Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Rating: Good

Somehow I feel this review will get me into trouble, but the truth is that while I think The Left Hand of Darkness is a good book, I don't think it's a great book. I've read it at least twice before - once in high school, I think, when I was still naive enough not to pick up on some of it - but it's been so long now that I remembered almost nothing at all.

So it's not a great book, but I do think the concepts are interesting, and that personal interactions are a good basis for a story. It's not like I wanted a space opera instead. My issues are different.

The first is problem of pacing. This is most apparent in Genly and Estraven's trek across the ice. That could have been whittled down a lot - perhaps to just a few pages. I know that Le Guin is trying to put them in a position where Estraven comes into kemmer with Genly as his only companion, and where they have to work together closely - and come to know each other better - to survive, but I simply didn't find that section all that engaging.

I also didn't find the end all that impressive. Estraven's death isn't well thought out or explained, and the rest of the plot issues are resolved too quickly and easily.

More importantly, I didn't buy into the idea that the sexual differences between Gethens and "normal" humans would make that much difference in their behavior. There were places where I thought she really reached too far to drive her point home in this area, and that only exacerbated the fact that I didn't buy into the argument in the first place.

But I'm writing this in 2007 and the book was originally published in 1969. We've seen some cultural changes in those 38 years, I admit. Maybe, as a female author working at that time, there were problems that she had to face that are now (hopefully) less common. Maybe I'm an odd case, since I think women are the equals of men in just about everything, and where we differ, it's a matter of interest, but not something that would (or should) hold anyone back. Maybe I am totally blind to my own prejudices, though I am certain I don't "converse with the third button on a woman's blouse," as I've heard it described.

And certainly there are people, even now, who are backwards in that way; who think women should be subservient to men, and prevented from doing some things. There are those who think of women only as sexual objects or even as chattel. But I hope that those problems - like those of racism - are on the decline, and that at least in the western world women feel empowered to do whatever they want. I certainly support that in every way I can.

Maybe I'm too "enlightened" (to pick a word I hate in this context) to really understand the point Le Guin is driving at, but I rather doubt it. If the culture has shifted so that her point is less relevant now, that's great, but that I doubt as well. My own thought is that the issue was exaggerated for the purposes of the story, and I didn't suspend my disbelief to the depth needed.

In the end I think this is a good book and it explores some interesting literary territory, but to my mind it's not quite right. I simply don't think that sex - and more specifically the sexual differences between men and women - are as central to every aspect of our relationships as Le Guin suggests they are. And it's hard to imagine anything that serious has changed since the late 60's either, though I wasn't paying attention to relationship dynamics at that level at the time. (Being significantly less than ten years old at the time this was published, I have no idea what I was worried about.)

On the other hand, I found the concept of shifgrethor fascinating. That's a place where differences (cultural in this case) could be very real and problematic.

I can recommend this book as an example of a good kind of science fiction - though the nearly pointless presence of telepathy and accurate fortune telling makes it border on fantasy in my definition. At its root, though, this is a book about politics and relationships, albeit one set in a background where sexual differences are pointed out with flashing, neon arrows.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

James Herriot's Yorkshire, James Herriot

James Herriot's Yorkshire
James Herriot

I know some on Doug's board don't particularly like the work of James Herriot, but I do. His relentlessly positive attitude can be grating to some, I guess. Oh well. For me, his stories are a breath of fresh air, and now that I've been to England and Scotland I have a bit more appreciation for the place he lived and worked, as well as the character of the people there.

James Herriot's Yorkshire is a lightweight tour guide to parts of Yorkshire. It was published in 1979, so it may be somewhat dated now, but I rather doubt it's too far off.

Mostly that's because he's not trying to direct you, street by street, to some destination that may have met the wrecking ball twenty years ago. Instead he is trying to impart his love of Yorkshire and its history to those who would go there and look around. And it worked, at least for me. But I've had the advantage of visiting Northumbria and the Lake District, and I've met some of the people there. I found them warm and welcoming, and I found the countryside amazing. The Yorkshire presented here feels like an extension of the trip we took earlier this year.

As a guidebook, it won't do the job. You'll need maps and reservations and all kinds of things that aren't here. But as an introduction to the area and what it looks like - it's full of excellent photographs by Berry Brabbs - it's a success.

Recommended, particularly if you're going to visit this part of England and want an idea of what to expect.

Serenity, Joss Whedon

Title: Serenity
Author: Joss Whedon
Rating: Good

Some time back I reviewed a book containing the shooting scripts for about half of the Firefly TV episodes. I enjoyed it, and I like the show. For those who don't know, Firefly is an oddball combination of science fiction, western, and far eastern motifs. It had a great cast of characters and a complex world full of stories to be told. Alas it was canceled far too soon by FOX television for no good reason. The only place you can see it now (as far as I know, anyway) is on DVD, and it is worth seeing.

A movie was made more than a year after the cancellation to bring the story arc to a close. That movie, and this book, are both titled Serenity.

I won't tell you Serenity is the best science fiction movie I've seen. It's not, but it's pretty good. And when combined with the back story from the Firefly TV series, it got under my skin.

This book consists mostly of the original shooting script. To that add the transcript of an interview with Joss Whedon and a few production memos on major aspects of the movie - music, light, etc. Oh, and a bunch of photos from the production of the movie as well.

It's a fun read. Nothing spectacular, but fun. If you're a fan of the show and/or movie, you might like it, but I'd probably buy it used or get it from a library (if you can find it there).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

Title: Solaris
Author: Stanislaw Lem
Rating: Good

In 1961, Stanislaw Lem published Solaris, a relatively short novel telling the story of an expedition to the planet Solaris, which finds some very unusual things going on. There are two movie adaptations of this novel as well, and (for me, at least) they are all wrapped up together. As a result, this review will discuss them all in one way or another.

In 1972, the first adaptation of Solaris was released as a movie, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. This film is something of a cult classic, and you can get it from Netflix any time. At the time I saw it - well over a year ago - I liked it, despite the interminable driving sequences. I rated it four out of five stars, and sent it back. But as I think back on it now - even after reading the wikipedia entry - I find I remember almost none of it except the above mentioned, monotonous, driving sequences. For me, with the benefit of hindsight, that film was a flop. Interestingly, IMDb spells it Solyaris.

In 2002 another movie adaptation of Solaris was released. This time it was directed by Steven Soderbergh and starred George Clooney. I actually saw this film first - before either reading the book or seeing the 1972 film - and it was this that peaked my interest in the other versions. Alas this release was a box office flop, but I really liked it. I found it both spooky and thought provoking. It's not a huge, action oriented, SF film, and that certainly helped spell its doom in theaters. Like the 1972 movie, I rated it four of five stars when I saw it. Now, however, I'd be tempted to raise that rating. This film has stuck with me, both visually and in the content of it's ideas. The wikipedia entry for this film is very short, and the IMDb entry is also lacking in content as of this writing.

It appears to me that the 2002 movie is related to the book in a manner somewhat similar to Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In reality, the movie and the book are more closely related here than in the case of Blade Runner, but there are still some significant differences. I honestly don't remember enough of the 1972 film at this point to make any statements about it.

Lem's original novel is an examination of whether or not humans will ever be able to understand aliens. Without giving away too much, I can tell you the answer presented here is "no". Solaris itself is a single organism that looks to us like an ocean covering nearly all of an earth sized planet. It has modes of behavior that Lem describes in great detail, but they mean nothing to the humans observing it. Those humans inhabit a station perched over Solaris, and while deep in their researches they find that they are being examined in return by the creature below.

The main character, Kris Kelvin, arrives at Solaris station to discover that strange visitors - beings from their past - appear and interact with the crew. One of the crew is already dead and the others are unstable at best. Then Kelvin's long dead wife appears and he starts to wonder about his own sanity, among other things.

The book spends a lot of time on the nature of Solaris itself and the inability of anyone to understand what it is doing at any level. The end is both tragic and a bit vague, as what will happen to the crew - and indeed all of Solaris research - is left unclear, at least to me.

The 2002 movie skips all the details about the activities of the Solaris organism and instead concentrates on the crew, their visitors, and their interrelationships. The idea that humans cannot understand Solaris at all is barely present. But for all that it changes so much of Lem's book - even adding entirely new back story about Kelvin and his wife, Rheya - it's still a very good film. The visuals are stunning and it has stayed with me for a long time, unlike the 1972 version.

Solaris - the book - is a classic of SF, and recommended. Those interested in the pitfalls of our possible interactions with the truly alien will appreciate it. For my money, though, the better story about people is in the 2002 movie adaptation. See it if you can.

Fatal Revenant, Stephen R. Donaldson

Fatal Revenant
Stephen R. Donaldson

It was on March 15, 2005 that I reviewed The Runes of the Earth by Stephen R. Donaldson. That was the first book in The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I've now read Fatal Revenant, the second in the series, and I loved it.

I will start with the one and only complaint I have: Donaldson writes like he swallowed a thesaurus. (My wife actually said that. I'm using her words without permission. She can hit me with a lawsuit if she chooses.) In Fatal Revenant, his tendency to use unusual words comes to the fore, and he may be overdoing it in the eyes of some. In my case, it irritated me only slightly - I found most of the words interesting in and of themselves - and it was easy to ignore in light of all the good things going on here.

There is one other issue, but it's not related to the book itself. It's the fact that it's been over two years between the release of the previous book and this one. And the same size gap will exist before the release of the third book, as well as between the third and the last book in the series. Gaps that long don't work for me. I tend to lose the details of what happened in the previous book. In this case, I started Fatal Revenant and put it down within a few pages because it was obvious I needed to remember more from the first book. But life intervened and I found I'd picked it back up before rereading The Runes of the Earth. This time I kept on reading. I'm glad I did, but I'll need to go back and reread the entire series again, probably several times.

My review of The Runes of the Earth wasn't exactly full of details. It was the first review I wrote for Doug's 25 in 05 forum, and I hadn't yet figured out how I wanted to write reviews. As a result, there is a lot to tell here.

NOTE: if you've never read any of the Thomas Covenant novels, you should probably stop reading now unless you're sure you won't. I'm going to summarize the first six volumes - which amounts to spoiling them at a very high level - and then review the seventh and eight volumes while attempting to spoil nothing. Donaldson summarizes this history as well at the start of each book - and he's far better at such things than I am - but I'll do my best.

The first series - The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant - introduce us to our anti-hero: a writer living in the US in our times, with his wife and young son. He is diagnosed with leprosy, however, and everything changes. Two fingers on one hand are amputated to stop an infection, his wife leaves him to protect her son from exposure to the disease, and he is shunned by the town in which he lives. The actual disease can be controlled but not cured, and the nerve damage requires Covenant to develop certain harsh survival skills, like regularly examining his body for injuries he cannot feel. In addition, he grows embittered and frustrated. He gives up writing thinking that all his work is superficial garbage.

In this mental condition he experiences what may be hallucinations of time spent in a place called The Land. It's a fantasy world where magic is real, where nearly everyone has an ability to see health directly, where there exist numerous unusual races of people and creatures, and where an evil power - Lord Foul, the Despiser - is trying to release himself from the prison of time. In The Land, Covenant's white gold wedding ring - which he still wears, despite his divorce - is a token of great power, and there are similarities between him and one of great heroes of The Land's past.

We spend three volumes with Covenant in The Land. Despite his unbelief, hot temper, and vile actions (early on, nearly mad with disbelief in events, he rapes a young girl; that act has terrible repercussions throughout the rest of the books) the people of The Land trust him and his white gold ring to protect them from Lord Foul. But Covenant doesn't accept that role willingly, and struggles mightily before he finally achieves the desired end and returns home, seemingly permanently.

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant take place ten years later in our time. Covenant's wife has returned to him, but she's insane. A local doctor - Linden Avery - attempts to assist Covenant but winds up summoned to The Land with him. Linden has her own difficult background that makes her particularly vulnerable to what has happened there.

It's been about 3,500 years in The Land since Covenant left and things have changed radically. Lord Foul is back but he's working in less direct ways this time. The Land is now dominated by something called the Sunbane, and only Linden has health sense, so she can see exactly what the Sunbane does to everything it touches. In a long quest - encompassing three more volumes - Covenant and Linden attempt to replace the staff of law, which was destroyed 3,500 years before, and which is needed in the fight against the Despiser. In the end, Covenant again confronts Lord Foul, but he's been transformed in a particular way, and that transformation is key. Once again he triumphs over despite, and Linden uses the new staff to repair much of the damage done to The Land.

But Covenant died in the real world and cannot go back. He remains in The Land - as part of the Arch of Time - while Linden returns and rightly claims his white gold ring as her own.

The Runes of the Earth takes place another ten years later in our world. Linden has adopted an autistic son and she's now in charge of a medical facility that is treating - among others - Covenant's ex-wife. Roger, Covenant's son, appears, wanting to remove his mother from the hospital. A confrontation ensues, and Linden once again finds herself in The Land. She learns that her son and Roger are also in there, and specifically that Lord Foul holds her son captive.

Once again things have changed radically in The Land. Something called Kevin's Dirt - a reference to a past high lord who failed to defeat Lord Foul - prevents The Land's native inhabitants from having health sense. A new danger has appeared in The Land: caesures, time storms destroying everything they encounter. And of course Lord Foul is still present and working for his release. Gathering a small group of friends around her, Linden sets out on a quest for the staff of law, which was lost sometime after she and Covenant saw it remade all those years before. The Runes of the Earth tells the story of that quest.

At last we come to Fatal Revenant. In it, Linden encounters Thomas Covenant and her son - Jeremiah - unexpectedly, but they are changed from those she knew. Covenant is brusque where before he'd been tender, her son can talk and understands his surroundings, and neither will let her touch them. Covenant says he has a plan for defeating Lord Foul, but he cannot make it happen alone. He needs Linden's help. She accompanies him on...

And I have to stop there. To say more would be to give it away. Except I will add that the ending of Fatal Revenant was (to me) astounding. Without a doubt I'll read the next book in the series, even if it's three more years before it's in my hands.

In my opinion - and I know I differ from Ed in this regard - there are two truly important fantasy settings: Middle Earth and The Land. Nothing else I've read compares. Tolkien set the standard, practically defining the genre. I don't think he was always successful - particularly with anything published after LOTR - but he basically created the modern fantasy epic, basing it on many classical and ancient ideas, of course.

Donaldson takes fantasy to the next level. Tolkien tells a physical story - about actions and trials. Donaldson tells both that and a mental story. His characters suffer and undergo emotional change in a way that Tolkien's don't. Covenant never stops paying for the rape that he commits - it echoes down through history after him - but he also grows and becomes something much greater than the the man who first enters The Land. Nearly all of Donaldson's work is about that sort of mental transformation, and many of his characters are both despicable and heroic. That sort of conflict - internal struggles between good and bad, right and wrong, belief and unbelief - is Donaldson's forte.

I strongly recommend Donaldson's works, and particularly all eight volumes of the Thomas Covenant series. In them I think you'll find a kind of hope, that maybe we can transcend our self imposed limits in some way. For me this isn't a mystical or religious thought. It's the idea that we can all become something better if we try. We may face strong adversaries, but the struggle is worthwhile, and we can triumph in the end.