#LoveHain: City of Illusions #UKLGsf

‘Futurity.’ © C A Lovegrove. Image created using Wombo.Art app

It’s the last Friday of the month and the time to pose three general questions for those who are participating in #LoveHain, my readalong event to visit or revisit most of Ursula K Le Guin’s Hainish fiction.

This month it’s City of Illusions, the third title in her early speculative fiction, first published in 1967 and now often republished, as the last in a trio with her two previously published Hainish novels, in a compendium entitled Worlds of Exile and Illusion.

April’s title for consideration will be one of her more famous SF offerings, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and the discussion post for that will be scheduled for Friday 28th April – I do hope you’ll feel able to join in the conversation.

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The Unfranked Man

James Farley Post Office Building, New York

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett.
Corgi, 2005 (2004).

‘Yes, well, you know what we used to say: you do have to be mad to work here!’ said the Worshipful Master.

Chapter Five

The phrase which inspired the title of this novel refers to a distressing period in the US postal service when certain disgruntled postal workers were involved in mass shootings of colleagues and the public: ‘going postal’ meant resorting to extreme violence to express resentment, frustration or mental disturbance, though now it’s casually used as the equivalent of ‘going mad’ in a social situation.

In Pratchett’s hands the phrase becomes a way to focus his anger through critiquing a number of societal ills – the decimation of public services, for example, and corporate greed – while using his trademark humour not only to satirise corruption but also to portray those who might otherwise appear to be social inadequates instead of as individuals worthy of respect and admiration.

But our attention is focused on Moist Von Lipwig, a petty fraudster in his twenties (“I’m Moist!”) who is offered, by Lord Vetinari no less, a chance to redeem himself as the newly appointed Postmaster in Ankh-Morpork. The question we ask ourselves is, will – echoing Herodotus and the inscription on New York’s 1914 Post Office – neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stop him fulfilling his brief?

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Unveiled, barefaced

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Fantasy of an Ancient Bath (1755/1760)

Till We Have Faces
by C S Lewis.
The C S Lewis Signature Classics:
HarperOne, 2017 (1956).

Glome. A polity somewhere in the Levant (as we may suppose), far from the sea, sometime in the centuries immediately before the Common Era. A name connected to ‘globe’, its meaning a mass, a clump, or – like the Latin glomus – a ball of string. A place where we can follow the thread of story to its end. Or so we may infer from this novel by a literary scholar, lay theologian and children’s author.

Glome is also the setting of a story to parallel the tale of Cupid and Psyche, the legend recounted in The Golden Ass by Apuleius back in the second century CE. A narrative now to focus not on Psyche herself but on one of her two sisters. A novel in which Lewis concentrates more on the human than the fairytale aspect of the Roman fable to explore contradictions like love and hate, courage and fear, belief and ignorance, free will and fate.

For behind this first person account by the sister called Orual are deep considerations which Lewis wishes to confront. Inspired by religious views of the afterlife – as in 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” – Lewis has his protagonist tell us, “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

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A selection of old notebooks © C A Lovegrove

I have a confession to make. I’m a scribbler, and always have been. Not on any old surface though, oh no – just on paper. And not just on any old scrap of paper but in notebooks.

I’m not at all fussy. Not for me beautifully presented Moleskine journals which I’d be reluctant to touch, let alone mark with anything but a fountain pen or a goose quill trimmed with a penknife and dipped in oak gall ink.

No, cheap notebooks with rough surfaced pages, ruled and margined, are my stock in trade. French cahiers,  packs of exercise books purchased from high street stationers or corner shops, old school jotters surplus to requirements – I’ve treasured them all. And I’ve happily scribbled in all of them.

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An enmeshed forest

Avebury: WordPress Free Photo Library

Darkhenge by Catherine Fisher.
Definitions, 2006 (2005).

‘No one,’ she said firmly, ‘treats me like a little girl. Not any more.’

O. On: Gorse.

Chloe, a deeply troubled teenager living in the shadow of her brother, a talented artist, is in hospital in a coma after a horse-riding accident on the Marlborough Downs. For a few months now her family are distraught, resorting to displacement activities – the father and mother being largely absent at work, and her brother Robert losing himself in his art – all observed by Mac, a concerned Catholic priest.

But then things come to a head when Rob becomes a paid volunteer on a nearby hush-hush archaeological dig and, almost simultaneously, is drawn willy-nilly into a New Age ritual at the Avebury stone circle, destined to help what seems to be a shape-shifting druid escape from a pursuer.

As we watch things play out in the mundane world of the chalk downs of southern Britain we start to become aware of a voice breaking into the narrative, the voice of somebody who ostensibly is lying in a coma, a state where archetypes and monsters freely roam; the voice in fact of a sleeping beauty surrounded by dark woods.

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Parallel lines

A former residence in Pembrokeshire © C A Lovegrove

Repost of a piece first published 18th February 2018

How many narratives are there, and how are they put together? Why are we often satisfied with some stories which, when described, sound trite or clichéd while other more complex tales, more diffuse or with an unexpected ending, fail to please or even prove unwelcome? Are we doomed to merely know what we like and to only like what we know?

I ask all these questions because I sometimes find different fictions I come across — and occasionally even non-fiction narratives — following parallel paths towards a similar conclusion even though they may not be obviously related in any way. And it turns out I may like them equally well even while unaware of those similarities, possibly because I’ve subconsciously recognised that they follow patterns that I find familiar.

What might the impulse be that unites so many plots that superficially appear dissimilar?

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Heaney’s mastery

Beowulf’s bane by Charles Keeping

Beowulf: A New Translation
by Seamus Heaney.
Faber & Faber, 1999.

Over the years I’ve acquired a handful of titles designed to render the language of Beowulf accessible to the modern reader, for example prose renditions by R K Gordon (1922) and by G N Garmonsway and Jacqueline Simpson (1967), and a verse presentation by Michael Alexander (1973) designed to capture the style and mannerisms of the Anglo-Saxon poem but in more contemporary English.

But of all the translations, modernised versions and other paraphrases of Beowulf I’ve looked at over several decades Heaney’s has been the most readable and, I rather think, the most enjoyable.

Enjoyable for expressing the spirit of the original in a form that’s easily comprehended – for making it a delight to revisit the familiar tale when all the component parts were finally revealed to me as hanging together in harmony – enjoyable too for allowing me to witness a modern interpreter taking care with language just as the original anonymous poet did with his epic tale.

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As above, so below

Horned deity, Gundestrup cauldron

Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones.
Collins, 2000 (1975).

In Diana Wynne Jones’s novel Sirius – the name in Greek means ‘scorcher’ – is the so-called ‘luminary’ of Alpha Canis Majoris, the brightest star of the constellation Canis Major. Known as the Dog Star it’s the principal body in a binary star system, its companion being a white dwarf, a degraded star the size of Earth.

But in this tale Sirius and his fellow luminaries are akin to the gods of classical myth: more than mere personifications of stellar bodies they are tutelary spirits who guard or protect the entities they’re named after. With each jealous of their place in the celestial hierarchy all indulge in Byzantine diplomacy, calling each other Effulgency while firmly asserting what they see as their rights and privileges.

Sirius, however, is in trouble: accused of killing a fellow luminary after a loss of temper, and then losing an object called the Zoi, he is condemned to be incarnated as a puppy, on Earth, which is where the Zoi appears to have ended up. And more is to befall him: having been born in a dog’s body as one of a litter of mongrel puppies to a pedigree bitch he, together with his siblings, is destined to be placed in a sack and dumped in a river. His earthly sentence seems about to end just as soon as it has begun.

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A sensuous art

‘Ella on the stairs’ by Peter Brown. https://www.mallgalleries.org.uk

Inverted Commas 21: Words resonant

“‘Literature,’ he re-enunciated in his mind, ‘is the sensuous art of causing exquisite impressions by means of words.’ And yet there was something more […]” — Chapter IV

‘The Hill of Dreams’

In Arthur Machen’s 1907 novel The Hill of Dreams the young Lucian Taylor (alias Machen himself) is in Caermaen (a stand-in for Caerleon in Machen’s native Wales) imagining himself in a tavern enjoying the town’s ancient splendour as an outpost of the Roman Empire.

He sits, listening to the hubbub of conversation, doubtless enunciated in everything from educated to vernacular Latin, because as a bookish clergyman’s son Lucian has been thoroughly tutored in the classics.

And as he sits he muses: “The rich sound of the voices impressed him above all things, and he saw that words have a far higher reason than the utilitarian office of imparting a man’s thought.” What follows is a gradual laying out of his creed regarding beauty and its raison d’être.

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Alike in dignity: #LoveHain

Photo by Dylan Thompson on Pexels.com

Planet of Exile (1966)
by Ursula K Le Guin,
in Worlds of Exile and Illusion.
Orb Books, 1996.

Five thousand nights of Winter, five thousand days of it: the rest of their youth and maybe the rest of their lives.

Chapter 14

Stranded for six centuries on a planet circling the star Gamma Draconis – Eltanin, ‘the serpent’s head’ – a community of humans live isolated in their coastal town called Landin, near a promontory rock to which it’s linked by a high causeway. They are known to their indigenous neighbours as ‘farborn’, and because they’re dark-skinned are visually distinct from the pale-skinned, golden-eyed inhabitants of the planet.

A further difference is that the highly intelligent life-forms (called ‘hilfs’ here) have a stone-age subsistence as well as culture – having no concept of the wheel, windows, or books – and in keeping with their ethical principles of non-interference with a less technologically advanced culture the farborns are careful to limit the reach of any innovations.

But two factors are coming together to upset the fragile standoff between the farborns in Landin and the hilfs in their incomplete settlement of Tevar. The severe planetary winter is coming, a season which lasts fifteen earth-years; and news is emerging of a mass migration south by the marauding Gaal, inimical to both communities. On a personal level a relationship is forming which will threaten any concerted action to counter the coming storms.

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Straying in fairyland

© C A Lovegrove

The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen.
Foreword by Catherine Fisher,
notes by Tomos Owen.
Library of Wales: Parthian Books, 2010 (1907).

‘There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened. But all the afternoon his eyes had looked on glamour; he had strayed in fairyland.’

Half a century ago, when I was busy devouring the weird fiction of H P Lovecraft, my friend Roger advised me to try something by Arthur Machen, an author whom he rated highly. So I borrowed The Hill of Dreams from the library where I worked, the copy of which came in one of Gollancz’s now vintage lurid yellow dust jackets with mauve lettering. And, frankly, it wasn’t my thing: though I recognised its mystical and visionary qualities I preferred Lovecraft’s suspenseful eldritch writing.

Fast forward several decades; in the interim I’d tried some of Machen’s short stories – ‘The Great Return’ and ‘The Bowmen’ for example – and found them more attractive; then I decided to try his more extended writing again. The horror in The Great God Pan was, I judged, tame by modern standards but I must’ve noted a quality in the writing that I hadn’t appreciated before because here I am, giving Machen another chance.

And it’s with the novel where I first encountered his fiction in 1971, curious to see if the intervening years have either mellowed or sharpened my former opinions.

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