In Other Worlds: SF and the Human ImaginationIn Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a neat little collection of Margaret Atwood’s history in the field of science fiction. It’s split into three parts:

1) Her thoughts on science (speculative?) fiction and the persistent problem of defining the genre; thoughts on how science fiction is a continuation of much older, mythological sorts of fiction; commentaries on her early life in rural Canada, what made her move into the field and inspired her to write the novels that marked her career.

2) Reviews, articles and talks she’s written and given over the years on seminal works and writers such as The Island of Dr Moreau and H. G. Wells, Nineteen Eighty-four, Animal Farm and George Orwell, Brave New World and Aldous Huxley, She and H. Rider Haggard, The Birthday of the World and Ursula K. Le Guin (her name is seriously pronounced “gwin”?) and others.

3) A selection of her own short stories, some of which I remembered from reading Bones and Murder some weeks ago.

Listening to this wise old lady speak of her long life and pose difficult questions about SF in general was very pleasing for the mind. I also found it quite revealing, and I’m hardly versed in her work. If you are more familiar with it than I, you know what to do.

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Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the WayTao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way by Lao Tzu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an edition of the Tao Te Ching adapted by Ursula K. Le Guin.

I was tempted to end my review here and now so as not to break the perfection of the above sentence. It’s an edition made with affection, seriousness and awareness of the changing permanence that has led us people of the 21st century looking for guidance and wisdom in books set in the distant future (Le Guin’s novels) and in the distant past (this book).

Tao Te Ching adapted by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s as good as it sounds and then some: in my mind the definitive version of this widely-translated ancient book of wisdom for the contemporary person.

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Review: Rocannon’s World

Rocannon's World (Hainish Cycle #1)Rocannon’s World by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Even from this early sample of Le Guin’s writing you can tell she’s not just another science fiction writer, authors of what I suppose my father had in mind when he always kept telling me to avoid reading this kind of literature: the jobs of her characters (Rocannon is an ethnologist, similar to the protagonist of The Word for World is Forest whose field is anthropology), their dispositions towards their world, what is uttered and what is done in her stories are just one-of-a-kind.

Precisely because this is one of her earlier works, and she hadn’t yet refined this type of sci-fi storytelling many would come to love, the plot of Rocannon’s World wasn’t anything spectacular. However, if I said that I didn’t enjoy travelling through this world, complete with different day-night cycles, different cultures and different forms of life, a journey to a world I wouldn’t have made otherwise and one that made me richer, even by a little bit, I would be lying. Even what would seem like a small part of what makes this book and other books by Le Guin so engrossing, like observing the discovery of a new continent on an otherwise insignificant planet, can feel mystical to me. It makes me want to go out and become myself a surveyor and ethnographer of planets whose description is only a paragraph long in the respective Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The ending I found particularly impressive and it stuck with me, even right now when I can’t look it up from the book itself. It managed to convey so much of the ambitions of Rocannon and the tragedy, paradox and incompatibility of the big picture vs. everyday life in a single line, that I was wearing a satisfied smile for at least the rest of the bus trip from the port to Nea Smyrni.

Yet again, thanks Daphne for giving me this book!

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Review: The Word For World Is Forest

The Word For World Is ForestThe Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The Dispossessed” left with me a voracious appetite for all things Le Guin and renewed my interest in science fiction in general. This book satisfied the hunger at the same time whetting the appetite just a bit more. Paradoxical? I’ll let the great Jean-Jacques Rousseau answer for me from his honoured and ancient grave: “I’d rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices!” Thank you Goodreads for helping us learn useful(?) quotes.

A lot of people say this book is like Avatar or Pocahontas and that they’ve read this noble savage story before. They’re only superficially right: the nobility of the savages and the Terrans’ barbarism do often lean closer to the stereotypical, I admit. However, the politics are much more believable and down-to-earth, the ending is surprising and a punch-in-the-gut in its almost cynical approach and the love story doesn’t involve two characters; it rather emerges between the reader and the beauty of the Other, the mystery of this foresty world which represents everything Terrans (that is us) lost thousands, if not tens of thousands of years ago.

It’s a very short read, therefore it doesn’t allow itself to go as deep as I would have liked it to into the lives and culture of the Athsheans, who I’m ashamed I had to constantly stop myself thinking of as Ewoks.

All in all, The Word For World Is Forest is as close to Avatar as The Shawshank Redemption is to Prison Break. Make no mistake: this is nothing less than science fiction at its best. I truly hope the rest of her books can keep the bar this high.

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Review: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A few light years away from Terra, there is a dual system of a planet and a moon, similar to the one back home. The planet, Urras, is a beautiful planet, rich with natural splendour, floral and faunal variety and the kind of society you’d find on Terra: full of social inequalities and a global culture founded on ownership, reflecting almost nothing of its beauty on the lives of the population.

The moon of that planet is Anarres. It has an atmosphere that paints the sky violet but is little more than a large desert with not too much water and only a few species of plants and animals – the most advanced species apart from humans living there are fish. Humans from Urras have settled Anarres 150 years now, in the space-age equivalent of ’30s Catalonia, after a massive social movement in Urras following an important religious/revolutionary figure by the name of Odo forced the Urrasti to make concessions and agree with the revolutionaries to let them put themselves into exile on the moon, founding an anarchist society in the process.

Since then, the Odonians have led quiet, balanced, happy lives on Anarres. Odo’s theories/preachings supported that people are like cells of a single organism, together with the rest of life forming a greater consciousness, and should act the part, leaving ownership and “egoising” behind and focusing on the welfare of the community. Every man’s or woman’s duty in this society is to do the thing they can do and enjoy doing best, similar to a specialised organic cell, so that they should be productive as well as happy and fulfilled in the process: that was her secret of a balanced and healthy society, in tune with its environment and living space. As a sidenote, I’d like to point out here that the same ideology is represented in 1984: that IngSoc is an organism that consists of tiny cells which are the members of the party. It asks a completey different quesion based on that assumption though: “do you die every time you clip your fingernails, Winston?” It uses this train of thought to argue for the survival of the organism even when its individual members have to be eliminated in order to ensure survival of the greater consciousness; quite the opposite of what Odo says, which is that the welfare of the organism depends on individual welfare as well as the co-operation and solidarity between its cells. In both sides of the argument, egoism is repressed, but for completely different reasons.

To return to Odonianism: to allow themselves to have such a lifestyle, people would have to get rid of such distractions as wasteful culture including ownership, money and egoistical behaviour. The experiment worked and the results we catch a glimpse of in The Dispossessed.

People on Anarres share everything, even their homes and their sexual partners — keeping a partner for yourself is regarded as egoistical and equivalent to having them as your property; it is thus disencouraged (as are all possessive pronouns, even when it comes to family relationships) unless it’s for rearing a child. People are free to lead the lives they please as long as they don’t get in the way of their ammars, that is to say their brothers, doing the same.

The protagonist is a guy named Shevek, a name given to him by a computer as is the tradition in Anarres, which ensures the uniqueness of every individual and the uselessness of last names, in turn weakening family ties in favour of a more collective familial sentiment. The reader follows Shevek throughout his life and the problems he has growing up in this society when he is not as sociable as others. You see, he is a scientist, a theoretical physicist with great potential. But what happens when his society, good, balanced and just as it may be, doesn’t allow him to be the best he can be? For games of power exist in Anarres as well, and the person in charge of him in the institute knows the ropes very well; the difference is that the payoff is influence and fame, not money. What should he do: try leaving Anarres for Urras to make his ideas known and accepted there, making the world better in the process, or stay in his society following the norms that forbid most kinds of communication with the outer world?

The answer is given in the first chapter of the book, whence we follow Shevek in his stay in Urras. The book is chronologically mixed up (fittingly, in my opinion, as Shevek’s main goal in his field is to make a unified theory of simulaneous time) and alternately follows Shevek’s backstory in Anarres and his present life in Urras. Both settings were equally satisfying: looking at a foreign anarchist who’s never known anything else coming in contact with “profiteer” (a horrible insult in Pravic) society, is just as interesting as looking at how people have managed to build a fully working bona fide anarchist society in Anarres and the details of their day-to-day existence on the arid planet.

I have divulged this much of the book’s plot for it is not therein that its charm is hidden. I don’t think I’m blurting out spoilers here. There is little mystery or what we’d recognise as development in the story. The feeling it gave me was much less of a thrilling narrative and much more of a beautiful journey in a foreign land. All the other characters apart from Shevek, even perhaps Shevek himself, were there only to guide us through this utopia. The little things the traveller discovers are what make The Dispossessed a zen-like, heart-warming experience: Shevek’s first encounters with animals; his discussion with a Terran embassador; labour allocation in Anarres; the contrast between the placentas being kept after birth in Anarres as part of their zero-waste culture and the huge shopping malls in Urras, which could make any Anarresti physically ill; sex in Urras and how Shevek finds it so foreign and pretentious, and so on.

Furthermore, and I think this is very important, we get a look at the disadvantages of living in an anarchist society as Shevek experiences them; the necessity of sacrificing certain ambitions in favour of the common good, the morality of the question itself, the tendency of people, no matter what political inclination they have and culture they belong to, to grow conservative over time and forget their very own beliefs, growing rigid and rule-abiding rather than flexible and people-friendly, utilitarian rathen than deontological…

“She [Le Guin] invites, as Tolkien does, a total belief”, reads a snippet of a critic on the back-cover of my copy. If a sci-fi novel can make me believe in the existence of a real anarchist society somewhere in the galaxy and by extension in the real possibility of an anarchist society much closer to home, I can’t but heartliy agree with the above snippet.

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