Incidental extras

Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”: Wikipedia Commons

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— ‘Lyra and the Birds’

The recently published short story The Collectors by Philip Pullman was a moderately satisfying stopgap while we awaited the final volume of his The Book of Dust, which is anticipated as the completion of the saga of Lyra Silvertongue and her dæmon Pantalaimon.

Following on from the His Dark Materials trilogy The Book of Dust has been extending the long journey that began in 1995 with Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in North America in case the UK title was assumed to indicate a nonfiction book, but erroneous in that the alethiometer is neither golden nor indeed a compass).

But Pullman has been filling in some of the gaps with what I consider as incidental extras, giving us bits of history to enlarge the background to places and personages in Lyra’s world, feeding us tantalising tidbits to assuage our literary cravings.

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Grave concerns

A Tale of Two Glass Towns
by Nicola Friar.
Olympia Publishers, 2023.

Two timelines: 1999-2000 and 2019-2020. Two settings: Norfolk and Cheshire. Two protagonists – or are they the same? And multiple themes: computer bugs and viruses, aliens and refugees, glass manufacturing and Verdopolis. Nicola Friar’s debut children’s novel weaves personal matters into a more universal narrative about how we, whether young or old, try to deal with weighty matters like acceptance of difference, fear of the unknown, and the ache of bereavement.

Seen largely through the eyes of seven-year-old Theo, this tale aims to reflect the anxieties of a youngster trying to make sense of a confusing world on the cusp of the 21st century, anxieties manifested in vivid dreams involving an amorphous fog, a graveyard, and Bob – a bichon frise – who acts as Theo’s psychopomp through the mists of time.

It’s a brave endeavour to write about what one personally holds dear in a story that ostensibly is pure fiction, but the author to a large extent walks that liminal path with a careful and determined tread. The result is a narrative which, though not quite perfect, should appeal to the sensitive young reader who shares similar worries about what the future may hold for themselves and for their nearest and dearest.

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The first desperate struggle

Sir Hiram Maxim’s flying machine, 1891-4, on its rails

‘The Argonauts of the Air’ (1895)
by H G Wells,
in Selected Short Stories.
Penguin, 1958.

“… this story, which was written only to tell how the first of all flying-machines was launched and flew.”

In the last decade of the 19th century men like Otto Lilienthal and Sir Hiram Maxim experimented with gliders and heavier-than-air craft to attempt the conquest of the air. Maxim effectively stopped practical trials after an unfortunate accident in 1894, leaving it to fiction writers to imagine how the first powered flight might turn out until the Wright Brothers actually achieved success in 1903.

H G Wells rose to the occasion in his short story ‘The Argonauts of the Air’, first published in 1895, the year following when Maxim ceased his trials. He borrowed some aspects from Maxim’s abandoned flying-machine, but sited his craft’s launch track southwest of London rather than to the east.

Are the Wellsian engineers more successful than Maxim’s? Do his argonauts actually make it into the air? The writer leaves us guessing right to the final page or so.

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Blue jewel in the darkness: #LoveHain

Starry sky (WordPress Free Photo Library)

Rocannon’s World (1966)
by Ursula K Le Guin,
in Worlds of Exile and Illusion.
Orb Books, 1996.

“I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness.”
— Chapter VII

An ethnologist from the League of All Worlds is studying one of the hominid species on an unnamed planet, formally known as Fomalhaut II, when his returning team are killed by a bomb. It appears that the League’s opponents, the inhabitants of the planet Faraday, have established a secret base on this uncharted world from which to launch a preemptive strike against the League. This is the major inciting incident that propels the novel forward.

But before this scenario establishes that we are in science fiction territory a prologue (based on a short story from 1964) places us firmly in a fantasy setting with an account of an heirloom being retrieved from underground troglodytes: we are introduced to a pseudo-medieval society, living in castles, mounted on flying steeds, treating with elvish and dwarvish beings, and a heroine who visits and journeys from a subterranean kingdom, only to return home to find everyone she knew has either died or grown old.

The author’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World was also the first title set in the author’s Hainish universe; as a work we could justifiably term a science fantasy it lays out many of Le Guin’s principal concerns — balanced and sustainable living, environmentalism, psychology and anthropology, morality, human imagination, and much more — all contained within a rarely predictable narrative framework.

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Seven inventive plots

Jan Mark 1943—2006

A Can of Worms and other stories
by Jan Mark.
Red Fox, 1992 (1990).

“Once I’ve finished a book that’s all I wanted to say about those people in that situation, I might, I very often do wish I’d written it differently, but I never want to write more.”

https://janmark.net/talking-to-jan-mark-neil-philip-march-1983/

In this septet of tales by the late Jan Mark she explores the world as experienced by seven British teens still of school age: in the narratives the youngsters reveal their hopes and fears, their obsessions and yearnings, how they might occupy their free time and cope with family situations. School and homework may demand their attention but it’s their imaginative endeavours that we observe.

And each and every one is a standalone tale. Book or short story, her well-delineated individuals appear once and once only because she’ll have said all she wants to say about them and the particular situation they find themselves in.

But, for us readers, it’s enough that – however briefly – we share those aspirations or disappointments, and sympathise or even empathise with each youngster, be we of the same age or somewhat older, perhaps with more jaded personalities or a more jaundiced view of life: it’s salutary then to remind oneself of the feelings we may once have had on the threshold of our adult lives.

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#LoveHain: Rocannon’s World

#LoveHain #UKLGsf

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin “redrew the map of modern science fiction, imagining a galactic confederation of human colonies founded by the planet Hain, an array of worlds whose divergent societies—the result of both evolution and genetic engineering—allow her to speculate on what is intrinsic in human nature.”

https://www.ursulakleguin.com/hainish-novels-and-stories

Incorporating ‘The Dowry of Angyar’ – a short story from 1964, here retitled as ‘Semley’s Necklace’ – Rocannon’s World (1966) was Ursula Le Guin’s first published novel and the first work to be considered in our #LoveHain readalong starting today, as 22nd January is the fifth anniversary of the author’s passing in 2018.

As I indicated in the introductory post, ‘Reading UKLG’s sf: #LoveHain’, for each of the eight published Hainish/Ekumen titles I shall pose three general questions (which you may either answer or ignore) to get discussion started in the comments; and here too is where you can link to your own discussions and/or reviews.

(Incidentally, you don’t have to sign up to join in the chat. And no need to commit to reading all the titles – dip in and out as and when it suits you!)

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Aliases and anomalies

John Verney, The Island (Bournemouth & Poole College Collection)

The Evidence by Christopher Priest. Gollancz, 2021 (2020).

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

Shakespeare, ‘Richard II’

Against his better judgement a crime writer, invited to an overseas conference, attends, and not only has to suffer huge inconveniences but is then reluctantly fed ideas for a plot based on a true crime by a retired cop.

No, that’s not quite the sum of it. In The Evidence we find ourselves on another world, one girdled by an island archipelago, which suffers gravitational anomalies and, in places, something called mutability which somehow changes the reality of events. And while much of the technology feels both contemporary and familiar the social and geopolitical systems are either arcane (as in feudal) or polarised (as in totalitarian versus more liberal systems).

On the other hand – how many hands do we have? – this is pure metafiction: an author describes the processes of writing fiction in this, an actual work of fiction, where sleight of hand, distraction, misdirection and mistaken perceptions are discussed and then perpetrated on the actual as well as the hypothetical reader. You either like what’s been done here or you feel you’ve had the wool pulled over your eyes. Is the narrator reliable or is he too affected by mutability at the deepest level?

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Deep mythic roots

Replica Sutton Hoo helmet © C A Lovegrove

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki.
Translated by Jesse L Byock.
Penguin Classics, 1999.

Put together in this form around 1400 CE, Hrolf’s Saga is a wonderfully barbaric tale, a composition with roots deep in northern mythology and, for its time, hardly touched by Christian values or notions of chivalry. The modern reader may recognise many elements and motifs familiar from other narratives and traditions – Beowulf and Hamlet, for example, the Nibelungenlied, even Arthurian legend – all of which suggests that the well of story is broad as well as deep.

Although for modern tastes it’s a narrative that may somewhat meander, switching its focus from one individual to another, there’s no doubting that the saga’s thrust is towards the story of a certain Hrolf, a part-historical, part-legendary figure around in fifth- or sixth-century Denmark, localised on the island of Sjælland (anglicised as Zealand).

Yet even though its action takes place in lands surrounding both the North Sea and the Baltic this saga was to find its final form across the North Atlantic in Iceland, settled by Norse descendants.

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12 TBR in 2023: #TBRyear10

This is self-explanatory. I hope so anyway! Twelve books from my to-be-read pile(s) that have been around since before 2022 and need to be given due consideration are slated to finally get the recognition they deserve – or had coming to them.

At the rate of roughly one every month that shouldn’t be too hard, should it? And it will be an additional incentive to create more shelf space of course – for new titles!

Adam Burgess (RoofBeamReader.com) is hosting this jamboree for the tenth year, and I’m duly tempted to join in, as detailed on this post. So – temptation having been yielded to – here goes!

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More blood? #NordicFINDS23

© C A Lovegrove

Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbø,
Mere Blod (2015)
translated by Neil Smith.
Vintage Books, 2016.

Finnmark is the furthest north you can go in Norway, further from the capital than Oslo itself is from London or Paris, so what reason has southerner Jon Hansen for being here? Is he really here to hunt grouse as he claims, or is he himself being hunted?

Nesbø knew this area in the 1970s and so its able to give his descriptions of the desolate Finnmark coastal countryside an especial realism for a thriller set in the same period. And the isolated Sámi communities – either engaged in herding or fishing, and either strict Protestant or traditional in their beliefs – mean any visiting strangers will understandably elicit a degree of curiosity.

Ulf – as Hansen says he’s called – gradually reveals details of his sordid Oslo life in this first person narrative, and we gradually piece together how precarious his position now is. And all is complicated by the fact that he is starting to feel an attachment to one individual in the community, and developing an easy relationship with that individual’s young son, Knut.

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Evolution or revolution

Fred Gambino Foundation trilogy cover art for Voyager Books
The planet Trantor: Fred Gambino Foundation trilogy cover art for Voyager Books

Foundation
by Isaac Asimov.
Voyager, 1995 (1951).

‘A great psychologist such as [Hari] Sheldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future.’ — Salvor Hardin

Part II: The Encyclopedists

I was first introduced to Asimov’s Foundation trilogy in the 1970s when listening to the BBC Radio dramatisations (probably in 1973). Though I at first liked the concept of psychohistory which underpins the storylines I became less enamoured of it after reading other fictional future histories, such as Olaf Stapledon’ Last and First Men (1930) or H G Wells’ 1933 classic The Shape of Things to Come – which, though successfully predicting war (beginning in 1940 and ending ten years later), thereafter got it spectacularly wrong in prophesying the demise of religion, the rise of a global benevolent despotism and a subsequent universal utopia.

If short-term prediction (albeit by just one individual) could go so wrong, what chance another fiction-writer postulating any more reliably a future history in millennia to come?

And yet — as I had hoped — a re-read, even one as long delayed as this, has helped me revise some of my first hasty opinions.

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Swedish babes in the wood: #NordicFINDS23

© C A Lovegrove

Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter /
Ronia Rövardotter (1981)
by Astrid Lindgren,
translated by Patricia Crampton.
Oxford University Press, 2010 (1983).

“I write fairy tales, and people need fairy tales. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it is.”

https://www.astridlindgren.com/sv/bok/ronja-rovardotter

First published in Swedish in 1981, Ronja Rövardotter was the last novel that Astrid Lindgren wrote at the age of 72, and it’s the kind of fairytale she thought people needed, essentially a Romeo and Juliet story but with a happy ending, set in an alternative medieval Sweden.

Matt and Lovis are in charge of a group of twelve robbers who waylay unwary travellers in what’s known as Matt’s Forest before retreating to their safe refuge on Matt’s Mountain, an eerie called Matt’s Fort approachable only by the Wolf’s Neck. There are no children however in the band – until one dark and stormy night when little Ronia is born, the baby girl who immediately becomes the apple of Matt’s eye.

But the night of Ronia’s birth a terrific lightning bolt splits the castle asunder. And in time that other part of the castle separated by what’s termed Hell’s Gap is taken over by a rival band of robbers led by Borka, to Matt’s impotent rage. The scene is thus set for a bitter feud between the two groups; will brave young Ronia be able to reconcile the rivals or will things turn out entirely differently from the usual narrative predictions for children’s stories?

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A strong sense of place #TDiRS22

Cadair Idris range, Gwynedd

The last instalment of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, Silver on the Tree, is set in several places – by the Thames in Buckinghamshire at the start, mythical lost lands out in Cardigan Bay – but principally in the southwest corner of Snowdonia, Gwynedd, centred on the seaside town of Aberdyfi on the edge of the Cadair Idris range.

Having spent a couple of recent breaks in Aberdyfi with relatives who had links with the area, I was in a good position to become more acquainted with the background to both Silver on the Tree and the preceding volume in the sequence, The Grey King. It reinforced the strong sense of place that Cooper embedded in these two titles.

This post then is an attempt to give a pictorial impression of some of the landscape mentioned in the final novel for those who’ve not visited here; a later post will go into some detail of the literary, legendary and mythical influences that the author drew on to give both grounding and significance to incidents in the narrative.

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#LoveHain: Reading UKLG’s sf

Ursula K Le Guin 1929-2018

“People write me nice letters asking what order they ought to read my science fiction books in — the ones that are called the Hainish or Ekumen cycle or saga or something. The thing is, they aren’t a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones. And some great discontinuities […]”

UKLG

The late lamented writer Ursula K Le Guin died five years ago this month, on 22nd January 2018. A prolific author of novels, essays and poetry, she is deservedly best known for her Earthsea novels, but equally she has a loyal following of fans for her science fiction series, variously known as the Hainish or Ekumen series. To those allergic to the very notion of science fiction I can only say that, as with the best of this genre, the narratives – for all that they’re set in other worlds – are essentially about what it means to be human.

With this new year comes new projects, does it not? So throughout 2023 I’m planning to read (or, in a few cases, reread) the principal novels in the Hainish series in the order they were published, on a month by month basis, starting this month. If you’d like to join me you’d be very welcome – I shall be using the (hash)tags #LoveHain and #UKLGsf – and after the novels you may like to continue with the short story collections as an additional option.

As I did with #Narniathon21 I shall post three questions for readers’ consideration on the last Friday of each month (except for this month when it will be on the anniversary of Le Guin’s death, Sunday 22nd January). Please feel free to join in with any discussion in the comments, post links to your reviews or thoughts on social media. Below is my proposed schedule, plus – for completists among you! – the sequence of novels and stories as they were published and the collections they appear in.

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#TDiRS22: By Pendragon’s sword

The Square, Aberdyfi, 2022 © C A Lovegrove

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper.
With a note by the author, 2013.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1977).

When light from the lost land shall return,
Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,
And where the midsummer tree grows tall
By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

‘Silver on the Tree’

The longest and the last of Susan Cooper‘s fantasy sequence is also the most far-ranging and complex of the series. Bringing together many if not most of the principal characters we’ve met previously, it also introduces us to one final individual who has a key part to play in the sequence’s resolution. It’s fitting therefore that like Cooper herself he should be a maker and a wordsmith as well as a poet out of history.

Moving from Buckinghamshire to Gwynedd, and from the ‘present-day’ – the 1970s – to times historical and legendary, this tale takes the unwary reader, like the five youngsters in the novel, through a whirlwind of emotions, information and impressions; it conjures up dreamlike images and primeval, nightmarish fears; and it provides both comfort and wonderment.

Above all, the narrative thrust artfully conceals the poetic skill that Cooper brings to her creation; like a finely-wrought artefact its splendour dazzles, but closer inspection reveals its subtle intricacy, balance and presentation of motifs. Ungainly it may at times appear but I believe this quality gives it its distinctive character; and of course life is nothing if not ungainly.

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