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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All you need is love

brain, old print
A disembodied brain (‘IT’) rules over Camazotz (the name is taken from the Mayan bat god)

Madeleine L’Engle A Wrinkle in Time
Introduction by Julia Eccleshare
Puffin Modern Classics 2007 (1962)

Authors often say they write the books they would have liked to read, and it’s also often said that authors effectively write about themselves, as if in response to the classic writing dictum Write what you know! This seems to be the case with A Wrinkle in Time.

Meg Murry is the classic outsider at the beginning of this science fantasy; at school she is awkward and friendless, she considers herself a plain Jane, she finds lessons torture. As the author herself stated in an interview, “Who would’ve wanted to be like Meg? I made Meg good at math and bad at English, and I was good at English and bad at math. Otherwise, we were very much alike! Meg couldn’t keep her hair nice and she was not a beauty. She was a difficult child. She is a lot like me!” And what would Madeleine L’Engle have liked to read? It’s clear it’s books about what she came across in her twenties and what excited her as a result: Einstein, particle physics and quantum mechanics. What more natural thing than to combine the two subject areas — herself and science? And then not only dedicate her first children’s book to her father and father-in-law but also honour them by calling another key character Charles Wallace after their forenames?

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Traveller between worlds

The Union Pacific M-10000 City of Salina at Kansas City Union Station, late 1930s. Photo credit: Union Pacific Museum
Union Pacific M-10000 City of Salina at Kansas City Union Station, late 1930s. Credit: Union Pacific Museum

Philip Reeve Railhead
Oxford University Press 2016 (2015)

Imagine yourself at the end of the second millennium. Or maybe a lot later. Everything around then would be unimaginable, right? Just like our current world would be unimaginable to anyone living under Norman or Plantagenet rule if they were plucked from their time into ours. But some things would be similar, surely? Perhaps the romantic appeal of train locomotives would somehow allow these machines to linger in some form, graffiti art still plastering the sides of engines and carriages, but maybe they’d have some kind of personality hardwired in. And people would still love train travel so much that, like petrolheads with cars today, they would be known as railheads.

This is just what Philip Reeve has concocted in the first of a new series of novels. Here he has trains taking on a similar nostalgia mantle with which his traction cities and airships were clothed for his earlier sequence, the wonderful future steampunk series beginning with Mortal Engines. As with Mortal Engines and its prequels he plays with themes exploring whether artificial intelligence can ever develop human qualities such as empathy, loyalty and even love. It is to his credit that, however preposterous his concepts might seem when baldly spelled out, he nevertheless manages to create a credible universe to house them, with enough back references to our own times to lever our suspended disbelief into this future dystopian cosmos.

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Destroying an empire

Public domain image of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope
Public domain image of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

Robert Silverberg Sorcerers of Majipoor
HarperPrism 1998 (1996)

Is it true, as is often said, that there are no new plots in literature? That every story we hear or read or imagine has appeared countless times before? Whether there is just one basic plot or seven or whatever number one can conjure up — and the numbers do vary, despite one theory that there are only seven — it can be argued that pretty much every narrative conforms to an ur-pattern. One might think that there is no need to create new tales when they already exist in one form or another.

Well, of course there are infinite reasons why we continue to invest in narratives, many of them explicable in psychological terms. It’s maybe worth looking in detail at our need for novelty: if there are indeed no ‘new’ plots it’s how we dress them up that creates originality, as when mannequins are arrayed in different clothes and accessories. In any given narrative it’s the combination of elements, often reminiscent of other narratives, that gives it distinction, and this is certainly true for Robert Silverberg’s Sorcerers of Majipoor.

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Across a sea of stars

Majipoor globe
Majipoor and its three continents: illustration by Ken Seamon

Majipoor — even the name sounds fantastical with its hints of both magic and a city on the Indian subcontinent. But no, this is the giant planet that I’ve previously mentioned which features in the planetary romances of Robert Silverberg, and which I’m going to discuss a bit more before I complete all my rereads, and reviews, of the first three ‘prequels’ in the series: Sorcerers of Majipoor (1997), Lord Prestimion (1999) and King of Dreams (2000). But first, a bit of science.

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Strange places

mount everest

One April afternoon in 1978 the author Robert Silverberg heard what he called “the old familiar voice in my head whispering things to me.” Rushing into his office he reports scribbling this on the back of an envelope:

“The scene is a giant planet-sized city — an urban Big Planet, population of billions, a grand gaudy romantic canvas. The city is divided into vast subcities, each with its own characteristic tone. The novel is joyous and huge — no sense of dystopia.

“The book must be fun. Picaresque characters. Strange places – but all light, delightful, rafish [sic] …”

This was the germ of his idea for Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980), leading in time to a series of science fantasy novels set on the giant planet of Majipoor. I’ve already reviewed Kingdoms of the Wall (1993), a sort of prequel in all but name, and Tales of Majipoor (2013), a collection of novellas and short stories (aka ‘novelettes’); and am now planning a reread of the novels and of another, earlier short story collection called Majipoor Chronicles (1995). My reviews, I hope, will give a flavour of what I find attractive about the series for those who aren’t yet acquainted with it and, for those who do have that familiarity, perhaps provide a somewhat oblique view of why some of the entries in the sequence work better than others.

Just as an introduction, let’s look at some of the qualities Silverberg enumerates for what turned out to be the first Majipoor novel:

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Many meanings

cropped-stars.jpgPrimo Levi A Tranquil Star
Translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli
Penguin Modern Classics 2008 (2007)

‘A Tranquil Star’ — the last of seventeen short stories which gives its name to this selection of previously unpublished pieces in translation — is as good a place as any to start a consideration of this collection. It begins with a discussion of the inadequacy of superlatives (immense, colossal, extraordinary) to give indications of comparative size, especially when it comes to stars. Al-Ludra is the now not-so-tranquil star when it comes to its convulsive, cataclysmic end; how to describe an event which is beyond the comprehension of most, an event that is measured “not in millions or billions of years but of hours and minutes”? All we can do is relate its death to the impact it has on a human being, something we can more easily understand. On October 19th 1950 Ramón Escojido, a Peruvian married to his Austrian wife Judith, notices something unusual in photos taken from his mountain observatory. His dilemma is this: does he assume it’s a blemish on his photographic plate of the night sky, or does he cancel the planned family excursion to double-check if, in fact, it’s really a supernova?

While some stories may seem impersonal at first sight, underlying them all is the all-too-human individual. Continue reading “Many meanings”