Sunday, March 01, 2009

Le Guin round-up plus Lessing

Okay, I have to return all these books to the library now, so it's time to summarize. Let's start with the odd one out, the 4th (because none of the first three were available) in Lessing's Canopus in Argos series, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. I had no idea that Lessing had written science fiction, which goes to show that I'm a) not very widely read, after all, and b) that I'm specifically not terribly interested in Lessing. I've read The Fifth Child and - I think - The Golden Notebook, but neither of them made an impression on me, apart from a vague memory of something tense and depressing. Admittedly, I was young and probably just not in the right place in life to appreciate them. Therefore it's doubly tragic that I tried to read the novel currently on the stand, because God in heaven was I bored with it. We have a happy planet with a constantly warm and pleasant climate, whose lithe and brown inhabitants frolic and dance together in the sun. When Canopus, the alien race who engineered their own, tells them to build a tall wall around the planet they do it, and gradually find out that this is because their planet will experience an unplanned ice age, and the wall is to hold off the ice until Canopus can save the population by moving them to a planet that is being made ready. That's the story. And then it's all a bunch of navel-gazing, with our narrator (a representative of the people) discussing and pondering the changes in temperament in the people now that they are frozen and meat-eaters and without hope. I skimmed it to be honest, after a while I just couldn't give an arse. The most interesting thing is the afterword by Lessing, which is about mostly Scott's Antarctic expedition but also about those changes in atmosphere in a culture that can make yesterday's taboo today's truth. I might try reading the first in the series sometime, but it's not at the top of my list. If one is to read novels that are meh they might as well be powerfully narrative-driven, in my opinion.

Then we have The Telling by Le Guin. Sutty is a Terran observer on the planet Aka. Before she came to Aka she briefed herself on what was known, that it had a unique system of beliefs that coloured every aspect of day-to-day life. When she arrives after all those light-years there has been some sort of revolution, and the old customs and beliefs have been outlawed. People are now primarily consumers in the Corporate State. Surprisingly Sutty receives permission to travel to a smaller town in the countryside, and even more surprisingly she discovers that the old ways are not dead and forgotten, and as she starts to reconcile with her past she starts to discover what it is the Ekumen are missing in their attempts to really communicate with the Akans. Although frankly that last bit is late in the coming, it's only the last few pages really that contain that pay-off.

It's a very philosophical book, less narrative than descriptions of the culture. It's not bad, but I can't call it my favourite. In my opinion it falls into the trap of wanting to invent a sort of utopian religion, which frankly makes it a little preachy to someone as cynical as myself. It's not at all as obvious as in the Dark Materials series, which completely degenerated into an anti-religious manifesto more religious in tone than an essay by the Pope. But it's fairly grating all the same.

So the next book, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, was older, a collection of short stories that was published in 1994. I liked this better. There were two obviously humorous stories which I found less funny than one of the Churten drive-themed ones (Dancing to Ganam). My absolute favourite is The Rock That Changed Things, because it is superbly alien, even though steeped in feminist vibes.

Finally, the most epic fruit of Le Guin's imagination, Always Coming Home.

I'm not sure how to write about this novel. It wasn't to my taste, but I'm having trouble pin-pointing why. What it is is more a collection of tales about this people called the Kesh. The Kesh inhabit what's left of California sometime in the future, when the world has been altered by some devastating war, and the cultures as we know them are all gone. One tale is longer and more prominent, and that is the one about a woman called North Owl/Woman Coming Home/Stone Telling, who goes to her father's misogynist, monotheist and war-mongering people, where she stays seven years before she can make her way back home. It's an anthropologist's book, slightly disconcerting in it's dogged adherence to the secondary universe created within the covers. There are some short articles in which the author, naming herself Pandora, almost seems to be arguing with herself over how to write about the Kesh, or else describes herself talking to a member of the people. It's quite odd. I don't know what to make of it - is it genius or just a bit mad? Somehow I feel like I don't see the relevance. And, to be honest, I have huge problems with the Kesh being so obviously modelled on many Native American traits. Why are they? We never learn enough about HOW the world came to be where it is today, which to me is essential to understanding it and/or caring. I'm just reading about this culture, with practically no historical context, and then the fact that it seems so Native American really bothers me because I can't understand why that particular way of thinking survived.

Oh I don't know. Google it, smarter people than I discuss it.

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