Contact (Part 1?)

Great science fiction stories should leave the readers asking questions. This statement is probably true of all stories, but I’m particularly interested in science fiction, so I’m focusing on those. In the past week or so I’ve had intense discussions about science fiction television shows and films, and I’ve thought intense things about science fiction books, but I lack others who have read those books to have quite the same kinds of discussion. I’ve posted the discussion I had with a friend on Twitter about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man” (Season 2, episode 9) before (and here is it again), but even now I’m having new thoughts about that episode – about the importance of addressing ideas we hold to be true (in this case, the consciousness of Data) against those who do not agree in a way which allows us to examine our viewpoint and make it more forcefully. I wish I could do that too, sometimes. I’ve been reflecting on how stories encourage us to ask those questions, how they might lead us to certain answers, and what it is useful to ask in science fiction; in particular recently I have been thinking about the question of contact with alien life.

There are two principal sources of these thoughts: the first was reading the Hugo Award nominated The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu); the second was this article in February’s Clarkesworld magazine, which I only just got around to reading. (In the background, I’ve been re-watching The X Files too, in which contact comes up a lot). In the Clarkesworld article, Mark Cole discusses the limited examples of “friendly aliens” in science fiction (mostly cinema; there’s no discussion of the Federation or Ekumen or any other alliance of worlds) and suggests that stories of conquering aliens are more common because we can believe that from human nature and history. I’m not completely convinced that human history is quite so replete with conquerors and violence (perhaps European history) rather than co-operation and allegiance – perhaps it’s just that the conflict receives greater emphasis in our history books? But I also feel that this interpretation is a far too literal reading of contact stories. The Three-Body Problem discusses the impact it would have on human society if the existence of extraterrestrial life were discovered, which is a much more interesting idea. In this scenario, human beings discover that they are not alone in the galaxy and have to come to terms with that knowledge. The approach here is more interesting because it looks at how human beings behave, requiring no idea about the alien life at all – because we have no idea what alien life is like, but we know how human beings react to the unknown, or to new knowledge. Personally, I find the questions about how human beings behave much more interesting than inventing an alien conqueror.

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Do you remember the first time?

A couple of things have prompted this blog, which is about authors’ first novels. Primarily it is a combination of reading Endless by Matt Bone and the fact that my girlfriend’s first novel is currently being edited for release in January next year. But a second prompt came from the author Sam Sykes, whose work I have never read and whom I do not follow on twitter, but the publisher Gollancz re-tweeted this a few days ago:

[View the story “A message to independent writers” on Storify]

Now, I don’t agree 100% with the sentiments expressed in these tweets. As Sykes himself confesses, he hadn’t found his voice by the time he was published. And there is a reason, for example, that I “publish” this blog rather than keeping a diary or something which would be private, rather than public. Even though only a few people look at it the response of the public, of people I don’t know, can generally be very interesting. Sometimes it can be offensive or rude, but those can hopefully be ignored. But some of the most constructive criticism you can get is from people who will be blunt, because they don’t know you. And in this way, you can improve.

The idea that a first novel should be very good is in some ways an anathema. After all, it is the curse of many bands that, after an exceptional first album, the second just cannot live up to the hype. Arcade Fire suffer from having an excellent and well-loved first album despite their later success and I firmly believe that by most other bands Neon Bible would be regarded as a classic and one of their best; for Arcade Fire it is sidelined, hidden away, simply because it could not live up to Funeral. Fortunately, The Suburbs was magnificent enough that it challenged the first album for greatness. A better position to be in, however, is that of a band like the White Stripes who, as far as I can tell because I wasn’t really paying attention at the time, had two fairly OK albums, and then two magnificent ones a bit later on. As Sykes argues, the first books often don’t have a voice. If you emerge with a voice fully formed, then all you will attract later is complaints when you try to change and develop it.

To apply this to novels, the first author who springs to my mind is, as ever, Ursula Le Guin. Her first novel, developed from short stories, was Rocannon’s World, a fairly good science fiction/fantasy novel which, as she would later comment herself, is not as good as what Gene Wolfe does with similar concepts. The ensuing trilogy, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions is fine, but much of what is done with these books – the ethnographer on a strange planet in Rocannon’s World, the permafrost of Planet of Exile – is picked up again and developed in The Left Hand of Darkness, an undoubtably superior book. At around the same time she began the Earthsea series, and again we see improvement as the trilogy goes along, but personally I feel that the trilogy as a whole shows a lot more competence as a writer because she had grown more, learned by doing, and reached a better point in her skill to do what she wanted as an author. Should Rocannon’s World have remained unpublished? Of course not! Then the series may not have developed, and we would not have Left Hand nor The Dispossessed, and the world would be a more impoverished place.

A counter-argument perhaps emerges when a first book is phenomenally successful, or belongs in a series which becomes phenomenally successful and relies on reading every volume. I’m thinking of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. I don’t think I’m going to be expressing too controversial an opinion if I suggest that Stone is not the best of the Harry Potter books (it’s Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban) but it has to be good enough to fit with the standard of the rest of the series. And I would say it does, perhaps because in the latter part of the series the books become too long and perhaps were less successfully edited. But here I would suggest the problem is more Arcade Fire, and the series has to be considered as a whole rather than as individual parts. The “second novel”, therefore, is not Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets but The Casual Vacancy. Comments on the internet are already being bitter about the success of the well-loved by all ages Potter and the fact that Rowling can’t write anyway so it will be rubbish blah blah blah; these are people who will never be pleased. But even for those who devoured the Potter books as children, writing something different after such a long time poses difficulties, and it might be a lot easier (if not necessarily better, or more successful) were the first series not to have attracted the attention which I did, and if there were less pressure and fewer assumptions about how the book needs to be.

I think I will have some more thoughts on this topic in the future, when I have read King Rat, China Miéville’s first book, which is unlikely to be as good as The City and the City. As a concluding thought I would perhaps say this: when my literary intentions were greater, and I was reading about the publishing industry, I kept on being told that most authors have an unpublished first novel. Others, for example The Flood by Ian Rankin, are published but sink without a trace only to find a new lease of life when the author finds success elsewhere, such as in the phenomenal Rebus series. The first is not the most important. It is important, as a foot in the publishing door if nothing else. But, really, the follow-up is much more important. Showing that you have longevity, and can keep on going – that’s what you want in an author.

Prometheus Unbound (2 of 2)

I started to write this blog immediately after I had written the previous Prometheus blog, which can be found here. That was some time ago. My life has kept me away from writing this blog and the film has faded into memory a little, now generally only refered to as a joke (saying “So that’s what Prometheus was about!” whenever someone says something profound, or stupid) or as a proverbially bad film. Furthermore, what I wanted to do with the blog changed after I read Film Critic Hulk’s very long analysis which I felt covered everything which needed to be said about why the film was bad, and what needed to be done with it.

After reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell I began to have some more profound thoughts about the questions prodded by Prometheus. One of my problems with The Sparrow was that the aliens did not feel to me to be suitably alien, as they engaged in what was basically a Capitalist system, and while there were a couple of fundamental differences the aliens were fairly similar to humans, with similar motivations and desires. One of the beautiful things about the Alien franchise was that the xenomorphs were so completely alien in so many ways. The lethal, perfect predator desired by The Company, evolved for survival. It did not appear to be intelligent in the way that we are, but it was smart and skilled. It adapted. In Prometheus we learned that, contrary to known facts about the evolutionary process, they shared the same creators as us, which were basically massive humans (even having the same DNA!).

In the Hainish Cycle/Ekumen books I find that Ursula Le Guin has a good excuse for the similarity all the species have to human beings: they are descended from the same ancestors, the Hain, who colonised the universe in a far distant past. Some, such as the Gethen, appear to have been the result of genetic engineering, while the Athsheans have evolved to be very different indeed. There differences are intended to reflect on aspects of Earth society and this works. I suppose that in The Sparrow they are intended to look very similar, but to turn out very, very different. In Alien, it seems to me, they were intended to be absolutely terrifying. In Prometheus they were designed to… what? To generate a question. To ask “what if we were made by another species?” But the answer is provided by the film: “Ah, but who made them?” It’s not actually an answer. It’s a deferral of the question. It’s like asking what a Lego structure is made from and answering “Lego”. The real answer is plastic, but it’s being deferred to sound clever, even though it isn’t.

With the xenomorphs ruled out the most alien aliens I know of are the Areikei/Hosts in China Miéville’s Embassytown. The Areikei are very different to the human beings whom they host but are changed by their contact with the outside world in a number of ways which make them more similar to humans, but they are still incredibly different in both biology and social structures. This is perhaps due to my ignorance with a lot of SF but they seem very alien in ways that I can’t see being easily topped. But what, then, is the point of creating an alien species? It is different in Embassytown, which explores the nature of language, to the use in Prometheus, which is closer to The Sparrow and A Case of Conscience by James Blish. These three narratives aim to ask questions of the place of human beings in the universe and in relation to god when there are other intelligent beings in the universe. One of the key questions, both in the fictions and for the Catholic Church, is the importance of the crucifixion in the wider universe.

I didn’t notice the correspondence in Prometheus between the disaster which occurred on LV-223 and the crucifixion – that they were both 2000 years ago. Once this is pointed out one can begin to see that the problems began to occur because humanity killed the Engineer’s embassy to Earth who was Jesus Christ. I’m not entirely certain what Prometheus is trying to say with this. Catholic dogma always taught me that the crucifixion was necessary to the forgiveness of human beings for the sin of Adam (who they also taught me was fictional). Also, it is followed by the resurrection. Removing the divinity of Christ from the question and the resurrection as the proof of the power of god’s love seems to me to render the story of Christ fairly meaningless. He is not much more profound than any other ancient philosopher, it’s just that his story thrived in a way that others didn’t. It suggests to me a great ignorance about the religions of the world in the early Roman Empire – why, for example, was it not Mithras, or Alexander of Abonoteichus who was the Engineer, and the rejection of their teachings the problem? It seems to me that Christ has done very well, and being annoyed because he was sacrificed (when individual Engineers had been sacrificed to create life anyway, in the opening scene of the film) disregards the fact that he was the most influential figure on the last 2000 years of human history. Although I suppose portraying god as a petty, stupid creature actually comes as close to the god in which I could actually believe as any representation of god I have heard.

The Sparrow and A Case of Conscience never directly reference the crucifixion, as I recall. Jesus plays something of a side-part in their narratives; perhaps analogous to contemporary Christianity? But they do question, if there is other life in the universe, what part do they play in creation? Like Prometheus they don’t really provide an answer – how can they? We have not yet encountered extraterrestrial life and it is questionable whether religious belief will play much of a role if we actually do so. The likelihood is generally decreasing. But they ponder the question in a way Prometheus completely fails to do. Blish mentions that the Catholic Church has guidelines for the treatment of extraterrestrial life, but the internet is not very forthcoming with them. It involves the question of whether the beings have a soul; if they are fallen (as we are) in which case they need to be saved; if they are not fallen then how do we interact with them? A Case of Conscience was written before he knew of this guide, if it exists; The Sparrow appears to exist in ignorance of it.Prometheus doesn’t even seem to think that it will cause a problem, except in the sense of deferring the question which I mentioned above.

Something which is acknowledged by The Sparrow but which appears beyond the grasp of Prometheus is that science and religion aren’t actually in competition. Not really. The argument is that while science can tell you what happened it cannot tell you why it happened. As The Sparrow puts it (and I have heard elsewhere, an In Our Time on the subject can be found here) “God is in the why”. This is a fault inherent in both modern religious thinking – which tries to insert god into science where it doesn’t belong, as in the intelligent design hypothesis – and in modern atheism – which in general can prove that religion probably isn’t right, and has no real basis, but can’t actually prove it wrong in most cases. I believe that there are actually some biological arguments to suggest that religion is actually wrong, but I don’t know them so I won’t come down on that side of the argument. Instead, I will resort to popular culture. For you see, the real answer to this question (which a lot of proper atheists will accept and probably tell you) comes from a lesser-known quotation of the Jedi Master Yoda in the film The Empire Strikes Back:

There is no why.

This is fundamental to being an atheist. If you think there is a reason why, then you are agnostic. That’s OK too. Here we have reached the state of philosophy, and there are no right answers. Or rather there should be no way of confirming the right answers. If a god appeared to me and explained all the whys to me in a logical way which made sense to me I’d start believing that there was one. Or would I know there was one? I’m afraid my philosophical education was cut short when I decided archaeology was the most interesting part of Classics.

Does this make life pointless? Is this a negative attitude? I believe Jean-Paul Sartre had something to say on the matter, but in this circumstance my actual source for my personal philosophy is Mr Joss Whedon again,* in his second greatest television series (bearing in mind I haven’t watched Dollhouse) and, if you are reading this Jonathan, this is a SPOILER ALERT but I am going to remove character names and not mention where it is from to reduce that, if you want to read it nonetheless.** This is what I think:

“[…] it’s like nothing I do means anything.”

It doesn’t.”

Doesn’t what?”

Mean anything. In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win.”

You seem kind of chipper about that.”

Well . . . I guess I kind of worked it out. If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if . . . nothing we do matters . . . then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long for redemption, for a reward, finally, just to beat the other guy. But I never got it.”

Now you do?”

Not all of it. All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”

Yikes. Sounds like you’ve had an epiphany.”

That’s what I keep saying, but nobody’s listening!”

So where to conclude? That I got more out of an episode of one of Joss Whedon’s shows than I got out of the entire film Prometheus? Is that such a surprise? I think I get more out of that than I get out of most of the ancient literature I’ve read, except perhaps Lucretius, which taught me not to believe in an afterlife and won me a lollipop from Josie Long. Perhaps that asking the question isn’t enough, proposing an answer is necessary? But I have admitted to believing that there is no answer. Accepting, then, that there is no answer. But this is not good for everybody. Some people want an answer. Sometimes it is hard, believing or understanding the universe to be pointless.

But perhaps it is this. I loved The Sparrow. I liked A Case of Conscience. And I was raised Catholic. While I was wondering around colleges the other day I commented to the girlfriend that I was glad we’d had religion, as it had produced so much or beauty. And it still does, if you would like to look at Aaron Sorkin’s question of theodicy in the excellent West Wing episode “Two Cathedrals” below. I don’t believe in a god, and I don’t think that it is necessary to do so. But I do think that it is essential to come to that conclusion yourself, and to have a reason, and to understand that it means no reason. But no reason doesn’t matter. If there’s no reason, everything is important.

Which perhaps is the more scary answer, after all.

* This episode of this particular series is actually written by Tim Minear, but as he was an executive producer on Firefly and worked on Dollhouse too, we can say fairly strongly that he was close to Mr. Whedon.

** Obviously it’s from either Buffy or Angel, as you’ve seen Firefly and Dollhouse (which I haven’t). And a later point than I know you to be at. But you can get an idea about it, if you don’t read the quotation, from the commentary on Objects in Space, if you have the Firefly DVDs. Or if you know anything about Sartre, which neither I nor Joss Whedon really do.

A recommended tangent

I am resolved now to blog more regularly, and about more interesting things. Or about more themed things so that this blog has a purpose. At some point, I might even link it up to my facebook account so that people I know might actually read it. Might. After all, a couple of people I know already read it, even if one of them is related to me. It’s the other that’s a bit more pressing here, as in his blog he has accepted my “challenge” to try to read 52 books in a year (a challenge I have never achieved, excluding work related books, of course). This blog is an update on that theme: a state of the union type address, if you will, to my attempt to read quite a bit this year.

The last book on which I reported was The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin which, in case you missed it and you can’t click on that link, I adored because I am a “secret” anarchist.* Since then I have read five novels, all of which were very good, and Mark Steel’s In Town, which had its charms; this puts me on seven novels, God is Not Great (partly last year) and In Town, eight and a half in week 11. Behind, already!

Not to mention the fact that I have sort-of cheated. When behind, I have a tendency to pick books which are shorter – the last novel was How to be Topp by Geoffrey Williams and the recently deceased Ronald Searle. In order to get a taste of this novel, I recommend this obitury of Searle, written in the style of the protagonist of How to be Topp N. Molesworth. I had read the preceding Molesworth tale,** Down with Skool!, at the end of last year, and, while I enjoyed it, it hadn’t been quite as spectacular as my brother, who loaned me the book, had led me to believe. How to be Topp, however, really delivered – I’m not sure if that’s because I was in a better mood for it, or if because it had a greater focus on Latin teachers, but the series is well worth sticking with.

Before this, I read a book loaned to me by my sister, Treasures of Time by Penelope Lively. As with How to be Topp, it is possible that my appreciation of this book was based on the connections which it has to my own experiences, in that it concerned the filming of a BBC documentary focused on the exploits of an archaeologist, and one of the protagonists was reading for a DPhil at the University of Oxford (although admittedly not actually in archaeology). Still, there was a reason why Penguin included this book in their Decades series.

As these books have somewhat faded into memory, I’m going to go off on something of a tangent. I started to read this article about the books/film The Hunger Games earlier tonight, but it was really long and I wanted to write this blog. So I stopped. But I got far enough to read the point that most of the books we read are on the recommendation of friends and family, not based on any advertising which publishers can actually do. As the past two books which I have mentioned were loans, I appear to fit this pattern. In fact, going back through this year’s list, we find: The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe (recommended by a friend, although I didn’t trust him so it took me about ten years to get around to reading any Wolfe); The Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood (my mother’s copy, I believe, and recommended by my entire family, although it took me a while, again); The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (recommended by everyone, of course); The Dispossessed (my brother loaned me the Earthsea books a couple of years ago, and I fell in love with Le Guin); A Study in Scarlet (somewhat covered).

On the other hand, I don’t know if anyone I have actually met has read The Hunger Games.*** This is annoying, because I realised while reading that article that if someone told me to I would read the first book right now – I’m between novels, and I’m still mildly disappointed with myself for putting off the Harry Potter books for so long. I dimly recall my brother saying that someone said that they weren’t very good, but lots of people said that the Harry Potter books weren’t very good too, and I really enjoyed them. This includes the friend who recommended The Book of the New Sun, which might be why I put off reading them for so long.

But on the other hand negative criticism has kept me from reading the Twilight books, which (aside from my desire to write an in-depth critique comparing them to Buffy) seems to have been a good thing. So should I ignore the half-remembered criticism, and go with the flow?

In the interests of fairness, I ought to point out that I read the first page of Twilight and was put off, while reading (about) three pages of the kindle preview of Hunger Games made me want to read it, so I won’t take much prompting. But I was somewhat surprised by the analysis of my reading habits, and how (anecdotally, of course) I appear to fit the publisher’s pattern.

* I was asked by a friend the other day if I was a secret anarchist – I pointed out that my political views on Facebook are listed as “anarchist”, so it’s hardly a secret. Really, of course, my anarchism is ideological (and based on V and Shevek, not Kropotkin and Chomski) rather than active or practical. I actually discuss this a bit in the post on The Dispossessed, take a look.

** I say “tale” – the Molesworth books are not really stories, although there are elements of narrative to them.

*** One of my twitter followers has, though. She seemed to enjoy them. Her blog is here, I haven’t read much of it though (sorry Amy). [EDIT: I had a look at Amy’s blog out of guilt, and came across this, which is a great entry. You should read it: http://amystwentytwelve.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/normal-0-false-false-false-en-gb-x-none.html /EDIT]

The Dispossessed

Ursula Le Guin – The Dispossessed

“You ask questions like a true profiteer,” Shevek said, and not a soul there knew he had insulted Dearri with the most contemptuous word in his vocabulary; indeed Dearri nodded a bit, accepting the compliment with satisfaction.

The Dispossessed is the fifth novel by Ursula Le Guin in what is known as the Hainish Cycle to some, to others as the Ekumen, although it is chronologically the first (slightly before The Word for World is Forest). It was published in 1974, in which year it won the Nebula Award, and in 1975 it also won the Locus and Hugo Awards. Le Guin herself comments on what these awards meant to her in this blog, although it is only one paragraph, quite low down, and this was not the first time she had won them, having previously achieved the Nebula/Hugo double for The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. Other blogs by Le Guin are available here, I have read a few of them. The Dispossessed is the thirteenth book I have read by Le Guin, all in the last two-and-a-half years, and it is my joint favourite (with The Tombs of Atuan). This makes it one of my favourite books of all time. I bought it second-hand when I volunteered in the Oxfam bookshop in Aberystwyth in the first half of 2010, so I’ve been waiting a while to read it. I’ve previously written about The Left Hand of Darkness in this blog. While fantastic, I now prefer The Dispossessed.

The Dispossessed is set on the twin worlds of Anarres and Urras, known as Tau Ceti to the Terrans (people of our earth). These planets are populated by a race of human-like creatures which indeed call themselves “human”; the similarity is down to the origins of the human species across the universe in the Hainish Cycle, which is that the Hain colonized the universe, some of which (such as the Gethen in Left Hand) are either probably or certainly the result of genetic engineering. Urras is a world not unlike our own, a patriarchal society with a capitalist economic system. Anarres is the habitable “moon” or twin-planet of Urras, on which lives an anarchist society who chose to leave Urras about two-hundred and fifty years before the time in which The Dispossessed is set. The story revolves around Shevek, a physicist from Anarres, who choses to take up a professorship in a university on Urras when he feels that the society of Anarres is repressing his work.

The subtitle of the book, according to Wikipedia at least, is An Ambiguous Utopia. Anarres is presented as a far from perfect society, oppressed by jealousy and distrust, especially of Urras and the people living there. While there is no ruling system, the foulest insult is to be called a profiteer or propertarian, and egoising is terribly immoral, elements of bureaucracy have sunk into the libertarian structure of Anarres. On Urras, Shevek is presented with the luxury of single rooms, food to waste, and a servant class. He is kept strictly separate from the working classes. But compared to the arid wasteland of Anarres, Urras is beautiful bountiful, and there is plenty to go around. Urras is the most earth-like of all the societies which Le Guin has created,* with its capitalist and socialist societies, the walls which divide them,and the way in which the people of Urras act to one another and to Shevek.

As the novel progresses the perfection of Urras fades and the true freedom and fairness of Anarres becomes clear, I think that Le Guin wishes us to realise how true freedom does lie in the anarchism of Annares. There is an underlying theme that perhaps the Annares are so cut off from Urras, so afraid of someone going there, because they think that, perhaps, it might actually be better. It appears that the people of Annares think this too. Ultimately it appears that the flaw in originally allowing the Anarresti to create their colony, as it has become a symbol to those who might share their ideas – not only on Urras, but to the Hainish and Terran people who have encountered the Cetians as well. And why not? – it is wonderful to think that, somewhere out there in one of the billions of earth-like planets we now know to exist just in this galaxy, one of them has managed to form a working, anarchist society.

He tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him part endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream.

As I was reading so much of this book this afternoon while invigilating a mock exam, I began to think of exam questions which I could set on The Dispossessed.** The only one which I have come up with is “Which is more important to Ursual Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: physics or politics?” Le Guin makes several interesting comments about physics in the book, such as the limitations Einstein’s earth-based humanity had on his perspective of the universe, compared to the much more substantial Cetian physics (which is more advanced than the space-travelling Hainish and Terrans, somehow…). The structure of the book, which begins with Shevek’s journey to Urras then recounts in alternate chapters his life up to that point and his time on Urras, is based on the principal of simultaneity, questioning the linear perspective which we have on time ourselves (although both times are told, in themselves, in order). I enjoyed both Urras and Anarres, so I was perfectly happy with this structure, but I am not sure that I could take any great meaning out of it. All I will suggest is that Le Guin’s previous use of the Ekumen/Hainish universe has been to create stories based on Taoism, which as far as I can tell had been abandoned in this book.

The politics, however, were of great interest to me. I consider myself to be phenomenally left-wing, identifying as anarchist on my Facebook profile at least, in person I will tend towards socialism. I have never read any socialist or anarchist literature besides fiction.*** I also cannot stand economics. Perhaps it is not for the best that my anarchism is based on Le Guin and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, but when people tell me that V is an “ambiguous” hero, or that Anarres is an “ambiguous” utopia, I have to disagree. V’s only failing is that he kills, Anarres may not have much to support life, but having wealth in abundance has not made Urras a more equal society – has not made earth a more equal society. On Anarres, it takes a famine to lead anyone to starve:

He had fasted sometimes when he was working because he did not want to be bothered with eating, but two full meals a day had always been available: constant as sunrise and sunset. He had never even thought about what it might be like to go without them.

So far, so like my middle-class English life on Earth. But the passage goe on to the very heart of the issue:

Nobody in his society, nobody in the world, had to go without them.

It is an anathema to Anarresti society that anyone should eat while another one starves, and this is a planet with practically nothing. It is not even the famine, but a train derailment which leads Shevek to miss his meals. When he comes to Urras there is plenty to go around – and yet there are people with nothing. When we come to earth there is plenty to go around – so why do some have plenty, and others have nothing?

* In the books which I have read, of course.

** Shevek would surely disapprove: “He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand.”

*** I have been told by left-wing friends that my views seem most akin to anarchism, in that I believe order should be based on mutual consent and respect, that authority should be earned through experience, and my general opposition to government, although this latter is partly down to the lack of a party in this country that I would consider supporting.