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Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Posts Tagged ‘ursula k leguin

‘The Shobies’ Story’ by Ursula K LeGuin

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‘The Shobies’ Story’ is part of LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle and represents the antithesis of the military science fiction of someone like David Weber. The test pilots for the universe’s first faster than light spaceship are not military superheros but but rather a group of unexceptional volunteers which includes several children. They prepare for this momentous mission by sitting around on the beach for a month, telling each other stories. It is a wonderful sympathetic portrait of what a consensual, hierarchical future might look like. Dan Simmons used a similar but weaker idea in ‘Orphans Of The Helix’ but as background for his story; here, it is the story. It is exactly the sort of story – the sort of thinking – that Gregory Benford is apparently unable to comprehend.

It goes without saying that it isn’t space opera, although it does make a fascinating contrast and provide the weary pallet of this reader with a welcome sorbet.

Quality: ****
OOO: *

As always, Hartwell and Cramer’s introduction provides me with a quote that calls the whole enterprise into question:

She is not referred to as a space opera writer, although this story is clearly set in the far future in space, and we bring this example into the discourse on space opera because we think its importation of anthropological ideas is causing pressure on some of the most ambitious writers of space opera to abandon or modify the military and hierarchical modes… Whether the Le Guin influence we begin to discern in such ambitious space opera writers as John Clute (Appleseed) and M John Harrison is real, and will spread, remains to be seen.

The beginning of the first sentence is merely an incompetent mix of the redundant and irrelevant but it soon explodes out into a bold claim. A bold claim that is utterly unexplored. Now, I’m slightly dubious as to whether LeGuin’s 1990 story caused significant pressure on the space opera novels Clute and Harrison produced a decade later but there is the seed of a fascinating essay there. Since Hartwell and Cramer give themselves neither time or space to examine any of the critical judgements they litter the book with, the seed remains ungerminated. The Space Opera Renaissance is, in a word, half-arsed.

Written by Martin

29 January 2013 at 17:38

The Most Horrible Breakfast In Science Fiction

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I intended to review The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula K LeGuin but I am going to have to resign myself to the fact this isn’t happening. Before I throw my notes away, however, here is the source of a reference to page 78 which just says “horrible breakfast”:

He was not the thin, sharp-boned man he had been in the world of the seven billion; he was quite solid, in fact. But he ate a starving man’s meal, an enormous meal – hard-boiled eggs, buttered toast, anchovies, jerky, celery, cheese, walnuts, a piece of cold halibut spread with mayonnaise, lettuce, pickled beets, chocolate cookies – anything he found on his shelves. After this orgy he felt physically a great deal better.

Written by Martin

8 May 2012 at 19:11

Posted in food, quotes, sf

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“The endlessly arse-achingly expressed complaint from genre that no one takes us seriously”

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As you will probably know by now, the Guardian devoted Saturday’s Review section to science fiction. Since I like to spend my Saturday mornings reading both the Guardian Review and science fiction, this is obviously something I welcomed. My anticipation was slightly soured by a comment piece from Iain M Banks that was published online on Friday in advance of the Review. He opens with a long analogy about a young writer pitching a hackneyed detective story to his agent before revealing his target:

Now, even the most gifted literary author will be sufficiently aware of the clichés of the detective story not to let an initial burst of enthusiasm for a new idea involving any of them get beyond the limits of his or her own cranium, and even if they were foolish enough to suggest something on these lines to their agent or editor they’d immediately be informed that It’s Been Done . . . in fact, It’s Been Done to the Point of Being a Joke . . . and so all the above never happens.

Or at least, it never happens quite as described; substitute the phrase “science fiction” for the word “detective”, delete the 1930s murder-mystery novel clichés and insert some 30s science fiction clichés and I get the impression this scenario has indeed played out, and not just once but several times, and the agent/editor has – bizarrely – entirely shared the enthusiasm of their author, so that, a year or two later, yet another science fiction novel which isn’t really a science fiction novel – but, like, sort of is at the same time? – hits the shelves, usually to decent and only slightly sniffy reviews (sometimes, to be fair, to quite excitable reviews) while, off-stage, barely heard, howls of laughter and derision issue from the science fiction community.

The subs have entitled the piece “Science fiction is no place for dabblers” which seems a fair enough condensing of Banks’s argument and it pissed me off for two reasons. The first is that it is such a depressingly squandered opportunity; Banks has been given the chance to connect with a new audience to discuss something he is passionate about but instead treats them to a tired moan. It is the tendency alluded to by my title, a quote from China Mieville that appears in Justine Jordan’s profile elsewhere in the Review. Haven’t we got anything better to talk about?

The second problem is not Banks’s topic but the way he makes his case. Specifically, the way he scrupulously avoids any specifics and never names names. Who are the writers he has in mind? Who are dabblers who need to be taken to school? We’ve no idea because he doesn’t tell us. People in the comments are quick to make suggestions though and the usual suspects are soon trotted out: Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy. Once someone is named as a dabbler, the validity of applying such a label can be debated (as it is in the comments). Banks doesn’t allow us that opportunity though. Personally, I am pleased that The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go and The Road exist but then I doubt Banks actually had those particular authors in mind. But who knows?

The result of his vagueness is that all writers of non-genre SF are tarred with the same brush. By reducing a disparate bunch of artists to a monolithic Them, he makes a real conversation about the way writers from outside the genre engage with the genre when they write science fiction impossible. Because there is certainly a kernel of truth to what Banks is saying. Elsewhere in the paper Ursula K LeGuin says the same thing: “You can’t write science fiction well if you haven’t read it, though not all who try to write it know this.” However, she continues: “But nor can you write it well if you haven’t read anything else. Genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language it becomes a jargon, meaningful only to an ingroup.” Dialogue is a two way street.

Banks concludes with an attempt at magnanimity that comes close to saying something similar:

However, let’s be positive about this. The very fact that entirely respectable writers occasionally feel drawn to write what is perfectly obviously science fiction – regardless of either their own protestations or those of their publishers – shows that a further dialogue between genres is possible, especially if we concede that literary fiction may be legitimately regarded as one as well. It’s certainly desirable.

It certainly is desirable and we should be positive but that is a bit rich coming at the end of such a negative piece. Further more, Banks’s point is made far more eloquently by the very existence of the edition of the Guardian Review in which it appears. It is therefore rendered both irrelevant and rather graceless. The contrast is further made by the Review’s lead feature in which leading SF writers – including LeGuin – choose their favourite novel or author in the genre. Here is their list of “leading SF writers”:

Brian Aldiss
Margaret Atwood
Stephen Baxter
Lauren Beukes
John Clute
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Andrew Crumey
William Gibson
Ursula K LeGuin
Russell Hoban
Liz Jensen
Hari Kunzu
Kelly Link
Ken MacLeod
China Mieville
Michael Moorcock
Patrick Ness
Audrey Niffenegger
Christopher Priest
Alastair Reynolds
Adam Roberts
Kim Stanley Robinson
Tricia Sullivan
Scarlett Thomas

I think it is safe to say that this is not a list a fan would be likely to come up with and I’m sure a lot of people would turn their nose up at the idea these are all leading SF writers. It is, however, a list of interesting authors saying interesting things about science fiction. More than that, it is a list without boundaries; it is a list that is open and optimistic and interested in dialogue. So let’s all be positive.

Written by Martin

15 May 2011 at 22:45

‘The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ by Ursula K LeGuin

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A beautiful trio of epistles on the secret language of ants, penguins and plants. It utilises the scientific method in a way that is utterly incongruous in this collection but charming and entirely welcome.

Quality: ****
Hardness: ****

Written by Martin

30 June 2010 at 13:39

‘Nine Lives’ by Ursula K. LeGuin

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Two men live alone on an isolated planetoid mining uranium. They are joined by a tenclone – literarily ten versions of a clone – sent by the company to assist them. This causes the two men to reassess their relationship. There is an accident and some of the clones die. This causes everyone to reassess their relationships.

The problem for the story, both in terms of its hardness and emotional impact, is that the clones are not just genetically identical but essentially a hivemind:

“God, what a team! I hadn’t seen the point. How much do you each know what the others are thinking?”
“Not at all, properly speaking… No ESP, nothing fancy. But we think alike. We have exactly the same equipment. Given the same stimulus, the same problem, we’re likely to coming up with the same reactions and solutions at the same time.” (46)

As presented it does amount to ESP though, they function as a single unit. This unity is necessary for the story to succeed but it isn’t very plausible; the idea of the clones as identically deterministic pieces of “equipment” doesn’t wash.

Quality: ***
Hardness: ***

In their introduction H&C comment: “This story is perhaps her most famous.” Really?

Written by Martin

16 February 2010 at 11:58

Saturday Morning Links (A Day Late)

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When Strange Horizons want someone to review a mainstream SF novel they call on me (or Dan). The Guardian have more money and cachet so when they want someone they call on Ursula K LeGuin. She reviewed Journey Into Space by Toby Litt yesterday:

The theme of the ship of fools is old and tried, and has provided matter for many a good story; but this is a ship of blockheads. Perhaps it’s a good thing to remind us of the dangerous stupidity of our species, but if there’s no end and no contrast to the stupidity, the story itself sinks into the inane.

My own review will be appearing in Strange Horizons some time in the near future and Joanna Briscoe reviews They Is Us by Tama Janowitz, another example of mainstream SF, just over the page:

The profundity and subtlety of recent futuristic dystopian literature creates a standard that is hard to match. After Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, any prophetic vision runs the risk of appearing derivative. Tama Janowitz rises to the challenge by injecting her bleak portrait of a future America with flippant humour, her message elevated by absurdity as she wilfully veers into the parodic. The result is funny but flimsy.

Continuing with reviews, Partick Ness on Gullstruck Island which sounds interesting. However, I was more interested in Ness’s lead paragraph:

It’s JK Rowling’s fault. After the mammoth Order of the Phoenix, so primed were readers for a concluding epic that The Deathly Hallows’s 607 pages seemed, incredibly, a bit mean. Have you noticed, though, that it’s only middle-aged reviewers who complain about the length of children’s books, not the children themselves? Frances Hardinge’s delightfully inventive Gullstruck Island cooks along for 504 ripe, rollicking and endlessly creative pages. If that sounds exhausting to you, maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s why it’s a kids’ book.

I am some way off being middle-aged but I am a reviewer and I am given to moaning about the length of books. It is also a complaint Adam Roberts (who must be getting on towards middle age) recently made of Ness’s own kids’ book.

Elsewhere in the paper, Salman Rushie asks is there such a thing as a good adaptation? To which the only answer can be: yes, of course, there is, Jesus Christ, what is the point of paying subeditors if this is the best they can come up with? Glossing over the unfairly short shrift Rushdie gives both The Sword In The Stone and Spider I will instead highlight this portion of the article:

British reality programmes are adapted to suit American audiences as well; Pop Idol becomes American Idol when it crosses the Atlantic, Strictly Come Dancing becomes Dancing With the Stars – a programme which, it may interest you to know, invited me to appear on it last season, an invitation I declined.

This idea entranced me long enough for me to burn my breakfast.

Written by Martin

1 March 2009 at 10:51

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