Ursula K. Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness.

left hand of darknessIf you’re not a science fiction reader you may not have heard of this author, and maybe those of you who aren’t are already preparing to skip past this post.  Indulge me for a moment though, step into another world of writing.  Why? For all the usual reasons we have for reading.

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

So says Genly Ai, at the start of The Left Hand of Darkness. Genly Ai is an envoy for Ekumenical Scope, an alliance of eighty-three habitable planets, trying to invite the world of Winter to join them in interplanetary trade.

Is it other worlds that bother non-science fiction readers? If so, think of Le Guin as your holiday guide to Winter. She’ll provide you with views of the local customs and some of the most interesting characters, explain the history and culture through a variety of voices, leaving you to read between the lines – if you choose.

The drawing of comparisons, the tracing of a ‘proper…equivalent’, is what strangers in strange lands do.  So, we mostly follow Genly, yet Genly is not quite us either: his Earth, we gradually realise, is not our Earth. It sounds utopian, with its ability to deal honestly, and it’s codes of conduct.  He seems a sophisticated contrast to the suspicions and fears of Winter.

Winter is in an ice-age.

Fires in Karhide are to warm the spirit not the flesh.  The mechanical-industrial Age of Invention in Karhide is at least three thousand years old, and during those thirty centuries they have developed excellent and economical central-heating devices using steam, electricity and other principles, but they do not install them in their houses.  Perhaps if they did they would lose their physiological weatherproofing, like Arctic birds kept warm in tents, who being released get frostbitten feet.  I, however, a tropical bird, was cold; cold one way outdoors and cold another way indoors, ceaselessly and more or less thoroughly cold.

If the story were told only by Genly, it would be a simple tale.  Instead it’s threaded through with reports from earlier visitors; fragments of Winter history and the events experienced by Estraven, a seasoned politician, ‘one of the most powerful men in the country’.

When this novel was published in 1969, it became part of the feminist debate about gender, sex, culture and society. Forty-eight years later the central premise, of a race that is androgynous, and remain that way ‘when kept alone’, and that ‘normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role….do not know whether they will be the male or the female, and have no choice in the matter’, seems to fit with contemporary debates around gender definitions and identities.

Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphrodite neuters.

There’s more though.  This novel investigates displacement and asylum issues.  On some levels, it examines atrocities of the past, but in doing so, it shines a light on what is happening now.

Le Guin’s use of two narrators forces us to think about what divides or unites them.

Everything I had said, tonight and ever since I came to Winter, suddenly appeared to me as both stupid and incredible.  How could I expect this man or any other to believe my tales about other worlds, other races, a vague benevolent government somewhere off in outer space?  It was all nonsense…my own explanations were preposterous.  I did not, in that moment, believe them myself.

Reading back through this post, I notice that I’ve been so busy presenting the subtleties that I’ve failed to tell you it is a story of incident, of movement and conflicts.  Worthy as all of the above arguments are, the real reason for reading this book is because it hooks you.  I hope it might, science fiction fan or not.

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Book Review.

lyndas-memoir-collectionI’ve been dipping in and out of Down Memory Lane: A Collection of Memoirs, this week.  These writings from the heart of Ireland reveal the power of writing about the self.  In the process of entertaining us, sometimes they trigger a comparison to, a taste, a smell, an activity and  I’m reminded how much has changed in the course of my life.

Or they record something fascinatingly specific about an experience. ‘I was born in Adutiskis, on the border with Belarus, where my grandparents lived,’ begins Dalia Smelstoriute, in a piece that draws together a description of an All Souls Day commemoration, a tantalisingly brief account of her grandmother’s life, and a summary of thoughts about the importance of traditions.

Other people’s families, other lives, these are often what we look for in our reading. A.L Hayes writes: ‘My Dad was a great man for mixing up left over paints to create wieird and wonderful colours.  At one stage our hall door was a strange mixture of pale pink and scuttery green.’

Here are character portraits embedded in experiences.  An incident in the playground; buying a first record; a first car; taking a holiday abroad; a journey…describing a first love. They’re fragments from a life, and yet they’re rounded moments that sit beautifully on the page.

Memoirs, it seems to me, are important.  They bring social history to life.  ‘Woolworths was at one time the biggest shop in Mullingar’ writes Caroline Connolly. ‘It had black shiny pillars outside the front door and there were square pillars inside that had long mirrors on each side.  As you passed, you could see yourself.’

This collection has come from a series of classes run in Ballinacree, Ireland, by Lynda Kirby It’s been funded by sponsors and all profits go to The Patient Comfort Fund of Oldcastle Alzheimer’s Group.  Memoirs to fund memory loss, isn’t that a nice concept?

Well done, Lynda, and good luck with the next project.

 

Inspired readings…

I’ve been reading a short story anthology called The New Uncanny this week.  There’s no horror in the amityville sense, nor gallons of gratuitous gore.  These gems, as the subtitle suggests, are Tales of Unease.

the new uncanny  ...tales of uneaseIn varying degrees, they sent tingles down my spine.  Some happened as I read, others were slow burners that seemed fairly innocuous in content, but resonated hours later.

And if you’ve ever wondered where such ideas come from, then try looking at the source of inspiration for these stories.  Comma Press commissioned fourteen established writers to create stories based on Freud’s 1919 essay, The Uncanny.

That fascinating piece of literary analysis was inspired by a 1906 essay, The Psychology of the Uncanny by Ernst Jentsch.  Both essays based their investigations on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, The Sandman.

Convoluted, isn’t it?  But personally, I like a few twists along the way, and I shall definitely be keeping a copy of the eight tropes Freud listed.  In case we don’t want to explore the essay, Ra Page gives us the ‘eight irrational causes of fear deployed in literature’  in his introduction to The New Uncanny (thought I’d best repeat the title, in case you’d forgotten what I started with).  I make no excuses for copying them out here, but I hope you’ll still go out and get a copy of this anthology.  There’s some lovely writing in it.

  1. inanimate objects mistaken as animate (dolls, waxworks, automata, severed limbs etc.),
  2. animate beings behaving as if inanimate or mechanical (trances, epileptic fits, etc.),
  3. being blinded,
  4. the double (twins, doppelgangers, etc.),
  5. coincidences or repetitions,
  6. being buried alive,
  7. some all-controlling evil genius,
  8. confusions between reality and imagination (waking dreams, etc.).

Tempted?

 

 

 

One for the non-fiction shelf…

ISBN 9781514255537This week I finally got round to ordering my copy of Close to The Edge, by Sheila Williams.

This is a lovely, readable collection of stories about the Holderness Coast.  It’s not intended as a definitive history, rather a highly personal selection of fascinatingly quirky stories.

Daniel Defoe dismissed the Holderness coast, when he passed through on his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, back in the 1720s,

…the most that I find remarkable here is, that there is nothing remarkable upon this side for above thirty miles together; not a port, not a gentleman’s seat, not a town of note…

What Mr Defoe missed, Sheila Williams supplies*.

Chapter One – Growing Pains, begins with what the Holderness coast looked like at the time of the last ice age.

The North Sea was relatively dry, known as Doggerland and linked the UK to the rest of Europe.  The Holderness coast, indeed inland Holderness too, was a soggy, boggy stretch with meres, creeks and inlets all intermingled with ‘carrs’ – wet woodland and brush.  The whole provided a useful area for the hunting and fishing folk of the Stone and Bronze ages and nothing much more.

It takes us through the following centuries up to William the Conqueror:

After the Conquest, however, rebellion smouldered and broke out intermittently in the North of England until eventually William became tired of it and, his patience at an end, killed off as many of the recalcitrant Northerners as he could, together with their families, pets and livestock.  Not content with that early bout of ethnic cleansing he destroyed crops salted the land…and made a wasteland of the North from the River Humber to the River Tees.

This, you must be beginning to see, is a book about people in the landscape.  It’s the stories of characters who are not all Gentlemen, or even men, but who lived for a long or short time, on the Holderness coast.

You could, as I did, buy this book for the stories.  But be warned, you get more than a fireside read.  Before long you’ll find yourself checking road maps and thinking about experiencing for yourself the ‘huge grey-blue sea that transformed itself seamlessly into the sky so that is was hard to know where one began and the other finished.’ 

Photo: Sheila Williams

Photo: Sheila Williams

*Defoe was, of course, reflecting the understanding, values and preoccupations of his era.