The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin’s two most famous and acclaimed science fiction novels – 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness and 1974’s The Dispossessed have a great deal in common. Both are intellectual novels, more interested in characters dispensing sociology lectures than in character exchanging gunfire; both are novels where, in the final equation, very little actually happens. Both are primarily concerned with comparing and contrasting two very different sociopolitical power structures, locked in a Cold War – given the time in which the novels were written, we can cut to the chase and just admit, both novels are fundamentally examinations of the USA vs. the USSR. On a purely superficial level, both novels are set on distant planets occupied by a species who are almost, but not quite, human, with both Terrans (us!) and ‘Hainish’ mentioned in the background. Both novels follow a single traveller as he attempts to understand the world around him.

And yet there are also important differences: most importantly of all, where The Left Hand of Darkness seems to tiptoe delicately, frostily, across an icy surface, everything at a distance, everything filtered and contained, The Dispossessed is the literary equivalent of taking an axe to a target and hacking, first from the left, and then from the right, again and again until the blade hits the quick.

Cover image - The Dispossessed

In theory, The Dispossessed is the story of an anarchist physicist, Shevek, who leaves his anarchist homeworld, the barren moon of Anarres, to take his knowledge to the capitalist planet of Urras. However, the book is really built upon its narrative structure: Shevek’s departure from Anarres occures in the first chapter, and from that point on odd-numbered chapters detail his following weeks and months on Urras, while even-numbered chapters flash back to detail the whole of Shevek’s life on Anarres, culminating in his departure to Urras at the end (/beginning) of the novel. Most authors would use this bold structural device to bring complexity and irony to the story of Shevek: they would cut from future to past to bring tragedy or comedy, or they would explore the ways that the Shevek of the past is different from the Shevek of the future. There are elements of that here, it’s true, but surprisingly little: for the most part, we get the same Shevek throughout, although of course what he knows, and some of what he thinks about that, do change. Instead, Le Guin’s real interest in this structure appears to be in juxtaposing the two worlds*.

*it’s interesting that where most authors are desparate to build compelling narratives, Le Guin seems to try to avoid them. Just as in The Left Hand of Darkness the story of Genly was broken into shards by the insertion of intervening chapters from other characters or from folklore, so too here the twin stories of past and future Shevek are cut apart by being interwoven in this way, causing each chapter to stand in isolation. Each chapter is dense and intense, and some illusory relief is provided by each switch in scenery – only for the next chapter to be just as intense. The effect is, as I say, one of powerful axe blows coming at the reader from one side after the other…

In TLHOD, Le Guin gave us a (very, VERY) Cold War defined through politics. On the one side, the West was stripped back to its feudal past, a society of both baffling traditions and apparent chaos, of an apparent inquality undercut by fluidity; on the other, the East was given to us without the specific trappings of communism, but reduced to a recognisable prototype of rigid rationality, of committees of safety, labour camps, modernisation, community dining halls and secret police, in which an apparent equality is undercut by stagnation – a political system recognisable from Rousseau to Xi, via Robespierre and Lenin.

In The Dispossessed, on the other hand, Le Guin returns to that basic conflict, but this time focuses on economics. Yes, Anarres is anarchist, and Urras’ governments are on the blackshirty side (literally!), but the real focus of the comparisons is between the Anarres system of mutual aid, and the Urras system of free-market capitalism, and the broader cultural differences that flow from that. The two sides of the novel therefore explore the flaws of, on the one hand, utopian communalism, and, on the other, modern America.

The former is certainly the more original. Anarres is maybe the most developed anarchist society outside of utopian literature, and Le Guin is careful to walk a balance, presenting a world that is in some ways horrifying, tragic, insidiously soul-destroying, and yet at the same time more or less believable as a functioning society in which most people are mostly happy – a society that, indeed, seems relatively attractive compared to the nightmares of the other half.

Because if the idea of attacking modern American culture seems less imaginative – and it is! – it’s also the more powerful side of the novel. Le Guin is savage and extensive in her satire of late-stage capitalism, casting her poison pen in every direction from art galleries to universities to international affairs, domestic economic politics, conversational norms, and of course (again in common with The Left Hand of Darkness) gender roles (not to mention packaging methods and bathroom sink design). Gender is the one area in which the society of Urras seems positively backward compared even to the middle of the 20th century: women are almost entirely excluded from science and economics, to an extent that even Victorians would have been proud of. At first, it seems like a misstep – a crass exaggeration that through overreaching lets her enemies off the hook – but as the novel progresses it seems like a cunning strategic move: it allows her to explore the role of women in capitalism by working on, as it were, a magnified canvass that lets the details show through. Again, she attempts to find balance: Shevek sees the women of Urras as horrifically oppressed, while they see themselves as possessing power and prestige, and it’s not entirely clear that either side is wrong; likewise, we’re given the wonderful expression that Anarres women have for their Urras sisters and the ways they maintain their power – “body-profiteers” – but it’s left ambiguous whether we should really see these women (and by extension many real women) as shameful and manipulative body-profiteers or as desparate prisoners trying to secure at least the illusion of agency – or, of course, whether they are both. [the bothness of things is quite a recurrent theme, I think…]

[by contrast, as in The Left Hand of Darkness, there is almost no consideration of race explicitly, although there are clearly post-colonial power disparities being criticised]

Image result for the dispossessed

It’s powerful stuff – by making her protagonist literally a man from the moon, Le Guin is able to cast a clear and uncomfortable light on things we take for granted in our society (I’m reminded of the old fad for “Martian” poetry…). At the same time, she is also interested not only in the nature of society, but also in the place of the individual within society, and within the universe. There is more mysticism here, this time disguised as physics – and as a philosophy graduate I can only exhale with deep relief at finally finding a science fiction writer who launches into pages of philosophical verbiage that actually makes sense and is philosophically interesting. Oh, nothing here is actually totally new, but Le Guin seems to understand the interesting questions she is raising about consciousness and time, as well as about identity and ethics, and to express herself in an engaging and vivid way. Most of this is concentrated in the Anarres sections – it should be no surprise that in the cities of Urras, Shevek is alone, yet looks outward, while on depopulated Anarres he is among friends, yet looks inward – and coupled with lyrical romantic and maudlin melancholic material, and some intimations of tragedy, this makes the Anarres half of the novel every bit as intense as the Urras sections.

Intense is the word. Every chapter could pretty much stand alone as a powerful short story – they add together, but each is slightly different in its emphasis and paints a complete, if not independent, picture. Within each chapter, there is little relief: Le Guin’s prose is constantly precise and densely packed, filled with invention and insight; at times, it’s almost poetry in how much is wrapped into each word, in how considered each word appears. Many paragraphs stand out as little prose poems in their own right. And that formal density is mirrored by the extreme density in content – there is almost no moment that is not layered with symbolism and import, and no moment that does not independently add to the whole.

It’s very impressive. And yet that very intensity can be a liability. Sometimes it felt like I needed an axe myself to make progress in this book. It was a rewarding experience, but not an easy one: I kept wanting to stop to think, or to jot down a quote (so much of it is quotable!), and at the end of a chapter it felt like lifting up a stone tablet trying to start the next. It’s the kind of novel that, in perfect circumstances, you could smash through with a glass of red wine in one evening – or that, in other circumstances, could take months to chip your way through. In my case, it was the latter, and while that was mostly my fault (or the fault of my circumstances) it’s certainly true that the novel was not a page-turner. Not something to keep you up late at night. If this were a TV show, it wouldn’t be something that lent itself to binging – it would be something heavy and unremitting and best digested an episode or two at a time. [specifically, I guess it would probably be The Americans… with less killing and more ideology lectures]

Underlying this lack of compelling forward motion is a sad lack of plot. I understand entirely the desire of Le Guin and of some other authors of her era to concentrate less on plot and more on their ideas. By doing so – by not subjugating her narrative to the simplistic demands of ‘plot’ – Le Guin is able to build a more consistently intense and much more intellectually interesting story. And yet… something is also lost. Now to be sure, The Dispossessed is neither incoherent nor exactly rambling – it does have a definite direction of travel and, as a result, a general narrative arc that makes sense and is broadly satisfying. It does all that is strictly required, and is not, in this regard, a failure (indeed, that absence of failure elevates the novel over some attempts in a similarly ruminatory vein). But the lack of a more substantial plot hamstrings the book by undermining its ability to engage the reader’s passions – there is nothing dragging us from chapter (or even scene) to the next, and there is little to energise the reader with a sense of success, or to spark the fear of coming failure. It makes for a strange tone for the book: passion, but at a distance. Opinions may vary, but I felt that this was more of a problem than in TLHOD, because the earlier book’s coldness helped develop a creeping tension, whereas the comparative fireyness and intensity of The Dispossessed only highlights the lack of the driving force of plot that would be expected. And in the end, that lack of plot reduces the impact of the novel, which doesn’t so much reach completion as simply reach its allotted wordcount before tacking on what might pass for an ending. Oh, to be sure, the ending fits. It’s just… there’s no particular reason why the novel couldn’t have been twice as long before reaching that ending. Or half as long, for that matter. As with TLHOD, some vestige of resolution is created by the insertion of an artificial threat, and brief excitement, near the end – but where TLHOD’s concessions to plot start a long distance from the end, giving us an entire final section of real story, The Dispossessed tries to insert its actual plot into about a chapter. It’s a good chapter – these are all, to be clear, really good chapters – but it’s not enough to underpin the whole novel.

And yet…

Sure, it may not really cohere as a novel. Sure, it’s not a page-turner (at least, not from beginning to end). It reads more as a series of intense but rather impersonal short stories on shared themes than as an actual novel in the traditional sense. But does that matter?

OK, yes, it does. But it also shouldn’t be everything. Let’s put it this way: the fact it doesn’t cohere into an entirely fluent and satisfying novel stops this from being an absolute all-time great literary classic. But that’s praising with faint damnation. Because it doesn’t stop it from being a classic of the genre, and a stunningly good book.

Maybe this isn’t a novel for everybody. It’s not ‘easy’, or ‘cool’ or ‘sexy’. But it is a novel for anyone looking for good writing; it is a novel for anyone looking for thought-provoking, critical thinking, both social and philosophical. It is a novel for anyone looking for something weird and powerful and immersive.

And above all, it is a novel for anyone who wants to see just what can be accomplished in speculative fiction. That an author could take such a bold structure, and fill it with such unforgivingly adult and serious thinking, leavened with the bare minimum of plot and spiced with a mild but indelible sense of tragedy, and produce a novel even remotely readable is in its own right astonishing. That it could be done with sumptuous prose, and that the novel that resulted could be a beloved – if niche – cult classic that may demand, yet certainly repays, as much effort as the reader can dedicate to it, is almost a miracle. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed a watered-down version more, but for the good of the genre it’s great that the concentrated form exists, if only for future reference…

Image result for the dispossessed

Adrenaline: 2/5. The structure of the novel makes it hard to build adrenaline – but the big problem is just that most chapters aren’t that interested in either action or anticipation.

Emotion: 3/5. Le Guin hits some very emotional points here, particularly in the more intimate chapters on Anarres. On the other hand, much of the book is written at arm’s length, so on average it’s hardly a heart-wrencher.

Thought: 5/5. As I tend to say with this score, The Dispossessed isn’t exactly a masterpiece of philosophy – it’s arguments are relatively shallow and at times perhaps muddied or unclear – but it’s as thought-provoking as anyone could seriously expect a novel to be. You can’t take it much further before you cross the line from ‘think-y novel’ into outright ‘thought experiment with narrative ornaments’. And to its credit it takes in a range of (albeit linked) subjects, making it feel a more rounded novel, intellectually, than The Left Hand of Darkness.

Beauty: 5/5. If I’m nitpicking, I find Le Guin’s style a little too fussy to be truly stunning. But I can’t deny, she gets some fabulous lines in along the way – and some fabulous images, and a suitably elegaic (yet paradoxically hopeful) tone.

Craft: 5/5. I’ve pointed out some flaws in this review, but I can’t really claim that they’re inadequacies of craft – more just errors in judgement. I think she basically did what she set out to do, even if sometimes I wanted her to do something else. The prose may be a tad overdone, taken as a whole, but line-by-line it’s very good; in addition to sounding nice, she conveys nuanced characters and complex thoughts concisely, which is the hard-to-explain but absolutely essential quality of great writing. She adopts a strange and difficult structure and uses it in a very accomplished manner – if not quite how you might expect. She achieves an extreme concentration of thought in a surprisingly slight wordcount. She… well, she displays an absolute mastery of writing.

Endearingness: 4/5. There are very likable aspects of this novel (for one thing, it’s ridiculously quotable). I basically enjoyed reading it, and came out with positive feelings toward it. I hope others enjoy it too, and I’ll think kindly of it in future. And yet… it’s not exactly a curl-up classic. It’s prickly and dense and not entirely rewarding at the end – it’s hardly a feel-good favourite, or even an addictive tragedy. It’s a book I really like, but not one I think I can love.

Originality: 4/5. There are aspects that this novel has in common with others of its era (as suggested at the beginning of this review!). Many aspects of her criticism of late capitalist statism are far from innovative. But the pairing of sociopolitical criticism with phyical-philosophical mysticism and intimate psychology make this an unmistakable, specific, novel – not to mention the serious consideration of the pros and cons of the implementation of utopian anarchosyndicalism, which is lacking from most genre pieces…

 

OVERALL: 7/7. BRILLIANT. Perhaps it would be fair to say that The Dispossessed was not, in its own terms, quite as successful as The Left Hand of Darkness; but that, as it attempts more, it achieves more in overall terms. Nearly half a century after its publication, The Dispossessed remains that rare thing in science fiction: a novel that seems genuinely relevant to our times. Other than the increased status of women, our vices have taken us even closer to Urras over the years, while Anarres remains in practice out of reach, yet in concept still credible. Whether you’re looking for the politics, or for the philosophy, or for the psychological portraits, The Dispossessed was and still is a deeply rewarding novel – an absolute classic of the genre. Just so long as you weren’t looking for a plot-based adventure novel…

 

Advertisements

Some glimpses of a Romance language

Recently, I was toying with a Romlang (constructed Romance language, for those not into that sort of thing). Unfortunately, I’ve sort of lost interest for now, though I imagine I’ll pick it back up eventually. For now, I just thought I’d share a couple of glimpses for the curious. [no, they’re not absolutely from the same version, some of the orthography is a little different, etc].

First, a sample, from the Oaths of Strasbourg:

Bizmi maheb dhi Il-Dhu, è bizmi il-boblu grêsan è nos ḥâṣ muḍai
à zexṛ dhi la-dha aqîta, infant Il-Dhu um-dhuért il-hafṛ ed il-bodṛ,
ya vù adh is-yâmṛ miu aḥu aqît, il-Gaṛlú, fi azoud ed in qôha gdua,
cou omi deift fi dresu is-il-hôtir à hon aḥu, asìg iles um-wicrut aḷtrohic.
È con Louthr ya in-gacoṛdré âdun nun qe fi miu vouḷtádi
hobri miu aḥu aqît, il-Gaṛlú, dàmun aḷqun is-inflisrut.

(I won’t bore you with details of orthography, but to give a general idea: unstressed -i and -a are both schwa (but the former palatalises some preceding consonants); plain -h- is sounded when initial and utterance-initial or stressed, but is otherwise a glottal stop or just a marker of vowels in hiatus; h-dot is a velar fricative probably softening to /h/ intervocalically; other dotted letters may be velarised and will lower or back surrounding vowels). Q is just /k/ before front vowels, but is otherwise uvular. Etc).

And, never seen before, a verbal paradigm. This is the second-declension verb ZUCṚ, “to shine”:

Present Indicative:

zuċ zuqí zuct zuqìu zuqidí zucn

Past Indicative:

zusi zusí zust zusìu zusidí zusrìn

Pluperfect Indicative:

zusra zusrá zusret zusṛìu zusṛadí zusṛàn

Future Indicative:

zuqiṛu zuqiṛí zuqiṛét zuqṛivìu zuqṛividí zuqṛivn

Present Subjunctive:

zuċa zuċá zuċt zuċìu zuċadí zuċn

Past Subjunctive:

zusisa zusisá zusist zusisìu zusizdí zusisn

Future Subjunctive:

zuser zusrí zusiret zusirìu zusridí zusiren

Conditional:

zuqiṛìa zuqiṛìa zuqiṛìat zuqiṛìu zuqiṛiadí zuqiṛìan

(in transitive verbs, the future and conditional remain separable. Thus, duaṛ-m-ìat (“he would give me”), duaṛ-t-ìat (“he would give you”), etc.

I, Maybot; by John Crace

I didn’t buy this book; someone gave it to me. Not particularly because they thought I’d enjoy it all that much, but just because… well, it was there, and I’d probably get a chuckle out of it, so why not?

That’s probably an appropriate way to think about the book, as it turns out.

I, Maybot is my first sustained encounter in quite a while with that venerable if obscure genre, the parliamentary sketch (an artform practiced continually since the 18th century). Normally, the genre is delivered in small morsels in the more highbrow national newspapers: a witty, topical dissection of the absurdities of political events. And when you put it like that, I always wonder why I don’t actually read them (even on those occasions when I happen to have a newspaper to hand). After all, I am, in a minor way, a political junkie – I have a degree in the damn subject, for heaven’s sake! – and while the days when my attention was religiously affixed to Newsnight for an hour each evening even on slow days are long past, I’m still a fairly regular follower of affairs. As for satire, and the highbrow tradition of British comedy, that’s an even more essential part of my being. I was pretty much raised on that stuff. And the intersection of biting comedy with topical affairs? Dude, my childhood was endless re-watches of Have I Got News for You, Drop the Dead Donkey and Yes (Prime) Minister – I’d happily sit watching old VHS tapes of HIGNFY sardonically dissecting the minutiae of political events from five years before. Political sketches ought to be my daily pick-me-up.

But they’re not, and I, Maybot is, unfortunately, a good demonstration of why. The political sketch, you see, is political comedy not written by a comedian, nor in most cases by a politician, but by a journalist. There is no actual requirement for them to have more than the most rudimentary sense of humour, and it’s not really requisite for them to have much understanding of political affairs either, so long as they can name the major players. In this case, the author, John Crace, is otherwise notable for his two books on the recent history of Tottenham Hotspurs F.C., and his volume on late-1980s Pakistani reverse swing pace bowling – an estimable work no doubt, but perhaps not an obvious harbinger of a career in political satire.

Essentially, the format of a Crace sketch is that he repeats what a politician did, while making some snarky comments and calling people names. Usually, he calls some some version of ‘dim’, ‘dumb’, or ‘dull’.* To make things more interesting, he also invents things that didn’t happen, and mixes them in with the real things when the real things aren’t sufficiently interesting.

I find this problematic. Much of the humour of absurdity, after all, is the fact that the absurd thing happened, or that the absurd thing was said; when you’re not sure whether the writer’s just making it up, it diminishes the fun considerably. Much of this could be avoided if the author were able to convey the levels of reality more accurately, either through defter writing, or through more disciplined writing – keeping direct quotes accurate, for instance, while allowing indirect quotes to contain exaggerations. Crace doesn’t really do this – the rule just seems to be, so far as I can tell, that he tells us what happened if it was funny enough, and if it wasn’t then he just makes something funnier up and says it happened.

*traditionally, the parliamentary sketch was allegorical. It was illegal to report on the actual events of Parliament, so the sketch developed as a way to convey news while avoiding prosecution. Sketch writers would refer to politicians in code, through caricatures, and would often translate events and debates into symbolic, hyperbolic form. It’s a tradition carried on in, for example, the style of Private Eye, a publication faithful to both the conventions and spirit of traditional satire. In parliamentary sketches themselves, however, the end of legal prohibitions have made the writer’s job much easier: they can now mix reality and fiction as freely as they choose. And where sketch writers would once have crafted cunning caricatures to identify politicians to their readers without naming them, Crace just names them, and then goes on to call them “Dim” throughout the sketch. Calling May “Maybot” is actually as imaginative as he gets (other than the slightly clever “Lurch” for Hammond, which needless to say isn’t Crace’s own, but is actually a nickname for the man in Westminster).

Which might be more defensible if his writing were… you know, actually funny. This is NOT Yes Minister. It is NOT Drop the Dead Donkey. Only at its best moments does it even rise to the level of Angus Deayton rising an eyebrow while repeating something sarcastically. Crace gets in a few good lines, of course – how could he not, given the length and the material? – but by and large he flounders around with little grasp of what he’s meant to be doing, in a comedic sense. When in doubt, he relies on repetitive playground insults. Everyone is very stupid, and dishonest. Which, obviously, in this case, is completely true – but isn’t exactly surgical-quality wit.

Nor is there a great deal of insight. The book is sold, for example, on the idea of the “Maybot” – the notion that Theresa May is sort of robotic – but Crace arrives at this almost by accident. He calls everybody else a “bot” of some sort as well, and it takes him a long time to zero in on this interpretation of May specifically. Indeed, it’s almost not until the very end that it overtakes the equally witty “Kim Jong May” and “Supreme Leader” as his default attack. It’s worth pointing out also that while he may have popularised the term in the broadsheets, Twitter was calling her a malfunctioning robot long before he came to the party.

This failure to find a working caricature of May and make it stick is part of a more general lack of focus and narrative in the book. This is a collection of Crace’s sketches over the course of the year, strung together sequentially, with added interstitial material – the interstitial stuff, incidentally, is sometimes longer than the sketches it links together, and serves chiefly as a way for Crace now to cheat, providing a hindsight-informed frame that diverts attention from how little idea Crace then had of what was happening or what was going to happen. But because half the book is just written in the heat of the moment, and because in that moment the author lacked any particular foresight (or indeed insight) the result is a stream of events upon which he has been unable to impose any compelling narrative. Indeed, the strongest attempt at a narrative here comes in the subtitle: The Rise and Fall; suggesting that this is the story of the rise and fall of Theresa May. But of course it isn’t. It begins with the Referendum, so only the final step of May’s rise squeaks in, in condensed form (many events are badly served here by the medium of the weekly episode, which makes many dramatic sequences into dead summaries after the fact); and it ends with the formation of the new government after the election, which means that it does not cover her entire fall – partly because, of course, she has not fallen. She’s still the Prime Minister! I guess “The Last Phase of Her Rise and A Sort of Partial Decline In Credibility” wasn’t as catchy. The greatest weakness of the book, however, is the lack of reflection – because each sketch is up-to-the-minute and forward-looking, there’s very little looking back at the absurd events that occur, which means the reader is deprived of that most essential part of a narrative: payoff. Or, more specifically, gloating.

In place of narrative, Crace substitutes cynicism – or tries to. It’s unappealing, and it undermines his points. Because yes, various ludicrous and terrible things happened in the course of that year – but because Crace sets his dial to the same cynical level throughout, no matter what the topic, there’s a strong sense of the boy crying wolf about both his outrage and his satire. To excite responses to the worst things, you need to have some sense of proportion about the bits in between – but when, say, the dementia tax debacle, or the naming and shaming of the judiciary as “enemies of the people”** is treated in the same tone as a random David Davis committee briefing, it’s hard to remember to get riled up. In particular, while even-handedness is to be applauded, Crace seems less ‘fair’ than ‘torn’, his professional obligation to satirise the Government at odds with his personal vitriol toward Labour and Corbyn. We’re left with constant criticism of “dumb” and “stupid” and “dim” ideas floated by both parties, but no sense whatsoever of what Crace might consider to NOT be dim – other than Remain and, in one rather tonally jarring passage, opposition to Islamic terrorism.***

**I’m not in general a huge fan of JK Rowling, but she did get in an excellent response to the tabloid hatemongering: when the worst a tabloid can say about you, she noted, is that you’re an “openly gay ex-Olympic fencer” top judge, you’ve basically won at life. [I’m only surprised, given the Mail’s history, that they didn’t point out that he was Jewish, too. However, it’s a slightly inaccurate headline: Sir Terence was invited to the Olympics, but declined to attend, in order to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. He is, however, openly gay, and indeed Britain’s first openly gay appeals judge; he’s now the secondmost-senior judge in the country.]

***we can all agree that terrorism is bad, murdered children are a bad thing, and we should all not be in favour of that. But inserting some pious flag-waving and Prime-Minister-praising in the interstitial material between sketches that show no signs of caring about the attacks reads less like passion and more like retrospective arse-covering.

And yet sadly, we don’t even get a payoff in the form of real, acidic, spitting vitriol. Crace resolutely turns the volume up to 5 throughout: his attacks are blunt, generic, and inoffensive. This isn’t The Thick of It either.

So, you might be thinking: what’s the point? If it’s not vicious, or witty, or insightful, and fails to construct a compelling narrative… why does this book even exist!? Why would anybody read it?

It’s a good question. My inner critic can’t stop asking it. And yet, in some ways thankfully and in others frustratingly, the author is bailed out here by the sheer absurdity of reality.

The fact is, you see, that Crace is talking about a period of utter lunacy: the catastrope of the Referendum; the farce of the respective party leadership elections; the idiocies and bare-faced lies of May’s struggle to articulate any plan or message on Brexit; and then the worst political campaign in at least the last 140 years of British history. The events literally mock themselves.

This is, let’s remember, an election campaign when:

  • the Prime Minister absolutely promised not to call an early election because it would not be in the national interest, and then called an early election a couple of weeks later;
  • the ruling party produced a manifesto specifically promising to be cruel to starving children and people with dementia. Yes, they thought slashing pensions, ending free school meals for the poor and imposing a new tax on dementia would be a vote-winning offer;
  • the party then had to immediately promise not to implement its manifesto within days of the manifesto having been published, when they realised how unpopular it was, with the result that they basically went into the election with no actual policies (“the first time in modern history that a party’s actually broken a manifesto promise before the election”, as an interviewer said);
  • the party refused to campaign in marginal seats until the very end, instead campaigning only in secure opposition seats that they had no way of ever capturing;
  • the party made the entire campaign about their Leader, commanding all other party politicians to go into hiding when not specifically ordered to appear. Seriously, at one stage the TV companies were literally chasing Tories around the countryside because they’d been instructed to avoid being seen by cameras;
  • this despite the fact that the Leader had zero charisma and an inability to deal with any unexpected surprises or events;
  • the Leader campaigned only in sealed environments, and only in front of small numbers of vetted committed supporters and a couple of vetted cameras. LOTS of photoshoots of her standing alone in empty industrial sheds with literally a dozen party workers around her and nobody else. All politicians of course like ‘safe’ photoshoots. But everyone mixes them up with the odd speech to a large crowd, or shaking hands in the street, or talking to schoolchildren or public sector workers; but May? Just empty sheds and party officials. Because the North Korean leadership style conveys humanity so well…
  • the Leader actually refused to attend the TV debate, sending a deputy instead, to debate the leaders of the other parties, because she was too scared of being asked unvetted questions. When asked what qualities a good leader had, the other parties all duly began by mentioning that having the courage to face the public was a prerequisite…
  • because it was The 2017 Campaign, so unique in its awfulness, the Leader specifically conveyed her humanity at the TV debate by forcing a deputy whose father had just died to take the flack instead of her;
  • at no point did the party have any actual campaign strategy beyond chanting “strong and stable” ten times in every interview;
  • the Leader was completely unable to answer any question from anyone. All politicians evade, but May’s interviews were perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen in that regard. Consider, for instance, <a href=“https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/05/andrew-neil-interviews-theresa-may-full-transcript/”>this interview</a>, where she completely failed to answer a single question. Highlights include being asked if it was possible she might raise National Insurance contributions and answering “Fundamental to that of course is getting the Brexit deal right and getting those negotiations right and having both a strong hand in those negotiations but also the strength of leadership in those negotiations”, and being asked “On those two big issues you failed to meet your promises – why would we trust the Tories on anything else?” and answering “well, as I say, the election will be about trust.” That’s not just one terrible interview – it was like that for multiple interviews every day. One day, someone asked her “Is the reason you’re doing so badly that whenever people ask you about policy, all we get are clichés and platitudes?” and she, no kidding here, answered “Well first of all, Michael, what we have published is a manifesto that addresses the big challenges that this country faces, not just over the next five years, but beyond. And we have set out, clearly, some of the hard choices that need to be made and how we will address those challenges.” A six week campaign and she barely answered any question. The Sunday Times gave her some easy, personal questions. Does she prefer Chinese or Indian food? “I don’t buy takeaways.” OK, what does she prefer to drink – wine or whisky? “Depends on the circumstances.” Right, OK, how about TV – Sherlock and Midsummer Murders are two very different detective shows, but both popular: which does she personally prefer? “I have watched both.” Not even “I liked both”, which would be dangerously close to an answer, albeit an unsatisfying one. No, just “I’ve watched both.” It makes that time when Gordon Brown felt forced to lie about his favourite types of biscuits look straightforward;
  • oh, I tell a lie, she did give one answer, and it wasn’t even to a question she was asked. The Prime Minister made clear that in life she felt there were “boy jobs and girl jobs” and it was important not to mix them;
  • she also gave a 100% honest and open answer to the worst thing she had ever done in her life: she once, as a child, ran through a field. Yes, that’s what she was really thinking. That’s an answer a human would give. You see why this book is called “I, Maybot” now?
  • so anyway, as a result of all the above, the Prime Minister voluntary called an early election when she was leading the polls by more than a twenty point margin, and six weeks later she managed to lose her majority. I’d ask how that was mathematically possible, except that I saw the campaign and it all makes sense.
  • she then lied to the Queen about having formed a coalition, and announced a package of new proposals for the coming year that could feature nothing more exciting than proposals to explore regulation in the space tourism industry…
  • she then bribed a party of anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights fundamentalists with £1.5 billion (that she had just said she didn’t have) in order to maintain her own power.

And remarkably, with her astonishingly awful response to the atrocity of the Grenfell Tower fire a week later, things just kept getting worse.

Given that context, inevitably this book is going to make you laugh, and grind your teeth in anger. And it should be given credit for that. What it does is essentially lead the reader down (recent) memory lane – “hey, remember when…”, “oh, wasn’t it funny when…”, “seriously, can you believe that…” and so on. It doesn’t do too bad a job of it – it glosses over too many good bits, and lingers on too many boring bits – but it more or less hits the highlights. In that sense, it serves a function adequately.

It is, sadly, less funny than, say, reading random twitter comments on these events would be. And he’d have done better taking the time to restructure his ‘sketches’ into a coherent narrative, adding and subtracting where necessary, rather than just throwing out a stitched-together log of his newspaper work (it’s not as though this is precious historical record that needs to be defended). But unlike random twitter comments, these pages are all available in easy chronological order in the same place, in print form, so it wins points for that.

In the end, do I regret reading the book? No. It’s very short, and its otherwise-frustrating bitesize approach and superficial style does at least make it an easy book to pick up here and there – I got through it through such schemes as ‘reading a couple of pages with breakfast’ and ‘reading an article or two while I was waiting for the washing machine to finish because it’ll be any time now and there’s no point going away and coming back’. If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s a generally adequate, mildly amusing history lesson. There’s worse things that that.

I don’t think I’m dead…

Normally, after a long hiatus I say something like “I aten’t dead!” just to remind people I haven’t abandoned the blog. But this time… wow. A quarter of the year without a single post! I’ve only read one and a half novels in that time, and I was really slow to review the one book I have read. As always I’ve had various things I’ve been working on, but not quite actually posted…

(besides, it often doesn’t seem worth posting here, since I have so few readers, and literally only one or two responders – so a lot of what I do write just ends up in forum posts instead…)

But, I do think it’s healthy to try to keep the blog running – discipline in one area helps me stay disciplined in others, I do tend to find, so I hope to work out something to put up here before too long…

I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

Almost at the end of my Complete Discworld Re-Read Project

There’s an inevitable though morbid game that Pratchett fans are playing somewhere in the back of their heads, willingly or unwillingly, when they read his later novels: we can’t but wonder, “how much of the decline is due to the Alzheimer’s?”

Well, within just a page or two of I Shall Wear Midnight, the answer seemed clear to me: whatever perhaps went wrong in Making Money, and certainly went wrong in Unseen Academicals, and was arguably about to go wrong in Snuff, it wasn’t a problem with Pterry’s brain.

The tiredness of those novels, the bluntness of the wit, the familiarity – that’s not here. Here, Pterry is sharp, energised, eager to take on more complex themes. Funny. Reading this, it’s immediately clear that Pratchett, at least in 2010, could still do it when he felt inspired. Indeed, I’d tentatively suggest that, on a technical level, this is better-written than the previous three Tiffany novels, which were themselves well-written. In his ingenuity, his acuity, his observational humour, Pratchett here is as good as ever. Pratchett could still write.

My problems, unfortunately, are with what he could write…

Continue reading

2017?

Hmm.

Well, first off: what a terrible year for my reading habits. I read the sum grand total of 9 novels this year, which is pathetic. It’s the fewest in 5 years, and while it’s felt as though I’m getting more serious about reading again, it’s the third straight year of decline in books-read – so really I’ve just been getting more serious about being annoyed at not having read more books… I don’t expect to ever go back to full book-obsessive mode, since I’ve got too much other stuff to do, but I would like to be back at one-a-fortnight-ish levels (26 novels in 2014, for instance), which I think is a respectable non-fanatic level.

Continue reading

Knights of Dark Renown, by David Gemmell

British fantasy author David Gemmell is best known – like a surprising number of authors – for his debut novel, Legend. It’s the first of eleven ‘Drenai’ novels, and though the polish improved over time, there is an inescapable sense of repetition, and of diminishing returns. The characters of The King Beyond the Gate seem mirrored in those of Quest for Lost Heroes, of In the Realm of the Wolf, of Winter Warriors, and probably others I never read too.

https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1403193855l/258340.jpg

 

Gemmell’s seventh published novel (apparently there were a couple of other non-fantasy works, either unpublished in his life or published under pseudonyms), Knights of Dark Renown, also feels familiar. But surprisingly, it doesn’t feel too much like The King Beyond the Gate, or like the assassin novels that followed (the Drenai high fantasy Waylander and the post-apocalyptic Western Wolf in Shadow). It does, it’s true, help to contribute to what will become the Archetypical David Gemmell Novel – in it’s band of disparate but iconic heroes, for example – but it also stands apart (for instance, unlike the Archetypal David Gemmell Novel, Knights of Dark Renown is not a quest story). Instead, Gemmell has returned all the way back to Legend itself. But it’s not an imitation; instead, it seems like an intentional self-homage, in which elements recur, but often in twisted form. Where Legend is the story of a heroic defence by a civilised kingdom against the nomadic hordes, for example, Knights of Dark Renown (not unlike The King Beyond the Gate, it must be admitted) is the story of rebellion against a civilised kingdom, and against a king whose greatest sin in his inhumanity toward those descended from ‘Nomads’.

If you’re not sure the homage is intentional? Knights of Dark Renown actually ends with (barring a change of one word from singular to plural) the same last sentence as Legend. He knew what he was doing.

Knights of Dark Renown is not a novel from the end of Gemmell’s career. Indeed, while it was the sixth book published after Legend, in a space of only 5 years, he would go on to publish a further 5 novels in the next 3 years alone, and though he died prematurely, at only 57, he had by then managed to write around two dozen novels after this one. And yet, in a way… it feels retrospective. It feels like a conscious decision to go back, and to make a definitive statement, to put into writing, this is what I was trying to do.

For a popular epic fantasy novel of the 1980s, Knights of Dark Renown is an amazingly ideological, determinedly thematic novel. Gemmell described his novels as “essentially Christian”, and it does feel as though it’s following in the footsteps (albeit with less sure tread) of the great Catholic fantasists – Chesterton, Tolkien, Gene Wolfe, Walter M. Miller Jr and so on – and to a lesser extent Protestant and post-Protestant writers like Stephen Donaldson*. The great things about religion, for an author, is that religion is a wonderful incubator for doubt and confusion. Thoroughly non-religious people often fail to understand that – they think religion offers certainty – but in my experience it’s more often the non-religious who display an unthinking assuredness, because faith is a powerful weapon to challenge preconceptions – to set, as it were, one preconception against another. The religious live in a world of inherent contradictions, in which modern society and their faith often seem to offer incommensurable frameworks for understanding the world – and those who realise this, yet attempt to embrace both worlds, are forced to try to explore ways to reconcile the unreconcilable. They are also taught, of course, to believe that the impossible is possible, which is an excellent foundation for a career in fantasy…

*Donalson, iirc, considers himself non-religious. However, his background – raised by Christian fundamentalists on an evangelical mission to India – clearly pervades his writing, as he acknowledges himself.

In the case of Gemmell, the conflict that drives much of his work, and that seems particularly in evidence here, is between a religion that demands peace and forgiveness, and his own unpleasant, violent childhood in London. Son of an unmarried mother (or “whore”, as he describes hearing her described from his earliest childhood), bullied and beaten up by children and adults, he later described being rescued by his stepfather, a man of such a fearsome reputation that nobody else in the estate dared pick on him again, and who forced him to take up boxing, so that he would never have to run or hide from a fight again. The rough edge he picked up seems not to have been without some cost – expelled from school (for running a gambling syndicate), repeatedly arrested, diagnosed as a psychopath. He became a big fan of Westerns. You can see all of this in his fiction: his adulation of big, violent brutes, his machismo, his obsession with never backing down from a conflict, his confidence that might can, at least in the short term, make right, his faith in the power of violent men to protect the innocent from other violent men. In a way, it gave him the perfect mentality for a fantasy writer, at least of the faux-mediaeval sort that dominated fantasy in the 1980s (and largely still does) – it’s the mentality of the middle-ages, after all. But, like a mediaeval knight, Gemmell had to try to find a way to balance that ideology of violence with a religion of peace and love – a religion of turning the other cheek and of loving one’s enemy, and of deep suspicion regarding the long-term usefulness of violence. It’s incoherent; and it’s powerful, and fascinating. It’s an incommensurable conflict of values that Gemmell continually attempts to reconcile throughout Knights of Dark Renown, with a surprising degree of success.

It’s this conflict that led Gemmell, I think, to explore areas that would later be associated with the ‘grimdark’ movement, and that distinguishes his work tonally from those later writers. Gemmell writes deeply flawed, even evil, protagonists, not merely for some salacious, edgy fun, but as a matter of ideological conviction. Gemmell wants to know what makes somebody a hero – not what makes them virtuous or noble, but what makes someone stand against a tide of enemies in order to defend someone who cannot defend themselves. That, Gemmell believes, requires immense strength – of mind, of spirit, and of body. It takes the willingness to die, and both the willingness and the ability to kill, and these, he thinks, are not traits found in innocent and peaceful men. His heroes must therefore be bloody men (or, theoretically, women, although there’s no denying that Gemmell is a writer of old-fashioned boy’s stories about what makes a boy into a man – in which women, while not unwelcome, are not really his target audience, and not just because some of his protagonists will as happily rape a woman as look at her). Why, then, do these bloody men, men of power, choose to make sacrifices to fight on the right side?

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/61-gmqrg4RL.jpg

To answer this, Gemmell assembles perhaps his most morally questionable cast, without the slightest pretence at nobility. Serial rapist? Potential hero. Murderer? Potential hero. Guy who shoots slaves in the back? Potential hero. Guy who has men flayed alive and women burned to death? Clearly he’s on the right side! At the same time, in order to present a clear and meaningful moral choice, Gemmell’s bad guys have to be really, really bad – we’re into full-on mediaeval Holocaust territory here (though, as his motivations are ideological rather than salacious, there is little in the way of gratuitous details). Yet even so, great emphasis is laid on how close these villains are to our heroes – how small the margins can be.

Perhaps we might compare Gemmell to an author like George RR Martin, who also deals in fairly blood-soaked protagonists at times. The difference is, Martin is interested in how people can tell right from wrong, in complicated and conflicting moral situations in which one virtue wars against another. Gemmell doesn’t ignore this question, but his focus is instead on what a person can do with their knowledge of right and wrong – when they’ve seen what is right and what is wrong, what makes them decide to do what is right, when they know it will be at great risk to themselves?

[We might say Gemmell is naive – after all, most of our decisions are not so clear-cut in their morality. But we might also say that Martin is naive, in giving us such a benefit of the doubt in thinking our sins the result of well-meaning attempts to do the best thing in difficult circumstances. If Martin wrote about the Holocaust, it would be a story of noble Wehrmacht officers torn between their duty as human beings and the conflicting impulses of professional and national duty, the desire to protect their loved ones from retribution and so forth. If Gemmell wrote about the Holocaust, it would be a story of drug dealers and Stalinists and rapist footsoldiers who are cornered into situations where they cannot resist acting heroically. (Wait, that exists, doesn’t it? Gemmell would write something like Schindler’s List, only not about rich people…)]

Gemmell never really gives an answer here – indeed, my impression is that he doesn’t think there is an answer, as such. Heroism isn’t a state of mind – it’s a result, and a result that can spring from many different causes. Some men act heroically because they are noble and generous; others, from pride, or guilt, or bloody-mindedness, or vainglory, or greed, or despair. Decisions are made in quiet moments in the heart, and nobody can ever really know their reasons – if anyone ever does, that knowledge is soon lost as history becomes legend. As a result, his characters don’t really turn from evil men to good men; they don’t even necessarily reveal their hearts of gold. Rather, Gemmell is interested in showing the broken places in men of all kinds, that can snap some spine of common sense and self-preservation and lead them to do dangerous, stupid, heroic things. And he’s interested in showing how those heroic deeds can make the world a better place – no matter how vile the hero truly was as a person.

https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1333659992l/4924236.jpg

It must be said, unfortunately, that Gemmell’s writing ability, though somewhat more advanced here than at the time of Legend, is not the match of his philosophical ambition. Though he can write strong, clear characters, moving scenes, and even some good lines, there’s something cartoonish about it all – bold, larger-than-life, lacking in wrinkles, unfashionably earnest – and his prose is the solid, weighty, slightly weird prose of old-school fantasy. It’s less than a page before we encounter the first “slavering jaws of the beast”, for example.

More problematic than the prose, however, is the sheer implausibility of the novel’s length. Different editions have it in the range of 300-400 pages, and that’s… ridiculous. Modern fantasy authors would tell this story in the form of a trilogy, with each volume as long or longer than this whole novel. A writer like Martin could happily take this plot, add in some details and distractions, and spin five or eight long novels out of the material. Gemmell burns through it in one short volume. That doesn’t preclude a certain plodding quality in a little of the early going – no matter your wordcount aims, setting up plot and character and worldbuilding takes time and is hard to make fun in itself – but it does undermine the power of the novel, particularly in emotional terms. We simply don’t get enough time with these characters, enough insight into their thinking, enough understanding of the world they inhabit, for their key character moments to either be fully understandable (they are not out of the blue, but they are more sketched-in-outline than actually painted for us) or to be as emotionally resonant as they might otherwise be.

The flipside of that is that there’s a period in the novel that, by modern standards, is just ludicrously intense. It feels as though each chapter, for a while, has some big beat that would be the climax of many other novels, and that intensity has a certain irreproducible impact.

In the end, Gemmell doesn’t quite succeed in pulling it all off. Perhaps he could have done it in this wordcount, with far greater abilities as a writer; or perhaps he could have done it with the skills he had, and a considerably longer narrative in which his characters had room to breathe (seriously, at times it feels like some characters bounce from one big moment to the next without a single moment to rest). But with limited talent and even more limited wordcount, he is only ever able to deliver, as it were, the boldy-sketched idea for a novel, rather than the novel itself. Perhaps that’s why many of his books work better in the memory than on the page – the memory is able to fill in the gaps he leaves.

And yet, at the same time, we shouldn’t hold the man to unreasonable standards of excellence. There is nothing shameful in being a teller of exciting, interesting, moving yarns. And if such a yarnweaver tries to take on a bigger philosophical programme than he can really do justice to through the medium of a bestselling genre novel, that might be frustrating, but it shouldn’t be considered a demerit. Knights of Dark Renown may be pulp, and not even the best pulp, but it’s every bit as good a piece of pulp as most genre authors will ever write – and it’s far more thought-provoking to boot. It may well be Gemmell’s best novel, at least of those that I’ve read, and given its combination of readability and thematic interest, it could legitimately be considered a classic (in the true, historical sense) of the genre canon.

https://www.risingshadow.net/libdb/images/books/440.jpg

Adrenaline: 4/5. It never quite becomes a true thriller, probably because it’s too rushed and shallow to earn full engagement, and because it eschews things like ‘buildup’ – and because there’s an undeniable flatness to the writing that gradually becomes frustrating. But the action, once things get going, comes thick and fast, and I found myself turning the pages with impressive eagerness (particularly given that I already knew how it ended).

Emotion: 4/5. OK, feels a bit weird to say that, because this is exactly the sort of book – weak on characterisation, and trying to rush through to the good bits – that normally loses points for its emotional engagement. But I must admit, its playing-to-its-strengths, back-to-basics parade of Manly Heroic-Tragic Manly Moments did get me moist-eyed at points – it’s a great example of how sometimes the characters and the setting can exist to give an excuse to tell the old, powerful stories.

Thought: 4/5. This isn’t a deep, philosophical treatise; and it’s a book that invites thinking rather than demanding it. But is it, as it were, above par? Yes. It may not prosecute its discussions with as much rigour and detail as we might hope – a longer book, in particular, might have had room to explore consequences in greater depth – but I find its complex discussion of competing values and virtues, including its willingness to challenge conventional morality to a surprising degree, to be fascinating.

Beauty: 3/5. It’s not an elegantly-written novel, and a lot of ugly things happen. But Gemmell does construct a series of iconic scenes that have their own beauty.

Craft: 3/5. I suppose the writing is… acceptible. The “worst” moments, odd ways of speaking and clunky, strange expressions, are less a problem with the author’s prose and more a fashion statement for a certain flavour of old-school, archaicism-scented fantasy. The construction, and intense distillation, of its plot is actually very professionally done – it seems natural, but in hindsight packing so much content in with so little ‘spare’ wordcount takes some considerable craft in planning. Wringing so much impact out of what is on paper fairly paper-thin charactisation and worldbuilding is actually pretty impressive. Speaking of which, however: even a few more sentences could have fleshed out the setting considerably, and in particular I wish I had a better grasp of distances…

Endearingness: 3/5. I kind of liked it. I’m certainly left with a more favourable impression than with Legend. I found it a generally enjoyable read, and not just out of nostalgia. At the same time, I can’t deny that there’s a… rasping quality. It’s like listening to some super-high-energy music, some aggressive punk or death metal or whatever… part of you is impressed and energised, but as time goes on another part of you just gets worn out, and bored, and wishing for something with a little more nuance and variety. Put it this way: I enjoyed reading this book, and will re-read more Gemmells in the future. But would I want to read five Gemmells in a row these days? Good gods, no. Partly that’s the intensity (and cliché nature) of the content; partly it’s that the writing can’t by itself generate the continual interest and novelty that makes the really loveable books so enjoyable, on all levels, to read and re-read.

Originality: 2/5. Gemmell is spinning an interesting story, but it’s one made, very clearly, from the rendered and processed corpses of other stories (indeed, this is lampshaded by the fact that many characters have names from Irish (and in one case Welsh) mythology, for no apparent reason). The types of characters, the types of situations, the types of choices… everything is extremely familiar, albeit delivered in a distinctive Gemmellian fashion. That makes it a good book for genre fans who want a new angle on their genre, but not a great book for those who are looking for something genuinely new.

 

OVERALL: 5/8. GOOD. OK, I feel a little sheepish about that. Maybe a more dispassionate observer would give it merely a ‘Not Bad’, as I gave to Legend. But Knights of Dark Renown is a better book than Legend; it is, in its own way, a better book than a lot of fantasy. It is, as it were, better at what it is. I’ve rated it better, for example, than A Game of Thrones, which some may consider heresy; but I think it’s merited. George RR Martin is a considerably better author than David Gemmell (though it doesn’t always seem like that in A Game of Thrones); he can master a much more varied and interesting, and ultimately powerful story than Gemmell can, as Martin went on to show in later books. But his first attempt at epic fantasy was undeniably a little ropey, not to mention limited by its placement in its own wider story (as an opening novel of a long-running series, there are things it just isn’t interested in doing). Whereas Gemmell goes all-out with Knights of Dark Renown, and though its limitations are too great to let it reach the genuine, genre-transcendant classics of ‘Very Good’ status, I’m happy with putting it in the tier of ‘Good’. What it does, it does well.

So maybe more people should remember it.