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.

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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.

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.

The Anger of Achilles

Apparently this blog was viewed by over 500 people yesterday, what the hell? It appears that this is because I discussed Sherlock, and so it has cropped up on the BBC website somewhere. Anyway, that was a bit of a shock. Since writing that I have actually begun to read the Sherlock Holmes stories (although only A Study in Scarlet thus far, and it will be a while until I resume on The Sign of Four because my reading rules dictate that I can’t read two novels by the same writer next to one another) . Study in Scarlet was only the second e-book which I have read in full (discounting numerous short stories which I’ve put as PDFs onto my kindle) and many of the doubts you might have about ebooks should be dispelled by my experience: I devoured it in a way have done few books in the past; the most comparable example is probably Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett, in my opinion the best of the Discworld books. On the other hand, last night I began to read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin and I fell asleep while doing so (not because the book is dull, it’s by UKLG so obviously it’s amazing, but because I was tired) something which I am still unwilling to risk with the expensive* e-book reader, even if I now have a lovely red cover for it.

The other book I’ve read on the kindle was God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, something I don’t think I’d have ever read if it hadn’t been 99p. The only other thing I’ve read (or started to read) by Hitchens was an article explaining why it was impossible for women to be funny – the reason was, basically, men don’t find funny women attractive. I disagreed with this so strongly (the two things which I would suggest are most attractive in a woman are strong left-wing political views and being funny, hence my particular crush on the comedian Josie Long) that even when ostensibly I should agree with him I was put off reading anything by Hitchens. Then he died and I didn’t mind so much. But as Josie Long herself put it (roughly paraphrasing from the Mark Gatiss and Alan Moore Utter Shambles podcast): How is it possible for someone to be so right about some things and so wrong about others? Admittedly, the best way to hook me with a book is to quote Lucretius early on (I adore De Rerum Natura, it’s one of the reasons I’m glad I was a classicist and not a CAAHist); unfortunately Hitchens looses my respect somewhat in the penultimate chapter, claiming that Lucretius was responding to religious reforms under Augustus. No no no! How can I trust the evidential basis for your other claims now, Christopher, if you make such a horrendous blunder on something in which I am well versed? And confound it by not realising that Cicero mentions Lucretius – but he was dead by the time of Augustus, Christopher! Oh well – right about some things, wrong about others I guess.

Anyway, I was meant to be writing about Troy:

Um, though perhaps not that Troy. One of the first things which I intended to do with my kindle was to get hold of the free copies of the Odyssey and the Iliad in order to persuade myself re-read them. I have, horrifically, only read the Iliad once, and that was very quickly in a single day when studying the Aeneid in order to show parallels between them. I hope it’s obvious that, for someone studying warfare in the period in which the Iliad was produced, this is terrible, especially as one of my main arguments is that the period produced the Iliad, therefore war must have been of importance. I started again this morning (classing it as “work”, because it sort of is) planning to read at least one book a day until I’ve re-read them both, which will take far too long so I will aim to read more than that, as well as commenting on them afterwards (probably not always in this blog). My main thought thus far is that, given that absolutely nothing happens in the twelve days between Achilles asking Thetis to ask Zeus to stop supporting the Greeks as they have offended him, why leave those twelve days? It just seems bizarre to do so. What this means, by the way, is that I am still treating “Homer”** as a modern author instead of the Early Iron Age poet which he was.

There is a certain amount of delight to be reading one of the first works of “western” literature on the magical book computer thing.*** I tried, earlier on, to get my kindle to read the Iliad to me, but the American accent and the fact that it couldn’t pronounce “Atreus” really put me off. This would be the ideal way to experience the Iliad, surely – to have it read out, in Ancient Greek, by firelight. Well, no. That over-privileges the origins of these stories (which, it must be pointed out, we don’t really know) rather than the enjoyment of the modern. The moderns are still alive, their experience is more important. But I would never, ever suggest that we should stop studying the Iliad, its origins, and the world in which it was created – how could I, and continue with this damn funding application? Realising the influence, importance, and above all relevance the Iliad still has to the modern world just make understanding its history, and the world in which it was composed, all the more important.

Annoyingly, the version of the Iliad which I am reading has the Roman names for the gods and heroes (Ulysses for Odysseus, Jupiter for Zeus et cetera). It’s like reading an English classic with American spellings. But I can get over that, and find other (free) editions, and read them all – it’s not like I’m reading it in the original anyway, and things change. . .

Finally, I just want to say that I don’t despise the film Troy in the way a lot of my colleagues and contemporaries do. It’s hardly brilliant, but when I saw it for the first time in the cinema I did realise that, in killing Menelaos, they had so severely breached the narrative of the original that it was time to just sit back and enjoy the film for what it was. There is, however, still scope for a great film, or TV series considering the likes of Game of Thrones, to be made of the epic cycle.

* I definitely didn’t type “expenisive” the first time, Dr. Freud, I swear.

** “Homer” is, of course, a later construct, not an historical figure. I think that Hitchens may have refered to him as such in God is Not Great, which would be a shame, but my memory fails me a little – he might have refered to him as semi-mythological, or not at all. Because I have this book on my kindle, I can just search it and realise that he both states that Homer could have been one person or many (“he” was at least two) and that he was mythical. One in the face for real books, there.

*** When looking for a cover for the kindle a lot of comments said that the one with which I have ended up didn’t open to the left, and so did not have that “authentic book feel”. I find this a particularly bizarre comment. It’s never bothered me that a codex doesn’t have that proper, rolling-out-a-scroll feel that a proper book should have.

The Right Hand of Light

This year for Christmas I only received one book: Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe (trans. Alexander O. Smith). However I also got a Kindle, which gives me access to loads of books which can then be carried around in a scarily flimsy magic box much smaller than your average book (although also without a lot of the idiosyncracies inherent in a physical object). I’m not yet ready to write about my thought on ebooks verses real books, by the way. No, this preamble is an introduction to a blog on the basis on which I considered writing several times in the empty months when I didn’t use this blog: based on notes in my journal about books I’ve been reading. Because while I have my magical book box and Brave Story rearranging my room has left me in the mood to re-read one of the books taking pride of place on my shelf: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. (Also this article on the Guardian website).

This mood is particularly stupid as despite the fact that one of my stated aims for this year was to read the last of the Ekumen* books to which I have access I haven’t read The Dispossessed, which might be the best, and since finishing Left Hand in January I have only managed to read The Word for World is Forest, in October. On the other hand, in my diary I did say that Left Hand “will probably need re-reading quite a bit”. The urge to re-read will be resisted, however, primarily on the basis that I don’t want to have to take it back to Oxford and I have too many other things which I’m already reading. I think I will try to next year, but I have given an impression of how good I am at sticking to these intentions I think.

I began 2010 by reading the Earthsea books and I think that I intended to end it by reading the Ekumen – this I suspect was putting too much expectation into Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusion. They were, after all, some of Le Guin’s earliest works, and the Earthsea books, a later series, should have built upon this whether consciously or otherwise. The plots of the Ekumen books tend to (with the exception of City of Illusion thus far) centre on anthropological research and the explorations of either ethnographers or colonizers on new worlds with other human-like populations (after the universe was originally colonized by the Hainish, hence their place in the title of the saga/cycle). In contrast, the Earthsea books (especially A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, which is my favourite of Le Guin’s books which I have read) are simply based on ideas about cults and rites of passage which come from anthropological research, which makes them much better. Left Hand, written I believe at around the same time as Atuan and so perhaps it is unsurprising that I consider this her best streak, successfully combines the two, as I believe much of Le Guin’s feminism is based on what I think of as “feminist realism”**, which is the identification and study of women’s role in history and their importance in social evolution, as opposed to feminist ideology, which is the motivation to change things to produce equality between male and female. I’m a bit too tired to fully explain this, but I hope it makes sense.

Several of my comments on that first “trilogy” (although it isn’t really anything of the sort): Rocannon’s World isn’t brilliant, but it is a first novel and so perhaps I should not be so harsh; Planet of Exile is a big improvement but is “linear, with no great idea of any geography that didn’t involve straight lines” (or, as I put it on 6th January, “a bit Joe Abercrombie”); City of Illusions is exciting if you study a post-apocalyptic society (as I tend to consider the Early Iron Age). If you happen to be reading this as a guide to reading Le Guin’s books, then I do recommend reading these three before reading Left Hand as set-up, but they are not as impressive as individual novels as the Earthsea books. Perhaps the most interesting comment in my diary about Illusions is “not killing is not the same as having reverence for life, the latter is much more.” I can remember these issues in the book a little, and I think that it is the seed of a higher purpose to science fiction literature which Le Guin really came to encompass in the later Ekumen books.

I said in January that I thought that Left Hand read like a conscious reassessment of the previous Hainish novels, mimicking the ethnographer on an uncolonized planet of Rocannon’s World, the journey and Taoism of City of Illusions, and the harsh winter of Planet of Exile. This is another way in which I find that the background of these three novels increased my enjoyment of the later work.

The Left Hand of Darkness has been described by Le Guin as “a thought experiment”. In their articles about the book from the past couple of years the Guardian have refered to this in quotation marks (um, as I just did) but I think this is peculiar. Surely all great science fiction could be described as a “thought experiment”? Perhaps it can be described as Le Guin’s first real science fiction novel, while the first three “Hainish” books are more like future-set fantasy (reading them I came to understand how Le Guin could possibly think Gene Wolfe did what she did only better – he does better than the “Hainish”, not than Earthsea!). The Word for World is Forest and I imagine The Dispossessed follow on from this. And one of the features of Left Hand, the planet which has never had a war, is explored much more saliently in Forest.

“So The Left Hand of Darkness turns out to be a book about duality and oneness, the self & the other, and the role of the male and female within that. The title comes from a telling phrase: “Light is the left hand of darkness, darkness the right hand of light.” Genli draws a Yin-Yang and tells Estravan that it’s him.” Thus was my judgment on the book when finishing it on 15th January. I didn’t have a lot to say, and I’m not sure that i can build on it now. I commented while reading it on how I wasn’t noticing the issues with which I expected the novel to deal, until I came to the section where Genli and Estravan travel across Gethen alone and isolated, which I called “the nub” of the novel. This is one of the areas which I would like to reassess by re-reading the book – I am sure that there must be more build up to this, but that it was too subtle for me to notice.

The earliest comment I made, which I did not make particularly elaborately, is that I like Le Guin’s use of the first person. Comments have been made about the use of the male pronoun in Left Hand to describe the Gethen even though they have no fixed gender – I am a little bit sceptical about genderless pronouns myself*** but surely there is a point that Genli is supposed to think of the Gethen as basically effeminate men who become women during their reproductive cycle sometimes, so surely “he” is the pronoun which he would use? This is perhaps one way in which Le Guin uses the first person to great advantage without apparently realizing, if her introduction is anything to go by. As I said in January: “I’m already beginning to see how I’ve been affected by Genli’s perspective, the judgement of the Gethen as if they were male but occasionally female, rather than a oneness.”

I need to re-read Left Hand, and while I am unlikely to do this immediately I think I will post more thoughts when I do. I would suggest that The Word for World is Forest is not as accomplished a work as Left Hand, showing more similarities in style to the earlier Ekumen novels, while being more thought-provoking and suggesting that more thought may have gone into it. It was also relevant to my thesis, a bit, as I had read a little about the society which Le Guin mentions in her introduction (but I can’t remember the name of, damn!) which was without war – she discovered it, apparently, after the original short story was written. It is the question of the innate nature of warfare – is it learned behaviour? Do the Athshe only practice war because they have seen how Terrans do it? It is good, but while the question remains fundamental it seems somehow less relevant than the gender issues of Left Hand.

I compared the Hainish Cycle as a whole to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (probably a better anti-Vietnam War novel than Forest) but I imagine this is a common element to pre-Star Wars hyperdrive science fiction – the difficulty and time span of getting around, the limitations of distance, the issue of relativity. This was a feature I loved last year when I read Forever War and had never experienced it before. I followed Left Hand with Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, an altogether less comprehensible work apparently written in response to Left Hand. My first comment on it in my diary is that these two books together left me very underwhelmed by the female characters in volume 1 of the comic book The Walking Dead (“Lori explains that she ‘couldn’t have made it to Georgia without the help of big strong man Shane who protected her and knew what to do which she didn’t because she’s a woman and they can’t cope on their own.’ Uh, that’s not a direct quotation exactly, but it might as well be.” 16th January 2011). Female Man lacked plot, but was overflowing with theme, it appears. I condemned it as “of it’s time” suggesting that the “present” woman, Joanna, feels quite “past” now, as Jeaninne is intended to in the novel. [aside – the plot of the novel is that three versions of the same woman from different periods of time meet one another. Or something. That’s what I read somewhere, it’s not clear in the book]. Ultimately I believe my conclusion is that Left Hand is much better, if only on ground of lucidity.

* I believe it is generally the case that this series of books is called the “Hainish Cycle”; however Le Guin herself, in I believe the introduction to The Birthday of the World, says that she calls them “Ekumen” or something – I don’t have the book with me to check. This seems a bit odd, as the term Ekumen isn’t in use in the original three books or two of the other three novels. Then again, this FAQ on her website shows that she doesn’t really think of them this way anyway, so why should we? I call them the Ekumen Cycle out of habit. It’s probably not important.

** I think it’s important to point out at this juncture that these quotation marks are intended to indicate that I am quoting myself, not because I believe the term feminism belongs in quotation marks. It doesn’t, it’s brilliant. Not that I think quotations make things not brilliant. But it looks like I’m being sarcastic or ironic or something. I’m very worried about tone in written works on the internet.

*** This is a bit too long to put in brackets so I am giving it a footnote. I think the English language desperately needs a genderless pronoun. But when discussing Left Hand in the opening meeting of the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group (OUSFG for short) this term the discussion of extra gender pronouns came up, and a work of Charlie Strauss (which I have not read) which includes nine (or something). This strikes me as a. excessive and b. too far beyond reality to be as relevant as Le Guin’s work. The proposed genderless pronoun which I have picked up from other OUSFG meetings is, I believe “xe”. I understand that some people object to the female honorific “Ms” because it is too difficult to say (it isn’t, but whatever), so “xe” is hardly likely to catch on (I think it’s pronounced “ze”). The point of this is that if we don’t have an acceptable pronoun in 2011, what was Le Guin supposed to use 42 years ago?