Book Report: July 2016

Long arduous journeys, conceptual destinations. The journey as metaphor. The journey with fellow humans, some of whom are a serious pain in the ass, or have questionable motives. In the world of Le Guin this is often a pairing, a close relationship that evolves while traveling, one personality is folded into another. In Ballard’s worlds it’s the journey of tribes, the creation and inevitably the destruction of social codes. Ballard could be seen as cynical, but the journeys of Le Guin don’t always go as planned either. At the end of the road? Home, salvation, annihilation, the usual things.

The Left Hand Of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin

Hainish Cycle

I think if I were to begin again I’d read these in the order they were written. More fascinating than the plots has been the evolution of the writing. The end of “Left Hand” dovetails with “The Dispossessed”. The beginning of “Left Hand” is lighter, fitting with the books before it. “Left Hand” is that point where Le Guin figured it out, that this topic of galactic civilization is about individuals as much as anthropological observations, about commonalities as much as the alien element in “Planet of Exile”. There’s a larger social game at work in which the individual fights to remain loyal to their ideology. Sometimes they don’t survive this battle.

It seems possible the “The Word for World is Forest” was influenced by the ending of the Vietnam era, and the series to me fits the history of the US of the sixties and seventies. A fight to find, or maintain one’s self in a volatile country that is full of political games and a culture where you might be perceived as an outsider or alien or ambassador for another world. Especially if you’re a woman writing SciFi.

The story here is told from both the viewpoint of an emissary from the League Of Worlds, as well as the fallen disgraced Prime Minister the emissary befriends. One of the things I’ve loved about Le Guin is that she’s tricking you into reading complex fiction under the umbrella of a genre. By the first third of “The Left Hand” most of the genre has evaporated. You’re left with a story of political struggle and world building where one country is despotic, the other a sinister bureaucracy whose citizens are willing to overlook systematic torture for comfort. More than once in these books Le Guin rails against what she considers social passivity. While Ballard’s outlook may appear more bleak and cynical, the conclusions of Le Guin’s worlds are more accurately damning of human society as a whole.

An interesting aspect of the story here is the ambisexual population. They spend most of their time as non-sexual, or asexual, but periodically enter a phase called “kemmer” where they assume alternatingly a male or female biology. The obvious thing to do here, for lesser writers, would be to fixate on the bisexuality. Instead she considers that asexuality has much more pronounced effect overall for society. The emissary comes from Earth, who are considered perverts because humans there spend almost their entire lives in a sexually aware state. How does lack of sexuality and gender influence decisions, both personally and socially? Try to imagine a society where that sexuality was removed from the constructs, this is what Le Guin presents.

  • The Dispossessed (1974)
  • The Word for World is Forest (1976)
  • Rocannon’s World (1966)
  • Planet of Exile (1966)
  • City of Illusions (1967)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
  • The Telling (2000)

The Burning World

J G Ballard

Like most Ballard, the disaster here accelerates more quickly than the pace he initially leads with. The spiral downward from slight behavioral changes to complete apocalypse is gravitational. The details he chooses to highlight reflect (often literally, since he loves chrome) the dissolving of the social contract, the ideals of characters burning away in a kind of rational irrationality, if that makes any sense.

The story starts with drought, caused by pollution of an oxygen blocking polymer over the Earth’s oceans. The focus is a man named Ransom, a divorced doctor. There are many similarities in structure with his novel “High Rise”. There’s a main character who’s a doctor, there are tribes and friction between them, there’s a character who embodies primitivism, there’s an architect who fulfills the Conrad-Heart-of-Darkness-like antagonist. There’s a journey. In “High Rise” this was through the building itself. Here, it’s across miles of desert between a home town and the seaside. We jump ten years half way in. It’s the end of the world, but people linger, grasping at leftovers and excusing necessary atrocities.

This was written in 1964. The companion book (next up) is “The Drowning World”.

It’s amazing how modern a read this is for being fifty-plus years old. I wonder if it’d seemed exaggerative and preposterous then. It does not seem that way now. And so it is with Ballard. Even though he was in his early thirties, the prose here already moves along with the brutal efficiency he mastered. His sentences become Ballardisms, resolute little devices that build up over time until you succumb.

The Owl Service

Alan Garner

The odd one out this month. It begins as Nancy Drew in Wales. It starts as “Hey kids, there’s a mystery”. Then it gets weird.

What may be an affectation of young adult “pip pip cheerio”, English early 20th century, gives way to the underbelly of Welsh myth and cultural insecurities. Set in a Welsh holiday home, Huw Halfbacon, the eccentric local gardener and handy man, plays the Mabinogion shaman. Nancy, the housekeeper, has come back to the valley after all these years with her son Gwyn, who turns out to be Huw’s real son. The peculiarities begin with a “service” (aka a set of plates) with owl patterns on them. Alison, one of the children of the family on the holiday (or just “holiday”) becomes obsessed with them, and begins to undergo, or trigger, ancient Welsh rituals and myths.

In the first chapter I wasn’t sure I would get through this book. However, there’s something very satisfyingly thorough. As ridiculous as the dialog can be, it’s period and self-contained (and it makes you want to go around saying “jolly good, old chap”). Perhaps like “Wickerman”, and other work loosely called “Folk Horror”, the proper English surface (and stereotype) only enforces the old weird things underneath, the murders, the rites, the paganism. The contrast hooks you in.

Was there a TV adaptation? Why yes there was. And it follows the book very closely… at least sequentially. Interestingly however, are the ages of the children — the young amorous tension in the book, which seemed mostly normal for 14 year olds, becomes heightened here in the series when they’re played by actors clearly in their early 20s. But it just adds to the oddity. I think the TV series is much stranger, and invests much more deeply in the contrast by exacerbating everything it can. It’s not an easy watch, but consider when it was made (1969–1970), it’s really unique.