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The Gods Themselves   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1973

In the early 1970s the range of science fiction available to me increased enormously when I joined the old Science Fiction Book Club. My personal library didn’t exactly explode in size – I was earning just enough money with odd jobs to keep ahead of the membership requirements – but the variety of science fiction I had the chance to read increased significantly. This led to a deeper appreciation for what science fiction could be, building on the eye-opening experience of reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. In fact, reading Dune was part of the motive behind joining the SFBC. I wanted a more durable copy of that book, having read the paperback to death, and although book club editions were hardcovers only by a technicality, it was an acceptable compromise.

The SFBC did more than broaden my reading range. One of my first acquisitions, along with Dune, was the two-in-one volume of Hugo Award winning short fiction edited by Isaac Asimov, one of my favorite authors then and now. The Hugo Winners was a feast of ideas and imagination, and Asimov’s science fiction convention anecdotes left me with a powerful desire to attend such an event, one day. I enjoyed those stories so much that any book offered up by the SFBC that had received the award was immediately ordered. I’d read a few Hugo award-winning novels before, but not until then had there been any context. Knowing what the Hugo Award was, and what it meant to science fiction fandom, made all the difference.

Not that I needed such incentive to pick up Asimov’s The Gods Themselves when it became available. I was quite familiar with the work of Asimov, by then; a big fan of both his fiction and nonfiction. The Early Asimov began my fascination with writing short fiction of my own. I’d read the iconic story “Nightfall,” a number of the robot stories, and all of the Foundation Trilogy before picking up The Gods Themselves. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and so I was pleasantly surprised to find it something of a departure from the work I knew. That impression came back to life when I recently reread the book a short time ago.

There are two points of view used by Asimov in The Gods Themselves, one human and the other that of truly alien beings in a parallel universe. This is by far the most notable departure. With the exception of some of his earliest short stories, I can’t recall anything else by Asimov in which the point of view is shared by a nonhuman being. (Some would argue his robot stories fit this bill, but I disagree. His robots are far too human to be considered alien life forms.) The plot involves predictably short-sighted motives of pride and profit on the human side, and a desperate bid for survival by the parallel universe aliens. The alien biology and the culture that evolved from it are drawn simply, clearly, and plausibly, creating a fascinating contrast to the more familiar human realm. Due to difference in the life spans of the aliens, and a difference in how time works in the parallel universe, there are more human characters to keep track of than alien, but the author handles this aspect easily enough. Overlapping sets of human characters hand off the tale across the years, finally ending that side of the plot on a lunar colony.

The colony Asimov imagines puzzled me. His speculations were always based on the real science of the time, and are generally well thought-out. This lunar colony, as described in the novel, doesn’t exactly inspire the reader to dream of a lunar life. Cramped living conditions, food of limited variety (mostly grown from algae and yeast) and visible dental health problems – seriously, you’re going to plant ten thousand or more human beings on the Moon and forget everything that was known in the ‘70s about hydroponics? And neglect to bring along a dentist or two? The lunar setting ended up, in some ways, feeling less plausible than the biology and sociology of the aliens.

Where this novel works best is the material detailing the parallel universe aliens, and their struggles to survive as their world dies around them. It is one of these beings, a misfit in a highly ordered society, who is the real hero of this story. She is moved to risk everything for the sake of strange beings in a universe parallel to her own, about which her people know almost nothing, and who are endangered by the very struggles of her people to preserve their own species. This basic conflict is the true heart of the tale, and is handled well.

Lunar distractions notwithstanding, I’ve always found The Gods Themselves to be one of Asimov’s best novels. In terms of style it’s a bit of old school sci-fi persisting well into the time of the so-called “New Wave,” and yet held its own in terms of innovation. Well enough, at least, to earn its author the Hugo Award in 1973.

It was several years after reading both the Hugo Winners and The Gods Themselves before I made it to a science fiction convention. It was the 1978 WorldCon, otherwise known as IguanaCon II, held in Phoenix, Arizona. I watched Frederik Pohl received the Hugo Award for his novel Gateway at that convention. I grabbed a copy in the vendor’s hall before the weekend was out and read it before the convention was a week behind me. But I have a few novels between that one and The Gods Themselves yet to reread for this series of essays.

The Process, Part Five: Devils In Those Details   Leave a comment

Part One: The Stuff Of Which Daydreams Are Made

Part Two: Blazing A Trail

Part Three: The Lay of the Land

Part Four: What a Bunch of Characters

 

A story requires a plot and characters – the trail you cut to the ending and the traveling companions who make the journey with you. But there’s more to it than just a new line drawn on the map of your imagination. You saw things along the way, things worth pointing out to those who will follow after you. After all, when you cleared the path for others to follow, you were passing through a world. It’s a world of your imagination, but one that must come to life in the imaginations of others if the work is to have any meaning in the end. So, as you cut the trail that charts the plot of your story, and grow acquainted with the people you push into those situations that comprise the plot, you need to look around at the world, the setting. You need to see the forest and the trees – among many other things. This part of storytelling is, appropriately enough, called world building.

There’s a lot of work involved in world building, an understatement if ever there was one. This is true whether the setting for the story is as narrow in scope as a single room, or as broad as all of time and space. Whatever the scale, I’ve found that the single biggest challenge involved with the concept of world building is knowing when to quit. If you have any imagination at all, and have paid attention to the real world, you know that any level of perceived detail rests upon a more fine-grained reality. A range of tree-covered mountains is composed of rock and trees. Look closer and the trees have leaves, and among those leaves are birds that fly from branch to branch gleaning insects to eat. The stone of mountain is layered, and in each layer there are flecks of various colored minerals. You could look ever closer, down to the subatomic realm – if you wanted to be ridiculous about it. (Although, if the story demands it, then it isn’t really ridiculous.) Whatever level of detail you choose, that’s a lot of stuff to keep track of. (Spreadsheets for the win! Trust me on this.) And there’s the proverbial rub. How fine-grained do you need to be for the story you want to tell? And how do you make that level of detail blend in as a part of the story, rendering it an integral part of the whole, and neither a mere backdrop nor a distraction.

If you’re too sparing of detail, the world of the story may amount to little more than the painting at the back of a stage. I used to have that problem, years ago. A fellow writer in a fiction writing group I once belonged to summed it up by comparing my work to watching a black-and-white copy of The Wizard of Oz. She kept waiting for the color portion to unfold, but it never did. I spent years trying to overcome that defect, and seriously over-compensated. I went as fine-grained as I could, the sort of writing that draws the dreaded complaint of “info dump,” in which the story pretty much stops dead while the author paints a high-definition picture of the scene (or of a character). The first version of The Luck of Han’anga would have been an example of serial info dumps, but for the honesty of beta readers.

Frankly, I think the term info dump is sometimes used too often and freely by readers who are actually just covering up for their short attention spans. But the “info dump” is a real thing, and can turn a ripping tale of swashbuckling adventure into a fictional narrative history. Finding the balance between too much and too little exposition is the real trick, and one I find cannot be addressed effectively the first time through a new story. What I call cutting the trail to the story’s end is otherwise known as discovery writing – a very apt phrase indeed – and it isn’t until I know the length of that trail that I can turn back and see that the trail I’ve discovered is lacking in breadth.

I start from the beginning and work through the story again, trying my best to see with my mind’s eye this “reality” inhabited by the story and its characters. What are the colors, the sound, the scents? Everything from clothing styles to the height and breadth of mountains, the temperature of the breeze and the colors of stars – it’s all relevant. Or can be. The trick is to make sure it really is relevant. Does it serve the needs of the story in a way that aids in moving it forward? Another way to think of this is to ask, does the reader need to know these things for the story to come alive and make sense? (There’s a related question: does the reader need to know this now? Timing is everything.) If the answer is “yes,” I need to find a way for the reader to experience, rather than merely receive the information. Sometimes it can be woven into events as they unfold, and at others it can be imparted through conversation between characters, or seen through their eyes and reflected in their reactions. Inevitable, I find a spot where I just need to paint a picture. I usually employ a combination of these techniques before all is said and done, meaning I’ve concluded a workable draft of the story.

By this point in the process of writing a story, be it long or short, I’ve had the daydream that set it all in motion, and made the trip necessary. I’ve found my way through a landscape of possibilities, from trailhead to destination. I’ve met and worked with (and sometimes worked over) the characters of the tale. And I’ve built what I hope is a plausible reality in which the story can unfold. It’s an organic process, with all of these aspects co-evolving as I go. Some of the world building happens during the discovery writing, and character development is altered by the evolution of the world I build during subsequent passes through the material. These aspects can be identified separately, but they very rarely (for me) operate truly independently of each other.

I’ve also been through the story at least two times, sometimes three – or more. It’s becoming difficult to see the forest for the trees.  In a way, I’m too familiar with it all. It’s time for me to step back and seek some feedback. Time for someone else to follow the trail and tell me what they see.

Down To The River   Leave a comment

Thoughts on To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1972

Science fiction is often said to be defined by the phrase “what if?” The genre is speculative by its nature, and to my mind, that’s its greatest strength, the reason it thrives to this day. The human imagination being the boundless thing it is, as long as we ask questions, as long as we speculate on what was and what might yet be, science fiction will have a place and a role to play. That’s as true now as it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when authors started reaching past bubble helmets and Flash Gordon to explore the possibilities of being human using the question “What if?”

Philip Jose Farmer’s novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go asks a big one. What if, in the future, someone found they had the capacity to restore to life every human being who had ever lived and died, over the entire course of history?

To Your Scattered Bodies Go is seen through the eyes of Sir Richard Francis Burton, starting with his death, and then his resurrection in the Riverworld, surrounded by billions of confused and terrified people from all the times of history. The world into which he has awakened is a strip of landscape bounded by impassible mountains and centered on an endless-seeming river. The story that unfolds along the banks of the Riverworld (another splendid example of a sci-fi “big, dumb object” or BDO), as these hordes of the recently revived cope with their sudden resurrection, is not flattering to the human species. People in general react badly, and in many cases violently, to the situation. No one has any idea why it’s all happening. The mysterious agency behind the event has taken pains (more or less) to provide food and supplies, but remains hidden, along with its motives. That these supplies include alcohol and narcotics doesn’t help the situation. Imagine millions of frightened people, with everything they’ve ever believed proven false and sure they have nothing to lose, with their inhibitions lowered or eliminated. It isn’t a pretty scene.

And centered in this is Burton, who I found to be one of the least sympathetic characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction of any genre. I don’t know much about the actual historical character, but in this novel he is presented as self-absorbed, obsessive, and at times painfully lacking in empathy.  And as things go, Burton is one of the “good guys.” As years pass, his obsession with finding the source of the river, and an answer to the big question of why this is all happening, grows. Along the way, he and his allies uncover parts of the plot when they encounter agents of the race of beings responsible for the mass resurrection. From the hints and clues teased out in these scenes, the possible motives of the beings who have revived humanity and dumped it out into the Riverworld are glimpsed – and frankly, don’t make a great deal of sense. This was likely deliberate on the part of the author – keep in mind as you read this book, that it is the beginning of a series, and not everything is made clear in the end. However, for my tastes, the story arc of this first book needed to end less abruptly – or arbitrarily – to make this acceptable.

I first read To Your Scattered Bodies Go back in the late ‘70s. At that time, I was writing fiction in earnest for the first time, and seeking a broader knowledge of my favorite genre. I gathered and read award-winning material, using the fact of awards as a filter of sorts. By the time I picked up this one as part of that earlier endeavor, I’d read all but three of the novels I’ve reviewed for this series of essays. And this one stands out from that time as the first dud. (This time around, Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer got the first mild-mannered thumbs down.) It’s well-written, with some interesting characters drawn from real history. The concept is simply fantastic – no other way to put it. In the realm of “big, dumb objects,” only Niven’s amazing Ringworld beats it.

And yet, reading this short novel became, for me, a bit of a chore. First time around, it just left me with a neutral opinion. It won an award, I’d read it, and it became a data point of sorts. This time around I found myself more critical of the book. Burton’s suicidal obsession with exposing the agency behind it all, while understandable, didn’t really carry the story for me on its own. He passes through a world of people who are trying to cope, without Burton himself taking more than a passing glance at what was fast becoming a very complicated world. And there’s a constant element of despair as people try to pull together and make something out of the mess, only to fail as the resurrected villains of history attempt (with appalling rates of success) to reassert themselves. This unrelieved chaos – and never mind that the author has probably hit the nail on the head for the most part – wore me out. Surely someone, somewhere, built something that worked? But through all Burton’s explorations, we see only violent territorialism, with an emphasis on the strange connection Burton makes (unwillingly) with the diseased mind of Hermann Göring. I got what the author was saying, but found it overstated. At times, the word “cynical” came to mind as I read the book. I was left with the distinct impression that the author didn’t have a high opinion of humankind.

I have no problem understanding how this book garnered enough votes to take top honors in 1972. It’s a hell of a tale, on the face of it. That it doesn’t currently suit my tastes tells you only what I thought of the story, and does not speak to its quality. The story is well-told in terms of prose and technique, and certainly had for me enough engaging elements to keep me reading. But in that ultimate test of how the first book in a series succeeds or fails for a given reader, I feel no inclination to carry on. One trip down to the river, for this reader, was quite enough.

Posted December 14, 2016 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

It Works That Way, Sometimes   Leave a comment

A while back, in “The Process, Part One”, I very briefly discussed matters to do with imagination and where story ideas come from. What follows illustrates one way the tales I tell can get started. It isn’t always a daydream that points the way to the destination. On this particular occasion – and it has happened before – I had to sleep on it.

I’m currently under treatment for hypertension, and one of the medications I take has, as one of its few side effects, the tendency on my part to have “lucid” dreams. And they really are lucid. More than once I’ve not so much woken from such a dream as segued from the dreamtime into the dimly lit real world of the bedroom, early in the morning. Balanced between the two I am, for just a moment, convinced of the reality of both. All too often this segue comes as a relief, as the realization comes that it really was just a dream, and I don’t need to come up with a resolution for whatever awkward situation the dreamtime concocted for me that night. And these dreams are, far more often than not, weird. Some are seriously weird and even disturbing.

Sometimes they’re something more, posing puzzles that linger into the waking world, puzzles that I find myself thinking through whether it makes much sense to do so or not. Like the one last night, during which I was in the midst of an alien invasion. It was sort of a cross between the films Independence Day and Skyline. Strange machines in the sky, people in a panic, buildings collapsing under an avalanche of inexplicable lighting effects – you know, the standard Hollywood stuff.

Weird, yes, but after the fact, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised that the dream took the form it did, considering how much of my time is taken up by reading and writing fantastical fiction. And I’ve enjoyed my share of alien invasion fare over the years. There was an oppressive quality to the dream and the waking-world residue that reminded me of the film Skyline, a movie I actually dislike because of its realistic hopelessness. Yes, faced with such a situation, it is unlikely humanity would prevail, but who wants that for entertainment? The aliens would surely have their way with us. All of which begs the question of why they’d want to have their way with us. Science fiction writers have, since the days of H.G. Wells, dreamt up a variety of motivations, the majority of which are most likely to be nonsense. Resources? Living space? Women? Please…

That’s the puzzle that lingered after the nightmare anxieties faded. It’s not a new question; I’ve heard and seen numerous readers and writers of science fiction raise it in the past. For some reason, this morning it was my time to tackle it, all because a weird dream triggered that train of thought. So – a species capable of traveling through the vastness between the stars would surely be able to tap the raw materials of the universe as needed. Why would they need to come here and make a fuss? There would have to be something about this Earth of ours they desired, something that didn’t accrete routinely from the interstellar dust from which stars and worlds are formed. Skyline was actually on the right track, in that regard, with the aliens after something you’d only find on a living world like Earth. (The way they employed their plot device struck me as being as biologically absurd as aliens wanting human women, but still…) Yes, it would have to be something very rare, if not unique.

There would also need to be a compelling reason to acquire that “something.”

And just like that, I had an answer. A thing we have here that might provide a motivation for aliens to come here, and a reason for them to want what we have, although perhaps not with hostile intent. In fact, there almost certainly wouldn’t be any hostilities. And with that answer, that idea, I found myself making note of a new place to go, and a trail in need of cutting to the destination that is a story’s climax, to reuse that metaphor I apply so often when I write about story telling.

I got up, went into the space I call an office, and jotted down some notes. Not sure when I’ll get to this one – it has a few competitors for my writing time – but the idea has been safely recorded, the trailhead marked for future exploration, and it will someday become either a long short story, or a novella. Because now that I’ve glimpsed this new story, I’ve got to write it. For me, there’s really no choice about it.

Crazy, perhaps, that it came about as it did. And yet, it just works that way, sometimes.

A Return to Known Space   Leave a comment

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1971

World-building is a term used to describe what science fiction and fantasy authors do to create the setting for the story being told. Any work of fiction requires some degree of world-building, of course, though in a murder mystery or a work of historical fiction this can be accomplished by describing the real world. In science fiction and fantasy, the world of the story may have few connections with the real world, and quite likely would have no connection to it at all. We often build worlds “from scratch,” so to speak. The “world” built for the story sometimes provides little more than a backdrop, but more often than not it becomes a powerful tool for moving the plot forward. It may even be the central element of the plot to begin with. To say that this is the case in Larry Niven’s Hugo Award-winning novel Ringworld would be an understatement.

Ringworld is a classic example – perhaps the best-known example – of world-building that results in the so-called Big Dumb Object (BDO). The first use of the phrase is usually attributed to British writer Roz Kaveney, according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It was apparently intended as a tongue-in-cheek expression, but science fiction is a genre not afraid of playfully making fun of itself, so the phrase is now used on a regular basis. The idea is that you have a plot element, and often it’s the plot element, take the form of something mind-bogglingly huge and complex. The BDO is frequently (though not exclusively) of a nonhuman origin, and the humans who discover it generally experience a serious “holy crap!” moment when they do so. Then they begin to investigate, and therein lies the tale. The BDO can be done to great effect, as seen in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and John Varley’s Titan. And of course, there’s the ever popular “That’s no moon!” – the Death Star of the Star Wars Trilogy. Science fiction has an impressive collection of BDOs, but few – the river world in Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go comes to mind – can compete with the Ringworld for sheer scale.

The artificial world Niven builds for this novel is beyond the range of the superlatives of the English language. It’s an astronomically large band big enough to wrap around its star at about the distance that Earth orbits the sun. Its foundation is an impervious substance that defies analysis by the story’s heroes. This ring structure is broad enough that oceans larger and deeper than anything on Earth can be found within, and standing in the middle of it, you can’t see all the way to either side. Big Dumb Object, indeed, although I’d debate the “dumb” part in this case, tongue-in-cheek or not.

The Ringworld is one of the grandest examples of world-building you can find in science fiction, and Niven puts it to marvelous use in the tale of the first investigation performed on the object. He drops a curious cast of characters in the now decrepit Ringworld – the builders’ civilization having collapsed thousands of years ago. Two are human, a man who has lived two centuries and “seen it all,” and a young woman born lucky, which is a story of its own.  With them travel two aliens, one of the warlike Kzin, and a cowardly two-headed Puppeteer who happens to be the leader of their expedition, which is soon stranded on the Ringworld. To find a way off, they must cross to one of the edges, a journey that involves crossing a distance that would encompass all the continents on Earth. Along the way many things are revealed, of the Ringworld itself and the universe of which it is a part, and of the characters and their respective species.

For fans of Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories, the Ringworld adventure, and its sequels, form a sort of hub. So much of this tale touches on other works of Niven from that universe that you have the pleasant feeling of things tied together into a network of storytelling. And yet, for someone who stumbles onto Ringworld without prior Known Space experience, the novel stands on its own quite well.

I’ve reacted to previously read Hugo Award novels a number of different ways since I started this project. There have been numerous revelations of ideas missed, and disappointments that tales haven’t withstood the test of time. This rereading of an old favorite has started an episode of rediscovery. Ringworld brought me back to a sci-fi universe that I enjoyed immensely once upon a time, and a long time ago at that. So many comments and asides from the characters invoked half-remembered tales in the same universe that I find myself pulling old paperbacks off shelves, and hunting down copies of Ringworld sequels that I never got around to reading when they were new. Aside from the Hugo award winners for these reviews, I don’t reread fiction very often. There’s so much new (and new to me) to read! But I’m going to make an exception here, and revisit in a big way one of the first multi-book sci-fi universes to ever grab my attention.

The Process, Part Four: What a Bunch of Characters!   1 comment

Previous Installments:

Part One: The Stuff Of Which Daydreams Are Made

Part Two: Blazing A Trail

Part Three: The Lay of the Land

It’s a common joke, among writers at least, that part of the reason we do what we do is that we somehow never outgrew having imaginary friends. We don’t, of course (maybe I should say “usually”) call the imaginary people inhabiting the stories we tell “friends,” but we do get to know them pretty well. How they come into being, and sometimes surprise us, is a less than straightforward process, one that varies from author to author. For me, the characters often become companions of sorts along the trail I follow, on the journey of discovery that results in the story I’m trying to tell and in which they have their entire existence.

There’s always a character, sometimes two or three, right there when I start cutting the trail. The character (or characters) appearing on the first page usually figured prominently in whatever bit of daydream sparked the story idea in the first place. Nameless, sometimes genderless at the very beginning, these beings have an experience in my imagination and a story starts to unfold. Something has happened to them that must be explained, with suitable embellishments. That first bit of daydreaming usually evolves rapidly, if it takes on a life of its own at all. (Not all of them do so.) By the time I’ve thought it through far enough to establish the trailhead, these vaguely realized characters have usually acquired names and genders, as well as a general appearance – height, weight, skin and hair color, and so forth. In a matter of a few pages, personalities begin to emerge, as I experiment with how to show them as individuals, usually through their interactions with each other.

I’m in control of this, as I am of all other aspects of the process of writing fiction. I don’t, however, sit down and sketch out a dossier for each character; it’s a more organic process than that. The background that I invent to explain each personality evolves with the story, being shaped by it and, to a degree, shaping it as I extend the trail ever further. Along the way I often find myself describing things or creating dialog that wasn’t part of the plan a few hours or moments ago. It’s as if the characters, having evolved to a certain point, develop some sort of emergent property, a degree of self-will – hence the jokes about characters “speaking” to us, or taking charge. They don’t, really, in my case; the effect is the result of a certain logic involving what I’ve already done to create a character, which then dictates how they should respond in a particular situation, which in turn can cause me to reshape the story for a better fit. Being an organic, evolutionary process that isn’t always operating on a completely conscious level, the results often surprise me. I’ll add elements to characters, put words into their mouths, thoughts in their heads, all of it on the fly, and then set them into situations that call for a reaction. How would this person react to such circumstances? What would make sense, at that point in the story? And – more challenging still – does it still make sense in the context of how they started out back at the trailhead? The answers to these questions can lead to significant revisions, as changes propagate forward and backward through the story, suggesting more depth to the characters and changing the direction of the trail I’m blazing.

Think of it as a form of co-evolution. As characters develop ever stronger and clearer personalities, possibilities suggest themselves. All too often these possibilities, which occur to me late in the first draft, would be best applied nearer the beginning. The story, as a result, evolves as a whole, the characters along with it. Characters can (and should!) change over the course of a story, as a part of the story itself. But they require a degree of consistency, as well. As companions along that trail to story’s end, this can make them seem a touch psychotic at times, because their existence is equally valid at both ends of the first draft, even when the ends don’t match. And it has to match. I take who they are when I’m done and tweak them at the beginning to make sure the whole thing makes sense. If these imaginary friends of mine were in any way real, they’d experience moments of deep confusion, when I clean up the trail we’ve cut together. They might not recognize themselves from one draft to the next.

An imaginary friend with an identity crisis. That could only happen to a writer!

A Deeper Appreciation   Leave a comment

Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin

Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1970

Science fiction has always been a genre that embodies change. A genre built on the question “What if?” could hardly be expected to remain static, after all. By the time I was a teenager something called The New Wave had already swept over and through the sci-fi landscape, altering it forever. I’d already traveled through some of that altered landscape, having read Frank Herbert’s Dune, among other books. If I noticed that the genre was changing, however, I have no recollection of it. Frankly, my adolescent frame of reference didn’t give me the perspective I would have needed to notice the transition. My reading was too random – old works and books more recently published all jumbled together. I just knew that the more sci-fi I read, the better I liked it – somewhat to the distress of my parents and my home town librarian. Looking back and considering the times during which I grew up, I can understand that discomfort to a certain degree. Some of the fiction I devoured back then, especially by the New Wave authors, asked “What if?” questions that most of the people around me would rather not see asked, much less answered. Questions regarding human sexuality provide an example that looms large in my memory (I was a teenager, after all), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness serves as a case in point.

I was coming up on being finished with high school, and looking forward to having it a thing of the past, when I first read anything at all by Ursula K. LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness was my introduction to her work, and it was one of those instances in which one book made me a fan of the author while altering my impression of what science fiction was – or could be – all at the same time. It was an experience much like my first reading of Dune. This book was different. It made a very deep impression on me at the ripe old age of 18 years, and I was just old enough to appreciate some of the things the author was saying. It felt that way at the time, at least. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness at the somewhat riper old age of 60, I have to admit that more went past me, back then, than into me.

This isn’t an indictment, of course. After all, I had the frame of reference of an 18-year-old from a small Illinois town. I was also something of a loner and misfit, into the bargain. Having made very few (mutual) emotional attachments outside my own family, the very human interactions of the characters that populate The Left Hand of Darkness involved levels of relationship that were pretty much outside my experience. For instance, it did not register on me until this rereading that the relationship between Estraven and the Ekumen envoy Genli Ai could be considered a love story. Not a conventional romance, but the story of a deep, complicated, confusing, and powerful bond; a love that grows between two intelligent people who never quite seem to recognize how they feel. And yet, they somehow come to accept each other’s humanity, in the face of their profound physical and cultural differences.

In a nutshell, The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of a man sent to be an ambassador of sorts from a starfaring civilization to a planet just emerging from its rendition of the Industrial Revolution. All human worlds are the result of colonization by an earlier, lost civilization, and the envoy of the story is part of the slow process of bringing all these worlds back into contact with each other. The world called Gethen (a.k.a. Winter – so named for its Ice Age conditions) is populated by a race of humans who are a form of hermaphrodite. Gethens are, most of the time, androgynous. Once a month they become either male or female. Which gender develops is influenced by situations and relationships, but no one Gethen tends to become either male or female with any consistency. This civilization is divided into a pair of competing nations, one a sort of constitutional monarchy, the other bearing a strong resemblance to the collective society the old Soviet Union thought it was. (The people in the story don’t get it right either.) How the envoy navigates through the cultures that have evolved under the influence of the planet’s conditions and the reproductive biology of the natives makes up the plot. Along the way, the story examines the very nature of gender perception and relationships between genders in a way that is remarkably timely, considering what we see in the headlines these days.

There’s a depth and meaning to this story that I simply could not have understood when I read the book in 1974. (And I can’t hope to do it justice in one essay. That such a slim volume could have such depth is a tribute to its author.) The memories I could call up from that earlier reading centered on the adventure of Estraven and Genly Ai crossing the great glacier that dominates the landscape. What the book said about how we see gender in other human beings, and how that perception shapes us as individuals and members of a culture, went right past me. This time around my understanding of, and appreciation for, what the author had to say was very different. I think that this time, I get it. But maybe I’ll have to read it again after another twenty or thirty years of experience, just to be sure.

 

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