Author, Book review, Fiction, Gollancz, Publisher, science fiction, Ursula K Le Guin

‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ by Ursula K Le Guin

Fiction – paperback; Gollancz; 304 pages; 2018.

First published in 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic science fiction novel (and often heralded as a seminal feminist and LGBTQ text).

As regular readers of this blog will know, this is not a genre I usually read (with the exception of John Wyndham, whom I love), but it was chosen by my book group and I was intrigued enough to give it a go.

I had mixed feelings about it. I loved the ideas in it (Le Guin herself describes it as a “novel of ideas” in the introduction to this newly published edition), but I was less sure about the execution.

What’s the book about?

Before I elaborate further, let me give a brief synopsis.

Genly Ai, a human envoy, is sent to the Planet Gethen, 17 light years away, to invite them to join a political alliance of 80 other planets. He befriends statesman Estravan, who can grant him an audience with the king, but through a cultural misunderstanding this does not happen as promised. Instead, Estravan is exiled from his community, forbidden to contact anyone on pain of death. Genly must now go about his business by himself — an alien in a completely foreign society —  trying to establish contact with the political elite to further his aims.

It is this stranger in a strange land concept that makes The Left Hand of Darkness so intriguing, because all the people on Gethen, a planet besieged by an almost eternal winter, are androgynous and celibate, apart from the two or three days in every monthly sexual cycle — which is known as “kemmer” — when they become either male or female and are able to reproduce. No one has control over which gender they transform into, which gives arise to the novel’s most famous line:

The king was pregnant.

What I liked, and didn’t like

This is what I mean about a “novel of ideas”, because Le Guin has posed a really intriguing question — what would happen if we lived in a genderless society without eternal sexual tension? — and explored it in an equally intriguing way. She also plays with the concepts of patriotism and loyalty, friendships and love, but what didn’t really work for me was the structure of the novel.

Instead of focussing on a straightforward narrative, the story for roughly two-thirds of its content is a mixture of first person accounts from both Genly and Estravan interspersed with myths, legends and anthropologist reports which showcase Gethen’s sociopolitical culture and its history. It’s not until about chapter 14 (page 185 in my edition), when both protagonists embark on a daring 800 mile journey across a treacherous ice-ridden landscape, that the book takes on a compelling, page-turning quality. That’s a lot of pages to trudge through before you experience any urgency to the tale.

That said, I guess this isn’t a book that you read for a fast-paced plot. It’s a book that asks questions about the way our own society is set up, how human biological impulses have shaped our culture and the ways in which almost every facet of our lives is dominated by sex, perhaps without us even realising it.

Personally, I also liked the way it challenges our concepts of belonging and cultural identity, because it feels particularly pertinent here in the UK with all the shenanigans related to Brexit and the rise of populism across the Western World.

As I ate, I remembered Estraven’s comment on that, when I had asked him if he hated Ororeyn [a city on Gethen]; I remembered his voice last night, saying with all mildness, “I’d rather be in Karhide…” And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of, how that yearning loyalty that had shaken my friend’s voice arises, and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?

All in all, this is a fascinating novel, one that feels quite relevant to the times we live in when gender fluidity is such a hot topic and there’s so much discussion about equality between the sexes. And as much as I am glad I took the time to read it, I haven’t been converted into a science fiction fan and I doubt whether I’ll ever read anything by Le Guin in the future. This hasn’t surprised me; and if you are familiar with my reading tastes I doubt it will surprise you either.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, literary fiction, Michel Faber, Publisher, science fiction, Scotland, Setting

‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber

Under-the-skin

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 305 pages; 2000.

This may possibly be the most difficult review I’ve ever had to write. That’s because writing about Michel Faber’s Under the Skin without giving away crucial plot spoilers is nigh on impossible.

This is a novel that is cloaked in secrecy — I’ve yet to come across a review online that gives away the bizarre content or the dramatic ending — and I’m not about to become the first to give it all away. Let me just say that it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s intriguing and creepy and defies categorisation and the title is uncannily appropriate, because the story does, indeed, get under the skin…

An unconventional lead character

First, let’s meet the main character, Isserley, who is “half Baywatch babe, half little old lady”. She drives up and down the A9 in Scotland in her battered red Toyota Corolla and often picks up hitchhikers along the way — well, actually, she seeks them out, but more on that later. This is how one man she picks up describes her:

Fantastic tits on this one, but God, there wasn’t much of her otherwise. Tiny — like a kid peering up over the steering wheel. How tall would she be? Five foot one, maybe, standing up. […] The rest of her was a funny shape, though. Long skinny arms with big knobbly elbows — no wonder her top was long sleeved. Knobbly wrists too, and big hands. […] Her face had kind of shocked him. It was small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie’s book, with a perfect little nose and a fantastic big-lipped curvy mouth like a supermodel. But she had puffy cheeks and was wearing the thickest glasses he’d seen in his life: they magnified her eyes so much they looked about twice normal size.

So, now that we know that Isserley looks unconventional, I can tell you about her unconventional job — which is to cruise the main roads of Scotland looking for hitchhikers who are “hunks on legs”. She wants big men, specifically men with muscles, and when she lures them into her car she can’t help “savouring the thought of how superb he’d be once he was naked”.

What happens to these men once they’ve been “caught” — or lured by Isserley’s big bosoms, more accurately — is the crux of the novel. And on that score I’m keeping completely schtum. Sorry.

An “issues” novel

As much as I’m loathe to describe Under the Skin as an “issues” novel, it does contain many ethical, moral and political matters that may well force you to rethink your views on everything from Nature to meat consumption, sexual identity to the notion of mercy. How we view the outsider and our attempts to conform and make sense of the world are also key elements — and to what degree do we judge people by appearance and not substance or character.

While the prose style is not particularly elegant or lyrical,  Faber is very good at describing the beauty of the landscape and the rural sights that Isserley sees while she is on the road.

A luminous moat of rainwater, a swarm of gulls following a seeder around a loamy field, a glimpse of rain two or three mountains away, even a lone oystercatcher flying overhead: any of these could make Isserley half forget what she was on the road for.

And you really get a sense of Isserley’s pain and hardship, and the sacrifices she has made to be successful in her job. She’s a wonderful character — feisty, strong, opinionated and human — and despite her dubious occupation, it’s hard not to feel empathy for her.

While the story swings between psychological thriller and macabre horror, with numerous twists and unexpected plot developments, Faber seems to have one hand firmly on the tiller: nothing is overplayed or gratuitous or even fully explained. He takes you on a ride as exciting as Isserley’s adventures in her beat up old car and somehow makes you think about the world in a completely different way.

Under the Skin — which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 2000 is definitely one of the most strange and original novels I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the most thrilling and thought-provoking stories I’ve come across in years — and with all the books I devour, that’s really saying something…

Under the Skin is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Grand Central Publishing, horror, Octavia E. Butler, Publisher, science fiction, Setting, USA

‘Fledgling’ by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling

Fiction – paperback; Grand Central Publishing; 310 pages; 2005.

While I’ve studiously avoided the current Twilight craze, I’ll admit that I’m not averse to reading novels about vampires. I loved Anne Rice’s early work (which I read in my 20s), very much enjoyed Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and thought John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In was a surprisingly intelligent horror story.

But Fledgling, which presents a new twist on the vampire legend, lacks the spine-tingling horror I’ve come to expect from the genre. Instead, this is a book, deeply rooted in science fiction, which examines issues of race and identity, sex and sexuality, biology and genetic engineering. There’s even some law and politics thrown in for good measure.

In this novel Butler portrays vampires as a much-maligned race called Ina. The central character, Shori, looks like a little black girl but she is really a 53-year-old vampire who has been genetically modified so that she has extra melanin in her skin to allow her to walk in sunlight. This is supposed to be a step forward for the Ina, but there are some who think that Shori poses a threat to the purity of the Ina race, and will stop at nothing to destroy her.

When the book begins we find that Shori is recovering from one of those plots to kill her: she awakens in a dark cave, burnt from head to toe, and with no memory of what has happened to her. Indeed she has no knowledge or awareness that she is a vampire. It is only when she is picked up by a young man, as she walks along a deserted road, that her desire to feed off him reminds her that she is an Ina, not a human being.

Much of the book revolves around Shori and her symbionts (the humans she feeds off in a kind of mutually dependent relationship) going on the run from those who want her dead. There’s a lot of gun-slinging before the story morphs into a kind of courtroom drama in which those responsible are held to account for their crimes.

I have to be honest and say that this book didn’t exactly grab me by the throat (pun fully intended). The prose felt a bit pedestrian and the dialogue awfully contrived. There were elements that just made me go ewwww and there were times I wasn’t sure I really wanted to continue. But… there was something about the narrative that sucked me in (another pun, I’m sorry) and I did want to keep reading if only to find out who was after Shori and how she would go about saving herself and those like her.

Octavia E. Butler was a highly regarded prize-winning author of science fiction. Fledgling, published in 2005, was her last book before she died, aged 58, in 2006.

Author, Book review, Daniel Keyes, Fiction, Gollancz, New York, Publisher, science fiction, Setting, USA

‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes

Flowersforalgernon

Fiction – paperback; Gollancz; 224 pages; 2000.

Daniel Key’s Flowers for Algernon is a very special science fiction novel that reveals much about the human condition and the ways in which we relate to others. It touches on many issues including the way we treat the mentally handicapped, the ethics of scientific experimentation on animals (and humans), our desire to be “normal”, the differences between IQ and EQ, and the ways in which our childhood experiences impact on our adult lives.

It was initially published as a novella in 1959 for which it won the best short fiction prize at the 1960 Hugo Awards. Keyes then expanded it into a full-length novel but it was rejected by five publishers. When it was finally printed by Harcourt in 1966 it won the Nebula Award for Best Fiction that same year.

I read the short story version of Flowers for Algernon when I was at secondary school, but this was the first time I’d read the fully fledged novel. It tells the story of Charlie Gordon who has an IQ of just 68. He is 32 years old, no longer has any contact with his family and supports himself by working in a bakery, where he sweeps the floors and runs errands.

Researchers at the local university select him to take part in a scientific experiment designed to boost his intelligence which has already proved successful on a mouse called Algernon. The story is told in diary form, or “progress reports”, from Charlie’s perspective. Initially his writing abilities are rather dubious, with grammatical errors and phonetic spellings throughout, but as his intelligence increases so does his ability to express himself.

Within quite a short period of time, Charlie becomes much cleverer than his colleagues at the bakery, who begin to shun him because they don’t understand his sudden transformation from simpleton to genius. But his emotional development is still stunted, which causes problems with how he relates to others, especially women.

Things begin to unravel when he attends the scientific conference, where the success of the experiment is to be announced to the public for the first time.

We were the main attraction of the evening, and when we were settled, the chairman began his introduction. I half expected him to boom out: Laideezzz and gentulmennnnnn. Step right this way and see the side show! An act never before seen in the scientific world! A mouse and a moron turned into geniuses before your very eyes!

From then on, Charlie goes on an amazing psychological adventure as he comes to terms with his past (including the mother who dumped him in a home when he was a young boy because he wasn’t “normal”) and develops feelings for the teacher who once took pity on him. It’s an amazing journey, full of ups and downs. It’s also hugely emotional, because as Charlie’s self-awareness and moral conscience grows, so does his frustration and his pain. Was the experiment really worth it? Was he really better off being exceptionally intelligent? Or was he happier being a simpleton who at least knew his role in the world?

I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a thought-provoking one. I’m so glad I read this truly wonderful book, because it’s a story that will stay with me for a long time. Despite its age it seems remarkably contemporary. If you’ve never read any science fiction before, this may well be the place to start.

Author, Book review, Fiction, John Wyndham, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, science fiction

‘The Chrysalids’ by John Wyndham

TheChrysalids

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 187 pages; 2000.

The late John Wyndham is probably best known for his science fiction classic The Day of the Triffids, a post apocalyptic novel in which the world gets overtaken by carnivorous three-legged plants. But it’s The Chrysalids, published four years later, in 1955, which most Wyndham fans say is his best.

I read all his major novels (there are seven) when I was in my teens and loved them with a kind of evangelical devotion, but how would this one stack up more than 20 years later?

Strangely enough I had forgotten so much of the detail of The Chrysalids I began to wonder whether I’d actually read it before. It felt very fresh, very new and, surprisingly, very modern.

The setting is typical Wyndham fare: a post-apocalyptic world a few thousands years in the future. But in this case society has regressed to the point of living a rather primitive frontier-like existence reminiscent of 18th century pastoral America. There is no technology here, no cars, no electricity. The houses are basic, constructed of wood with thatched roofs and whitewashed walls, and everyone works hard to provide a stable supply of stock and crops.

But all is not as it seems. This is a society obsessed with fundamental Christianity to the point where anyone not born in the true Image of God is regarded as a blasphemy to be dispatched at birth or condemned to live in the Fringes, a wild untamed area where other rejected “humans” roam. Even the crops are carefully monitored to ensure they do not deviate from the norm; whole fields are burnt if the plants do not look right. And if anyone has any doubts as to whether a particular plant or human is abnormal, there’s an inspector to play judge, jury and executioner.

The story is narrated by David, the 10-year-old son of the local religious leader, who is indoctrinated to “watch thou for the mutant!” and “keep pure the stock of the lord” amongst others. But when David befriends Sophie, a girl hiding the fact that she has six toes on each foot, he begins to question his religious upbringing.

Later, when David realises that he has a rare talent for telepathic communication with his half-cousin Rosalind and several other children, he realises that perhaps he, too, is a deviant, and is careful to hide his ability. This group manages to avoid exposure for several years, but then two factors threaten to “out” them: one of the group marries a normal person, and David’s baby sister, Petra, discovers that her telepathic ability is so strong that she can communicate with a woman from a more technologically advanced society.

I don’t want to provide any plot spoilers, so I’ll refrain from telling you any more about the narrative, but it’s an exciting one, a kind of weird blend between boy’s own adventure story and literary thriller.

Despite being written more than 50 years ago the story seems incredibly relevant to our modern-day obsession with appearance and genetic modification, although, as John Harrison points out in the introduction to this edition, it’s clearly a novel of the 1950s, when “molecular biologists were unwinding the DNA spiral; the new science of radio astronomy had filled the sky with invisible objects; quantum physicists were able to reveal that God does, after all, play dice with the universe” and everyone was living in the shadow of the hydrogen bomb.

The Chrysalids is a wonderful, intelligent read, and I’m glad I took the time to reacquaint myself with it. If you’ve not read any Wyndham before then this is the place to start…

Author, Book review, Fiction, Futura, Kenneth Cook, Publisher, satire, science fiction

‘Play Little Victims’ by Kenneth Cook

PlayLittleVictims

Fiction – paperback; Futura; 87 pages; 1978.

I first read Kenneth Cook‘s Play Little Victims as part of my Year 9 English class at school — way back in the 1980s. It was one of those quirky little books that I much enjoyed at the time and has stayed with me ever since.

Long out of print, I have searched high and low for this book over the years. Recently I found it on Amazon Marketplace for 20 pence (!!) and ordered it straight away.

Re-reading it as an adult, the brilliance of this story has not diminished in any way. If anything, it resonates much stronger now that I am more aware of my own mortality and of mankind’s road to self-destruction.

It’s basically a macabre satire about two mice that survive the end of the world. Adamus and Evemus (geddit?) start being fruitful and multiply — and multiply and multiply — until it’s quite apparent there’s an over-population problem.

An official governing body is set up, which then spends the rest of the book trying to work out ways of solving this problem. With the Word of Man to guide them — a bible and 4,268 editions of the New York Times — they systematically introduce wars, pollution, abortion, road-death, alcohol and cigarettes to stem the ever-increasing numbers of mice living in Earth’s one remaining habitable valley.

When they stumble upon the final solution — revealed on the very last page of this novella — it is more horrifying than one could possibly imagine. It makes your skin crawl and your spine shudder.

The beauty of this charming and intelligent fable is its polished brevity. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny in places, startling and morbidly dark in others. It says so much about the state of the world right now I find it amazing that Play Little Victims has never been reprinted: it would garner such an audience today. Perhaps because it is by an Australian, little known outside of his homeland, it just never gained the international attention it deserved. I’m sure that would not have been the case had he been a Brit or an American…