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Solution Three, Naomi Mitchison

soliution_threeSolution Three, Naomi Mitchison (1975)
Review by Kate Macdonald

If you like elliptical, immersive, euphemistic strangeness in your science-fiction narrative, this novel is for you. Published in 1975, Naomi Mitchison’s Solution Three retains some slang that was archaic even then, like “cat” for person, which made this reader jump, and certainly adds to the strangeness in the dialogue. Could you ever empathise with a character who says of another that “this cat told me”? The setting is a strange combination of the modern British National Health Service, Maoist self-denunciation and the insouciant babbling cheerfulness of Brave New World (Naomi Mitchison was great friends with Aldous Huxley in the 1930s). Homosexuality is the social norm for relationships, heterosexuals are more or less tolerated but labelled as “deviants”, and clones are born to surrogate Clone Mums, who have to watch their children carefully for when they start showing “the signs”, at which point the children are taken away from the nursery and “strengthened”. “Strengthening” is such a horrible process for these four and five-year olds that no-one ever asks what it is; they simply accept it as part of Solution Three, which is the Way We Live Now.

This is a post-something society: not post-apocalyptic or post-nuclear, but post-Aggressions. These appear to have been a long-ago total war, after which two far-seeing male and female scientists evolved a social pattern for future society to save humankind, decreeing that homosexual relationships would thenceforth be the norm as this would avoid future Aggressions. Thus the population of the civilised parts of the world is paired off whether they like it or not. Uncivilised areas continue to practice aggressive heterosexuality, which is a cause for concern and stern treatment. The characters in the novel are crop scientists, investigating outbreaks of agricultural viruses and struggling to maintain food supplies for a very crowded planet. This concern about the genetic modification of food sources is something Mitchison would go on to write about more fully in Not By Bread Alone in the 1980s. in this novel, she’s much more concerned about social engineering, the rights of maternity and enforced sexual norms.

The storytelling is engaging and chatty, creating an immersive reading experience, but this is a hard novel to understand. The elliptical dialogue glides across the surface of meaning, so it’s tricky to work out what is going on and what the consequences will be. The subplot about Miryam the deviant and her husband struggling to raise their two children in their one-room flats (they’re not allowed to live together) reaches a happy ending when she is awarded a two-room apartment with a little balcony. Her feelings on being given such riches and forgiveness for her deviancy say as much about the society she’s living in as the actions that lead to this largesse. Mitchison writes from the heart outwards, concentrating on women and who they love, to sketch out an outline of this experimental dystopic future. It really is just an outline: there isn’t enough depth in this novel to produce a solid impression of how this society works, or even how it got to be this way. The details are in full focus, the rest is a bit foggy. But given the rarity of fiction of this period (of any period?) that tackles sexuality and ecology with such fair-minded objectivity, this novel is a literary historical treasure.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

Maeve, Jo Clayton

maeveMaeve, Jo Clayton (1979)
Review by Ian Sales

After the sexual slavery and super-special snowflake abilities of series protagonist Aleytys in the first three books of the Diadem of the Stars, Maeve came as something of a pleasant surprise. It’s almost as if Clayton had given up on spaceships-and-sandals science fantasy and decided to write proper science fiction instead. Not only does Aleytys have a wardrobe throughout this novel, but it consists chiefly of functional clothing (and the clothes she wears as a hostess in Dryknolte’s Tavern are actually provided by the landlord). She also has sex no more than half a dozen times, with partners of her choosing (and one is pretty much a relationship).

Aleytys has landed on the eponymous planet, and left the smuggler she’s been travelling with, because she wants to find a ship to take her back to her home world of Jaydugar and her son (stolen in the second book of the series, Lamarchos, but recovered off-stage during book three, Irsud). So she heads for the world’s only city, guided by one of Maeve’s cat-like natives, Gwynnor. One of the her diadem’s little tricks is an instant translator, which allows her to speak any language she encounters. This later proves useful, when Aleytys and Gwynnor leave the plains, enter a forest and encounter the people there – also alien and native to Maeve, but not the same as Gwynnor, who does not speak their tongue:

“Ineknikt nex-ni-ghenusoukseht ghalaghayi.”

Aleytys heard it as a string of nonsense syllables, then a knife pain stabbed her through the head and the meaning slid like white beads on a string against the blackness in her mind. The people do not know your smell, younger sister of fire. (p 39)

The forest people – the cludair to Gwynoor’s cerdd – have been having trouble with the Company, which, in fine science-fictional tradition, is busy exploiting Maeve, including harvesting the forest home of the cludair with a giant harvesting machine. So Aleytys gives them a hand and destroys the harvester. She also captures the Company director, who is persuaded to stop logging in return for the cludair supplying a “tribute” of wood.

Having sorted that out, Aleytys and Gwynnor carry on to the city. Gwynnor heads back to his home village, to find it in dire straits – Company men have been raiding it and taking away all the young men and women, and the cerdd’s sacred drug, maranhedd. In the city, Aleytys gets a job as a hostess at Dryknolte’s Tavern while she tries to figure out how to get off-planet. There she meets Hunter Grey, who reveals that the director has been taken over by an alien parasite, which is due to spore. And when it does, a University ship in orbit will raze Maeve to bedrock to prevent the spores from escaping. So it’s up to Aleytys, Hunter Grey, Gwynnor and another cerdd, two cludair, and Maeve’s chief mystic, the Synwedda, to kill the director before the parasite can spore.

I’m not entirely what happened between Irsud and Maeve, but I certainly welcome the series’ new direction. Aleytys has gone from being a victim to a woman with real agency. Admittedly, she is still a snowflake. As well as the instant translator, she is a healer – and heals several people from near-death injuries during the book, including herself – and those three personalities trapped in the diadem also lend a hand on occasion. One, of course, is a warrior and a superb fighter. Another is a gifted musician. Both of these talents get used in Maeve. It does mean Aleytys is never really in any danger, but at least these magical talents are used in service to the  plot rather than simply to make Aleytys a more dramatic heroine. Previous novels in the series were driven by jeopardy – Aleytys is captured and must escape – but Maeve starts as a travelogue, introduces a mystery, and then sets a pretty, er, deadly deadline for resolving it. Also, the women characters in the novel are all strong – either council leaders, the only cerdd of Gwynnor’s village to do something about the Company raids, a pie-shop owner not above knocking heads on occasion, and the aforementioned Synwedda. It means Maeve is not the problematic read earlier books were, and while the setting all feels a bit like well-used furniture and the planet’s fate is never really in doubt, it all hangs together entertainingly. Hopefully, the remaining books in the series are more like Maeve than, say, Lamarchos.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Isaac Yuen

“You are our history. We are perhaps your future. I want to learn, not ignore. It is the reason I came. We must know each other. We are not primitive men. Our morality is no longer tribal, it cannot be. Such ignorance is a wrong, from which wrong will arise. So I come to learn.” (p 75)

The Dispossessed features two diametrically opposing societies: Urras is technologically advanced and ecologically balanced, but suffers from extreme social injustice. Anarres is strong in the areas of equality and human relations, but lacks non-human connections and entrepreneurial innovation. A lot of Le Guin’s personal Taoist philosophy can be seen in this fictional universe – each world’s weakness is its counterpart’s strength and vice versa, the yin to the other’s yang. Yet Urras and Anarres also share something in common, a tragic fundamental flaw. Both are only aware of the present, ignorant of the realities of their shared pasts and the possibility of new futures. On Urras, Vea proclaims that the horrific injustices of past centuries “couldn’t happen now” (p 217), even as fellow citizens suffer in nearby slums (p 291) and are shot dead by the State (p 302). On Anarres, Shevek’s mother Rulag clings stubbornly to isolationist attitudes seven generations old, perceiving the rest of humanity as enemies of society. (p 355) Indoctrinated by propaganda and shaped by social norms, many Urrasti and Anarresti can no longer envision change, have become afraid to take risks, and so have lost the ability to imagine a better society. Things are as they are and must always be. Shevek serves as witness to both worlds’ failings. Acting out of his own initiative, he disrupts the status quo, embarking on a journey to “shake things up, to store, up, to break some habits, to get people asking questions” (p 384). Whether he succeeds in affecting lasting change in either society is left deliberately unresolved (a wise decision, I think). The A-Io government crushes the working class demonstration. Shevek travels home not knowing what kind of reception he will receive when he steps foot on Anarres. True to real-life, nothing is ever safe or certain for revolutions or revolutionaries. But by the end of the story, new conditions have been created, and with it, new hopes and possibilities.

Shevek’s struggle to connect Urras and Anarres parallels his work as a physicist. Throughout The Dispossessed, Shevek attempts to merge the theory of Sequency – the notion that time is linear and successive, with the theory of Simultaneity – the idea that time is cyclical and eternal. This proves impossible until he learns to embrace and accept time’s inherent contradiction, to grant legitimacy for its dual nature to coexist as a whole. One of the things I love about The Dispossessed is how Le Guin portrays science and those who do science – I find that few authors do either justice. Her depiction of temporal physics strikes a careful balance – it feels real without getting too abstruse or explanatory. In Shevek Le Guin beautifully captures the temperament and nuances of a great scientist: That innate curiosity towards the world; a singular dedication to work; the craving for an exchange of ideas; a lifelong passion for grasping a larger truth. To me, Shevek embodies the essence of the scientific spirit, with roots in the natural philosophy of the ancient Greeks.

Many people think science is about the end products – novel inventions, new technologies, gadgets for easier living. But while it may lead to such things, The Dispossessed’s portrayal of science and scientists reminds me that science is at its heart a method of inquiry, a process used to both better understand and appreciate the universe, and done by real and flawed human beings to derive meaning and purpose. As Shevek’s story demonstrates, this can be an extremely frustrating and difficult journey. But it is one well worth taking.

Walls are the central recurring image in The Dispossessed. Throughout his life, Shevek encounters many negative ones, constructed upon foundations of manipulation and exploitation. In a supposedly egalitarian society, he experiences how his colleague Sabul wields public opinion and ignorance to control the flow of new ideas and gain power over others. On Urras, Shevek sees how the elites wall themselves off from the suffering of their brethren with their possessions and status. On a societal level, he recognizes how Anarres has barricaded itself not only from Urras, but from the planets of Hain and Terra and the rest of humanity. At each turn, Shevek strives to unbuild these walls, but at great personal cost: He is dismissed from the Physics Institute, branded a traitor by his fellow Anarresti for reaching out to other worlds, and targeted as an insurrectionist by the A-Ioti government. Yet Shevek continues to take the risks. His story makes a strong case for Roosevelt’s adage that “nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, and difficulty”. By suffering dearly, by understanding that “even pain counts”, by “working with time instead of against it” (p 335), Shevek comes to realize what he is capable of, how he can best serve his society, and how to walk the path towards a meaningful life.

In a fascinating paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Harvard researchers explore the differences between living a happy versus a meaningful life. Happiness, they found, is “mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money” (p 14). Meaningfulness, however, is “linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others” (p 14), with its undertaking often involving choices that directly diminish happiness. While there are overlapping factors that contribute to both qualities, the researchers argue that happiness is primarily a present-oriented endeavour, while meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. This connects strongly to The Dispossessed. As one who sees life through the lens of time, Shevek uses temporal physics to frame his thoughts on pursuing happiness without meaning and on fidelity’s role in creating purpose:

“Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell. It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.” (p 334)

Out of everything in the novel, it is Shevek’s realization of promise as temporal reconciliation that most resonates with me. For Shevek, fulfillment comes from understanding the consequences of one’s past actions and using one’s freedom to create a responsible, compassionate, and ethical future. This line of thought is tremendously appealing.

“Because our sense of time involves our ability to separate cause and effect, means and end. The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.” (p 225)

I’ve always wondered what draws me to environmentalism. It is not guilt like it is for so many, nor anger – I have not the stamina to sustain it. Yet love, that all encompassing reverence so many feel towards nature doesn’t quite fit either. As I reread The Dispossessed and reflect upon my life, I can see that perhaps like Shevek, it arises from a desire to understand cause and effect, means and ends. Blessed with the freedom to do anything, perhaps I chose environmentalism because it brings to light the consequences of human action on the global community, casts the widest net for responsibility, and is the most challenging to develop an ethic for. How shall I empathize with an ecosystem? What are my duties to a swarm of mosquitoes? How should I feel about the farmer who burns down a forest to provide for his family? What can I do to connect with a CEO who whole-heartedly believes his company makes the world a better place? These are hard questions to grapple with. But as Le Guin writes, “the human being likes to be challenged, seeks freedom in adversity” (p 246). Neither is the label of an environmentalist an easy thing to take on. It is an identity steeped in hypocrisy and contradiction, often saddled with despair and uncertainties. But I realize now that it has never occurred to me to escape the difficulty by denying the commitment, for the cause has grounded my life and given me purpose, even as it leads to much headache and heartache, especially in light of the ecological crisis we face today. But promises are like that, as Le Guin again notes:

“A promise is a direction taken, a self-limitation of choice. As Odo pointed out if no direction is taken, if one goes nowhere, no change will occur. One’s freedom to choose and to change will be unused, exactly as if one were in jail, a jail of one’s own building, a maze in which no one way is better than any other. So Odo came to see the promise, the pledge, the idea of fidelity, as essential in the complexity of freedom.” (p 244)

And so I choose to keep coming back, to my path, and to this book. As it is for Shevek, the process of undertaking and keeping promises gives me direction, affords me the chance to try, to do better and be better, as an individual, a partner, a steward, and a citizen. I may never get there, and things always going to be a work-in-progress, but I am excited to continue to learn, grow, write, think and connect. There’s so much more to say about the intellectual and emotional journeys The Dispossessed continues to take me on, but I fear doing what Hannah Arendt warns against: To define the story so much that its power is lost. So I will leave things “a bit broken loose” (p 384). For those who have read the novel, I hope this revisit helps spark what the book means to you. To those who haven’t, I hope this series will help you discover Shevek’s story for yourself.

This review originally appeared on Ekostories, and is the final part of four-part discussion of The Dispossessed. See parts one, two and three here, here and here.