Tag Archives: Ursula K. Le Guin

The word for “good reading” is “Le Guin”

worldforestLe Guin’s Hainish Cycle has been a source of pleasurable reading for some time now; but alas, I’m quickly running out of new (new to me) Hainish books to read. After finishing The Word for World Is Forest, the only remaining Hainish material I have yet to read (as far as I know) is the story collection Four Ways to Forgiveness. As usual for Le Guin, Word for World (to shorten just a bit), is a thoughtful story about different permutations of human society as it evolves on various worlds, and about the tragedies that can result when different branches of the human family (re-)encounter each other. It also has something to say about war and violence, and says it with a heavy dose of satire, which makes this book a little different from the other Hainish novels. Le Guin originally wrote this as a novella which appeared in Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions, and then later expanded it into a novel (although still a very short one). As far as I can tell, this is the later version I’ve read.

The basic theme of the story is that of exploiters and the exploited — the powerful, greedy, violent invaders versus the primitive, innocent, peaceful natives. Terrans have come to the planet Athshe, coveting its natural resources and seeing it as ripe for colonization. A small population of a few thousand, including a heavy military component, have set up a few initial settlements, largely devoted to harvesting Athshe’s lush forests for their timber, which is shipped back to Earth as a “necessary luxury.” To help in this endeavor, the Terrans have enslaved the native Athsheans as a captive work force — “voluntary labor” in the Terrans’ terminology. These Terrans really have a way with words, don’t they?

The Athsheans, another branch of humanity descended from Hainish colonizers, are an easy target for such abuse. Small in stature and non-aggressive by nature, they don’t resist being put to work and kept in pens…. at least at first. After all, they are human, cousins to their Terran overlords, and so the potential for violence exists somewhere within them. And that is a central point of the book: that violence may be minimized, controlled, overcome, even forgotten…. but it is never forgotten completely, and can be re-learned with astonishing speed. When one individual Athshean is pushed over the edge into violent behavior, the peculiar nature of Atshean psychology causes his people to see him as a kind of prophet or god, and consequently the violence spreads throughout the entire society, unleashing a terrible force of destruction on the Terran outsiders.

As I said, the satire is laid on pretty thick. Some parts of this remind me strongly of the various Robert Sheckley stories that deal with the same theme of a smug, arrogant humanity stepping on alien natives. I also can’t help but think of Dr. Strangeglove and its darkly hilarious portrayal of the military mind. Le Guin’s Davidson character could have come right out of that movie, with lines like this:

“When I say Earth, Kees, I mean people. Men. You worry about deer and trees and fibreweed, fine, that’s your thing. But I like to see things in perspective, from the top down, and the top, so far, is humans. We’re here, now; and so this world’s going to go our way. Like it or not, it’s a fact you have to face; it happens to be the way things are.”

And this:

[...] you’ve got to play on the winning side or else you lose. And it’s Man that wins, every time. The old Conquistador.

Also quite noticeable in the novel are references to the Vietnam War, during which the story was written. The jungle imagery, the Terran’s use of what is effectively napalm, My Lai-style massacres, an enemy that is physically smaller and uses underground living spaces, all of this brings Vietnam to the reader’s mind. At one point Davidson makes a comment about how it doesn’t matter if they’re vastly outnumbered, all it takes is superior firepower and the will to win. He, like the Americans in southeast Asia, eventually has to face the fact that he’s wrong about that.

This book was interesting for a few other reasons. One was that it takes place during the time when the League of All Worlds was first being formed. As the Terrans communicate with Earth via the recently discovered ansible, we can see the maturing effects on Earth as it steps forth to join a larger community. Incidentally, the arrival of the ansible also reveals the paranoia that can result from an over-acute sense of military suspicion; some of the Terrans almost bring themselves to believe the ansible is a Hainish trick, a sophisticated computer generating answers on the spot, rather than being an interstellar communications device. Also interesting was the Athsheans’ dreaming ability, and their division of life into “dream-time” and “world-time” (I’m thinking of Australian aborigines for some reason).

This was a good book. But then, I already said it was written by Le Guin, so I suppose I’m being redundant, aren’t I?

Going to camp, thinking deep thoughts, and reading some Disch

I usually don’t pay much attention to those quotes on the covers of books; you know the ones, the dripping-with-honey praise from other authors for the particular book in question. I mean, all books have those, and it seems easy enough to find someone to praise just about anything. In this case, though, I admit I was struck by the quotes on this Bantam paperback edition of Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration. First, Samuel Delany calls it “one of the three best speculative novels of the decade” — high praise indeed from someone widely considered one of sf’s true intellectuals. And Ursula Le Guin says it’s “brilliant… a work of imagination controlled by real moral responsibility…. a work of art.” Since Le Guin is one of my favorite authors, naturally her opinion is worth listening to. So I started this novel thinking there had to be something to it; and even if I’m not sure I can appreciate it as much as Delany and Le Guin do, I must say it’s well worth reading.

In one sense this is an anti-war novel. It takes place in a near future when the U.S. is involved in a drawn-out, senseless war which may or may not be a continuation of Vietnam, but in any case is modeled on and strongly invokes that war (not surprising as the novel is from that period, published in 1972). This future America is led by President McNamara (as in, presumably, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during Vietnam). The novel’s main character is a poet who is in prison as a conscientious objector, or “conchie.” Soon he is yanked out of one prison and put into another of a very different kind, a secret facility known as Camp Archimedes.

And this is where one of the book’s other major themes comes into play, one of the other ugly things governments engage in besides self-serving wars: the quest for power through any means, even by experimenting on their own citizens. Camp Archimedes is a military facility running biological experiments on prisoners. Specifically, these experiments involve Palladine, a strain of bacteria related to the one that causes syphilis. Palladine’s effects are an extreme extrapolation on the old idea that many luminaries of the past had syphilis and that a heightened intellect was one of its effects. Palladine produces outright geniuses, but at a steep cost: while their minds soar at a superhuman level, their bodies are ravaged, leading to death in around nine months. Our poet is brought in, against his will, to keep a journal documenting the subjects’ mental accomplishments; only later does he learn that he, too, has been infected.

The sad thing is that there’s not much about this that’s really fictional. The U.S. government, in the form of the military, the CIA, or various other agencies, has a long history of experiments on its own people, experiments of many kinds (biological, radiological, chemical, pharmaceutical), with various levels of consent of the subjects — meaning, in the worst cases, no consent at all. I’m assuming Disch drew heavily for this novel from the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which the U.S. Public Health Service allowed several hundred illiterate black sharecroppers infected with the disease to go untreated, and unaware of what disease they had, for many years so the effects could be studied. This atrocity was made public in 1972, around the same time Disch was writing this book. And one of the book’s other major characters, a sort of spokesman for the infected, is a black man, possibly a nod to the Tuskegee victims.

But it’s not only governments that are indicted here. Some of the criticism also rubs off on scientists and doctors who go along with these unethical practices. Then, also, some of the Palladine subjects volunteer to be exposed to it, and that’s another of the book’s themes: the Faustian bargains people are willing to make in order to acquire something they desire, in this case knowledge, or insight, or enlightenment.

This is an extremely dark novel. I mean, you kinda get that idea from passages like this one:

“And isn’t everybody, after all?”
“A prisoner? I often get that feeling — yes.”
“No, I meant marked for slaughter. The difference is I’ve had the bad luck to sneak a look at the execution orders, while most people walk off to the ovens thinking they’re going to take a shower.” He laughed harshly [....] “It isn’t just Germany,” he said. “And it isn’t just Camp Archimedes. It’s the whole universe. The whole god-damned universe is a fucking concentration camp.”

This bitterly bleak outlook on life is evident throughout the book. It can even be seen in Palladine’s nine-month duration; it can’t be a coincidence that it equals the human gestation period. Disch seems to be equating life with death. We’re headed for the grave from the moment we’re born. Shit happens. Life’s a bitch, then you die.

This is a deep book with a lot to say. The only problem I had was that a lot of what it had to say went right over my head. The sheer density of literary, artistic, and theological references is a bit much to handle; about half the time, at least, I had no idea what they were even about. I’m not sure if it’s fair of me to classify this as a criticism. More likely, Disch was an utterly brilliant writer, and any failure to grasp the full depth of the novel is probably my own damn fault. Still, this did detract from my enjoyment somewhat. Maybe the book is just a bit too intelligent for it’s own good… maybe.

Speaking of intelligence, I think the cover art on this edition is the most perfect representation of a book’s contents I’ve ever seen. Rodin’s The Thinker with barbed wire through the head — brilliant!

Telling it like it is, Le Guin style

The Telling (2005) is yet another installment in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, and another example of her brand of soft, social, anthropological science fiction. It’s not her best work, and not her worst, but rather in the middle; comfortably average Le Guin, certainly a decent read.

Sutty, an Ekumen Observer, is sent to Aka, a planet ruled by the Corporate State, a materialistic, modern, progress-driven government which has outlawed the “old ways” — old literature, old traditions, and particularly the Telling, an ancient social phenomenon that is not quite a religion, not quite a philosophy, but more like a “system for living” and a way to remember the past. Anything not serving the modern fixation on progress, science, economic expansion, and the “March to the Stars” was made illegal and punishable. And not only did the Corporation outlaw these things, it used force to rid the world of them — blew up the old libraries, put violators in “rehabilitation” work camps, etc.

So is this a cautionary tale about materialistic, secular governments that use heavy-handed tactics and censorship? Not so fast….

It turns out Sutty comes from an Earth which, during much of her lifetime, had pretty much the opposite problem: it was ruled by a fanatical religious group, the Unists, which was anti-progress, anti-science, and against anything that didn’t fit in with their traditionalist religious viewpoint. And like the Akans, the Unists were all too willing to use violence, punishment, and censorship in futherance of their goals.

So what’s the point of all this? Le Guin dishes out plenty of criticism of both the Akan Corporate State (for their blind pursuit of progress at the expense of their heritage) and the Terran Unists (for doing pretty much the opposite). I think what Le Guin is saying is that almost any kind of belief system (be it religious, political, or whatever), if in a position to gather power, can be used to oppress others in order to advance itself as the best or only allowable choice. At one point she speaks of it in terms of balance:

From an active homeostatic balance they had turned it to an active forward-thrusting imbalance.

Both Aka and Earth fall into this imbalance, with one particular belief pushing itself forward to the exclusion of all others and becoming the basis for a totalitarian regime. But as Le Guin reminds us, just because a belief is strongly or widely held, that doesn’t mean it’s the right belief, and beliefs, once examined, often turn out to be flawed or not as well-supported as we think. My favorite line of the whole book was:

But belief is the wound that knowledge heals….