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A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Women’s Press, 1987, 410 p.

The novel starts off on the planet Valedon but is mostly set on its aquatic satellite, Shora, inhabited for centuries solely by women. They wear no clothes since they spend a lot of time in the moon-spanning ocean and have a bluish tinge due to microbes which, in the aquatic environment, help them to maintain breath. In contrast to Valedon – a world where the usual vices of political power are prevalent and which seems to be a militarily directed society – life on Shora is peaceable, its values based on sharing learning, and where the highest form of punishment is Unspeaking (that is, sending someone to Coventry.) They are also capable of a state known as whitetrance, a type of withdrawal where their hearts slow almost to death. The Shorans live on rafts of plant material floating on the water’s surface and have an appreciation of the interactions between all the life-forms – beneficial or seemingly inimical – that make up Shora’s web of life. They also have a deep knowledge of biology and genetics and a plant-based means of expressing new organisms quickly.

Traders from Valedon – sometimes known pejoratively as malefreaks – have been present on Shora for years and Berenice Hyalite – known on Shora as Nisi – has come to a deep understanding of its way of life. Her father set up the trading post but she reports back to the rulers of Valedon. There is some interplay between Valans and Shorans on whether the others are really human with respect to each other but all the characters present as recognisably so to the reader. Berenice’s fiancé Realgar is a military man, and he is given the command of the Valedon forces sent to Shora to bring it fully under control.

The novel is thus set up to explore the mutual incomprehension of the military mindset and the habitual, instinctive, non-violence of the Shorans. It can therefore be read as a feminist work but is equally parsable as a Science Fictional exploration of a different approach to life’s challenges. In A Door Into Ocean Slonczewski is exploring an alternative way of being human. This is partly territory pioneered by the late lamented Ursula Le Guin. Slonczewski is no Le Guin but is good enough to be going on with.

Pedant’s corner:- laniard (lanyard,) “Berenice like to absorb” (the rest of the paragraph was in past tense, so, Berenice liked,) maw (mouth was implied, a maw is a stomach,) sunk (sank,) shined (shone,) octopi (octopuses, or, octopodes, but since we’re on an alien planet, octopods,) sprung (sprang,) “I could take take pills” (only one take needed,) “‘You could to that?’” (do that,) brusk (brusque,) langauge (language,) “more that she let on” (than she let on,) “was kept with in raftwood” (within,) strategem (stratagem,) collander (colander,) waked up (woken up,) automatons (strictly, automata.)

Reelin’ In the Years 145: Hold Your Head Up. RIP Jim Rodford, Hugh Masekela and Mark E Smith

What a week this has been. It’s like 2016 came back again.

First Jim Rodford of Argent (and later The Kinks and the re-formed Zombies) then Jimmy Armfield, Hugh Masekela, Ursula Le Guin and Mark E Smith of The Fall.

Jimmy Armfield was an almost forgotten member of a certain England football World Cup squad but had a follow-up career as a manager in which he took Leeds United to the European Cup final where they were diddled out of a win by some dodgy refereeing but crowd trouble took some shine off the team’s efforts and later as a commenter on BBC radio’s football coverage.

I’m not much into jazz but was aware Hugh Masekela was an impressive musician, and equally important for his standing in the anti-apartheid movement.

I posted about Ursula Le Guin on Wednesday 24/1/2018. There were two articles about her in yesterday’s Guardian. This one by Alison Flood and Benjamin Lee plus David Mitchell’s appreciation.

The Fall is a band I didn’t follow (they were a bit after my time) but some folks swear by them. By all accounts Mark E Smith was a particularly exacting taskmaster.

Argent’s biggest hit was Hold Your Head Up from 1972. This is a TV performance from 1973.

Argent: Hold Your Head Up

Below are two samples of Masekela in performance.

Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela: Soweto Blues

Hugh Masekela: Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela.)

And here’s The Fall’s cover of the Holland-Dozier-Holland song There’s a Ghost in My House, which gave them their highest UK chart placing.

The Fall: There’s a Ghost in My House

James Walter Rodford: 7/7/1941 – 20/1/2018. So it goes.
James Christopher Armfield: 21/9/1935 – 22/1/2018. So it goes.
Hugh Ramapolo Masekela: 4/4/1939 – 23/1/2018. So it goes.
Mark Edward Smith: 5/3/1957 – 24/1/2018. So it goes.

Ursula Le Guin

I’ve just looked at the Locus website and discovered to my deep sadness that Ursula Le Guin has died.

She was one of the greats of Science Fiction and Fantasy and will be sorely missed.

Probably most famous for her “Earthsea” series of books she first came to my attention in the 1960s. I cannot now remember which book of hers I read first but I think it must have been the acclaimed The Left Hand of Darkness. I went on to scour bookshops for her work. I confess I wasn’t as impressed (in my relative youth) by the even more critically praised The Dispossessed – I probably hadn’t enough life experience then to appreciate it fully – but since those days her fiction has always been the background to my SF reading life, my anticipation of each new book never disappointed by its content.

Most recently I always enjoyed her book reviews for The Guardian, which showed a mind as sharp and incisive as ever.

Tonight the world – the universe – feels like a much smaller place.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin: 21/10/1929 – 22/1/2018. So it goes.

Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer

the greatest empire that never was.

Small Beer, 2003, 255 p. Translated from the Spanish Kalpa Imperial by Ursula K Le Guin. First published in two volumes La casa del poder (The House of Power) and El Imperio mas vasto (The Greatest Empire) by Ediciones Minotauro, Buenos Aires, 1983.

 Kalpa Imperial cover

This is not really like anything I’ve ever read before, a sweeping, dazzling, accomplishment of a book, soaring yet at the same time utterly grounded, told in two parts, The House of Power and The Greatest Empire, of five and six sections respectively, a history of an empire “so long that a whole life dedicated to study and research isn’t enough to know it wholly,” a history “strewn with surprise, contradictions, abysses, deaths, resurrections,” of an empire “so vast that a man can’t cross it in his lifetime.” A chronicling of human life, then.

I doubt it has any equivalent but the nearest comparison in SF is probably Robert Silverberg’s Roma Eterna, mainly due to its episodic narrative, but despite its fabular nature (no empire could ever last as long, with so many ruling dynasties, as the one in this book) this is somehow less fanciful and more convincing (and I liked Roma Eterna a lot even though it was late Silverberg where he wasn’t quite as incisive as in his pomp.) Kalpa Imperial nevertheless did somehow at times remind me of translations of Chinese literature but probably only because it deals with emperors and empires and the consequent power struggles.

Despite its subtitle the book does not restrict itself to the emperors or their courts. Life in the empire is presented in an approximation of its diversity but there is no continuity between the sections, no characters carry on from one to the next or later. Instead the picture is built up from what are in effect short stories/novellas set in the same milieu. A binding link in the book, though, is that, like fairy tales, most of the sections begin with the same phrase, in this case, “The storyteller said:” but varied with one, “Yes, said the storyteller:” a, “Vast is the empire, said the storyteller:” with the last section altering the template to, “‘I’m an orphan,” The Cat had said,’”. All these help to solidify the tales, to root the book in a compelling simulation of an actual history as remembered by oral historians. But it is precisely that lack of continuity, that difference between the sections (except for the narrative tone,) that works to make the book feel like a true history.

Throughout the book there are asides on the art of story. “The reason why there are storytellers in the world is to answer those questions we all ask, and not as the teller, but as the reader,” “a storyteller is no more than a free man, and being a free man is a dangerous business,” and, pertinently to any time but certainly apposite now, “who takes any notice of the wise, these days, except storytellers, or poets?” Particularly redolent was the passage which dwelt on the phrase, “not all is said.”

There is a knowing quality to the section which riffs on The Odyssey. A legend is recited containing people named Kirdaglas, Marlenditrij, Betedeivis, Maripícfor, Briyibardó, Jedilamar, Alendelón, Orsonuéls, Clargueibl, Yeimsdín etc, with houses named saloon, rashomon, elañopasadoenmarienbad and charge of the light brigade and which also features sirens called ringostars.

Gorodischer is well-served by her translator. (Though if you’re going to be translated it must be a boon if it is done by one of the best writers around.) But the whole is a marvel of invention, a rich imagining of a world not our own but as near to it as makes no difference.

Pedant’s corner:- “time’s mirror losses all its reflects” (reflections, surely?) Ja’ladahlva (elsewhere Ja’ladahva,) a missing end quotation mark, busses (buses,) “who lived more than twenty kilos away” (kilo is used as an abbreviation for kilogram, not kilometre,) “the girl was very young girl” (a very young girl,) “in the darkness under of the walls” (either under or of, not both,) two of the women were were crawling (only one were needed.) “Five minutes later” (twice in two lines, both beginning a paragraph.) “He knew it” – death – “was waiting for him in the South too, but maybe there it wouldn’t take so long to come” (context suggests “but maybe there it would take longer to come”,) traveller’s tales (travellers’ tales?) “.. he could stay as long as he like before” (liked,) “a gesture that included that included” (one “that included” only,) a missing quote mark at a section beginning with a piece of dialogue – probably house style but it irritates me, Clargueible (previously Clargueibl,) “of the the dead emperor” (only one “the”,) “it it rose up” (only one “it”.)

Creating a Fictional World

Two articles caught my eye in Saturday’s Guardian Review.

The cover piece was by Naomi Alderman and discussed feminist Science Fiction with reference to its warning nature and the threat recent political events present to the potential of women being treated on an equal basis with men. Of particular interest here was the revelation to me of part of the background to Ursula Le Guin’s childhood where her parents had taken in the last survivor of the Native American Yani people about whom Le Guin’s mother wrote a book. The implication is that exposure to other ways of thinking than what otherwise surrounded her opened up perspectives which Le Guin was able to transform into her fiction. Margaret Atwood too spent parts of her childhood outside the comforts of civilisation, while Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr) travelled in Africa as a child coming into contact with various groups. Alderman uses the example of her own novel The Power to illustrate that the nature of a utopia/dystopia is dependent on viewpoint.

Further on there was an odd piece by Scarlett Thomas on her conversion to the delights and magic of children’s fiction.

What got me here was the sentence, “But it turns out that creating a fictional world is a very complex act” in a “who knew?” context.

Well, duh. Only every Science Fiction or fantasy writer who ever tried it.

Behind the sentence’s remarkable blindness presumably stood Thomas’s previous implicit view that such creators are not real writers and anything fantastical does not warrant serious attention.

Still, it seems she’s got over that now.

David Mitchell and Ursula Le Guin

David Mitchell (for my reviews of whose Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet click on the links) has written an article very appreciative of Ursula Le Guin and published in Saturday’s Guardian. It seems it was Le Guin who inspired Mitchell to become a writer.

Well, there’s always someone to blame. In my case it was Robert Silverberg; but Le Guin came a close second – and that only because I came to her later.

Mitchell puts Le Guin’s Earthsea in the Fantasy world’s super league along with Tolkein and now George RR Martin. He argues Earthsea is a superior creation to Middle Earth. Since I never managed to get past book one of Lord of the Rings (probably because I came to it in my late rather than early teens) I would have to concur.

Though Mitchell doesn’t actually rank them against each other I would also place Earthsea above Martin’s Westeros since that world is too focused on violence and its source material is more obvious. Le Guin’s seems to have sprung out of her own imagination and experiences.

The first book in Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence has apparently now been given a Folio Society edition.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Harper Voyager, 2014, 266 p. Published in Finnish as Teemastarin Kirja (The Tea Master’s Daughter.)

 Memory of Water cover

In a far future Scandinavian Union run by the military dictatorship of New Qiao, the seas have long since risen, fresh water is a scarce resource, water crime a capital offence, insect hoods have to be worn outdoors and travelling is difficult. Noria Kaitio is the daughter of a tea master, the latest in a long line. Despite being female she is apprenticed to him. Her life is changed when her father reveals to her the secret spring which allows his tea to be the best his clients have tasted – anywhere. The implications of this follow Noria throughout the novel and it is a mark of Itäranta’s handling of the story that our sympathies for Noria’s fate are not lessened by its inevitability. In parts I was reminded of Margaret Elphinstone’s The Incomer – mostly by the more or less rural setting – but I have seen comparisons with the writing of Ursula Le Guin and in its evocation of a quiet life carried out quietly Memory of Water does bear some similarities with that great Mistress’s work. There are no epic scenes here, no large confrontation between Noria and the soldiers, but the details of a small life are beautifully rendered.

A plot complication occurs in the plastic graves (rubbish dumps) wherein can be found all sorts of oldtech, most of it useless, other parts salvageable. Noria’s friend Sanja has an ability to tweak broken artifacts into workability. Their joint discovery of a set of discs that tells the story of an expedition into the Lost Lands and sheds light on the Twilight Century that is now long gone history propels them into a scheme that promises escape and yields the only consolation the book provides.

The story tells us that water has a consciousness, that it carries in its memory everything that’s ever happened in this world. And the nearest the story has to a “baddie” says when asked why he behaves the way he does, “Because if this is all there is, I might as well enjoy it while it lasts.”

For a first novel, this is very accomplished, especially as Itäranta is a Finn. She apparently wrote Memory of Water simultaneously in English and Finnish.

Pedant’s Corner – most of these may be due to the fact that English is not Itäranta’s first language:- I followed Sanja to a circuitous route, Mhz for MHz, Xinjing might have burned to ground, it was only a matter of time when my suspicions would be confirmed.

Ursula Le Guin and Tomorrow’s Worlds

There was an interview with Ursula Le Guin in the Guardian which also appeared in print in yesterday’s edition. It didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know but opined she is underrated as a modern US writer – to which I can only agree.

Also yesterday I watched the first episode of Tomorrow’s Worlds, a BBC 2 series on the history of Science Fiction, in which Le Guin made an appearance. To my mind the programme focused too much on visual media (film and television) and did not give enough attention to the written form. Then again, it’s difficult to show clips from books. It was nevertheless good to see the genre given some critically approving TV exposure. Or critical TV exposure at all come to that.

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2012, 210 p (+ v page introduction by Ursula Le Guin.) © Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 1972. Translated from the Russian Piknik na obochine by Olena Bormashenko.

This novel is apparently the book on which Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker is based. Not that I’ve ever seen it, I don’t go out of my way to view SF in its moving picture formats, either in film or television.

 Roadside Picnic cover

Aliens have come – and gone; their landing sites spaced over the Earth in a perfect curve. Each of those Zones is deserted, a repository of hell slime, death lamps, shriekers, black sparks, lobster eyes, rattling napkins and strange containers known as empties; not to mention the elusive Golden Sphere, said to grant human wishes. Stalkers illegally brave the dangers to retrieve Zone artefacts for the money they will bring. Scientific institutes study these to try to find uses for them – or even what they are. The scientists studying it are more scared than the rest of the populace because they understand how much they don’t understand. As one of the characters points out, such attempts to gain insight suffer from the flawed assumption that an alien race would be psychologically human. We don’t know what intelligence is; it can’t be defined. In the same conversation the possibility is raised of the stuff in the zone being just detritus, left behind after the aliens merely stopped for a picnic.

Yet the Zone has effects beyond itself. Despite there being no detectable radiation nor mutagens in the Zones, Stalker’s children have weird mutations, emigrants from the areas that became the Zones seem to cause disasters of various sorts in their new locations; corpses are reanimated, the dead return to their homes.

The book follows the evolution of stalking over a few years from an individual – or perhaps team – pursuit to remote probing by robots mainly through the experiences of Redrick Schuhart, a stalker in Harmont, which seems to be in the USA (a father aspires for his son to be President one day.) In our first foray into the Zone the descriptions of its outer edge are eerily premonitory of Chernobyl, its strangeness also prefigures the event site in M John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. In the concluding section Schuhart muses while finally seeking out the Golden Sphere, “What man is born for I have no idea.”

There is a temptation either – as according to Ursula Le Guin’s introduction many US SF writers did – to consider any Soviet era fiction to be ideologically based or else to see it as critiquing the system in which it originated. (US writers of course could not possibly be subject to either of these strictures themselves.)

In an afterword Boris Strugatsky says of the brothers’ battles with Soviet editors that (the editors) thought language had to be as colourless, smooth and glassy as possible and certainly not coarse; that SF had to be fantastic and have nothing to do with crude, observable and brutal reality; the reader must be protected from reality. Unsurprisingly you might think, I’m with the Strugatskys on this one.

Roadside Picnic, even forty years after its conception, still stands out as a compelling piece of written SF, well worth its inclusion as a Masterwork. As I hinted earlier its influence can be traced down through the years but merely imagining this scenario as written by a US practitioner of the genre – where a military sensibility may have prevailed instead – underscores its subtlety.

The otherwise excellent translation is into a robust USian: fair enough given its apparent setting but a few infelicities intruded:- “had probably stuck his freckled mug inside, frowned, and went off.” “(His face) hurt. His nose was swollen but his eyebrows and eyebrows were intact.” A “lighting” bolt.

Locus Poll

A recent poll in Locus (the main news magazine for those with an interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy) had the following results for SF novels of the 20th century.

Those asterisked I have read. **means I can’t remember if I read it long ago or not.

1* Herbert, Frank : Dune (1965)
2* Card, Orson Scott : Ender’s Game (1985)
3* Asimov, Isaac : The Foundation Trilogy (1953)
4* Simmons, Dan : Hyperion (1989)
5* Le Guin, Ursula K. : The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
6 Adams, Douglas : The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
7* Orwell, George : Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
8* Gibson, William : Neuromancer (1984)
9* Bester, Alfred : The Stars My Destination (1957)
10** Bradbury, Ray : Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
11* Heinlein, Robert A. : Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
12 Heinlein, Robert A. : The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966)
13* Haldeman, Joe : The Forever War (1974)
14* Clarke, Arthur C. : Childhood’s End (1953)
15* Niven, Larry : Ringworld (1970)

People obviously voted for their favourites from their youth and not in terms of literary quality.

The only one of them I would put in a top ten is the Le Guin. My memory of that is that it was one of the best books I have ever read, never mind just SF books. It was a long time ago, though.

And where is Robert Silverberg on the Locus list? Shameful.

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