tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

His obtuseness is ignorance. His arrogance is ignorance. He is ignorant of us; we of him. He is infinitely a stranger, and I a fool, to let my shadow cross the light of hope he brings us.

This was my birthday present from Barry and he chose brilliantly (I suppose he ought to have a pretty good idea of my tastes after nearly ten years). The Left Hand of Darkness deserves its designation as a science fiction masterwork: it is is also an unconsummated love story, a profound meditation on gender, a tale of political intrigue and a thrilling piece of polar adventure/survival fiction all rolled into one. The action is set on the distant planet of Winter (Gethen in the parlance of its natives) a world like Earth but with two major differences: the planet is still in the grips on an ice age and its humanoid inhabitants are all of one gender. Gethenians are capable of both mothering and fathering offspring, adopting the necessary sexual characteristics to do this only when they come into heat or "kemmer." The rest of the time they are without distinguishing sexual characteristics or drives. The book tells of the coming of the Earth man, Genly Ai, an envoy for the Ekumen, an organization of more than eighty worlds, who hopes to persuade Gethen to join. The story of his mission and his observations of the alien Gethenians is interspersed with chapters telling tales from the planet's history and mythology.

I think Ai's profound sense of isolation - alienation in it's most literal sense - is shared by the reader in the earliest chapters. Le Guin's world-building is so dense and detailed that the book seems quite hard to follow, but it's absolutely worth persevering: soon, like Ai, I found myself feeling more at ease with the alien words and terms, and by the second half of the novel I was absolutely hooked. Gethenian biology of course allows Le Guin the opportunity to air some profound meditations on gender. It is significant that there is no organised warfare on the planet, the lack of sexual competition removes this militarising urge - although the Gethenians find plenty of less organised ways to kill each other. Le Guin's aliens remind us that we all should be people first, men and women second. It is an important lesson and the reason this book is regarded as a feminist classic. However, what I enjoyed most in The Left Hand of Darkness wasn't its anthropological musings so much as just the sheer gripping excitement of its final section which chronicles a gruelling quest for survival as Ai and his one true Gethenian friend undertake an epic journey across a glacier in the depths of the planet's darkest months. I love polar survival fiction anyway, Beryl Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys (about Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition) is one of my all time favourite novels. But Le Guin gives the genre a further twist, as all the challenges of the elements and the scarcity of food brings Ai and his companion much closer together, beginning to forge and understanding and trust despite the gaping chasm of their biological, social and cultural differences. It's an incredibly moving account and one that will stay with me for a long time to come.

tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick

Cut because it's impossible to review this without including some spoilers )

tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

"Take birds - in a lean season they cut down on the eggs or won't mate at all. They put their energy into staying alive themselves until times get better. But human beings hope they can stick their souls into someone else, some new version of themselves, and live on forever."
"As a species we're doomed by hope, then?"
"You could call it hope, that or desperation"


As a rule I don't re-read books as I'm cripplingly aware of all the books out there that I haven't yet approached for the first time, but Atwood is a worthy exception to that rule as I always find her works even more powerful the second time around. Oryx and Crake was certainly no exception there. The first time I read it, shortly after it came out, I was just swept along by the tremendously gripping plot, which begins with "Snowman" a weary and resentful man struggling to survive on a beach in the wake of some unspecified disaster which has wiped out most, perhaps all, other human life. I was captivated by this depressing premise and devoured the book quickly to find out what the disaster was, who caused it, how Snowman had survived, and who were the mysterious Children of Crake" the small evolved/post-human colony who inhabit the shoreline and revere Snowman as a prophet. The second time around, I knew the answers to these plot-related questions and was able to read more slowly, really savouring Atwood's extraordinarily powerful language. This book is just stuffed with intensely thought-provoking and quotable lines. Almost every page had one or more sentences I wanted to preserve and choosing a key quote to head up my review was a real challenge!

This is not a cheerful book; in it, Atwood presents a dystopian future that feels depressingly plausible, but it is a brilliantly engaging read, wise and very knowing in its depiction of human nature in all its flawed glory. If you enjoy sci-fi and speculative fiction then you absolutely should pick this one up. Having now also read its sequel/sister volume The Year of the Flood I can say that Oryx and Crake is the technically better of the two: the second one lacks the tremendous power of the first, and though set in the same horrifying world it somehow presents a softer, more hopeful vision of it than the original. Yet having said that, they are worth reading as a pair, it's certainly interesting to get a very different - and much less sympathetic - view of Snowman in the second book.

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

Even he, with his still-flawed understanding of English, could admire the economy with which this question was expressed. And he wrestled with the thought that if only language could always be as simple, as sweet and unambiguous as this, then life itself would somehow be less complicated.
'To be, or not to be'


The reviews of this book on Amazon are extremely divided: lots of five star scores, lots of one star scores and little in between, which pretty accurately reflects typical reactions to the issue with which it deals. Essentially, The Road Home is an immigrant's tale: the tale of Lev, a middle aged man from a never specified Eastern European country (though the geographical description of his journey leaves few doubts that Tremain had Poland in mind) who comes to London, still grieving deeply for his dead wife, to earn money to support his aged mother and young daughter back home. In London Lev finds all his preconceptions about Britain shattered: he encounters racism, violence, mindless bureaucracy, vacuous celebrity culture but also true friendship and inspiration for his future. His finds his frozen heart thawed by a young British woman and pursues an intense affair with difficult consequences, before he finally finds a passion for the catering business, and develops the plan of saving up to open a restaurant back in his home country. Lev is a heroic and hard-working character who doesn't always do the right thing, but always commands our respect and sympathy. A lot of Daily Mail readers who see immigrants as little more than an unpleasant statistic should be forced to read this book, though it would probably be too challenging for a lot of them!

Much of the criticism directed at this novel, which was shortlisted for the Orange prize in 2008, focuses on Tremain's perceived use of stereotypes. And it's true that there are a lot of recognisable tropes here: the drunken Irishman, the driven and abrasive top chef, the vulgar contemporary artist laughing all the way to the bank at those who value and revere his work. Not being or really knowing closely any migrant workers myself, I can't comment on how realistic Lev's experience is. It certainly seems that he has a rather easy time with finding accommodation in a decent part of London, that sort of thing. But then I don't think Tremain intended this as a social documentary, more as a sort of modern fairytale (and there is a distinct fairytale quality to the way Lev's chance encounters come to help and aid him time and again) and an exploration of the journeys we all make in life. The novel touchingly explores issues of past and present, and what emotional, as well as physical, baggage we bring with us when we travel, and in that respect I have to say I found this to be very convincing. Rose Tremain is a writer of breathtaking scope: each of her books is set somewhere utterly different: a woman's experience of the New Zealand gold-rush; a hormonal teenage boy in modern Paris; a transsexual, born in Suffolk who moves to Elvis country, I am always impressed by the sheer range of her novels, but this one, I have to say is perhaps one of her most enjoyable, albeit gripping in a quiet, diligent way that mirrors the behaviour and attitudes of its main character.

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September 2010

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