Sunday, September 22, 2019

SUMMER SCI-FI READING ROUNDUP 2019

The following mini-reviews cover the most memorable reads for me over the last summer (2019):

Allan's previous effort, The Rift, has made me a permanent fan of this author, who I've come to worship as a writer. Persistent attention to emotion and relationships amidst the unusual, the abnormal, and the strange put Allan in a category of her own. There's an odd little science fiction story embedded into this narrative close to the end, and we have a novel-within-a-novel structure that I liked more than I thought I would. This summer I went to Cornwall, all the way to Land's End, so the latter parts of this story, where the Dollmaker makes his way to see his developing love interest, resonated particularly well for me, especially the description of the otherworldly landscapes of the mining areas.


I've been prone to do what many Canadians do quite often, namely, diss Atwood for no particularly good reason. We are especially harsh on Atwood probably because she makes such an easy target, always popping up everywhere seeming to claim some kind of hegemonic status in the business of representing Canada's voice on the world literary stage.  But her voice is very much her own and that is nowhere more apparent than here. It might be easy, as Atwood herself so ironically demonstrates herself with a cameo in the TV series The Handmaid's Tale, to confuse this author with one of her austere martinet Aunts whose jokes are so very dry, and whose descriptions of life in Gilead could have been lifted from the recent reports of the Commissions into Residential Schooling in Canada.  Apparently the ever-perceptive and wily Atwood is aware of this too: the book ends with an academic conference being led by some very present-day sounding First Nations academics leading a 'Gilead Studies' conference discussion. This is one of Atwood's best works but then I've only really engaged with a few of them myself.  Judge for yourself by reading this (I would argue necessary) work.


I'm a bit behind here as this book came out a couple of years ago, and I was not expecting to find the Dick resonances in this work to be so strong. But there it is: you have a biomedical novum about reproductive politics embedded in a parsimoniously strong narrative line with characters you can really care about and grow to love / hate. The prolific father figure is especially compelling and unlikeable, as we are projected into an intergenerational utopia/nightmare of reproductive choice in which individuals can choose any number of parental options: from families of two with only one true parent of offspring; to those with three or more genetic parental progenitors and more, this is a book to make you both think and feel deeply.



2019 is my #YearOfReadingLeGuin and this has been my favourite volume so far, partly because I was quite familiar with a lot of the Library of America's vol. 1 in the set.  This, volume 2, had some new ones for me, the most thrilling of which has to be The Word For World is Forest, the novella upon which Avatar is allegedly based (in fact this is stated in the notes to this book). Le Guin herself comments upon this fact noting how her story was turned around in exactly a way she feared it might. And I can see why she was upset: the indigenous hegemony over their planet/homeland/forest (Athshe) is particularly strongly asserted here, while Davidson is a pathological/psychotic figure in a much stronger way than the movie was willing to assert. This is a much more political work than its cinematic counterpart, and it imparts an urgency into the reader about our own plights on Earth.  Five Ways to Forgiveness is absolutely brutal.



I liked this book a lot, and found it very well written, engaging, and easy to read. It presents a speculative trajectory without overcomplicating or overestimating the power of present technologies into the future. Its one potentially grievous prediction revolves around the idea that the internet might at some future date 'go down' or fail in a spectacular, catastrophic, complete, and irreversible way well before advance modern society has begun to decay or disappear. What this book really is is, first and foremost, a kick-ass cyberpunk narrative about augmented reality in which the rediscovery of this technology post-catastrophe is asserted as a kind of magic (I found this believable actually). What it also is, is a hipster handbook about cool music and mesh networks, and most of all it is about these hipsters in BRISTOL, and in particular a few blocks in that city. The latter fact was a bit annoying, as I don't consider myself to be part of this in-group, nor to be particular au courant with that music/scene. However, I can forgive these things due to the quality of the writing/novum.



An absolute page turner, I had somewhere in my mind secretly given up hope that such books still exist and/or might still be being written.  1000 pages of blisteringly addictive story are rivalled for me only by my childhood experience of reading The Stand so long ago.  T'rain (short for Terrain) forms the backdrop/cyberspace platform upon which so much of this narrative is driven, due to the ability of players to mine economic benefit (gold pieces re-salable in the non-cyberspace world). I guzzled the kick-ass Kool-Aid this story offered. It is in a long tradition of cyberpunk that operates along a two-tier structure positing a more-than-real cyberspace/augmented reality aspect going back to Gibson's Neuromancer. Names/character spiral and map through the multiple spatialities presented, even as the action plays out in very particular (but specifically altered) real-world locales along the Canada/US border (Washington State/British Columbia). Now I can finally move onto the sequel, Fall, or Dodge in Hell.



I love this book because it is a psychogeographical counter-map against the idea of technological progress. Its enlightened protagonist is an inveterate drinker to the point of pathos, but he clearly has luck on his side. While unimaginably fucking up his life, some powerful interests decide to channel the drunk's momentum towards their own ends, and somehow end up getting this guy a promotion despite his self-destructive determination. The novum is a literal (but not literally existing) map that is a real-time track of everyone with points and lines indicating both positions and trajectories. The existence of the map is a secret that needs to be kept that way, lest others benefit as much economically as certain interests already are. So we are led to a critique of capitalism by the most likeable drunk since Barfly, or the guy in Last Exit to Brooklyn, or hey, Kerouac himself.  Clearly a gifted writer, we can only await, and then consume greedily, anything Wiles will write in the future.



I'm not quite sure yet whether I like Harrison as a writer. I'm re-reading Light currently but I actually started with this one, which was the second book I checked out of the Bracknell Public Library (the first was Slan) after moving to Bracknell in April. Postmodern new wave science fiction's lifeblood and Kool-Aid, I drank this book in on train platforms, sunny plazas, and rainy afternoon rooms, crying and laughing along with the often brutally uglifying words. There's a lot of beautiful and bright trash/detritus blowing around Harrison's narratives and just when you're about to give up, the whole thing seems to take some kind of terrifying shape. I'm pretty sure these books started to take the place of my dreams after a while, and several parts are a bit disturbing.  But this nails the poetics of science fiction to the core: it is both poetry and technological novum at one blast: its hot molten core drives us onward into unknown spaces and places across barely thinkable universes.  OK, I'll keep reading.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

SIMULTANEITIES VI : Affective labour and physical endurance

2019 is my year of reading Le Guin, and so far I'm on track, having covered nearly the whole of the first two volumes of the Library of America's four Le Guin books. Two topics of special interest have arisen in the course of my reading: 1. affective labour of simultaneities and 2. performative mapping of feats of physical endurance.

The first topic, affective labour in relation to Le Guin's SF novum of instantaneous (i.e. FTL to the extent that no time passes between being in point A and arriving at point B), was explored in great depth in "The Shobies’ Story", "Dancing to Ganam", and "Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea". The phenomenology of instantaneous travel across vast interstellar distances of space is treated metaphorically as a kind of initially seemingly insurmountable layering of images of points A (origin) and B (destination) within the minds of the individuals involved in the travel. These individuals are acclimated to a group setting subject to careful selection and crafting well prior to the travel in question, the reason for which is that the 'layering' problem, and its associated disorientation can only be overcome by a kind of collective will or decision-making process.

Thus, Le Guin, in these three stories especially, enacts a kind of dialectic of individual-collective the emotional labour of which is part and parcel of both performance of cognitive estrangement in the work of fiction; and of the the development of the (fictional) technology that itself instantiates its novum. Affective or emotional labour associated with long-term and spatial dislocations of Le Guin's protagonists is often intense and/or protracted due to the nature of the work being carried out. Often the main character is an ethnographer of some kind.  This is the case for Left Hand of Darkness; The Word for World is Forest; and The Telling.  In these novels, and the shorter stories mentioned above, the work of processing emotions within the dialectically intensional individual/group setting is mostly performed by women because men are often not quite capable of rising to the task. Or they are simply not part of the society being explored. In a couple of the stories male society has been expelled and women maintain the dominant or hegemonic position within the societal structure, choosing with whom to mate, when, and for how long.

These alternative, fictional, counter-narratives challenge, in turn, dominant notions produced by a patriarchal science fiction community that, until the so-called New Wave, seemingly dominated the genre.  Le Guin played a big role (alongside others like Russ and Delany) in changing all of that, and perhaps (more speculatively) in the survival of the genre in its present form as something more universally acceptable (i.e. not just for socially awkward white males). It may be apparent in this observation that I've been interweaving my Le Guin reading with some of the Cambridge History of Science Fiction.

The second topic, performative mapping of feats of physical endurance, arose after I had submitted the previous one to a conference from which I had subsequently to withdraw. Both might become papers.  I noticed that physical endurance complements the mental/emotional endurance noted above, to the extent that you get the feeling Le Guin had read accounts of explorers journeys to the poles, with quite detailed descriptions of the amount of food carried and consumed forming part of the fictional world, for example, of Left Hand of Darkness.  The latter part of that work is the account of an escape from the totalitarian/communistic society of Orgoreyn, to return back to the more anarchic Karhide. This escape can only be effectuated through passage by way of a massive ice/mountain field that takes several weeks to cross. The bodies of the ambivalent 'men' (one of whom is actually two-gendered) and the changes that take places within them are described very effectively. The novum of two-gendered beings comes down quite firmly here on the male-dominant (in our world) side of a kind of taoistic blurring of the boundaries of what it means to be a gendered human, and how blurry the lines between those genders can be.  But Le Guin (as she notes in a preface) caught flack for her (allegedly male-centric) treatment of gender, as epitomised in part by the language (specifically pronouns) she used in reference to it. 

This is all tied, I think, to how Le Guin sees the mental and the physical in relation to social constructions of the male and female genders.  Each of the dichotomies is proven, in the fictional treatment, to be false, almost binary, in construction, and this I would posit, this breaking down of dichotomies, especially in relation to both gender and to physicality, is the primary impetus for Le Guin's work as a whole. I don't think what I'm referring to counts as novum specifically, because I feel it is much bigger than that, to the extent that I might call it a novum-assemblage that amounts to a kind of speculative anthropological philosophy.  If I have time I'm going to try to develop both of these points into a paper (or two?)....

Saturday, February 23, 2019

SIMULTANEITIES V



I'm a few weeks into my year of reading Le Guin, and I'm thinking I'm in better shape than if I'd chosen some drastic new fitness program as my new year's resolution.  400 pages into the 'big book of Earthsea' (a volume that includes the first four books) I'm having no problems moving along and staying interested.  My thoughts on Le Guin are evolving too.

Earthsea is a work written for young adults, as far as I know.  It has an 'overall' map that begins the volume and that would have (I assume) been included with the first work (A Wizard of Earthsea).  Each of the subsequent three books of Earthsea also has its own map, and each focuses in on an 'area' of Earthsea.

The book, I would argue, 'performs' the map, in the sense that it adds detail in the form of names, descriptions, and actions that enrich and augment its virtuality.  There is a very well worked-out philosophy of names/language that evidences Le Guin's spatial anthropological knowledge, and that becomes a 'wizard ethos' and toolkit.

By which, of course, I mean the casting of spells.  The naming side of things in Earthsea is really well worked out. In fact, it is central to the whole endeavour.  But what is actually going on in Le Guin's world? We are pulled ineluctably and delectably into Earthsea through a kind of emotional buy-in, and therefore enter the moral world of its environs. In offering us the 'true' names of its wizards, dragons, and 'regular' folk (if there can be said to be any Earthsea), we become privy to the secret knowledge of spell-casting and magic.

It is about the magic of names. Naming and language are, in fact, the launch-pad for all good works of science fiction and fantasy as Ciscery-Ronay has argued in an early chapter of The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, and as Le Guin herself argues in Words are My Matter.  But in Earthsea, the matter is much deeper than a simple parallel with, for example, the invention of Klingon in Star Trek.

Klingon is clearly a well worked-out thing, but it is not as fundamental a thing as having an entire philosophy of language forming part of a virtual world like Earthsea.  I would argue that this makes the latter a much richer thing (though Trekkies might surely disagree).

It's that fundamental philosophy that, I think, drives Le Guin's life-worlds forward and that can draw so many kinds of reader, of all ages, in.

*

In a previous post (the first of this SIMULTANEITIES series) I said I thought Le Guin had a bit of latent racism, but this was in reference to one of her earliest published short stories.

The anthropological aspect and mid-twentieth century timing of Le Guin's oeuvre and the fact of that preceding 'K' in her name lead me to believe I'm not far off in my earlier assessment. But this doesn't count against Le Guin, per se. It counts against the genre, I think, because as many (especially Rieder in his Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction) have pointed out by now, the whole SFF genre has a bit of a problem in this regard (post-colonial SF notwithstanding).

Earthsea is more sophisticated and if I had children I would most certainly be urging them to read this book, but it does of course fall into some of the same traps as Tolkien's great trilogy.  However, Earthsea is peopled with beings that are not quite as clearly delineated by racial features, in my opinion, as LOTREarthsea contains (unless I'm missing something) beings that are all, essentially, one species (except, of course, the dragons). Race appears, for example, only with reference to varying skin colours that people have in different parts of Earthsea.

But there isn't that kind of hard-bounded separation and territorialization of racial characteristics into speciation.  In this, I think Earthsea is 'less racist' than, at least, some of Le Guin's early short stories.

The map might be the reason. It is a very well crafted, and thought-through thing. The virtual world it enables is mostly water, which serves as a liquid boundary between the different 'nations' that compose this, essentially anarchic, world.  Anarchic in a political, Le Guinean, sense.  This sense, and reference, are tenuous, ephemeral, and ever-changing things.

Monday, January 7, 2019

SIMULTANEITIES IV: The Wind's Twelve Quarters


There's a paradox in Le Guin. One the one hand, she was seemingly an ardent believer in the communitarian ideals of anarchism. On the other hand, she was a libertarian-exemplifying individualist. 

The first assertion might be false in the realm of belief. Perhaps she did not believe in anarchism, but wrote about it as a fictional ideal in which her characters did the believing (but not her).

The second assertion might be factually false. On the other hand it might be borne out by a gap between actions and words.

Writers are a pretty self-reliant lot, on the whole. The writing of fiction requires loads of self-directed time through the fog of which no boss looms; there's no external cracking of the whip except that which, perhaps, the paying of bills and generally bringing home the bacon provides.

So she was one of those. That doesn't make her a right-winger. Look at all those writers on twitter: they're a bunch of lefties, creating an online non-hierarchical community both like-minded and supportive (at least the ones I follow are).

But Americans are a pretty individualistic lot. Le Guin's ancestors, alluded to both in stories like The Dispossessed, and in her non-fiction, where she describes her settler grandmother out on the frontier in the late 1800s, they had to be self-reliant. At the same time, none would've made it on their own.

There's a dialectic at the heart of Le Guin's fiction, epitomized in her stories of Martian settlement, of weird sentiences in far-flung solar systems, of pyschologies abnormalized by isolation, fear, and God (in the case of the excellent "Field of Vision").

Where, before, reading Le Guin I was reminded of how much her anthropoligist father must have influenced her world-view and by extension her writing; now, in reading the short stories, see the influence of Le Guin's psychologist mother.

These stories are really disturbing. I do mean every single one of them, as well as the volume taken as a whole. It is truly a story made of stories, a short-story collection that surpasses both congeries and fixes to excel at a whole other level of discourse.

The discursive psychological function of these stories is to present the dialectic of the individual against God, the universe, and the whole; and to break it down. Once broken down, the revolution can occur, as it does in the dual-story structure of "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" and "The Day Before the Revolution", both award-winning stories. 

I can't say a lot more beyond the existence of the individual/communitarian dialectic Le Guin performs in this collection; but I can say that naming performs a key function. One of the stories is explicitly about names. It is a fantasy story. The naming aspect has to do with not being able to tell others your real name (if they know it they know it, and that is fine), because to use the real name is to control the person/thing named.

An individual exists in this (fantasy) community for whom no-one else knows his real name. As it turns out, this should have been the first sign that something was amiss. Reading this story I am not surprised that Le Guin had rubbed shoulders at one point with Derrida. Her grasp of philosophy of language is unparalleled in what I have read so far within the SF genre.

The second set of stories immediately picks up this language-game thread, presenting a series of 'writings' by animals, as presented in a fictional academic publication "Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics." It's fascinating. I'm going to go read more now.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

SIMULTANEITIES III: Semley's Necklace

This story evokes, for me, both Aldiss and Tolkien; it makes me wonder if the basis for SF is racism; if, at the same time, SF is inherently post-colonial. Le Guin, Aldiss, Tolkien, all from 'dominant' societies: none subaltern, except in the case of Le Guin (her gender).

So is this her advantage in the end; is this why she can get away with casting her obvious anthropological knowledge of different cultures, peoples, races in terms of different species? Characters within this story correct each other when 'derogatory' terms like 'troglodyte' are used, but does this get the author off the hook?

Helliconia is somehow present here, in how a gaze, looking from outside, uses ideas of scientific classification to present the life-forms being observed. I don't know enough SF lore to know which way the fertilisation goes.  But clearly both Aldiss and Le Guin were writing 'social'/anthropological science fiction.

The approach makes it automatically feel a lot more like fantasy than science fiction, though clearly there is a spectrum. The sections containing 'reports' on the species, on the progress of their civilisations and their technologies would seem to be the only 'scientific' part about these stories.

Telekinesis, telepathy, these are present in the life-forms, in how the Gdemiar and the Fiia peoples communicate, and these 'technologies' present a stronger cognitive challenge that constitutes for the reader the 'novum' of the story.

The protagonist is chasing down a piece of jewellery that is 'on loan': "All the Exotica are technically on loan, not our property, since these claims come up now and then. We seldom argue. Peace above all, until the War comes..."

And the tone is pacifist, as are the actions taken by various characters. The fantasy flows from strength to strength, though we can tell it is an 'early' Le Guin, an adumbration glints within. There is a post-colonial sensibility to the critical commentary produced in and through the actions and objects herein, and we would expect no less of any stage of Le Guin.

She is a genus unto herself, her technology post-colonial, advanced. She has no ax to grind, but her strength lies in projecting a moral economy through story, a sense of doing what is right in the face of challenge, threat, men.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

SIMULTANEITIES II: Words Are My Matter


Words Are My Matter (WAMM) is a book about writing, with a wide variety of pieces included. At first it resembles one of those 'how to write' books, but it's not.  

WAMM is a story told in stories. That story WAMM tells is 'about' a life in writing, but also about a woman around whom many myths and stories have grown. 

Le Guin has a certain reputation to defend "[w]hen critics treat me -- even with praise -- as a methodical ax-grinder..." but I would say she has a didactic intention in all of her fiction.

Her essays and talks even more so. But thankfully, for the most part, I'm very sympathetic to Le Guin's politics, her takes, her stances. 

For example, in a long review of the novels of Saramago the latter's moral backbone forms the basis of her praise. She stops very early in her reading of Blindness because of a very real concern around the representations of violence that recur in that story. 

After reading a few other books, and here The Cave is singled out for praise, Saramago's ability to convey the appropriate message is confirmed, and she returns to Blindness. It subsequently receives only her highest praise.

This is in very direct contrast to her comment, on page 244 about "Cormac McCarthy, and others, [who use] essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially." While this comment does not address violence directly, it is implicit, and telling the McCarthy is mentioned in this text.

Le Guin reviews an edited collection with sole focus on The Dispossessed, and objects to its portrayal of the latter as a political tract with an ax to grind. This prompts much soul-searching, a digging back into her past, the architectures of her thinking. We get a lot about her reading habits growing up.

It is a strength of the whole volume, and it is why this book is the starting point for my 'year of reading Le Guin.'  It's not just how she approaches Saramago.

The introductions to Wells are illuminating, as with the whole lot, and shine light upon the place of Wells early novels taken as a whole, as a turning point, as the starting point for what was to become science fiction.

Throughout, we have a defence of genre writing against those who would disown it: Wells downplaying, diminishing, the importance of The Time Machine in relation to the later, realistic, fiction, lest the latter be contaminated by the former's less serious intent, its infection as 'scientific romance.'

Or Margaret Atwood's insistence that she doesn't write science fiction, which Le Guin points out makes it a lot harder to apply the right critical tools and thus repay the justice deserved in return. Jeanette Winterson does the same thing. 

Le Guin presents her hesitations about other writers: those she adores, admires, likes. I adore Le Guin and apply her logic to the work at hand: what are my hesitations about Le Guin as I head into the bulk of her work?

That she might have an ax to grind, for sure, especially in The Dispossessed. But her writing overcomes any didacticism; and besides her politics tend to agree, even if (or perhaps because) they occasionally tend towards the libertarian/individualistic side of the anarchist spectrum/ethos she espouses.

All her books are undoubtedly political, satirical, serious in intent. This could become a negative, if I wasn't in fact in the market for her product, ready to agree, primed with my own sympathetic politics of non-conformism, more anarchism than anything as rigid or consistent as Marxism. 

She reviews Mieville in a way that makes me want to read him: everything by him, to become a follower. 

Le Guin evokes Suvin in places, giving her own synopsis of SF definition: "one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near future that's half prediction, half satire." It's her own: there's no novum there, this from the woman who 'invented' the ansible.

Any other hesitations? Perhaps, I might think, maybe she's dated, part of a golden age past. But Le Guin's work ages better than just about any other writer I've tried to re-read from that time. Its literary quality, well-crafted imaginative exactness, and human capability all are timeless, and these pieces equally so.

In a final piece, a journal of a time spent at a writer's retreat, we get the story of a week in which Le Guin wrote a 40-page short story, a wonderful meditation on just how lovely the woman's approach to life could be. 

Perhaps we are seeing her only at her best moments. Or perhaps she was, unusually capable of maintaining her poise even when no-one was looking. 

I'm excited by this project, and have just received another title in the mail, one that I'll add to my list for this year's reading project. It's The Lathe of Heaven printed in a copy of Amazing Stories, sent to me as a Christmas present from my mother, all the way from Oklahoma. It's a blast from the past for me, straight from my grandmother's cupboard, where my aunt used to stash her books:


Next, I'm diving, this very evening, into The Wind's Twelve Quarters & the Compass Rose.



SIMULTANEITIES I: A Year of Reading Le Guin


Here is the running order and rationale for my year of reading Le Guin:

I will only read what I currently have in the house, in the following order, and without any real regard for chronology, comprehensiveness, and coherence:

1. Words Are My Matter (Small Beer)
2. The Wind's Twelve Quarters & The Compass Rose (Gollancz)
3. Earthsea: The First Four Books (Penguin)
4. The Left Hand of Darkness (Gollancz)
5. The Dispossessed (Gollancz)
6. The Complete Orsinia (Library of America)
7. Always Coming Home (Gollancz)

The above represents ~3000 pages of material, more than enough to keep me going for a few weeks at least. If I find that I have extra time at the end, or still want to read more, I'll acquire more titles (possibly covering poetry and non-fiction in more depth) and blog about them.

I have made the title for this set of blog posts deliberately much broader than just Le Guin, because I'd also like to expand the reading into geography (Massey), anthropology (Levi-Strauss), and post-colonial studies.

SIMULTANEITIES is a larger story about stories, genres, and decolonising the mind.

Initially, I want to use a 'complete' reading of Le Guin as a way of improving my own writing (academic, creative, and otherwise). It will inform my thinking generally, and will most likely appear in some form in future works beyond this blog.