The Word for World is Forest – Ursula K. Le Guin

Althshe is a tranquil, forested world that has in recent years been colonized by people from Earth, who prize its rich soil and, particularly, the natural wood that is only a memory on their planet. Of course, the colonists have also already discovered the perils deforestation, which quickly destroyed the soil on one of the continents. But Althshe is not uninhabited; millions of green-furred humans living in the forests and the colonists have conscripted many as a labor force, calling them volunteers because slavery is illegal. Althsheans are not hard-working by earth standards, frequently entering into a semi-conscious dream state, but they are tractable and without any conception of violence.

That is, until Davidson rapes and kills a female Althshean, which prompts a male, her husband Selver, to attack him in the street. Only the intervention of other humans, including the intellectual Lyubov, stops him from killing Selver then and there, which Davidson attributes to their weakness.

Davidson’s actions, however, set in motion a chain of events that have catastrophic consequences. In the language of the Althsheans, Selver becomes a god—that is, a person who introduces a new concept into society. Selver’s contribution: violence.

The Word for World is Forest is one of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, in which the humans from Terra begin to colonize habitable planets of nearby stars, only to discover that the planets are already inhabited by humans whose evolution has progressed along a different track. The Left Hand of Darkness is another part of this cycle. On Althshe, humans adapted to live in an idyllic, forested planet where men and women share leadership and define themselves in relation to their intimate relationships. Men’s role in this society is to tap into the dream while waking and sleeping, a trance-like mystical state that allows them to guide society. The role of women is to lead the community. Displays of prowess are achieved through song.

Outside a few scenes with Selver, the reader is invited to experience this society through the lens of humans from Terra: the curious and sympathetic Lyubov and the hostile and bigoted Davidson.

This is the third of Le Guin’s Hainish novels that I have read, but will probably not be the last. Set in the near future, the series takes what I love about Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men in that it envisions different evolutionary paths, but then sets an actual story around a particular theme. Thus where The Left hand of Darkness is fundamentally built around gender politics and power dynamics, The Word for World is Forest addresses environmentalism and colonial exploitation, complete with the gendered constructions of the passive Althsheans. Despite winning the Hugo award for Novella in 1973, The Word for World is Forest is in my opinion not as strong a story as either The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, both of which are both more subtle and more powerful in their stories. This judgement, though, is given in light of the high bar set by the other two novels rather than as a condemnation of this slim, beautiful story.

ΔΔΔ

For the first time in a while I’m reading two books at once, the graphic novel Watchmen and am continuing my run of fantasy books written by women with Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic. Watchmen isn’t written by women, but the prose streak remains intact.

Embassytown – China Miéville

Counterrevolution through language pedagogy and bureaucracy.

Reading a new book can be like learning a new language: disorienting, confusing, and a little bit exhilarating. There is a bar to entry, but once indoctrinated there is immense reward.

This metaphor is more literal for some books than others.

Embassytown is a small outpost on the planet Arieka, isolated from the other Bremen worlds and on the edge of the known universe. It is a bubble of environment safe for human habitation surrounded by and utterly dependent on the native civilization, which provides them with food and advanced biological technology (biorigging), including that machines that provide the city with breathable atmosphere.

The human population of Embassytown is constrained by these features of their environment and their culture shaped by it, but even more so by the unique way they communicate with the Ariekei. The indigenous race of Arieka is peculiar by human standards, but enormous emphasis lies on three features: the giftwing (a limb that functions as an arm), wings (ears), and their double mouths. The Ariekei only perceive language with two parts: simultaneous speech from two mouths (one ‘cut’, one ‘turn’), and the thought behind that speech. Thus Language is a direct correlative of thought; lies are impossible in Language, figures of speech need to be embodied by something true, and Language created by non-sentient things such as computers are ignored. In response to these Linguistic impediments, the humans of Embassytown have developed an Ambassador class of dual-entities, usually artificially produced twins, whose sympathetic links are carefully cultivated to approximate a single individual, the one speaking the Cut, the other the Turn. Social engineering of this sort is necessary for the survival of Embassytown, but it has the downside of creating an artificial hierarchy in the community that not everyone accepts.

Enter the narrator and sometime protagonist of Embassytown: Avice Benner Cho, an Immerser (crew on interplanetary vessels) raised in Embassytown and now returned with the husband of her fourth marriage (an a-sexual partnership), a linguistic researcher. Avice has few ambitions upon returning, but becomes bound up in events in part because of her sexual liaisons with respected Ambassadors. There is a crisis brewing in Embassytown between the Ambassadors and the Bremen representative, but things become more tense when they are forced to accept the first Ambassador not born in Embassytown…and even more so when it turns out that the new Ambassador, EzRa, is not made of two closely-related individuals. When EzRa speaks in Language the Ariekei experience a narcotic-esque high that causes physical addiction. Like with narcotics, the addict develops a tolerance and requires ever more stimulation until it becomes fatal. Addiction threatens Ariekei society, but Embassytown has a symbiotic relationship with the Ariekei, so the changes to the hosts and EzRa’s fickle personality poses an even greater danger to its existence.

Embassytown is a brilliantly crafted exploration of linguistics, linguistic change, and cataclysmic fissures that erupt in a society when something this fundamental changes. At the same time, the book is a slow-unfolding political drama between humans that unfolds through the point of view of someone who is simultaneously a total outsider and at the center of the developments. It is, in so many words, fiendish in its complexity and brilliant in its achievement. Yet, as much as I appreciated Embassytown and as much as it made me think about language and societies, I didn’t love the plot or feel a particularly deep connection to many of the characters. While still reading Embassytown I suspected that I would conclude that its fundamental flaw was that the story took a backseat to the linguistic and anthropological thought-experiment and thus that priority diminished my enjoyment. Miéville does not fall into the trap, so both character and plot are carefully intertwined with the linguistic evaluations, but Embassytown nevertheless did not grab me the way many of my favorite books do, for reasons both native to the book and particular to me. At the same time, it sold me on reading more of Miéville’s work.

ΔΔΔ
I finished reading a short story collection by Jenny Erpenbeck and George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, and have started Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise.

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

This is the second backlogged write up. I finished reading Ancillary Justice about two weeks ago, so there is a little bit more reflection and a little less that I remember by way of detail.

Ancillary Justice won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in 2014 and has been on my radar for a few years now both because I heard nothing but good things and because it is part of my conscious effort to read more books written by women. In retrospect, I find it a book completely deserving of winning these awards and, simultaneously, did not like it as much as I feel is its critical reception.

The first part of the novel alternates between two timelines. In the first, an ancillary soldier (more on this in a moment) going by the name Breq is on an icy world searching for a weapon of extraordinary power and stumbles across another soldier, drug addicted, who Breq is sure she knew many hundreds of years ago. This is because Breq is the last splinter of an artificial intelligence known as Justice of Toren that inhabited the systems of a massive starship and thousands of ancillaries–human bodies equipped with technology that allows them to be activated by that AI. The second timeline takes place twenty years earlier on Shis’urna, the last planet annexed by the Radchaai. Despite the power of the Radchaai, their absolute faith in their civilizing mission, and a relative lack of opposition on Shis’urna, the annexation did not go smoothly. When the lieutenant from Justice of Toren uncovers an attempt to frame the local inhabitants for an armed uprising, it sets in motion a series of events that reveal a growing schism in Radchaai, involving their leader, Anaander Mianaai herself. In the fallout, Justice of Toren is destroyed.

The two timelines collapse into a single for narrative for the second part, as Breq and Seivarden, the found soldier, work out a scheme to kill Anaander Mianaai.

Several aspects of Ancillary Justice are refreshing. The AI systems raise issues of dispersed personalities, since each ancillary is simultaneously in its individual role *and* part of an intelligence that has been “alive” for thousands of years, and obliquely address hyper-surveillance.

Another core theme is “civilization.” Within the story Radchaai is: a) a planet; b) an empire; c) the people in the empire and the language they speak, and d) the word for civilization. What’s more, the Radchaai language doesn’t distinguish between men and women, so Leckie uses the female pronoun throughout, except when the characters converse with backward peoples outside Radchaai space, which leads to a great deal of confusion. Within the story, there are people who exhibit masculine or feminine characteristics after a sort and there are sexual encounters, but without our traditional assumptions about the roles. These gender roles are placed by hierarchies dictated by class, both in terms of financial resources and social status. The issues of class are further exacerbated because the Radchaai military is undergoing to a reorganization to allow provincial and lower-class citizens to rise into positions of leadership—a change that is vehemently opposed by many of the older families.

Ancillary Justice was refreshingly disorienting. I spent the first portion of the book reorienting my assumptions and expectations; it was mildly irritating, but I recognized that it was both intentional and novel such that I thought that this was one of the strongest components of the book.

Where I struggled with Ancillary Justice was in determining whether I thought the plot worked. This is not to say this was poorly crafted. The technical elements of the plot are excellent and the twists on an otherwise generic setting make that work too. And yet the plot seemed to me to be overly formulaic, mostly a vehicle for the other concepts at play. On the one hand, this does make issues of class and dispersed personalities come to the fore more clearly; on the other hand, I had to keep asking myself if I found it compelling. In particular, I was underwhelmed by the immediate setting: decayed empire going through transition and fragmentation, which, while perhaps relevant to the contemporary world, also felt like a (somewhat) stale riff on the fall of Rome. This is evergreen material for stories, of course, and has been omnipresent in science fiction basically since such thing existed, but it this version didn’t seem to me to be saying anything new on this front.

Rereading the last paragraph has me wondering if I am being harsher than I actually mean to be. Those *were* the issues that kept bubbling up as I read, but it makes it seem as though Ancillary Justice was bad. It was not. There is a lot to like about the novel and I am curious to see whether some of my qualms subside when the (pun intended) ancillary elements of the story is established and therefore requires less attention in the text.

ΔΔΔ

I have finished reading Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley and Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night and will be getting to these write-ups in the near future. Next up: Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days.

The End of All Things – John Scalzi

The End of All Things is the most recent installment of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. Like it’s predecessor, The Human Division, The End of All Things was released in serial form, with each episode advancing the overall plot, while introducing new viewpoint characters. Like Scalzi’s other work, the book features snappy, sarcastic, and often exasperated dialogue, with a smart and sympathetic overall tone. The End of All Things is not my favorite book in the series, which, at some level seems to be running its course since the novelty of the original premise has grown old, but it nonetheless remains a worthy read.

At the conclusion of The Human Division Earth has been separated from the Colonial Union and is now hung between the CU and The Conclave, an alliance of alien species, many of whom hate all humans. The governments of Earth are convinced, and not without reason, that the CU is responsible for attacking them, but, in fact, the real perpetrators are a shadowy organization known as Equilibrium whose goal is to destroy The Conclave and, if possible, the Colonial Union. It is a race against time for scrappy misfits to stop an all-out war, prevent the genocide of the human race, and, in the process, save the Colonial Union from itself.

One of the things I enjoyed about The End of All Things (despite the opinion that the title, which is also a repeated line in the book, is a little too cute) is that its action-and-ingenuity form is set against a thoughtful discussion of politics wherein there are three camps: keep things the way they are, blow everything up, and aggressively pursue a more structurally sound system. The heroes are in the last camp. Moreover, Scalzi does a notably good job of building a diverse cast of characters who take on important roles, regardless of their gender, without coming across like he is preaching about these virtues. I add this last point because I find it somewhat ironic given his online reputation and also because some other science fiction and fantasy books have sometimes come across as moralistic, though, admittedly, generally within the strictures of their plots.

I have given a brief synopsis and a brief explanation of what I liked about The End of All Things, but want to conclude with some further thoughts about serialization and series. The End of All Things is the sixth book in this series, but unlike a lot of long genre series it doesn’t seem to be building to a single “last battle” or comparable event. If I recall correctly, I have put down every book thinking that a) there was a satisfactory conclusion and b) events outside that particular arc continued, whether or not they were even put down in a publication. This is not an easy task to accomplish.

Each new book picks up the grand plot of the series and features some of the same characters, but doesn’t simply perpetuate itself by finding some new skill for the protagonist to have or by needing to pick up from an incomplete story. Instead, each new book has a new angle or has a new perspective—-and the same holds true for each installment of the serialized books, with the final resolution coming at the end of the final installment. What I find interesting about this approach is that it avoids some of the pitfalls of long-running series that sometimes feel like they are coming apart at the seams because the author keeps introducing new viewpoint characters. Scalzi introduces new viewpoints, but usually because the other viewpoints are not likely to return.

As noted above, I liked The End of All Things, but it concludes at a very nice pause point for that particular universe and I am excited to see what Scalzi puts out next.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I am reading Wicked River by Lee Sandlin and will probably open Orhan Pamuk’s The Silent House later today.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with that fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. He had been quite right to say that he, the only person on Gethen who trusted me, was the only Gethenian I distrusted. For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me personal loyalty: and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance.

I am late come to the works of Ursula K. Le Guin having once starting–and giving up on–her fantasy books. This year I returned to her books, first with The Dispossessed and now The Left Hand of Darkness. Like The Dispossessed, I found Left Hand (published 1969) to be a somewhat raw book, but powerful, thoughtful and, in many ways, Important.

The planet Gethen (also known as Winter) is perpetually in the grip of an ice age, with bountiful fish, but few mammals and no birds. The hominids who live on Winter adapted to the environment, both in terms of their resistance to extreme cold and in other adaptations that are designed to ensure their survival. The habitable zone on Winter, such that it is, is divided into multiple political units, with the two most important being the kingdom of Karhide and the country of Orgoreyn. The former is a decentralized state subdivided into small landholdings ruled over by local lords and family units; the latter is a centralized and centrally planned state run by a central council and shadowy agencies. Neighbors, Karhide and Orgoreyn usually allow trade across the border, provided that one has the proper paperwork for Orgoreyn, but are diametrically opposed. There are, however, some people in Karhide who believe that the kingdom should be somewhat more like Orgoreyn and are willing to go to great lengths to make that happen.

Into this uncertain political situation enters Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen, the political organization of the planets with human species on them dedicated to facilitating trade in cultural, intellectual, and technological innovations. He lands first at Karhide, but his situation soon becomes endangered when a coup against his primary benefactor, Prime Minister Estraven, forces both men (independently) to flee to Orgoreyn. Of course, this change is not necessarily for the better.

Genly’s “otherness” is particularly pronounced on Winter because he is what they would call “a pervert”–that is, someone whose anatomy is like that on earth. Gethenian are what Genly terms ambisexual. Their normal state of being is neither male nor female, but with the potential to be one or the other. Once a month they go into a state of “kemmer,” hormonal arousal that becomes further excited by contact with others in kemmer. (As a hormonal change, kemmer can be manipulated through artificial hormones, but this is generally frowned upon.) Kemmer changes their anatomy to express either male or female anatomy, with no predisposition to one or the other, and only remains in this state if, when in female anatomy, the Gethenian becomes pregnant. Genly is a pervert because he is “always in kemmer.”

At its heart The Left Hand of Darkness is driven by elements of thriller as Genly races from one place to another, one step ahead of forces that will destroy him, and the relationship between Genly and Estraven, but the details of Gethenian anatomy strike me as the most important part of the book. Le Guin, through Genly’s eyes, asks how this anatomy fundamentally shapes Gethenian cultures and how the different political units exploit their anatomy for their own ends, insidious and otherwise. Moreover, Genly is forced to reckon with his own preconceptions about gender in terms of how he addresses people. For instance, he frequently defaults to calling Gethenians “he” and “son,” while also judging those he considers effeminate, despite those terms being blatantly wrong.

The Left Hand of Darkness could have been a viable story set on earth, but the way Le Guin weaves in anthropology, mythology, and mysticism makes it exceptional. This book is a powerful meditation on duality, in terms of countries, gender, cultures, and sexualities. It is optimistic about the possibilities for empathy and understanding, but keenly aware of the tragedies that must be overcome to get to that point.

My copy of The Left Hand of Darkness also had an introductory essay about the nature of writing, reading, and science fiction. In this essay Le Guin argues that people don’t read science fiction and dismiss it as “escapist” actually find it “depressing” because they consider it extrapolative and must arrive “somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.” Le Guin denies that her novel extrapolates from the present, saying:

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The essay continues to talk about mistaken trust in artists of various sorts, and refers to reading as a form of “insanity. It is an essay that may be argued against, without a doubt, but it also performs the function of a good essay: it is provokes discussion.

ΔΔΔ

I just finished Stefan Zweig’s posthumous novella Chess Story. Next up, I am still working my way through Better Angels of our Nature and am planning to start Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man later today.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

If it wasn’t clear from my relative silence, the last six weeks or so has been exceptionally busy, which has slowed both my reading and writing. I only managed to finish one non-academic book in October, barely slipping Margaret Atwood’s Booker Award Winning The Blind Assassin in under the wire. An astute reader, however, will note that October is now more than two weeks gone. I didn’t write an immediate review because the book required some digestion and then a number of real world events, including guests, a nasty head cold, teaching, job applications, and a presidential election colluded to keep me from the review. None of this should be taken to indicate a lack of appreciation for this book, the second of Atwood’s that I have read.

Atwood weaves together three distinct stories in The Blind Assassin. The frame story are the recollections of Iris Chase Griffen, the daughter one Ontario industrialist and the widow of another, writing her life story ostensibly for her estranged daughter. As such, this narrative slips between the first half of the twentieth century and explains hushed history of the Chase family through the wars and depressions, deaths and affairs, and the contemporary time and Iris’ old age. Interspersed with these stories are a variety of newspaper clippings that illuminate something about the Chase family, Iris’ marriage to Richard Griffen, or her sister Laura.

This first set of stories focuses on the relationships in Iris’ life, first with her angelic and sincere sister Laura and the much more problematic relationships with her husband and Winifred, her husband’s sister. Iris agrees to the marriage because she is convinced that this is the only way to save her father’s business and thence his life. Despite the veneer of love at the outset, Winifred and Richard expect Iris to obey them, as though they are her parents and overlords more so than as sister-in-law and husband. Iris accepts her place as would a martyr, but, when their father Norval Chase dies, Laura is exposed to Richard’s predilections. The reader knows from the outset that something has happened, since the book opens with “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

Then there is a story-within-a-story, the acclaimed science fiction novel attributed to Laura and published under the title The Blind Assassin. This story has a similar structure to the overall story, alternating between one narrative about an illicit affair between an married woman and an renegade, and the science fiction story that the lovers tell each other during their assignations. Suffice it to say that the novel is not entirely a work of fiction.

The final product is a meticulously crafted story about power, sexual violence, and family secrets that frequently remain just in the shadows and are all the more potent for being just out of reach. This short synopsis does not do The Blind Assassin justice since its combination of power and beauty develops along the nexus of these various relationships, including Iris’ eternal battle with Winifred and the still-troubled relationship with Laura more than four decades after her death.

And yet, I think I still preferred The Handmaid’s Tale. The comparison I keep coming back to is with the works of Orwell, where I believe that Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a better novel, but I prefer Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Blind Assassin is objectively a stronger, more complex, and more subtle novel than is The Handmaid’s Tale. Both are excellent, but I slightly prefer the latter.

Δ Δ Δ

Next up, I am nearly finished reading The Wall of Storms, the second book in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty “Silkpunk” Epic. It is certainly different than the first book in the series, but is still very, very good. I haven’t given too much thought to what I am going to read after this, but am leaning on the fiction side toward Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, while my Thanksgiving Break reading for non-fiction is going to be Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.

The Human Division – John Scalzi

I finished this book a few weeks ago and this is the last of the backlogged reviews, if only because life has gotten in the way of my reading.

Every book in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe is quite a lot of fun, being smart, clever, and modern military sci-fi. The core premise of the universe is that humanity spread out into the universe under the guiding hand of the Colonial Union and subsequently ran into other races that are stronger, smarter, or more technologically advanced, not to mention pissed that humans are spreading into their territory. To counter these problems, the Colonial Union kept the earth in a sort of stasis in terms of technology, collecting colonists from third-world countries and recruiting soldiers from the elderly in first-world countries. The soldiers do not, of course, keep their old bodies, but instead have their consciousnesses transferred into genetically enhanced bodies with computers in their heads giving them both a wealth of experience and bodies that give them a fighting chance against aliens (though mortality rates are still exceptionally high).

Now the Colonial Union has a problem. Their longstanding scheme to use earth as a source of manpower has been exposed and the people of Earth are furious at being used. The next installment in the series, The Human Division, explores the consequences of this rift.

The Human Division focuses on the exploits of CDF (Colonial Defense Forces) Lieutenant Harry Wilson, his human assistant Hart Schmidt, and Ambassador Abumwe. The first story, aptly named “The B-Team,” sets the tone for the book. When a diplomatic mission goes sideways and a star negotiator and her entire team are killed, the Colonial Union turns to the only available alternative. Abumwe’s team rarely gets things done in the most elegant fashion, but they get results. In these dangerous times, results are all that matter and so the team is assigned to missions where success is desired, but not at all expected.

The Human Division was originally serialized, released in digital form over the course of months in 2013. The project was well-received at the time (I followed the discussion a bit on Twitter), but I only read it in the overall book form. In this project, Scalzi talked about the challenges of writing standalone episodes that also formed a complete novel. While there are some hallmarks of serialization, such as noticeable time-lapses and some skipping around in viewpoints, but each individual episode is a fun story and there is a compelling arc for the entire novel, wherein the recurring characters develop their relationships.

I recommend that people start with the earlier books in the series. It is military sci-fi and, subsequently, tends to be an action romp, but one that carries with it clever dialogue, smart world building, and a progressive message. The action and quip-filled dialogue can threaten to make the characters come across as shallow, but Scalzi injects real emotional depth and real stakes even while the stories remain light and fast-moving.


Life has gotten in the way of my reading recently, between teaching, grading, writing, and job applications, but I am still working through and quite enjoying Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. After that the future is hazy, but I am particularly excited by Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms, which arrived in the mail yesterday.

Foundation and Empire – Isaac Asimov

The second of what my edition still somewhat quaintly refers to as “the foundation trilogy,” Foundation and Empire picks up the centuries-long epic from where the first book left off. Since I didn’t do an actual review of Foundation, I should recap. In the waning days of the Galactic Empire, the great psycho-historian Hari Seldon foresaw that he needed to found two foundations on the outer reaches of the galaxy, each preserving science and culture. These two settlements would be governed not by the fickleness of self-interested actors, but by the principles of psycho-history, namely that there are underlying forces in societies that may be manipulated to ensure prosperity. Through careful guidance, Seldon’s vision steers the first Foundation through a series of crises. In due time the Foundation exploits its advanced technology and privileged position to wield an economic hegemony on the outer reaches of the galaxy while the empire from whence it sprang crumbles.

Foundation and Empire tells two periods in Foundation’s history, both times when the leaders turn away from Seldon, despite an expected crisis. The first is a showdown with the Galactic Empire, in which the Empire is hopelessly outmatched by the superior technology. The second is a more dire threat because it combines two dangers, the inevitable (sic) crisis between a government that is becoming hereditary and independent-minded traders who value personal freedom, along with an unforeseen crisis in the form of a mutant warlord called The Mule. The powers of The Mule are a threat to the future foreseen by Seldon, but neither is he omnipotent, and while the first Foundation falls, the race to find Second Foundation is on.

I continue to be intrigued by the Foundation series. As a historian, it is an interesting idea for a science-fiction epic and Asimov does a good job at changing how the characters manifest as the society changes. At the same time, I found Foundation and Empire to be wildly uneven, speeding through some developments and dragging past others. I also found some of the reveals about The Mule rather predictable, and, while there were some interesting observations about unforeseen variables and the role of the individual, the novel came to a close without actually resolving much of anything. I enjoyed the read and will read Second Foundation, but I found the lack of resolution frustrating.


Next up, I still have to review John Scalzi’s entertaining The Human Division and I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.

The Fall of Hyperion – Dan Simmons

“The core offered unity in unwitting subservience,” she said softly. “Safety in stagnation. Where are the revolutions in human thought and culture and action since the Hegira?”

“My God,” whispered Meina Gladstone…”I’m doing all of this on the strength of a dream.”

“Sometimes,” said General Morpugo, taking her hand, “dreams are all that separate us from the machines.”

When Hyperion leaves off, the Shrike Pilgrims are on their final approach to the Time Tombs. The Fall of Hyperion, however, begins light years away with the artist Joseph Severn being summoned to the presence of Meina Gladstone, the CEO of Mankind, ostensibly in order to draw official portraits; his real purpose is to advise the CEO about the pilgrims’ progress because he sees them in his dreams. The Time Tombs are opening, the Shrike is set loose, and the Ousters are approaching Hyperion, but the greatest threat to mankind an as-of-yet unforeseen catastrophe is descending on the hegemony. There are some irregularities caused by the Time Tombs, but, the entire story largely plays out over the course of a week.

At face value, The Fall of Hyperion has a more straightforward structure than its predecessor, but that is doing Simmons a disservice. Hyperion has a series of narrators, each telling their own story, while FoH has primarily one, Joseph Severn. (It is arguable that Severn, a genetic copy of the poet John Keats, is the narrator of the first novel, too, but that point is never addressed.) Severn tells his story in the first person, while the other sections of the story are in a cinematic third person that sprawls across the galaxy as the characters race to prevent total annihilation.

The Fall of Hyperion is not quite as tight as Hyperion, but is an immensely satisfactory conclusion to the this pair of novels (though I can’t vouch for how it fits with the pair of Endymion novels set in the same universe). That said, where the first was an absolute revelation of storytelling and world-building, FoH rushes ahead as one catastrophe after another tears threatens to destroy everything and all the characters are forced to fight for their lives. FoH continues to explore many of the issues that are raised in H, including human reliance on technology, the refusal to adapt to the environment, and sacrificing for greater good. There were times that it felt somewhat moralistic about all human failures, but this emerged more strongly because of its nature as a catastrophe story and did not necessarily detract.

I said in my post about Hyperion that I didn’t believe that the sequel was necessary to appreciate it, and that sentiment remains true. However, I do believe that the sequel lives up to the promises of the original, building on the issues and adding to them rather than falling flat. For anyone who appreciated the first, I unreservedly recommend the second; for anyone who hasn’t yet read the first, it is necessary before reading the second.

ΔΔΔ

Next up I am halfway through Italo Calvino’s novella Marcovaldo, a collection of short stories, each a fable of sorts following the title character’s ill-fated ambitions in a northern Italian city. After that I am torn on what to read. I had an impulse today to give War and Peace another shot or possibly to pick up Anna Karenina, but this time last year I got bogged down in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to read Don Quixote and may decide keep on with novellas or short novels by reading Camus’ The Plague instead.

Dr. Futurity – Philip K. Dick

I picked up Dr. Futurity in a used bookstore recently based on two criteria. First, one of my blindspots in the area of classic science fiction is the work of Philip K. Dick. I am aware of the premises for quite a few books, but I have never read any of them. Second, of the options before me, the synopsis of Dr. Futurity, a future world dominated by the young and fetishizes death, sounded the most interesting. [I should also mention that I believe in the important marketing elements of cover and description when it comes to pre-judging a book.]

Doctor Jim Parsons leaves his wife standing on the porch of their southern-California home one morning in 2010 and takes the expressway north to San Fransisco. On this high-speed commute there is an accident and he is launched four hundred years into the future, into a a world that is barely recognizable. This future world is one in which healing is stigmatized and death fetishized. The population is divided into tribes based on totems, with athletic competitions determining the proportion of the population each tribe gets to have. Men are sterilized at birth and zygotes brought to term through a strict regimen of eugenics; women are without representation and, other than their participation in the competitions, serve to please their male partners and guests as housekeepers and sexual objects. Mars is transformed into a prison colony for dissenters and Venus into a mine, with juvenile delinquents trained to be shupos, violent killers who enforce the government’s positions.

Parsons, with his white skin and hippocratic oath, is dropped into this world and sentenced to Mars. In transit he is rescued by the Wolf Tribe, dissenters of Native American heritage, who need him to save their leader who was killed with an arrow while on a mission to the sixteenth century. Using the time machine, Parsons leaps backward and forward, trying to find a balance between his family back home, a new love in the future, and the vicissitudes of human ambition.

The basic hypothetical Dick poses, the one that caused me to get the book, was the strongest part of Dr. Futurity. In contrast, the plot (and the questions pertaining to time travel) were simply okay, as it hopped forward and back in time. In my opinion, Dick did not add much by way of conversation about history or the paradoxes posed by time travel, and the fact that the story veered away from the future and to these issues weakened the book. In fact, most of the consequences in Dr. Futurity fell back on the question of personalities and power dynamics within human families or societies.

And yet, I had other, bigger issues with Dr. Futurity

  1. Some of the specifics Dick used to place Parsons as the inhabitant of the near future were hilariously out of date. Notably, the inhabitants of the future try to make Parsons feel at home by providing creature comforts of his era, and the go-to taste of home was a Lucky Strike cigarette—a brand that was discontinued in the United States in 2006.
  2. More important was the treatment of women. Where the racial dynamics in the future were refreshing, generally treated just as a fact and not with a moral attached, the book reeked of gender issues. First, while the stay-at-home wife seeing her husband off might have been true of the time of publication (1960), the setting is somewhat in the future and therefore distressingly regressive. Second, in the far future the need for biological mothers is eliminated, and yet the women are further relegated, being sex objects and servants for their men, while it is considered rebellious to even broach the topic of female suffrage. Some of the main characters do not fall into this category, but only because they are exceptional women.

    The first two issues were troubling enough, but could have been explained in the course of the narrative, but, instead, Dick’s writing slips into a third sexist tic. He tells the story through Parson’s eyes, and often has Parson casually ogle the breasts of female characters. To wit, he describes Loris, the leader of the Wolf Tribe and “the most potent human being alive” as “the powerful, full-breasted creature” who has “energetic loins” and “superb breasts” that “glistened, swayed”. Dick does use these moments to establish sexual interest, but while Loris has her uses for Parsons, the interest in principally coming from the other direction. Had there been a valuable narrative purpose to Parson’s wandering eye that would be one thing, but the above quotes come from multiple passages that offer a troubling discourse on the purpose of women in the world of the story.

In sum, Dr. Futurity brimmed with tantalizing potential, but fell short on a number of fronts. It might well be a setting worth revisiting, but this particular story only flashed glimpses, otherwise proving shallow and problematic.

ΔΔΔ

I just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, about an isolated tribe being acclimated to modern society as a modern anthropology student becomes absorbed into their traditions. Next up I am going to read Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy.