The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K Le Guin (1971)latheofheaven
Review by Megan AM

One of the most radical, yet unradical, ways of thinking.

Fundamentally paradoxical, yet still, fundamental.

Both the thesis and antithesis for change.

(One of most difficult concepts to teach to a classroom of 9th graders scratching themselves in their uniforms on that one day of the year when state-mandated teaching objectives cross into the territory of “Eastern Philosophy.”)

The Tao. The Way.

George Orr is the embodiment of The Way.

In The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr visits a therapist to deal with his lifelong problem of affecting reality with his dreams, what he calls “effective dreaming”. But when the landscape of reality starts changing, steady Orr is not sure he can trust the ambitious Dr. Haber with his powerful mind. Can a passive, compliant person like Orr take back control of his dreams, and reset the world?

The dualism of personality, symbolized in the style of a PKD novel.

But, really, a celebration of a particular personality.

At first, it may seem like a tale about two undesirable opposites, vain wit versus witless passivity. Le Guin pulls no punches with her quarry, the arrogant therapist Dr. Haber, who was “no being, only layers” [81], and who “was not… really sure that anyone else existed, and wanted to prove they did by helping them” (p 28)

(Ouch, says the woman who practices the same profession.)

But Le Guin also drops a few judgmental remarks on her protagonist Orr, who is “unaggressive, placid, milquetoast…” (p 7), and “meek, mild, stuttering” (p 42). George Orr is “like a block of wood not carved” (p 96).

But it turns out Le Guin likes blocks of wood. And so does Lao Tzu:

The way goes on forever nameless.
Uncut wood, nothing important,
yet nobody under heaven
dare try to carve it.

[“Sacred Power,” Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way by Ursula Le Guin, p. 48]

In the notes of her demystified translation of the Tao Te Ching (2009), Le Guin expounds on that “block of wood”:

Uncut wood – here likened to the human soul—the uncut, unearned, unshaped, unpolished, native, natural stuff is better than anything that can be made out of it. Anything done to it deforms and lessens it. Its potentiality is infinite. Its uses are trivial. (p 83)

Not an attack on the passive personality. This is the celebration, perhaps exploration, of one. A personification of The Tao.

There’s other good stuff, too. Le Guin, as always, is funny, with “enhuging” and “enreddenhuged” being only two examples of hilarious attempts at short and concise, Tao-like humor. She also addresses vainglorious ambition, the expert pretense of therapy, Orwellian dystopia, PKD-style wibble-wobble of dreaming, interracial relationships, the gray tedium of an ethnic melting pot, among other things.

But The Lathe of Heaven also arouses curiosity about Le Guin’s lifelong relationship to Taoism. A woman who tells it like it is, who dissects books with an unforgiving blade, who unleashes snappy comebacks at fellow authors, and who turns humble acceptance speeches into defiant criticism. Ursula Le Guin is no George Orr.

But The Lathe of Heaven is a lot like The Tao.

Simple. Short. Sweet. Funny.

Mystical and whole.

Like the stanzas of a Tao verse.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

where-late-the-sweet-birds-sangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Review by Victoria Snelling

This was an interesting read from a style perspective. It was published in 1974 and feels even more dated than that. Partly it’s because the book looks at cloning technology and its physical and psychological effects and much of the thinking has moved on a lot since. That aside, I think the main thing creating the archaic feel was the use of omniscient point of view.

I can’t remember the last time I read something where the narrative was so far removed from an individual character’s POV. The advantage to this is that it keeps a story that unfolds over several generations to a manageable length. The book is relatively short at approx. 75,000 words. It also keeps the focus on the intellectual ideas behind the book – what happens when people only reproduce by cloning – and allows the author to present several sides of the debates.

The downside is that characterisation suffers. The reader never really gets in the head of the characters. On the one hand, the clones are presented to the reader as not quite human and distant POV gets in the way of identifying with them. There are two cloned characters, Molly and Mark, that we do get a bit closer to in the second half of the book and they are presented as being more human. I wonder if this was deliberate in order to emphasise that the clones are not like us. Which might have worked if the fully human characters in the first part of the book were more fully drawn. In the end I think that Molly and Mark are the most developed because they get the most POV time.

In this book I really noticed that the dialogue was used to explore the intellectual concepts of the book rather than as a characterisation tool.

It’s been a long time since I read a sci-fi novel in which the story was so clearly subordinate to the idea. I enjoyed it, but this one’s for the purists.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Megan AM

This 1975 Hugo Award winner is probably the most literary bit of SF I’ve read all year. I’ve never read Le Guin before, but Jo Walton’s Among Others referenced her quite a bit, and made me eager to try her out. I’m glad I did.

Le Guin’s writing is beautiful. Nearly every page, especially for the first half of the novel, contains brilliant observations about the human condition, written in delicate language usually reserved only for high literature. This isn’t sci-fi. This is Literature with a big “L”.

It’s Literature that happens to be about a brilliant alien physicist who lives on an anarchist planet that was settled 180 years prior. As he works to discover a unifying Theory of Time, he finds his ideas stifled by the customs and needs of his anarchist community. He opts to continue his work on a neighboring planet, the planet of origin of his people, where capitalism and militarism reign, and where his work becomes threatened by the possibility of state ownership. This is a story about the tyranny of society, regardless of its legal and political system (or lack thereof), and the strength of the individual in combating that tyranny.

The story is secondary to the backdrop, which is why the second half of the novel dragged. I was much more intrigued by the first half, during which the world-building and philosophizing took place. However, as the worlds of Annares and Urras developed, the story unfolded and I found myself less eager to continue reading. Despite that, it was a beautiful book, and I would recommend it to anyone. Regardless of its vintage publication date, the themes and problems in The Dispossessed are easily transferable to modern times, and it doesn’t read like cheesy ’60’s/’70’s SF. This is a thinking person’s SF novel. Get out your highlighter.

Some quotes:

“A scientist can pretend that his work isn’t himself, it’s merely the impersonal truth. An artist can’t hide behind the truth. He can’t hide anywhere.”

“Nothing said in words ever came out quite even. Things in words got twisted and ran together, instead of staying straight and fitting together.”

“There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”

“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.”

Enjoy!

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ

thefemalemanThe Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Megan AM

“Everyone knows that much as women want to be scientists and engineers, they want foremost to be womanly companions to men (what?) and caretakers of childhood; everyone knows that a large part of a woman’s identity inheres in the style of her attractiveness.”

“Laura is daydreaming that she’s Genghis Khan.” (p 60)

Joanna Russ’s 1975 turbulent treatise on female oppression, The Female Man, begs for interaction from the reader. It taunts with its candor. Even as a forty-year-old book, it dares you to disagree. For the modern reader of this not-really-tale, side effects may include chest tightening “buts”, understanding “ohs”, and flustered “oh come ons”.

In a recent article with ShelfAwareness.com, Kim Stanley Robinson describes Russ’s The Female Man as the “book that made me laugh the hardest while slapping me in the face”. He couldn’t be more precise.

The lives of four women collide: the uber-feminine doormat Jeannine, the rough-and-tumble person Janet, the agro-reactionary murderer Jael, and the rational, scholarly Joanna, our dear author, who communicates her own internal arguments and confusions via these four women. On the face of it, the women are presented as coming from four alternate worlds, but one infers quickly that the characters are non-entities, and that Russ is essentially arguing with herself, and with society, via these personalities. She conveys a divided female psyche that despises the status quo, yearns for gender equality, yet doesn’t want to annoy people, and feels guilty for achieving her own version of equality by essentially giving up her femininity in the academic world.

Four women. Four J names. Different facets of Russ. Different facets of womanhood. Sometimes the narrator refers to “the Weak One” and we don’t know who that is. Is it Jeannine, the young and naïve girly girl, who wants ever so much to get married, but for some reason she won’t? But she’s the quickest to accept and justify violence.

Uncertainties like that define the relative amorphousness of this novel. Its structure is as fractured as the author’s identity, with chapters ranging in length from one sentence to one paragraph to ten pages. Storylines bounce to and fro, interrupted by personal statements, poems, anecdotes, and uncomfortable revelations about self and society.

This is a book of harsh truths, stylized in biting, provocative, funny ways:

In 1975, Russ reminds us, “There are more whooping cranes in the United States of America than there are women in Congress.” (p 61)

She takes on marriage: “You can’t imbibe someone’s success by fucking them” (p 65).

She discusses social conditioning:

There is the vanity training, the obedience training, the self-effacement training, the deference training, the dependency training, the passivity training, the rivalry training, the stupidity training, the placation training. How am I to put this together with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition? …You can’t unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and anti-matter… (p 151)

She posits a world without men by introducing Janet, from Whileaway, which is ten centuries ahead in an alternate future, where men have been long ago wiped out by way of disease: “And about this men thing, you must remember that to me they are a particularly foreign species; one can make love with a dog, yes?” (p 33)

Russ’s witty cantankerousness is hard to put down, even if some of her references feel outdated to younger readers. Her portrayal of a typical party includes inane social chatter that illuminates the patronizing gender games people play (“His Little Girl” and “Ain’t It Awful”), which seems ridiculous to this late-born Gen-Xer, who hopes no one still talks that way today. It’s hard to believe people ever talked that way.

Even if some of her portrayals might not quite mesh with today, enough truths bubble up to make this a relevant and influential discourse on gender relations. The majority of women I encounter still view marriage as a goal and career, their identities exist through their kids, and the career gap is still gaping.

But most compelling about this novel is the intimacy Russ shares. She splays out her soul, a psychic vivisection for the world to see. Blood pumping, heart beating, eyes agape, and mouth roaring. Sometimes it’s too much and we feel embarrassed for her. Its cringe-inducing roughness is a little too roar-full. Younger generations like myself may balk at the more extreme portrayals of casual sexism, or find this mid-century roaring tiresome. (Women of my generation don’t roar. We death-stare. Much more effective.) Most surprising for me is realizing that this was written only four years before I was born. I was born into this society???

But even if society has progressed beyond the immobile social roles of Russ’s generation, and even if younger generations can’t completely relate to the society Russ depicts, The Female Man still gives us kernels of familiar insidiousness that peek out from the corners. Today, social media has allowed us to see more brash displays of dangerous misogyny, but it’s the subtle sexism that’s most overlooked, and easiest to ignore. Russ reminds us of those places where our standards have been calloused, where our vigilance has waned.

Although The Female Man is a product of its time, we are not quite living in its desired legacy. This should be required reading for all. We should never become comfortable enough to allow this novel to be forgotten.

This review originally appeard on From couch to moon.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper

grass-sheri-s-tepperGrass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Review by Victoria Snelling

Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture… Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, save for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

Grass follows Marjorie Yrarier and her family as they go as ambassadors to Grass with the secret mission of finding a cure for the plague. There are two societies on Grass; the aristocrats, an ossified relic of old European aristocracy that spends its time hunting; and the Commons which is a vibrant, trading nation. Then there are the Hippae, who act as mounts in the aristocrats’ hunts, but who are far more than semi-intelligent animals.

I loved this. The central mystery is well-handled and the reveal is done slowly over the last third of the book. Grass as a world is vividly realised and it’s inhabitants and their relationships are well-drawn. The ideas about social organization are subtly woven in and the plot is always at the foreground. I actually couldn’t put it down. It’s nice to read something with a middle aged woman as the protagonist – especially science fiction, especially an adventure mystery. Marjorie is a wife and a mother, and yet she is portrayed as an individual, as active and as as driving the story. Marjorie is purposeful woman, driven to solve the mystery at the heart of the disturbing planet she finds herself on and, although she has love interests (three if you count her husband) they are secondary to the main plot. It’s worth mentioning because it strikes me that female protagonists, in this type of story, are pretty rare. Tepper avoids the traps of either making her female protag solely defined by her family and romantic relationships or making her a man in a lady costume. It’s so refreshing.

I only have two minor niggles, and seriously, they are tiny. First. the planet Grass is sharply drawn and the word picture is rich and vivid. The group of colonies that it is part of is quite fuzzy; I don’t even know whether to call it a galaxy, system or universe. Perhaps it doesn’t matter as most of the action is on Grass but it does feel slightly incomplete. The other niggle is the omniscient third person POV. Tepper handles it well so it doesn’t feel like head-hopping, but I did find it a little old-fashioned and in one or two places it is confusing.

So, Grass was excellent, overall. It was complex, deep and thought-provoking. It was beautifully written. It made me want to read everything else she’s written.

Highly recommended.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Grass, Sheri S Tepper

grass-sheri-s-tepperGrass, Sheri S Tepper (1989)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Grass!

Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows, the colors shivering over the prairies in stripes and blotches, the grasses — some high, some low, some feathered, some straight — making their own geography as they grow. There are grass hills where the great plumes tower in masses the height of ten tall men; grass valleys where the turf is like moss, soft under the feet, where maidens pillow their heads thinking of their lovers, where husbands lie down and think of their mistresses; grass groves where old men and women sit quiet at the end of the day, dreaming of things that might have been, perhaps once were. Commoners all, of course. No aristocrat would sit in the wild grass to dream. Aristocrats have gardens for that, if they dream at all.”

It was human overpopulation that drove the exploration of space, the great flight from Terra for other habitable planets with more living space. When all is said and done, the balance of power rests in the hands of Sanctity, a fundamentalist religion turned power bloc that promises its adherents will live forever in its genetic banks. But not even Sanctity and its cloned afterlife is safe from the plague that may doom the dispersed humanity: a roiling miasma of death that kills any human or animal it touches, with life wasting away in a haze of gray lesions and gooey decay. Rumors say that the planet Grass is free from the plague – Grass, named for its endless oceans of green prairie – and so Sanctity’s heirarch names his Catholic nephew Rigo Yrarier the ambassador to Grass, sending him and his family with a secret mission to investigate Grass for signs of plague – or, hopefully, signs of a cure.

Rigo and his wife Marjorie Westriding-Yrarier are both Olympic equestrians, and Sanctity hopes that their experience as riders may be an inroad to Grassian society. Grass has a strong classist system where the elite aristocracy – the Bons, descended from Europeans who fled Sanctity’s intrusion – live in grand estancias, their existence revolving around their near-continuous Hunt. They stay at arms-reach from the commoners huddled around the planet’s only port; nor do they care much for the “Green Brothers”, Sanctified monks all but banished to Grass, excavating the ruins of long-dead alien species called the Arbai. But with the Bons, what the Yrariers find is a dark mockery of a Terran fox-hunt: utilizing “native equivalents”, the Bons ride barbed Hippae alongside frothing Hounds, running down or harpooning the strange, wailing Foxen. To the Bons, a horse is but a common animal in front of the Hippae. And it’s the Hippae who hold the answers to Grass’s secrets, displaying a dark and malevolent intelligence behind their blood-red eyes.

Marjorie is the unlikely heroine: middle-aged, trapped in an unhappy marriage, and now stuck on a planet known for its bizarre rituals and distrust of outsiders. Her husband and daughter plan to ride Hippae and join the Hunt, not wanting to lose face in front of the Bons; when her daughter vanishes during the Hunt, Marjorie sets out to find her with a group of odd companions, including a plague survivor, an elderly Green Brother quite attuned to Grass’s ecosystem, and Sylvan bon Damfels, a striking young aristocrat who’s fallen for Marjorie. Thrust into this chaos, Marjorie often has her doubts, questioning her role in her family, her relationship with Rigo, and in several long sections, questions the strictures of her faith. Yet despite all adversity, she proves a capable and competent heroine, unraveling the planet’s deep mysteries.

Tepper’s writing is pretty good; she has flashes of sublime imagery, and can evoke pure dread in the early sections dealing with the Hippae. Tepper reminds me of CJ Cherryh from her mix of sociopolitical intrigue, alien culture and biology, and good old-fashioned thrills, along with some social commentary. With Grass, that commentary is mostly on religious and moral grounds – it’s clear Tepper has no love for extremists (as Sanctity shows), but Marjorie and her “Old Catholic” family offers up a fairly balanced religious dialogue, a rare sight in SF. Tepper’s plotting is strong, too; the first half of the novel moves at a slower pace, introducing the many characters and subplots and foreshadowing what’s to come. The novel’s pacing picks up around the middle, and the final third of the novel sees all the plots and subplots crash together. Covering all of them is a futile effort; suffice to say that even when it’s slow-going, the book is packed.

While a strong novel, Grass is not immaculate; the plague is a nice macguffin, but both it and the planet’s surprise biology end up suffering from a lack of believable science. There’s also a distinct feel that Tepper was making things up as she went along, as some of the twists feel neither plotted or natural: Rigo first appears as an intense but loving husband, until suddenly he has a secret mistress, who (later) Marjorie suddenly knew about all along, and Rigo descends to become a cartoonish caricature of a domineering patriarch. In another case, Sylvan bon Damfels shows up at the commoner town and is annoyed that the commoners ignore him and treat him as useless, and suddenly it’s as if his life-long desire has been to be welcomed by the common folk. The ending is rushed and lacks impact, some elements are too stereotypical, and several of the characters (Sylvan, for one) remain underdeveloped. And some readers may chafe against the religious and moral philosophizing.

Overall, though, I found Grass a fascinating read. It balances social, religious, and scientific ideas in a novel rich with intrigue and action and a dash of horror. Combined with the stellar world-building, Tepper impressed me with her storytelling, weaving a complex narrative with dozens of characters and a multi-layered plot; even if it’s wrapped up too neatly, it’s an impressive effort. Grass has its flaws and imperfections but it also does so many things right, and I have a hard time being too critical. What Tepper has written is a very ambitious novel; like most ambitious novels, there’s that whole “reach exceeds grasp” thing, but what is grasped is more than enough to make Grass successful. I’d recommend it to most SF readers as a worthwhile read, provided they don’t immediately flee from its religion or ecofeminism.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm

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

Three months ago I had never heard of Kate Wilhelm. Science Fiction and other Suspect Ruminations ran a week of Wilhelm guest reviews recently, which alerted me to her existence. I found Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang in Aberdeen’s fine second-hand bookshop Books and Beans, a week after that, and carried it home in triumph. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang won the Hugo Award in 1977 for the best science fiction novel, as well as the Jupiter and the Locus in the same year. The Jupiter Award for best novel, according to Wikipedia, was only awarded four times, and two of the other three winning books were Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. These three have also won the Locus Award, along with, for instance, Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake. So, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang should be a good indication of the quality of Wilhelm’s 1970s sf.

I read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang with increasing attention over a day. Though it was highly absorbing, beautifully written and had a good, thought-nagging central premise, it bothered me. Afterwards, in chats with other folks online, it appears the novel was stitched together from a set of novellas, which helped me understand its curious structure, constructed of sections with overlapping character involvement. It’s set in a post-disaster scenario sometime in the future, on the east coast of America (yawn … why do American writers think this is the optimum location for futuristic survival narratives? There are other areas in the world …) in a remote valley somewhere near Washington DC (convenient for a later metaphor on the destruction of the Capitol equalling the Destruction of the Nation).

A tight-knit and frankly rather creepy family, called Sumner after its patriarch, decide that they will pool all their cash and technical training to build a secret underground laboratory and learn to clone human beings. Any day now, the very obvious changes in weather, disease resistance and crop failure will kill off most of the Earth’s population, and they want to ensure some kind of survival.

In the Sumner family all its professionals and technically trained people are male, whereas the women are only allowed to be mothers and cooks. This is disturbing: this speculative novel was written after many other sf novelists had managed to imagine a future society in which social systems had evolved along with science and technology, yet it will not let go of the social norms of the era in which Wilhelm grew up, the 1940s. What was she thinking? Wasn’t she aware of feminism, or civil rights developments in her own society? She creates a conveniently normate group of characters to enhance the lesson her central plot gives – that artificially repressing difference suppresses humanity’s strengths – but it also suggests that she wasn’t interested in drawing a whole society, only an idea.

The big, big futuristic, wildly speculative aspect of this idea that does show Wilhelm thinking totally out of the 1970s box in terms of social evolution is in how she uses sexuality. The clones are encouraged to be sexually active in all possible permissive ways from as early an age as they want, and they evolve a mat-playtime component to their socialising. This is essentially a long group sex session for group bonding and mutual satisfaction and comfort, enhanced by their in-group telepathy. I assume that the germ of this idea came from Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Some other 1970s preoccupations – for instance ecology – also made it into her story of the possible future.

Wilhelm was clearly thinking only about the social effects of cloning on society, since the successive four sections of the novel deal with what happens when cloning has been achieved; what happens to an isolated society when a child is born naturally and grows up outside a clone group; and how cloning reduces imagination and lateral thinking to such an extent that the highly trained clones can’t think for themselves, and are ultimately an evolutionary dead-end. This vision is brilliant, a splendidly-told and enacted extrapolation of a single idea, that works so well as a central thread of narrative. This is why this novel won its awards.

Wilhelm writes with most power when she’s describing how Mark, the throwback human in the community of clones, behaves and acts in opposition to his environment. This is a very effective way of imagining being human as ‘other’, and works so well to add tension to the brave but hopeless expeditions of the clones to try to find new supplies. They can’t learn to find their way in the woods, they don’t understand how to rebuild a mill, they can’t improvise or imagine, they don’t believe what they haven’t been told, they die of exposure and radiation, but not stupidity. The clones are not stupid, they’re just incapable of learning and adapting. Ultimately, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is about what being human means.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.