The Affirmation, by Christopher Priest

I thought that this was a nice book, and that it was a distant book, and that I was disengaged from it, and then I found I had fallen into it like falling into quicksand, like being trapped in a gin that closes slowly in quicksand. I have finished it now, and I am honestly fighting the urge to flail around with my body, because it feels as though there are ants crawling on me, or something sharp inside me. It doesn’t literally feel like that, because I’m not mad, but it feels like something – not emotionally, it feels like something, it is a bodily sensation and those are the images that something provokes. Most of me doesn’t want to think about this book any more, because it is physically painful – or rather, it is painful, and it is painful in a physical, bodily, phenomenal, sensational way, although I feel no physical pain, because I’m not mad.

The book is a dream that turns into a nightmare, except that instead of turning into a nightmare, you suddenly look around in the dream and realise it has been a nightmare all along. And I say that even though nothing particularly nightmarish occurs. Rather, because emotionally, responsively, even physically, my experience of reading was an experience of a nightmare of being trapped, of being unable to escape.

I am not mad, but I have the capacity for madness latent within me, as an unrealised mode of action, as it were. We all do; many of us actually are mad, in quiet and hard-to-notice manners; i’m not, but I think I have more awareness of how I would be if I were mad, and how similar it is to not being mad, than most people; but I don’t know whether that is because I am actually closer to it, or just because I have paid more attention to myself than many other people pay to their own selves. In any case, this book holds a mirror up to that potential madness, even calls to that madness, and that is one reason why it is painful – why it is frightening, even. But it isn’t the only reason, I don’t think. And don’t worry, I’m not mad.

Apparently I’m not alone in this. Reading a few reviews, many others agree that this is a book that makes you question yourself, that strikes into the heart of you. It’s not just me being mad.

The Affirmation is one of Priest’s earlier works. It tells two stories. The first is the story of Peter Sinclair; living in London, he is made unemployed (amongst other misfortunes) and goes to the countryside to pull himself together, deciding that it will be therapeutic to write his autobiography, to set things straight in his mind. Before long, however, he realises that some truths about himself are best expressed through metaphor, and his autobiography becomes a novel: about Peter Sinclair, an inhabitant of Jethra in the feudal kingdom of Faiandland. The second story is the story of Peter Sinclair, an inhabitant of Jethra in the feudal kingdom of Faiandland; some years before he was made unemployed and retreated into the countryside to pull himself together by writing an autobiography; now, however, he has got over all that, and is embarking on a journey into the Dream Archipelago, to collect first prize in an unusual Lotterie.

This isn’t artistic bilgewater, irony for the sake of postmodernism. It’s an examination of madness so complete and so uncompromising that it is entirely possible that all the characters therein are wholly sane, and only the structure of the novel itself, its realities and its timelines, produces confusion and uncertainty. It’s like a part of the ground that has been folded up and turned into a hot air balloon – it is rooted in the world, it is made out of the world, but suddently you realise it has lifted off all by itself. It is unlike artistic bilgewater because it manages to be by itself – it is not a morass of things thrown in from the world, something anchored in conflicting ways. This is one of the rare books that has no anchor, no meeting point with the world, with life. You don’t know what I mean by that, but it’s possible that after you’ve read the book you might.

There is nothing groundbreaking in this novel intellectually.  Likewise, as the title suggests, Nietzschean ethics are considered quite prominently, but not in a way that will be novel to the philosophically literate; likewise the questions about the nature of personal identity. Novelists often come by coincidence to philosophical places, but so much of the meat of this novel is drawn directly from, and in the style of, philosophical thought-experiments, that I think Priest either is following a guide or else is a natural philosopher. This is a philosophical novel, of the kind analytic philosophy is not meant to have – all it lacks in that regard is depth, conviction, and originality.

The book is many things. It is a searing study of schizophrenia; it is a philosophical treatise; it is trip into an imaginary world; and it is an exploration of the nature of writing, and in particular the nature of being a novelist.

The genius of the book is not the intellectual content – not even how these questions interact with one another – but the delivery of that content. It is masterful – though as I said at the beginning, it is a slow and inorexable read rather than a thriller. The pace is slow, the objective obscure, and the viewpoint character(s?) are uninspiring and dull. By the end, however, that is the point – the dullness, the reality, of Peter Sinclair delivers more in the way of payoff than a more charismatic (and hence less immediate and normal) character could have provided.

The Affirmation is a more sincere book than The Prestige; it is more meaningul, and it is better constructed. It is not, however, written quite so well, I don’t think – the voice of Sinclair is somewhat less powerful in its ability to express much with little than are the voices of Borden or Angier – and stylistically it is much more within itself, achieving itself more fully but attempting less (while intellectually being far more ambitious than the later book:  The Prestige at times feels like a book written to flex muscles, while The Affirmation feels written for a purpose). If I have a concern about Priest from these two novels, it is that they are a bit too similar in tone and style and preoccupations.

I still want to throw something at a wall. It’s the only way to escape the circles of thinking, sometimes; and even that doesn’t work. Nothing can escape from The Affirmation, including the reader, even after the book is finished. It is a self-constraining circle of a novel, an event horizon. It will stay with me for a long time, but in part because it was inside me before I read it.

I’m sorry I couldn’t say anything more useful or concrete, and for this all being such useless waffle. The subject matter of the book, if there is any matter to it (and this not a book where one can simply say what happens – even the paragraph I’ve said already about that is nonsense, both spoiling the book, or its first few chapters, and being made a lie of, a mockery of, by the book itself and its contents) is all spoiler, and is all impossible to speak about even if it weren’t. Speaking about it anchors it to the world, imposes a perspective. And it’s too slippery a novel to do that with.

Adrenaline: 3/5. Not an exciting book. The narrative voice is bland and boring, and very little happens. This is ameliorated by the mounting emotional response to the book, a tension and fear, like the moments in a conspiracy thriller just as you know you’re about to find out how big the conspiracy is. It engaged and captured me, but it didn’t run away with me.

Emotion: 4/5. The narrator is somewhat distant, and all the other characters are tertiary to him. However, his bland, direct, simple, open way of speaking about his life makes it impossible not to empathise with him, and more than empathise – or perhaps empathise for him, rather than with him. Beyond that: real and vivid feelings were provoked in me, of the sort of restlessness found in nightmares of pursuit or of imprisonment, feelings of childish helplessness. I do not give it full marks because its inexorable approach meant that the power didn’t kick in until near the end.

Thought: 5/5. The philosophical content is ground-breaking neither in hypothesis nor in solution, and although complexity is gestured at it is not made manifest. The plot is intriguing but is not a mystery. I don’t know how to explain why this gets full marks. Perhaps because talking about it – and this is only one manifestation of the process of assimilating the novel, of coming to terms with it – places my words, as you can see, at or beyond the limits of what are sayable. I don’t know if that counts as thought, but I’m going to say that it does. It makes my head spin, at least.

Beauty: 4/5. There is nothing wrong with the writing, but it is intentionally plain. There are beautiful moments and images, but the greatest beauty is the book itself. Considering the book, I feel the edges of the sublime impinging upon me, a power before which the mind and the tongue dissolve away. But too much of the actual content of the book is too plain and ordinary for full marks here.

Craft: 5/5. There are things about this book which are not perfect, but they are not the fault of the author, rather inherent flaws in the nature of the project. Priest has a mastery of prose, character, construction, and conceit. It is not, I think, as well written as The Prestige (encouragingly, as it was written more than a decade earlier), but it has a greater unity and coherence of form and concept. Priest is a brilliant novelist, and this is how you write a novel. Specifically, it is how you write this novel, and that may put you off if you don’t happen to like the novel he chose to write, but I can’t find any serious problem with how he wrote it.

Endearingness: 3/5. Even just thinking about it now, it compels me. It has a place in my affections, and I will return to it many times. But it’s also not a curl-up-in-front-of-the-fireplace read. It’s too painful for that, and too cold.

Originality: 4/5. To be honest, while it’s all distinctive, none of it – the plot, the structure, the conceits, the philosophy – is wholly unique. But it’s very well done!

Echo: 1/2. As this review says, it had a physical impact on me – not the usual deadness and deafness, but a frustration and fear and… thinking about it, perhaps it is a little like thinking about death. But it is an insidious book rather than an overwhelming one, I think, and I was left still able to walk in a straight line.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. People say this may be Priest’s masterpiece. I thought it wasn’t as good as The Prestige. I can see how people might disagree, though. This was more focused, smaller, more direct, more perfect, while The Prestige was more of a sprawler (despite its modest length), protean, chaotic. I think the later book wins out in my reviews because they are generalist reviews, and The Prestige ticks more boxes – there are angles from which The Affirmation is better, but there are more angles from which The Prestige is indisputably very good. I think the biggest thing missing from this novel was excitement – either through intention or inexperience, there wasn’t that brilliant ability to wring heart-pounding thrills from the simplest language and events that so impressed me in The Prestige. But I have no doubt that this book reaffirms Priest’s place as one of the great modern novelists, and makes me want to go and read his entire back-catalogue. I won’t, because there are so many other things to read. But right now I want to.

Philosophy as the Mirror of Economics

I found a rather interesting little post over here. Except I probably found it interesting for different reasons from most people.

The author of the article, for those who don’t want to have to read it, argues that the failure of academic economists to predict the financial crisis is down to three things:

…specialization, the difficulty of forecasting, and the disengagement of much of the profession from the real world.”

Now, I must briefly ridicule the idea that due to these problems “it may well be that academic economists have little to say about short-term economic movements, so that forecasting, with all its errors, is best left to professional forecasters” – that’s like saying after an unpredicted hurricane that maybe meteorologists have little to say about short-term weather conditions and that weather forecasting is best left to guys with pine cones or gammy weather-legs that twinge when a storm is coming. But my main thought when reading the article was: is he talking about economics, or about philosophy?

Like economics, (analytic) philosophy is highly specialised, both in the way that few philosophers are notable in more than one area (particular if we’re talking about analysis of historical philosophy), and in the way that the analytic movement (even the modern soi-dissant “analytic” movement) likes to take one point of trivium at a time. And like economics, philosophy is, I think, at great risk of divorcing itself from social realities and abandoning its purpose – inculcating wisdom. Philosophy can bring wisdom on two levels – at the first order, by solving or resolving particular questions in ethics (in in prior years in science also), and at the second order, by resolving tensions of the mind and confusions or disordered thoughts. Modern philosophy, however, seems entirely divorced from both these problems. What possible function has an answer to the question of perdurance and endurance (even if we admit that such a question can have ‘an answer’)? It feels as though philosophy has fallen in love with its own method, and forgotten what the method is for. Instead, academics apply thought not to the world but to the writings of other academics. This in turn leads to that specialisation: if my only interest in writing about Epicurus, for instance, is to undermine him on his own premises, or to refute the attempts of others to undermine him, or even if I happen to rise above that and try to work out what he really means… well, why would I care what the guy next door is writing about Mill? The determination to analyse each thing by itself, on its own foundations, precludes the attempt to draw together divergent strands into a productive and synthetic work. Meanwhile, the public need for wisdom in thought and deed has not gone away, but now must be met by pop-psychology, self-help, incoherent cod-philosophy and second-hand religion – the market forecasters or the men with pine cones.

More fundamentally, I wonder whether this ‘academisation’ of both economics and philosophy is no coincidence. Philosophy, either as a cause or as a mirror of something underlying, often tells us a lot about a culture: and just as the lunacies of the Continent (chiefly France) can often be untangled by realising their roots (or reflection) in Continental philosophy, perhaps the lunacy of Angloaustria can be untangled in the light of our own philosophical weakness, our isolate scholasticism. The pervading atmosphere of our academia (outside those departments, chiefly in the arts and humanities, that have been infected by Continental wiffle-waffle) is pedantic, scholarly small-mindedness insulated by a pervasive distrust of overaching theory, systemisation, syncretism, or just about anything bold enough to make any claim or prediction.

Although I do believe philosophy, as a sort of model for academic respectability, has had a causal role in setting different academic atmospheres in different places, the article about economists may also lead us to consider the economic and political reasons for the way modern philosophy is. Just like economists, philosophers are lead into specialisation and reactiveness by the stresses of financial competition, which reward the limited expert over the generalist, and punish anybody brave enough to let themselves be proven wrong. At core, then, beyond questions of the actual state of modern philosophy – which no doubt is debateable – is the more fundamental question of whether the modern academic system, and its interaction with the economic and political systems, is really incentivised to produce the results that are best for philosophy itself. If everybody follows what is best for them, we may be in a situation where the discipline as a whole suffers. And the same is also true for other subjects – not just economics, but science, art, and the humanities also.

If I might be allowed a philosophical moment: if philosophy is turned into a profession, then philosophers will act like professionals. Professionals have many good qualities, but the professional way of thinking is not noted for its inculcation of wisdom. It is as easy to get rich as a fool as it is to get rich as a wise man; easier, perhaps. The safetyguard here should be the wisdom of those who purchase philosophy – department heads, the peers who review books and articles. But all of them are professionals too! And the common public who buy pseudophilosophical trash, and pseudoscience likewise, clearly are not rewarding wisdom either.

As somebody wiser than me once said: “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind”.

In some ways, perhaps academia, and in particular philosophy, is facing a Malthusian crisis: there are more and more people, and more and more philosophers, but the amount that can be said has not increased in proportion. As a result, we have more and more people saying less and less (something which applies equally to the Continental tradition – while we write more and more about fewer and smaller things, they write less and less and pretend to be saying more and more); and the question must be asked, whether the acceptance and support of a system that encourages mediocrity will actually hinder the production of great thoughts?

So here’s a radical suggestion: make it harder to be a philosopher. Don’t encourage people to study it. It goes against all my instincts, but perhaps it would be for the best. Reduce the number of academics, reduce the feasibility of a life lived entirely in close specialisation, and maybe the standard of discourse would be raised. I certainly believe that at earlier levels of education the fundamental skills of philosophy – which is to say the fundamental skills of living and of being human – should be taught to everybody, but is anything really gained by having so many people sitting around congratulating each other?

Of course, it’s not a practical idea by itself. If there are fewer places, there will be more competition, which means more pandering, not less. Perhaps there’s something to be said for idleness; but now that we have developed a conscience, perhaps the renewal of idleness, and hence the renewal of philosophy, may have to wait until a time beyond scarcity.

China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh

One day, apparently, China will be the dominant nation on Earth – and beyond Earth. The USA will be a socialist republic, a vassal of China, and rather looked down upon. The planet will be suffering from the effects of global warming, and frankly everything will be a little shit.

In this world lives Zhang Zhong Shan. “Zhong Shan” is Mandarin for “Sun Yat-Sen”, so it’s a little like being called “George Washington Jones”, and a lot of people find his name amusing. He doesn’t live in China, he lives in Brooklyn, where some of his friends jokingly call him “China Mountain”, one possible reading of “Zhong Shan”. Mostly he prefers to go by “Zhang”. The surname is from his father, a Chinese man. Zhang himself certainly looks Chinese, and everybody around him who doesn’t know him assumes he’s an ABC – American-Born Chinese; but Zhang is also called “Rafael Luis”, and is the son of Theresa Luis. He’s half-Hispanic, and speaks Spanish as well as English (and school-learnt Chinese). People don’t know this because his parents paid for his genes to be reconfigured to make him appear fully Chinese.

Why yes, this IS another book that likes to address issues of identity. How did you guess?

Zhang works as a construction tech, and gets on well with his foreman and his own subordinates. In his spare time, he goes out drinking and partying a lot. Most of all he likes to go to the kite races – where human jockeys, in electronic symbiosis with their high-tech kites, race around an aerial course, trying (and sometimes failing) not to die. Life is good. But Zhang is about to have a problem: the foreman is going to invite Zhang for dinner to discuss a brilliant career opportunity – if Zhang marries his daughter, he can go and study in China. This is a problem because the foreman’s daughter is exceptionally ugly… and Zhang is gay.

This is a very unusual book, chiefly because nothing happens in it. There are a lot of books where people say “nothing happens”, but in this case that is almost entirely true. Virtually nothing happens. Some people do some stuff. Some of that stuff might, just might, be important in their lives. None of any of it is important in terms of any wider society, let alone the world. This is an anti-epic.

The story of Zhang alternates with other stories, which are at best tangentially related to Zhang’s story. Nothing happens in those stories either.

In case I appear too critical, I want to make clear that there are many good points to this book (calling it a novel seems a little far-fetched). The conceit of having multiple POVs – all first-person – has rarely been executed with such finesse and delicacy; McHugh brilliantly conveys the differing mentalities and language of the POV characters without seeming broad or heavy-handed or obvious. Several chapters would serve as perfectly self-contained short-stories. The confidence she displays in presenting such small and isolated narratives is admirable. She exploits her setting-conceit suavely; rather than making any overt statements, she uses the setting simply to open up alternative perspectives: in Zhang’s relationship to China and Chinese culture, for instance, we see a Western perspective that is simultaneously an echo of how non-Western perspectives might view the West, and yet it doesn’t feel like a crude, idea-novel inversion of the status quo.

More generally, I think that this is one of the most impressively real-feeling settings I’ve encountered in science fiction. It is a near-future and quite pessimistic view, and may understate the pace of future technological and social progress (while much SF overstates it, I think), but it feels like a real place. In particularly, I was struck by the sense of latent progress: most SF seems to be pervaded with smugness and vain awe, the viewpoint of a barbarian who has become a citizen of Rome; but McHugh conveys the Roman perspective, the genuine perspective of a person to whom the future is simply the present – past (to us future) achievements are overlooked and taken for granted, but there remains a sense that the future is yet to come. While most SF seems to say “congratulations, we’re in the future now!”, McHugh’s world is further on from ours, but is still waiting for the future. Its key technological advancements are things that are actually advancing, where characters can wonder about where the technology may lead, not things that have been already accomplished – it’s a future that, like our present, is pregnant with its own as-yet-unknowable transformation.

But there are problems. Most minor: the book in now almost twenty years old, and in places feels dated, both technologically and socially – an inevitable danger for a near-future setting. I didn’t find that an issue, but some might.

More importantly, I didn’t want to read about Zhang. I really didn’t. I found him not only unlikeable, but (which is worse) frankly dull. To the author’s credit, his development is mostly realistic, and he becomes a more interesting character as a result, but it takes too long. In particular, the first chapter of the novel is very slow and dreary, and although it kept me intrigued enough to continue, I think it may be a barrier to some readers. Read at least two chapters before giving up! Zhang’s story doesn’t become interesting until halfway through the book.

Partly this is because Zhang is just so passive. Things happen to him, some good and some bad, and hardly anything is the result of his own decisions – not just because he has no power in the world, but because he’s lazy and childish. Now, this is part of the point of the novel, as he is lead toward taking morecontrol over his life, but it doesn’t make it a thrilling read.

It may be a coincidence, but I also felt McHugh was stronger with female character than male ones. Both the male characters didn’t entirely ring true (or interesting) to me, whereas the women were more real, and in most cases more engaging. I could happily have read a novel about either Martine or Angel.

Background characters, meanwhile, were not one-dimensional, but were not more than two-dimensional, being mostly thin sketches for plot purposes. Which would have been more justifiable if there had actually been a plot.

A broader issue, related to Zhang’s passivity, is that… there is no point to any of it. I think that novels can be about exterior action (physical events) or interior action (psychological events), and can be about a character or about a world. In this case, there was very little in the way of action (in fact the only real action was one character being chased for a few minutes), so all the emphasis was placed on psychology – only there wasn’t any. McHugh’s psychological portraits were very lifelike, but also very static and passive and superficial. There was little in the way of psychological progress made, and what progress was made happened in the dark, as none of the characters had the degree of introspection, or of insight, that would have let us see what was really going on. The attempt to demonstrate some progress despite this introspection made the book seem ham-fisted in the simplicity (and repetitiveness) of its psychological analysis, as it tried to spell out what The Point was  – it was at the level of the cod-psychiatry found on American TV shows. Fortunately, there was very little of it, but this absence in turn created a narrative vacuum that could not be filled by the exterior action.

Nor could it be filled by the setting. Our glimpses of the setting are entirely from POVs, and very limited, but in any case there isn’t enough different from the real world for this to truly fascinate. Intrigue, yes, and there were some very interesting, even provocative, ideas, but not enough to carry the narrative.

In short, then, there was nothing wrong with the action, the psychology or the setting – all three were, while not perfect, certainly very capable background elements. But none of them had either the novelty or the mystery or the proficiency to stand out as foreground and make the book be about something. The psychology of Zhang comes closest to a plot, but it is too little, and in particular it is too late. In this respect also, the content seemed more suited to a series of short stories, where sketches and suggestions are all that is required: a series of short stories strung together does not always produce a novel.

There are also one or two actual moments of clumsiness. The repetitive psychological/moral theme, which was a lot more effective until it was spelled out, was one of them. The attempts to string the unrelated stories together through tangents was another, feeling unnecessary, forced, and unconvincing, and did not add anything to the book. The best two chapters were the second and third, and in general the pacing of the book, such as there was, felt totally disorganised. And Zhang’s second chapter felt overblown and sensational to an extent that would work in another novel but was out of keeping here.

That’s a lot wrong, but I think it should be seen in context. This was McHugh’s first novel, and she’s clearly not yet fully in control of the long form. There’s no doubt that there’s plenty of talent here – it’s just not made best use of. I’ll certainly check out one of her later novels at some point. And even as a novel in itself, I found it very enjoyable, and very interesting too.

Finally: this novel appears on the Book List compiled elsewhere on this blog. I both agree and disagree with this. I disagree to the extent that I would be unlikely to list this as one of my favourite novels, as people did in the voting; but I agree with the end result, its inclusion on the list, because I think this novel is a striking demonstration of what science fiction can do, can be like. It’s a different sort of book from most genre works, and although it doesn’t entirely succeed, it’s worth seeing what was attempted.

(This is from the 1993 cover. Yes, apparently Tor's art department lives the other side of a wormhole to the fifties)

Adrenaline: 3/5. Boring for large stretches, but always weirdly compelling, and in some places unaccountably exciting. I found myself snatching moments to read this book – the first book I’ve read standing up on the Tube, for instance. Normally I like to sit down and read for an hour, but this one I found myself going back to again and again. Possibly just to see whether something would finally happen.

Emotion: 2/5. Some of the characters were very engaging, but there wasn’t much in the way of emotional heights and lows to empathise with.

Thought: 3/5. Some really interesting things here, both socially and technologically. All of it, however, felt like background, and didn’t really invite in-depth thought. And the absence of a Plot (capital P) eliminated the opportunity and need to try to think ahead. I found it quite a mentally passive read.

Beauty: 3/5. Not a lot to say. Some ugliness and some beauty in the setting. The prose hardly ever tried to draw attention to itself.

Craft: 4/5. Really proficient, really talented, really well done, really confident – but with some rough patches still showing through.

Endearingness: 3/5. Some chapters were 5/5, but overall I found it too boring, and Zhang too annoying, to really love this book.

Originality: 5/5. Structurally innovative, and strikingly anti-epic, I didn’t know what the book was going to be like until I had finished it. The basic conceit of a China-dominated near-future is not too original, but because the book shies away from any kind of Theme or Plot or Aboutness, this isn’t an issue.

Overall: 5/7. Good. I feel to some degree that I should have called it Very Good, but I really can’t think of any reason why. Maybe just because McHugh really impressed me with her talent and her confidence, and I wanted to love the book more than I found I really did. That said, it’s definitely worth reading for anyone becoming jaded by SF; it feels more like literature that happens to be SF than like SF that is trying to be literature. As someone who hopes to write novels of his own in the future, this is one (of many!) novels that has helped show me the breadth of possibilities.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Far, far away, and far into the future, there is a little frozen planet called “Gethen”, or “Winter”, on the very icy edge of inhabitability. Its people are human, and very much like anybody else, except for two important things: they have no gender, and they have no war.

This may be about to change. For millenia, the people of Gethen have happily been killing each other in “forays” and skirmishes, but now, finally, their technology may have advanced far enough to allow them enough comfort, enough free time, to destroy themselves. War, after all, requires mobilisation, and mobilisation is impossible when travel has to contend with floods and blizzards, and when everybody is on the verge of starvation and of freezing to death. Gethen has advanced very slowly; but it has advanced nonetheless, like a glacier, and things are becoming possible that until now have been impossible. Two great nations now straddle the Great Continent, locked in a (literally) cold war that may or may not be about to become hot: brutal, backward, feudal Karhide; and progressive, organised, bureaucratic Orgoreyn. Neither is as simple a place as it seems.

There is no gender because Gethenians only become sexual once a month, when they enter heat, and whether an individual takes on a male or female role in any particular coupling is unpredictable. This can be assumed to be the result of genetic engineering by the Hainish forebear race that implanted the human population on this improbable planet – although why they would have mutated humans in this way is something of a mystery. In any case, the absence of gender is also at an end on Gethen: because a man from Earth has just arrived, in his spaceship. Mr Ai is an Envoy from an interstellar union of worlds, the Ekumen, of which Terra is but one member, and he has come to persuade the people of Gethen to rejoin their lost brothers and sisters (for Gethenians are alone in the universe in their lack of gender) – although he is quite aware that he may die in the attempt. The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of that attempt.

It is a novel of fundamental dualities: Gethen and the Ekumen; Karhide and Orgoreyn; the two Gethenian religions of Handdara and Yomesh; man and woman; sexed and neuter; light and dark; surface and subsurface.

It is also a novel in which dualities are undermined, and identities destabilised. Mr Ai is a black man – at least, he is darker than most Gethenians, but not darker than all of them, and they are all darker than than some people on other planets; it is impossible to impose ‘black’ and ‘white’ as categories here. Mr Ai is from Earth, but there is no traditional terrestrial/extraterrestrial division: Terra is simply one world among many. It isn’t even the first: in this universe, mankind originates on the planet of Hain, and Terran humans (like Gethenians) are only genetically-modified colonists who have forgotten their origins (their similarity to the great apes and the extinct native hominids being an intentional deception by the Hainish for reasons unknown – ecology? experiment? art? for a laugh?). At the same time, the Gethenians happily refer to their world – the only world seen in the whole of the novel – as “earth”, and the Terran protagonist concedes that he himself is “an alien”.

The story is told primarily from the point of view of Mr Ai; but this viewpoint, too, is insecure, as it is frequently undermined by chapters from other perspectives – stories from the history and legend of Gethen, reports by previous Ekumenical investigators, and above all the viewpoint of a native Gethenian, who sees the same things that Ai does, in a very different way.

I’m not going to talk much more about the themes of the book, because they’re really too sophisticated. I started off thinking in my head about things I could make note of, but by the end of the book there was so much that I would have to write a book myself to talk about it all. This is a very short novel, but it is densely packed. Duality and wholeness, history and fate, knowledge and ignorance; political theory, and war, and rhetoric, and sociology, and love and patriotism and identity and history. There’s a lot here. Above all, Le Guin rarely allows herself the luxury of a firm place to stand: every point of view, every preconception, is undermined and challenged – not necessarily fatally, but thoroughly enough to provoke constant unease. Even the tagline discussion of duality and non-duality is undermined, by the insinuation that non-duality is itself an idea imposed by dualists in opposition to themselves. We see this, for instance, in the way that the only genuinely sexless part of the book is the account by an Investigator from the planet of Chiffewar – in a ‘bisexual’ society, we might observe, part of ‘neutrality’ and ‘impartiality’ is a denial of our bodily sex, a subconscious self-alienation that makes no sense in a genderless world, in which there is no reason to avoid mention of being a mother or a father in the most scientific and formal contexts because those categories are fluid. This observation is not made explicitly, but I think the asexuality of this chapter is not only intentional but intentionally highlighted in order to provoke this sort of doubt.

A more prominent example – and a more controversial one – is the way Le Guin constantly uses masculine pronouns to refer to the neither-men-nor-women of Gethen. Some have been angered by this, seeing it as an imposition of patriarchy; but that entirely misses the point. Yes, on the one hand Le Guin is doing it (and her characters are doing it) out of convenience, so as not to call everybody ‘it’ or invent a new pronoun; but there is also the more basic point that Mr Ai can never truly see people on Gethen as being sexless. He imposes his own notions of sex on them; he cannot help thinking of them as men or women. At one point he realises this and accepts that one character is both a man and a woman – but this too, of course, is an imposition of irrelevent categories. Indeed, even the apparently more neutral idea that they are neither male nor female may be problematic – it insists on a distinction between being hermaphrodite and being neuter that makes no sense without the alternative presence of male and female. All ‘bisexual’ attempts to understand Gethen will misunderstand it; but we must also realise, as we are shown from the other points of view, that Gethenian views of bisexuals – and even of themselves – are similarly lacking and/or distorted.

In any case, I’m waffling too long on a minor point. But then, this whole book is minor points. There is no Moral Of The Story, only a lot of questions.

This is a very… quiet book. Not slow, per se, although it does take a while to grab hold, and not a lot ever happens, but definitely quiet. Both in content and in style. You have to be very still and listen very quietly, or else you may miss something. Le Guin does not aim for the flashy and sensational and the emotive (although some of the content could be very sensationalist in other hands), but rather something very clinical and precise, but that realises that precision, and being clinical, are not neutral poses, and that they cannot serve all purposes.

If you come into this expecting the wrong sort of book, you could blast through it in a few hours and come away not knowing what the fuss was about. Don’t look at what happens, look at how it happens; and listen carefully. Nothing is accidental, and everything is related to everything else.

I’m not going to talk about it anymore.

Adrenaline: 3/5. Some parts of the book were very gripping – mostly the middle third, which has a paranoid, mysterious feel as Ai is entangled in politics and machinations in which nothing is as simple as it seems. The final third is suitably climactic, but a little slow and majestic, so not thrilling; the first third takes a while to get into, I think.

Emotion: 3/5. I may be being generous here. It’s quite a cold book, and a distant one. That said, there are some really moving sections later on.

Thought: 5/5. Maybe generous? There’s no great conundrum, it’s true, and no great philosophy. But there is a continual unease; a continual mental striving to work out what’s really going on, what she’s really saying, what’s really true, and what’s going to happen next, not to mention how each piece is going to fit into the whole. All together, I don’t think you can really expect more thinking from a reading experience.

Beauty: 4/5. Marked down not because of imperfections – imagery is beautiful, metaphors are beautiful, prose is beautiful; but just because there’s nothing that wowed me. I don’t think there was meant to be. You’re not meant to look too hard at the prose.

Craft: 5/5. It isn’t perfect. Once or twice I think she crosses the line into sounding a little preachy, and perhaps here and there things are a little simplistic; together it’s a little YA in patches, a little didactic. One or two details of sociology don’t totally convince. But I’m nitpicking. This is brilliantly constructed. The depiction of character through narrative voice is fantastic, the interweaving of perspectives, the parallels and synecdoches… it all made me sit back and just admire how good she was. There are a few missteps because perfection is very hard to maintain, but there are few authors who would even attempt this novel, let alone come as close to success as Le Guin did.

Endearingness: 4/5. I really like it – but again, the coldness counts against it. I like it, but I don’t love reading it, I don’t love the world, I don’t love the characters. It’s also such a slim book that I don’t think it would hold up well to repeat readings. This was my second read, and I got a lot more out of it than the first time (when I read it too quickly and didn’t pay enough attention) – but I think it’s a book that works best if you leave enough time between readings that you don’t remember everything. There’s not a lot here, and it could become worn-out if read too often.

Originality: 5/5. Yes, the synopses sound a little too cliche-feminist, but there’s honestly nothing to compare. Or at least I can’t imagine there is. [People say, incidentally, that this was one of the first feminist science fiction novels; that’s bollocks. Reading this as feminist is completely missing the point – in the same way that people miss the point when they call someone a traitor for negotiating peace, or when they say that evolution challenges religion. Believing that this is feminist is taking a stand on a wall that the author is busy undermining].

Overall: 7/7. Brilliant. I deliberated about this one, as it’s on the border of brilliance, but after some consideration I had to mark it up rather than down. I wouldn’t have had to think about that if only it had made me care a little more. Nonetheless, it’s a remarkable book, and deservedly considered one of the classics of the genre.

Dragonsinger, by Anne McCaffrey

Even the books that seem simplest and most conventional can still surprise. The big surprise for me with this one, re-reading it for the umpteenth time, but after a period of some years, was how unusual the central plot was. Ostensibly, there’s very little plot indeed. Menolly, heroine of Dragonsong, has arrived at her intended place in the world, the Harper Hall, and that’s pretty much about it.

In the absence of (serious) external obstacles to overcome, however, the flow of the narrative is instead directed internally: in essence, this is the story of Menolly overcoming her own fears and doubts to become an independent part of the world. It is the story of a girl entering adulthood, and the story of a person who, as one character puts it, has ‘lived too long alone’ coming to live in society. In that respect it is a fitting companion to, and to an extent even retrospectively improves, the first novel in the trilogy, in which problems were resolved chiefly by running away. Accordingly too, this novel of overcoming modesty puts the heroine in a rather more sympathetic light than the first, in which Menolly teetered dangerously on the edge of a rather tiresomely petulant teenage rebellion. The result is a sweeter and more touching book.

The idea also has its drawbacks, however. Without any genuine threat, mystery or entrapment, with the heroine placed in a nurturing environment in which many are dedicated to her and she is clearly at a great advantage over others, there’s no real tension – and the psychological journey is not laid out precisely or evocatively enough to create its own sense of momentum or progress. Menolly’s internal plotline is less an engine and more a spine upon which has been strung an extended vignette. Paradoxically, with less threat, the protagonist is less active, and her internal plotline is overshadowed as the screentime that might be given to her thoughts is hogged by other actors, who push her around taking advantage of her passivity.

If it’s a vignette, there are three sides to that picture. First, the Hall is an educational establishment, and the novel is basically “Menolly’s Schooldays”, though with an older and more gifted protagonist we are spared the raw drudgery of many school stories. This seems to be dealt with fairly well, elements of school, university and a guild system woven into a convincing establishment, but not one that is particularly memorable or thrilling, and not one into which we get much of an investigatory glimpse – it is strictly from pupil’s-eye-view. The second side is music, because that is the chief occupation of Harpers. Here, I am undone by my nature, since I found this story of composition and performance, quartets and music theory, inherently exciting and wondrous and and the same time comfortable. A composer is a far more fantastic creature than a dragon, in my soul. The very subject matter ensured a degree of affection from me. And it is not handled too terribly either – although it does at times feel that some of the musical remarks are a little reminiscent of Star Trek technobabble. All the terms make sense, I just sometimes got the feeling that McCaffrey didn’t know why they made sense, that maybe she was choosing from a list of things to say. In sum, the musical dimension of the book does not destroy it, but it feels to inspire to the degree it should. One major problem is that McCaffrey doesn’t have much clue yet about what sort of music she wants Menolly, Robinton and Domick to each be writing – beyond the fact that the former two write ‘accessible’ music that everybody can instantly understand and love, while the latter writes complicated music, for musicians. This fails to understand that accessibility in music, beyond the bare minimum, is largely cultural, not inherent – styles of music many would consider inaccessible and ‘artistic’ today were barn-stormingly popular in their day. Even Bach – the most obvious model for the Petiron/Domick school of composition – was a successful composer in his time, writing some very popular religious music for ordinary people, even if he was better known for his playing and improvisation. Indeed, this distinction between composers with tunes and composers who are just ‘good’ in some way that doesn’t involve melody just doesn’t begin to become relevant until the twentieth century, or very near to it. Take Bach – the most elevated, complicated, sophisticated “composer’s composer” you could name, but he still wrote tunes that people could hum in the street, and they still do so today (eg. “Wachet Auf”, “Air on a G String”, and several tunes from the Brandenburgs). What’s more, Bach’s more recondite music was largely overlooked in his own time. The distinction McCaffrey tries to draw between High and Low art is simply anachronistic, and feels ill-thought-out, as no further details of style are given to bolster it. Finally, it would be good to have just a few clues as to musical style. I know this is a fantasy world and not identical to any earth musical tradition, but let’s just have a few hints about what is important. Should we be imagining something baroque/classical/romantic? Prog rock? Ars Nova and Ars Subtilior? Renaissance? Carnatic?

The third dimension is the fantastic nature of the world. This is a post-apocalyptic science fiction fantasy in deep space on a planet ravaged by an interstellar fungus and protected by bioengineered teleporting dragons. Surprisingly little of that is visible here. I’m not sure if this is to its credit or demerit. Certainly, the book is deeply reliant on the rest of the series, not only for general background explanation and worldbuilding but also because the plots of the other books impinge into the events of this. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that all the things that actually happen here are things that happen onscreen in Dragonquest, and if you haven’t read that first, this book must seem very perplexing. As it happened, I DID read this first – but I’m rather atypical in terms of how much unexplained off-screen action I can accept. In any case, this raises the uncomfortable issue of how this trilogy is meant to interact with the main sequence again – as I commented when reviewing the first book. Meanwhile, I rather wished this book itself were a little more fantastic, as too much of it seemed worldly, even modern, in its feel and its details. Characters even eat cereal for breakfast, for instance. None of that is lethal to the book, but does feel like a wasted opportunity. The really alien elements – the dragons, and Thread – are glossed over here, presumably because they were already familiar after their introduction in earlier books.

The word, therefore, in the broadest sense – from the solar system right down to the walls of the hold – is not broken, but not particularly deep or glistening. That attraction being absent, the characters have to take up much of the slack, and here McCaffrey really is disappointing. Menolly is barely a character – partly because she is young, partly because she is shy, and partly because her thoughts and behaviours are often pushed around by events, making it hard to see much of the underlying personality. What we do see is of course likeable, if a little Mary Sue-ish. Well, VERY Mary Sue, actually, but it’s less of a problem than in the first book – here, the only thing that REALLY matters is her musical genius, and that’s the central conceit of the book. The rest can mostly be set to one side (although it’s still suspicious how good she is at everything musical, from copying sheetmusic to assembling drums – the story would be better if her talents were more strictly limited to composition).

Around her there are sixty or so characters, by the dramatis personae – but most are cameos. Of those who have more time, Sebell and Talmor are faceless male benefactors; Robinton is mostly free of personality beyond inspiring religious-level devotion in all who meet him, for no clear reason (although we do see some glimpses of the more complicated, troubled character McCaffrey seems to fall in love with later on – but the combination of Robinton’s own facade and Menolly’s limited viewpoint restrict our access to his soul to a few lines here and there); Silvina and Dunca play opposing sides of the matriarchal cliche; some girls play the brats and bullies, another plays the shy nice girl who befriends the heroine; Piemur is, in the words of the book itself, a “scamp”, who seems drawn from some Dickensian-lite portrait of a jolly urchin. Morshall, Jerint, Arnor and Oldive are one-note cliches. Groghe seems like a cliche, displays hints of something more, but doesn’t get enough screentime to follow through on the promise.

The one truly interesting character is Camo, the mentally disabled servant. Some may find the rather unsparing depiction of his mental inadequacy, and the off-hand use of terms like “dull-witted”, somewhat offensive. Others may simply find his antics painful. Personally, I found him a high-note: note because I didn’t find him annoying, since I did, but because I think the author manages to be very matter-of-fact about him. Central is the point that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for there to be a man with learning disabilities in this book. None at all. It provides a minor plot point, but that could have been handled just as well without him. Camo is not there to advance the plot, and he’s not there to laugh at either (he’s more painful than amusing), and McCaffrey doesn’t try to make the character less painful to watch in any way, and nor does she try to make him more entertaining. The fact that he’s “dull-witted” (clinically so, his “brains are addled”) is simply a fact about the character that is never explained, and never really even commented on. The terms people use to describe him aren’t meant as insults or mockery, and in that way I think the author does very well in presenting mentally disabled people in a low-tech setting in a way that might reflect how (in a more intelligent and caring environment, which the Harper Hall is) such people might be seen and dealt with, without having the book actually be ABOUT their disability.

See? Even the simplest and least promising books can still surprise!

Adrenaline: 1/5. I read through it fairly quickly, but more because I found it comfortable than because it gripped me. I think if it had been longer, I would have struggled with it; you’d have to really care about the characters and/or the setting in order to be engaged, I think – there are no thrills and cliffhangers here.

Emotion: 2/5. I did care a little about the characters, and there were a few touching moments.

Thought: 2/5. It’s simplistic and straightforward – but a little more cerebral than those adjectives might suggest, because it is mostly psychological. And because so much is off-screen that it can be hard to hold it all together.

Beauty: 3/5. It’s got music in it, and joy in music. The prose isn’t outstanding, but I think it does a good job of conveying the joy Menolly feels, and her gradual opening to the world.

Craft: 3/5. Don’t know what to say about it. If this is the sort of book you like, there’s nothing really wrong with it. If this is the sort of book you don’t like, there’s nothing to make it worth reading in spite of that.

Endearingness: 4/5. Empathetic main character, slow and easy pace, beautiful emotions, wondrous (to me!) setting – I know this isn’t a great book, but even so I find myself re-reading it repeatedly.

Originality: 3/5. It’s quite different, as sci-fantasy coming-of-age stories with dragons in them go.

Overall: 3/7. Bad, but with redeeming features.