Blue jewel in the darkness

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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The Land of Nod

Photo © C A Lovegrove

The Death of Grass
by John Christopher,
introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1956)

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
— William Blake.

Imagine, if you will, a deadly virus emanating from China, one that seems unstoppable despite efforts to find an antiviral solution, and which disrupts societies and causes widespread deaths as it moves across the globe. How will humans, collectively and individually, react, and will their actions be altruistic or selfish?

John Christopher envisaged such a scenario over six decades ago, a few years after the Second World War, but his imaginary Chung-Li virus, unlike coronavirus, didn’t directly affect humans: instead it killed off the grass on which herbivores such as cattle and sheep fed, and grains like rice, wheat, barley and rye which provided many of the staple food products humans relied on.

Against this unfolding catastrophe the author tells the story of how John Custance, his family, friends and others struggle to survive, and how they aim to reach the safety of a secluded defensible valley in Cumbria to establish a new settlement.

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Home is the sailor

Islands off Pembrokeshire © C A Lovegrove

The Gradual
by Christopher Priest,
Gollancz 2017 (2016)

“Home is the sailor, home from the sea”
— from ‘Requiem’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

In many ways a genre-crossing novel, The Gradual exhibits the kind of features I have now come to expect of Christopher Priest’s books, a sense of viewing reality in a distorting mirror — solitary or alienated protagonists — a planetary romance blending aspects of science fiction with the kind of magic we associate with fantasy — allusions and illusions that create dream-like images and sequences.

Above all there is his literary sleight of hand which seems to be part of his trademark style, consisting of a bit of mystification assisted by misdirection. He is kind enough however to reveal to his reader sufficient clues for them to partly work out what’s going on, only to then introduce a plot twist which turns the tables on us.

The Gradual is the testament of one Alesandro Sussken, composer and musician on a world simultaneously similar to but yet completely different from ours. And just as a music composition is an unfolding in time of a sequence of sounds, so Priest’s novel too is about sounds, and time, and even space.

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A meditation on solitude

nagasaki

Z for Zachariah
by Robert C O’Brien,
Puffin 1998 (1974)

In the 60s and 70s I frequently had vivid dreams about nuclear bombs detonating, the images of blinding flash and mushroom cloud familiar from countless newsreel clips of the Hiroshoma and Nagasaki attacks, the subsequent atomic bomb tests by the major powers and the Cuba missile crisis.

I had also watched the BBC TV docu-drama The War Game when it was shown in cinemas in 1966, and that had made a huge impression on me, reinforced when I read Raymond Briggs’ 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows. All these impressions were re-awoken when I finally got round to reading Z for Zachariah and coloured my first responses to it, centred on the absolute futility of nuclear war.

But the more I think about this novel, the more I wonder at its richness in respect of what is implicit as well as what is explicit.

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Crossing in mists

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula Le Guin,
SF Masterworks,
Gollancz 2001 (1971)

For me the sign of a good — or at least stimulating — novel is how much I think about it while I’m reading it and for some while after. Reading The Lathe of Heaven for the first time a couple of decades ago puzzled me, but I knew I’d want to return to it in due course. While there are still aspects that puzzle me I feel I have more of a foothold on the scree slope that Le Guin’s novel presents to us.

Part of the strength of this novel comes from the visual images that function as leitmotifs, along with the sense of place that the novel’s setting in Portland, Oregon provides, in which the three principal players and one or two other supporting characters act out their parts.

Buttressing all are quotes from Daoist texts and references to literature and popular culture which, though placed like bits of collage in the overall schema are actually integral to the author’s composition.

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Hic et ubique

Moon's far side: NASA Apollo 16
Moon’s far side: NASA Apollo 16

Philip K Dick: Ubik
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2000 (1969)

Caveat emptor!

My worry with Ubik was that, as with the metaphor of the onion from Peer Gynt, I would peel away its several layers to find either that there was nothing in the centre or, worse, that I’d discarded its essence along the way. Even after waiting some while, years in fact, after first reading it — to let its ideas marinate, as it were — I find I’m only a little closer to even a vague understanding of its subject matter.

The confusion partly arises from the way Dick places his characters in a complex plot governed by wandering timelines, resulting in altered realities and alternate pasts and futures. His characters are malleable too, so that while nondescript novels might offer us easily identifiable heroes and villains, Ubik‘s characters can present themselves as morally ambiguous.

One way to approach Dick’s conundrum is to consider his appropriation of Elizabethan texts, particularly Shakespeare, in novels such as Flow My Tears the Policeman Said and Time Out of Joint. Here the title Ubik hints at Hamlet referring to the ubiquity of the Ghost, his father: “Hic et ubique? ” he laughs, ‘here and everywhere’? Hamlet might well prove a possible entry to Dick’s textual labyrinth, but I glimpse other portals too.

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Speculating

Coloured contour map of Mars (NASA image)

“But what would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?”
Asimov: “Type faster”

It’s a truism that fiction, but more particularly what’s called speculative fiction, tries to answer the question “What if?” A speculum is, after all, a mirror or reflective glass, and looking in one gives the viewer an image of reality — but it is not in itself reality, because what is seen is reversed, or distorted, or limited by the frame.

I recently did some notes for other participants on a Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction module run by Aberystwyth University for a creative writing course, and offer it here in the hopes this basic discussion, with links to my reviews and some external sites, may prove helpful for any others yet to sample the genre.

Note that it doesn’t claim to be comprehensive or exhaustive, or even authoritative; I have nevertheless slightly rejigged the original text to suit a different audience.

There is, as with all specialist areas, much disagreement, even controversy, as to what to call the genre, what to include in it, and so on. All I’ve done is to take the outline for the course and add a brief commentary.

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Tales within tales

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)
The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Ursula K Le Guin
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories
Harper Perennial 2005

Ursula Le Guin is best known for her fantasy and her science fiction writings, though she also writes other fiction as well as poetry, articles and reviews. The short stories in this 1994 collection, while firmly in the SF genre, also demonstrate her ability to compose in various tones, from light to dark, from gentle humour to philosophical musings. Originally published in various periodicals between 1983 and 1994, the narratives are clearly placed in context by an excellent introduction in which she not only discusses the tales but also mounts a spirited defence of SF as a genre, a defence which twenty years on may be less urgent though no less valid or effective.

She explains that she experiments with SF by using the form to explore character and human relationships, rather than exploring the ‘scientism’ and elitist technocracies that much traditional ‘hard’ SF was associated with and which put off the unconverted. She also denies that SF (and by extension, I suspect, fantasy) is necessarily escapist; instead, by exploring human characteristics, even or especially in alien humanoids, she throws light on our own humanity, humaneness, human-ness; she focuses on the potential strengths of SF, most particularly on a quality that is not always attached to this genre: beauty.

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All we survey

Neptune (NASA image)

John Dickinson: We
David Fickling Books 2010

I found this an utterly gripping novel, especially after the slow and steady start signalled by its opening:

He had asked to be alone when he woke. After all, he had reasoned, from now on he would always be alone.

But are we really, truly alone? Will there be, though we may not be aware of the fact, someone else? Are we, like Cowper’s Alexander Selkirk, wrong in our assumptions that we are monarchs of all we survey, that we’re “out of humanity’s reach” and must finish our “journey alone” even at the edge of space?

This issue is at the heart of this novel, questions about Earth’s uniqueness as a cradle for life. And if there is life ‘out there’, what form will it take?

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No Snow White

Front cover art by Walter Simonson

Archie Goodwin (writer) & Walter Simonson (artist)
Alien: the Illustrated Story
Titan Books 2012 (1979)

Originally issued forty years ago and timed for the release of the film, Alien: the Illustrated Story has a different narrative vibe from the movie while essentially giving us the same tale. Where the screen version used muted colours and shadows and built up the tension with long stretches of inaction and a strong sense of claustrophobia — as I remember it: in fact it’s been decades since I saw it — this graphic novel instead gives us bilious hues in which flashes of yellow (for lights), blues (for Ripley’s overalls) and especially red (for the inevitable blood) punctuate the action. Unlike the celluloid alien, which we only caught intermittent glimpses of, in these pages our eyes can linger on the dread details of Giger’s design for the malevolent predator in its disturbing exoskeleton.

Do I need to spell out the plot in detail? The original authors, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, were influenced by the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None in depicting a group of individuals who are bumped off one by one. In Alien the crew of the space transporter Nostromo are diverted from their homebound journey to investigate a CETI-like signal from a planetoid body. Inadvertently one member gets infected by an alien life form, which quickly matures and then proceeds to prey on the crew in the close confines of the spacecraft.

The stuff of nightmares, you can imagine why this story was initially — and so aptly — pitched as “Jaws in space”.

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Smoke, mirrors and planes

Christopher Priest: The Adjacent
Gollancz 2013

“We were naïve, all of us but especially me — we thought we were making a breakthrough into something that would neutralise weapons. It would always be safe to use, non-aggressive in nature, harmless because it would remove harm. But what we all feared soon came to pass: minds other than ours worked out how to make quantum adjacency into a weapon of war.”
— Professor Thijs Rietveld, discussing Perturbative Adjacency Field.

This is a novel of ideas, of obsessions, and of the emptiness when a loved one disappears. It’s a work of speculative fiction, but one in which one mustn’t look too closely at the science nor expect any magic (except that being accomplished by smoke and mirrors). It’s a narrative that jumps around in time and space, told in both the first and the third person, in which we encounter many individuals; but ultimately there is one thread and one couple on which our attention is focused. It’s a novel that is by turns illogical and alienating but yet strangely satisfying.

Told in eight parts, The Adjacent begins in a dytopian 2030s. Hopping between Anatolia and the Islamic Republic of Great Britain we come to realise that the world is in the grip of two crises, one of extreme weather brought about by rapid climate change, the other produced by random terrorist strikes using a frightening, almost apocalyptic, weapon. It is this last that has apparently caused the disappearance of Melanie Tarent while on relief work as a nurse in Turkey, to the distress of her husband Tibor, a freelance photographer, who travels back to the IRGB, towards Lincolnshire and Hull, then one of the seats of government.

Thereafter, while continuing to follow Tibor’s story we also find ourselves travelling to the western front during the first world war with stage illusionist Tommy Trent and H G Wells, then to the home of Nobel prizewinner, the physicist Thijs Rietveld in East Sussex, where he is photographed by a younger Tibor; this is followed by a Second World War airfield for Lancaster bombers in the Lincolnshire Wolds (modelled on RAF Binbrook) where we meet Aircraftman Mike Torrence, and then the apparently fictitious island state of Prachous where we follow the career of Thom, a stage magician, and Tallant, an overseas visitor. What is the connection, if any, between all these individuals with curiously related names; and of the women whom they meet, whose names equally seem to share resemblances?

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All at sea

Christopher Priest: Inverted World
Introduction by Adam Roberts
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010 (1974)

This is a beguiling read. We’re presented with so much in the way of supportive material, detailed ‘facts’ about what is happening, about what we’re supposed to be witnessing, and yet we are left doubting everything. Like the notional protagonist of the tale we are left — literally and figuratively — all at sea; and though it’s indicated at the end that the protagonist intends to return to shore, the reader is still left floundering.

The opening seems to suggest we’re on solid ground. Helward Mann lives in a city called Earth. It’s towed forward on rails towards and beyond what is declared an optimum point but cannot ever keep still; only apprentices in the various guilds that keep the city mobile are ever put in a position to understand why it’s imperative that the city moves and then they dare not ever contemplate any alternative. Much of the novel is told from Helward’s point of view, meaning that we are bound to accept his perception of what the truth of the matter is; but little by little, when our attention is shifted from Mann’s autobiography to a third-person narrative and to a outsider’s perspective, we realise that all is not as it seems.

I shall follow convention and not reveal the ‘twist’ that occurs towards the end, though to be honest it didn’t take much to fathom what the ‘reality’ of this future world was well before the final sections.

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First contact

Photograph of barrage balloons over London during World War II

Arthur C Clarke: Childhood’s End
Pan Books 2017 (1954, 1990)

It was on a beautiful summer evening in 1941 …
Scores — hundreds — of gleaming silver barrage balloons were anchored in the sky above London. As their stubby torpedo-shapes caught the last rays of the sun, it did indeed seem that a fleet of spaceships was poised above the city …
In that instant, perhaps, Childhood’s End was conceived.

— From the author’s foreword to the 1990 edition

Childhood’s End is one of many novels over the years to speculate on the end of humanity. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man appeared in 1826, and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) covered a two billion year span. Attempts to predict what may happen within a few generations include H G Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and while Childhood’s End is no alternate future history it postulates a climactic end to humanity as we know it in the first half of the twenty-first century — in fact, right now.

When I read such fictions (these are all titles I’ve completed over many years, apart from the Mary Shelley) I find I have to suspend critical judgement once these latter-day Cassandras get things so wrong, as subsequent history tends to prove their forward projections increasingly at variance with reality. Instead I need to focus on the themes the authors are trying to get across, generally to do with philosophical approaches to social organisation or else the impact of technological, environmental and genetic developments.

In Childhood’s End Clarke is quite clear: when he conceived the novel in the 1950s he was happy to speculate on two possibilities that were engaging public attention, namely contact with extra-terrestrials and the paranormal. By the end of the 1980s his natural scepticism had intensified, to the extent that it’s unlikely he would have written precisely this book, though it remained a novel he was quite fond of. If, at the end of the 20th century, the author had become less convinced by his themes, would a modern reader therefore now find the narrative preposterous?

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Paradise lost

Ursula K Le Guin: The Word for World is Forest
Introduction by Ken MacLeod
SF Masterworks: Gollancz 2014 (1972/6)

A novella I’ve had on my shelves for a couple of years, The Word for World is Forest is one that I was reluctant to begin, having understood that it was regarded as too polemical to be pure fiction. Completed in the aftermath of the terrible Vietnam war it was an expression of controlled rage against wanton killing, defoliation, poisoning and waste by a triumphalist aggressor against a supposedly inferior culture; Le Guin’s motivation was commendable but I’d had doubts sown over whether there was any edification to be had.

Having read it I can see the critical reservations all too clearly, but I can also appreciate its merits: a forward-moving narrative, a handful of clearly observed characters whose thought processes we observe, a sense of hope in amongst the more pessimistic aspects, imaginative touches that characterise both the genre and the universe that Le Guin has created in her Hainish Cycle. I can say that, yes, I was edified by the storyline, despite the darkness at its heart.

And here I must reference Joseph Conrad’s 1899 book Heart of Darkness, which later went on to inspire Coppola’s 1979 anti-war film Apocalypse Now. Similar themes run through both novellas — subjugation, maverick officers, exploitation — which I feel may be more than a coincidence. And, as the author makes clear in her own 1976 introduction, her London sojourn in the late 60s and involvement in protest demonstrations reflected, amongst other things, her own environmental concerns, concerns which I think Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ also encapsulated: “They took all the trees | And put them in a tree museum,” she sang, and “you don’t know what you’ve got | Till it’s gone,” adding “They paved paradise | And they put up a parking lot.”

So, is this a Garden of Eden story as the foregoing implies?

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A Cassandra role

Extraterrestrial organism at high magnification: still from The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Michael Crichton: The Andromeda Strain
Ballantine Books 1993 (1969)

Certainly the Wildfire team was under severe stress, but they were also prepared to make mistakes. They had even predicted that this would occur. What they did not anticipate was the magnitude, the staggering dimensions of their error. They did not expect that their ultimate error would be a compound of a dozen small clues that were missed, a handful of crucial facts that were dismissed.

— From Chapter 24, The Andromeda Strain

Michael Crichton’s 1969 techno-thriller is in some ways an update of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but instead of invading Martians being defeated by a earth-borne microbes (or “putrefactive and disease bacteria” as Wells has it, our “microscopic allies”) here it is the extraterrestrial microscopic organisms that threaten humankind. Brought back to earth by a Project Scoop satellite, they kill human beings by almost instantly clotting their blood. A top secret team codenamed Wildfire is tasked with retrieving, analysing, assessing and counteracting this virulent invader before it spreads to the general population. Holed up in an underground lab, they have a scant few days to come up with solutions; this being a thriller, things do not go smoothly.

Put thus baldly The Andromeda Strain appears to be a fairly humdrum novel, its premise familiar from scores of dystopic novel plotlines and SFF films and TV series. But, bearing in mind the date of its release — at the height of a flurry of manned space missions (though just three years from the last Apollo mission to the moon) and on the crest of a wave of optimism in the march of science and technology in the face of Cold War tensions — its then impact isn’t hard to imagine. The nightmare scenario of an invisible killer chimed in with fears of Russian aggression — remember, the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies had in 1968 invaded Czechoslovakia, a country at the heart of Europe. While the US became more mired in a disastrous Vietnam conflict, despite opposing a technologically poorer nation, on the other hand it had sent a mission around the moon; and computer sciences seemed to be announcing new advances on a daily basis.

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