is presumably because any answer would be unsatisfying and simplistic. Instead we are left with the questions, which are far more interesting.

The Dispossessed is a thought-provoking novel that does not attempt to simplify complex matters and combines fascinating worldbuilding and character development with a refreshing plot structure and some rich prose.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Fireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N McIntyre

firefloodFireflood and Other Stories, Vonda N McIntyre (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

Vonda N McIntyre was one of several women science fiction writers who came to prominence during the 1970s, but by the end of the 1980s seemed to have drifted from the public eye. That was likely due to cyberpunk, which shook up the genre and pushed feminist sf authors out to the edges… from where they eventually disappeared. Which is a shame, if not a crime. Though the genre’s history may claim the 1970s was a creative and artistic wasteland in science fiction, comprised only of tired old American white male middle-class fiction such as Heinlein’s late novels, Niven and Pournelle’s best-selling bloated epics, and Asimov’s futile attempts to tie all his fiction into one Gordian Knot of continuity, in point of fact there was a lot of excellent science fiction written during that decade, novels and stories that carried on what the New Wave had started, that introduced feminist concerns to a genre that had been resistant to them for far too long. While Star Wars (1977) may have in one fell swoop re-positioned science fiction as a genre of swashbuckling adventure in space in the public mind, that same period also gave us stone-cold sf classic sf novels such as Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) and Samuel R Delany’s Dhalgren (1975).

McIntyre was one of the many casualties of cyberpunk’s “re-imagining” of science fiction’s history, and that’s shown clearly in Fireflood and Other Stories, her only published collection. Its eleven stories won a Hugo and a Nebula award, and were shortlisted for three Hugos, two Nebulas and five Locus awards. Clearly, she was not ignored at the time. After a pair of well-regarded sf novels, McIntyre spent much of the 1980s writing Star Trek novels and film novelisations, before returning to sf in the late 1980s with a hard sf quartet. Her last novel was published in 1997, although she has written a handful of short stories since then. The stories in Fireflood and Other Stories date from 1972 to 1979.

‘Fireflood’ (1979). This originally appeared in F&SF and was shortlisted for the Hugo Award in 1980. At some undefined point in the future, groups of human beings have been altered to live on other worlds. Dark is one such, a digger, and she is more comfortable tunnelling underground than living on the surface. She is also one of six who have escaped from a strip mine where her people are treated like serfs. She heads for an area of land that has been handed over to yet another group of changed humans – these have wings and were designed to colonise a low-gravity world. ‘Fireflood’ describes the encounter between Dark and one of these winged humans, Jay, and they both reflect on their situations – their similarities and their differences.  While the flyers are free within the land given to them, they are just as much prisoners as the diggers, and Dark’s request for sanctuary among them is to neither’s advantage. Both groups have not been given the chance to do what they were designed for, and are now treated like second-class citizens and freaks. Dark is subsequently captured, and Jay decides to follow her. But a human warns him off –

“We can’t control anyone outside your preserve.” Strangely, the human sounded concerned. “You know the kind of thing that can happen. Flyer, stay inside your boundaries.” (p 31)

I’m not entirely sure who the diggers and flyers are intended to map onto, or indeed if they represent anyone or anything. As a general commentary on humanity’s predilection for creating and then abandoning objects, it packs more of a punch by making those “objects” living, breathing people, but that, perversely, also muddies its points by suggesting it’s just as much about race relations. The thinness of the background – humanity can create other human races for other worlds, but still flies around in helicopters – also confuses matters somewhat. I’ve a horrible feeling the story’s success was as much a result of a “slans are fans” reading of it as of the quality of its prose. Which is a bit sad.

‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ (1973). This novella was reprinted in Women of Wonder, the first of the three women-only anthologies edited by Pamela Sargent – see here. It won the Nebula Award in 1974, and in my review of Women of Wonder I wrote: “It’s not hard to see why this story won an award. The prose is extremely good, Snake is well-drawn, sympathetic and mysterious, and the world is sufficiently intriguing to merit further exploration.” On reread, ‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ remains just as strong a piece of heartland science fiction.

‘Spectra’ (1972). Set in another undefined future, the narrator was taken from her mother as a child, had her eyes replaced with devices, with which she is plugged into a machine in order to process some sort of visual patterns. The narrator is one of many such women. They live in a complex, sleep in pods and are fed via a valve in their ankle while they sleep, are carried to their work stations by a moving belt, and then spend all day identifying patterns in the signals sent to them through eyepieces. But the narrator remembers her past, and she remembers what the world looked like when she could distinguish colour. As a result, she is punished. There’s a definite 1984 feel to ‘Spectra’, but it reads more like a writing exercise than an actual story. In fact, it’s little more than a a depiction of the contrast between the reader’s situation, as represented by the narrator’s memories, and the narrator’s current situation.

‘Wings’ (1973). This first appeared in an original anthology, The Alien Condition, edited by Stephen Goldin. On an alien world, the winged natives have all flown up above the sky, an injured youth comes to the temple where an old keeper is the only person remaining – and who cannot fly himself. The keeper tends to the youth’s injury until he is well enough to join the others. McIntyre handles her alien culture well, although the keeper’s use of “thee” and “thou” to signal an older form of language occasionally feels clunky. All the same, it’s a well-written elegiac piece, and it comes as no real surprise to learn it was shortlisted for both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

‘The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn’ (1974). This story is set among the same people depicted in ‘Wing’s, but aboard one of the starships in which they departed their dying world. An old female who remembers life on their world enters into a relationship with a youth who has known only life aboard the starship. The story is pretty much a reflection of ‘Wings’, a story of love between two generations in an alien culture. Unlike the earlier story, however, this one didn’t make any shortlists – despite being more heartland sf with its starship setting.

The End’s Beginning (1976).  Originally published in Analog, ‘The End’s Beginning’ appears to be told from the point of view of a dolphin – hardly the sort of sf for which Analog is known. The dolphin is being compelled to perform some task by men through the use of a machine, but the details are vague. As the story progresses, it becomes clear the dolphin is a weapon – and the prose compares and contrasts humanity’s destructiveness with the natural predators of marine life – and it eventually swims into a harbour full of – enemy? – ships.

‘Screwtop’ (1976). This was reprinted in The New Women of Wonder, and I covered it in my review of that anthology – see here. On rereading it, I’m still not entirely sure why the story was written in a science fiction mode, or how the actual thermal-power generation system is supposed to work. While ‘Screwtop’ is well-written, it fails for me in its world-building, and that I think is too fundamental a flaw.

‘Only at Night’ (1971). A nurse on night shift in a hospital spends her time wandering through the ward of deformed children rejected by their parents. One of the “larger children (I can only think of him as a large child) … He’s perfectly formed and beautiful, but he has no mind” attacks and injures her, and there’s a hint she accepts it as expiation of the parents’ abandonment of their newborns.

‘Recourse, Inc.’ (1974). At some point, it seems, every sf writer of the twentieth century had a go at an epistolary story. Most seem to involve computers behaving badly, and this one is no exception. A customer is misbilled by a giant corporation, and so asks the titular company to intercede on his behalf. The situation spirals out of control and… Stories like this are as a rule not especially amusing, and they do not age well. This one even features a punched card. It would be undeserved flattery to call it “slight”.

‘The Genius Freaks’ (1973). Lais is one of the freaks of the title, a genetically-engineered genius, but she has escaped from the Institute where she and her kind are kept and tasked with making life better for the rest of humanity. She has discovered by chance a new virus that will undo the effects of “clean-gening”:

It might wait ten or fifteen or fifty years, or forever, but when injury or or radiation or carcinogen induced it out, it would begin to kill. (p 193)

But Lais is herself dying, and she’s on the run. She knows the authorities are not interested in her discovery – on the contrary, they would likely cover it up.

‘Aztecs’ (1977). This novella first appeared in an original anthology, 2076: The Third Centennial, edited by Edward Bryant and Jo Ann Harper. It was shortlisted for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. There’s a definitely Delany-esque feel to this story – although, to be fair, throughout this collection McIntyre has demonstrated a more lyrical prose-style than is common in science fiction. Laenea Trevelyan is a Pilot. She has had her heart removed and replaced with a special pump, because Pilots must stay conscious during interstellar travel and can only survive by means of a biocontrolled pump in place of their heart. Laenea discharges herself early from hospital after her surgery and heads for the spaceport to revel in her new status. Pilots are elite. Although not the only people to travel routinely between worlds – starships have Crew as well, but they must spend the journeys asleep like the passengers – there is a definite pecking order. In a bar frequented by Pilots and Crew, Laenea meets Radu Dracul, an unsophisticated Crew from a backwater world. Even though Pilots and Crew don’t mix, Laenea takes Radu to a party, then to her bed. She falls in love with him, but as a Pilot she cannot live in the same world as him…

Between 1974 and 1980, McIntyre was shortlisted five times for the Hugo and won once, five times for the Nebula and won twice, and nine times for the Locus Award and won once. I suspect there are only a handful of genre authors who can better that record. And yet McIntyre is all but forgotten today. This is a shame – the stories in Fireflood and Other Stories demonstrate a lyricism and poetry more in tune with twenty-first century science fiction than what we’re told was common back in the 1970s. Many of her stories are written from the point of view of an alien, or an outsider – usually female – and that, plus her prose style, suggests she is ripe for rediscovery. She was a singular, and successful, voice in science fiction four decades ago, and it’s long past time she took her rightful place in the history of the genre, and was introduced to a new audience.

The Book of the Night, Rhoda Lerman

lermanThe Book of the Night, Rhoda Lerman (1986)
Review by Jack Deighton

A young girl, Celeste, disguised as a boy called CuRoi, is brought by her father to the monastic community on Iona to live her life as a monk. It is Celeste’s viewpoint that carries the novel’s main narrative but this is interspersed with occasional sections told by Generous, one of the monks. Both voices, though, to the syntactically archaic at times have a tendency.

The book also plays tricks with time. Part of the ancillary plot deals with the confrontation between Roman and Celtic Christianity in the 8th century but there are references to the First and Second World Wars, quantum foam, radio, a ferry named the Princess George and the Beatles.

It is not only time that is malleable. So too is matter. Partway through the novel Celeste turns into a cow. A talking, feeling cow, true, but still a cow, with horns, hoofs etc.

The text is also replete with word play. Dense, allusive passages such as, “Michael, Molchu, Mocc-el, Moloch, Melech, King of the Universe, Enoch, eunuch,” or, “an Irish sailor I am, Noe, of the great craft Argo. Noah, Jonah, Iona, I sail with the argot and puns of the Naught to the God Lug of the deluge,” are not uncommon. There is frequent reference to jumping over the moon, animals running away with spoons etc. Indeed Celeste’s last written words, in the book’s final epigram, are, “Hey, diddle diddle.”

But when, “Words collapse, sink, intensify, grow dense. Categories disintegrate. Language trembles. Words remain but the webs of their meanings drift away,” a reader has a devil of a job keeping up.

The idea behind the story, apparently derived from those of Ilya Prigogine (though his Wikipedia entry does not appear to provide support for it) is that matter itself is malleable. The novel’s preamble asserts that, “self-organisation ….. is a property of matter … as if matter has mind, as if the thrust of evolution is will.” In this context the changing of a girl into a cow would not be remarkable. It is doubtful, to me at least, if it is warranted. While it is true that an organism represents a decrease in entropy (at least locally) this is a long way from meaning that the process can be directed.

In this context (and notwithstanding the Women’s Press Science Fiction imprint) the transformation of Celeste into a cow seems to me to belong in the realm of Fantasy rather than Science Fiction.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

handmaidstaleThe Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
Review by Chris White

“Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. A wool blanket.”

I’m disappointed to say I’d never read this book until now, for my Year of Reading Women. I’d heard of it, of course. A United States that has fallen, the President assassinated, Congress assassinated – the Pastors step in. Dystopian, fundamentalist Christian enclaves spring up. This novel is a warning, and a reminder, like all good science fiction (or speculative fiction, as Margaret Atwood would insist.) It is also brilliant and has fantastic literary qualities, beautiful prose (which are perhaps why Atwood strives to avoid the SciFi Ghetto). It reminds me of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, but with Huxley’s inherent racism turned around, as a misogynist society strives to keep women in their place. An American Taliban.

The Republic of Gilead is a white Christian man’s paradise. Offred is a Handmaid, in the service of her Commander and his Wife. She is allowed to leave the house only to go shopping for what meagre rations her coupons permit her. Each day, permit in hand, head lowered, she passes the Guardians, teenage boys with submachine guns. In her blood-red habit she meets with another Handmaid (they can go nowhere alone, they are women, after all) and they go shopping.

The Handmaid’s only task is to bear children. They’ve taken all the ceiling fixtures, the rods from the cupboards. She is not allowed a knife – they’ve lost too many Handmaids.

This novel is gripping, a terrifying glimpse of dystopia, of control and of hidden societies.

Right up my alley, then.

I loved it.

This review originally appeared on Chris White Writes.