No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

2010/82: The Left Hand of Darkness -- Ursula Le Guin

I certainly wasn't happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can't earn, and can't keep, and often don't even recognise at the time; I mean joy. (p. 241)
Reread for bookclub: I first read this novel as a teenager, and have reread it a couple of times since, though not for a while. I was surprised by just how much I'd forgotten, and by what had stuck with me. (My recollection focussed on the trip across the ice, which is actually less than a third of the book. I'd forgotten about Estraven's son. I'd forgotten, or possibly not even registered, the allusions to Soviet-era communism.)

I still think this is one of the finest SF novels I've ever read: for atmosphere, for characterisation, for plot, for invention and for Le Guin's prose, which is so deceptively simple that it's easy to miss the precision and power.

There is a lot in this novel about self and other: about how patriotism's dark underside is fear of the other. The Gethenians, being both male and female (and, most of the time, neuter, so they're not driven by the sexual urge), necessarily have novel definitions of 'other'. Their society displays some marked differences to other known human societies that Genly Ai, a solitary emissary from the Ekumen (a confederacy of over eighty worlds, all inhabited by the 'normal' -- Le Guin uses 'bisexual' -- human species), struggles to comprehend. There is no war (which he interprets as a lack of masculine organisation). There are true and accurate prophecies which don't 'seem to matter' (aha, thinks Ai, that's feminine passivity). The Gethenians, inhabiting a planet without other mammals, without domesticated animals of any kind, are a race alone: they have addressed this situation by defining themselves as the centre of things. It's always Year One: they live in a continual present.

The word shifgrethor, which describes the underlying code of conduct that governs Gethenian society -- "prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship" (p. 14) -- is rooted in a word for shadow: and The Left Hand of Darkness is about shadows and light, from the bland Orgota ('it was as if they did not cast shadows', p. 147) to the depthless disorientation of a snowscape without sunshine -- without shadow, which aids perception.

Genly Ai gradually learns to see the Gethenians as people, rather than trying to force his (somewhat misogynist) gender-based dichotomies on them. Near the beginning of the novel, he uses 'effeminate' as a perjorative; describes somebody as 'graceful as a girl'; tries to force individuals into gender-based roles ('my landlady'). The prejudice isn't unidirectional: the Gethenians think of him as a pervert, someone who's permanently stuck in a single gender, and is permanently in a state of sexual potency. Eventually, through his friendship with Estraven, he begins to realise that he has more in common with any Gethenian than he has with a human female.

There are some interesting observations on gender roles and stereotyping: Gethenians spend the majority of their lives in a state of somer, sexual inactivity, thus sex is separate from everyday life, 'a room apart'. Plenty, too, on Genly Ai's growing realisation of his own gender biases.

As I said above, what I remembered most clearly from this novel was the trip across the ice. Now I'm wondering if Le Guin had read the same accounts of Antarctic exploration that I encountered some years later: if those narratives felt familiar and right to me because I'd experienced them before, filtered through Le Guin's spare, elegant writing.

I seem to recall that Le Guin was criticised for using the masculine pronoun throughout: as she has Genly Ai explain:
lacking the Karhidish 'human pronoun' ... I must say 'he', for the same reasons as we used the masculine pronoun in referring to transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine. But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman. (p.94-5)

Le Guin later revised a short story set on Gethen, 'Winter's King' (in The Wind's Twelve Quarters), using the feminine pronoun to refer to Gethenians throughout the story. I remember reading this and finding it more consciously odd than The Left Hand of Darkness.

(There's also an essay by Le Guin, somewhat poorly OCR'd, on The Gender of Pronouns)

Le Guin's introduction is an excellent essay on why science fiction is not escapist, predictive, prescriptive:

Yes, indeed the people in [this novel] are androgynous, but that doesn't mean that I'm predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I'm merely observing, in the peculiar, devious and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. ... I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist's way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies. (frontmatter)
I think it's about time I reread all the Le Guin novels that I haven't revisited for years. I wonder what new things I will find in them.

(And I note that this review, or collection of thoughts, barely mentions Estraven: but I find him one of the most likeable, intriguing and rounded characters in fiction, and I would love to read his backstory in more detail than Le Guin gives it.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

2010/81: Runemarks -- Joanne Harris

Seven o'clock on a Monday morning, five hundred years after the End of the World, and goblins had been at the cellar again. (p.3)
... which gets my award for the best opening line I've read all year.

Maddy Smith, fourteen and restless, lives in the small village of Malbry, just a couple of miles from goblin-infested Red Horse Hill. She's a misfit, accused of witchcraft (though that same witchcraft comes in handy when goblins sour the milk or break into the church) and ostracised for the 'ruinmark' on her hand: her only true friend is a mysterious vagabond, One-Eye, who has spent many summers teaching Maddy the history of the world, abridged. It's five hundred years since the 'final battle' of Ragnarok, when the old gods (the 'Seer-folk') were defeated and the puritanical Order came into being.

Your average fantasy-savvy teenager (this book's published as YA) will recognise One-Eye and Lucky before Maddy does. There are quite a few surprises along the way, though, as Maddy finds herself on an Epic Quest (TM) to rescue the oracle known as the Whisperer and aid the gods in their efforts to prevent the Nine Worlds from descending into chaos.

Runemarks has its roots in Harris's very first novel, the sprawling and 'unpublishable' Witchlight which she began while at school. It seems, from interviews and essays (e.g. this, on the author's site) to have been one of those projects that's the author's secret love, even while that author is writing best-selling novels with a touch of magic. Harris's sheer enthusiasm for her setting, and the depth of her characterisation (for characters do evolve considerable depth when they're being written over decades) makes Runemarks compelling, pacy and incredibly good fun. It's also extremely funny, and features my favourite character from the Norse pantheon in all his 'volatile ... and nasty' glory.

"So what you're saying is I shouldn't play with fire," [Maddy] said at last.
"Of course you should," said One-Eye gently. "But don't be surprised if the fire plays back." (p.35)

Maddy is likeable, quick-witted and competent: her discoveries about her friend, the world, and herself drive one layer of the book. There's a parallel thread concerning the Order and the ineffable Nameless, and their attempts to enforce their own kind of magic (the Word) on the world(s). There is also plenty of darkness -- Harris doesn't shy from the nastier bits of Norse myth -- and a pot-bellied pig. Absolutely delightful, and I'm already eager to read the sequel.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

2010/80: The Dream Master -- Roger Zelazny

... no neuroparticipant will ever undertake to treat a full-blown psychotic. The few pioneers in that area are all themselves in therapy today. It would be like driving into a maelstrom. If the therapist loses the upper hand in an intense session he becomes the Shaper rather than the Shaped. (p.33)

Reread after seeing Inception: I can't remember exactly when I first read this, or whether I read the original novella (He Who Shapes) before I read the expanded version. I've certainly been familiar with the story since my mid-teens.

And yet there is a great deal that I'd forgotten. I'd forgotten that it's set in the 1990s -- a future with exploration of the solar system, fully-automated cars, oddly dated computers: a future that's passed. I'd forgotten the casual misogyny ("Diagnosis: Bitch. Prescription: drug therapy and a tight gag"). I'd forgotten just how flawed Render, the protagonist, is.

The science in this science fiction novel is psychiatry: Render enters, controls and guides the dreams of his patients, using mythic archetypes and brute force as therapeutic devices. His latest patient is also a mental health worker -- a blind psychiatrist who wants to learn what it is to see the world. Eileen Shallott happens to be gorgeous, needy and powerful in her own right. Render, predictably, falls in love. But there are several obstacles: his ongoing relationship with Jill, his over-protectiveness of his son, and the antagonism of Eileen's seeing-eye dog Sigmund, who has been genetically altered to permit him limited speech and considerable intelligence.

It cannot end well.

The Dream Master dates from early in Zelazny's career, before the Amber books and the science-fictional reworkings of Egyptian, Norse, Hindu, Native American mythology. There are already signs of some classic Zelazny themes: the solipsism of the man who creates the world around him (albeit only in dreams), the arrogance of somebody who's at the top of their game, the use of myth to illustrate and reinforce the primary thread of story. There's some glorious (if occasionally florid) prose, as usual: there's black humour and fine dining and visual spectacle.

Because it's nearly half a century since this was published, it's difficult to be sure just how groundbreaking Zelazny's vision of the future of psychiatry read when it was new.
Physical welfare is now every man's right, in excess. The reaction to this has occurred in the area of mental health. Thanks to technology, the reasons for many of the old social problems have passed, and along with them went many of the reasons for psychic distress. But between the black of yesterday and the white of tomorrow is the great gray of today, filled with nostalgia and fear of the future ... (p. 41)

The Dream Master is a short novel (182 pages) and a deceptively simple one, in comparison to the complex epics that now seem to be the norm for SF and fantasy. It does feel dated, but the story -- hubris, myth, a doomed love affair and the temptation to meddle and play Pygmalion -- still works.

Monday, November 01, 2010

2010/79: Room -- Emma Donoghue

"He's a very special boy."
Ma shrugs. "He's just spent his first five years in a strange place, that's all."
"You don't think he's been shaped -- damaged -- by his ordeal?"
"It wasn't an ordeal to Jack, it was just how things were." (p. 236)

Room, based on the Josef Fritzl case, is Emma Donoghue's seventh novel: it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and is being described as her breakthrough work. I've very much enjoyed previous works (Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Life Mask), which have featured historical settings, lesbian relationships, a darkly comic streak. Room is not a novel that one enjoys, precisely, though the surgical precision and the careful restraint of the prose is amazing. I am astounded by this novel, and found it profoundly affecting and surprisingly upbeat, but I don't think I ever want to read it again.

Room tells the story of a young woman abducted, imprisoned in a converted garden shed ('Room') for seven years, and repeatedly raped by her captor, by whom she has a son. The story is told from the point of view of the boy, Jack, who is celebrating his fifth birthday as the book opens.

Times are hard. Turns out the unnamed captor has lost his job, and is struggling to pay his mortgage. 'Ma' (she's never named) realises that if he believes he's going to lose his house, she and Jack are in grave danger. She's tried, of course, to escape before: she's attacked 'Old Nick', she's signalled in Morse code, she and Jack have stood under the skylight screaming as loudly as they can. Now she has to persuade Jack to help. There's one major problem with this: Jack has grown up believing that nothing outside the walls of Room is real. Everything he sees on the TV, everything in books, is made up.

SPOILERS FROM HERE
They do escape, and the second part of the ordeal begins: the media circus, the medical tests, the reunion with family. The construction of the legal case against 'Old Nick', and Jack's unwilling adjustment to life outside, a life in which he's no longer the centre of his mother's existence, a life in which he has to rebuild every one of his beliefs about reality:
When I was four I thought everything in TV was just TV, then I was five and Ma unlied about lots of it being pictures of real and Outside being totally real. Now I'm in Outside but it turns out lots of it isn't real at all. (p.277)
The fact that the novel's told from Jack's viewpoint sets it apart from the average crime novel: Donoghue makes his voice credible, but never sentimental or cute. Jack is a child, as curious and accepting and selfish as any other: if anything, the most harrowing moments were those of unthinking cruelty on his part. We only see 'Ma' through his eyes: she doesn't even get a name of her own, but her courage and resilience and sense of humour are plain as day.

After I'd read this, I didn't read another novel for nearly a month: even then, I felt the need for something 'easy'.

Report of reading and Q&A session with Emma Donoghue