rachelmanija: (Autumn: small leaves)
( Sep. 28th, 2016 08:25 pm)
Dear Yuletide writer,

Thank you for writing for me! I am very non-fussy about Yuletide and love the fandoms I requested, so please don't stress too much about making me happy. Write me something in a fandom I love, and I will be happy. If you click on my Yuletide tag you will find past letters with lots of detail on what I like in general.

Two little FYIs: I started writing my letter at home, then left before I could finish it. I am currently away from home and can't write as much, so less tl;dr isn't indication of which I want most, just due to circumstances. The other is for any friends who might be trawling this letter for treat prompts. I still love anything I requested for any Yuletide in history, so if you don't know any of these fandoms, feel free to pick up anything from past letters that's in the Yuletide tag set.

Read more... )
Another re-read of an early, novella-length book, this one much more firmly science fiction than the science fantasy of Rocannon’s World. I prefer the later, but then again, I really like science fantasy. In this book, technologically advanced humans settled on a planet already inhabited by “hilfs” (very nearly human people, but less advanced and not able to breed with humans), briefly, they thought, as refugees in an intergalactic war. No one ever came to pick them up. Generations later, they live in an uneasy coexistence with the hilfs they look down upon, a semi-isolated colony slowly losing its superior technology due to lack of infrastructure and people who understand how to use it.

The heroine is Rolery, a hilf girl who falls in love with a human man, Jacob Agat, and so comes to learn both about human culture and about the likely future of humans and hilfs; the reader understands more than she does, but not a lot more. Rolery is a very real-feeling character, unlearned but not stupid. Agat is more generic. The romance is really there to enable us to see humans through an alien’s eyes, and vice versa; the story is much more about culture clashes than about a love that transcends them. It’s extremely atmospheric, with long winters and creepy snow wraiths. The closing revelation about the future of the world feels inevitable in retrospect, but powerful as a conclusion: a disaster to some, but hope and a future for others, depending entirely upon their point of view.

I recall Le Guin discussing this book as an attempt to write a protagonist who changed the world without taking the sorts of action a traditional protagonist of sf at the time would take. I assume that at the time, sf heroes were mostly either solving scientific problems or fighting, because Rolery's main action is both active and common in a different genre - she chooses a man despite disapproval from both humans and hilts. (She actually takes quite a bit of action apart from that, but that's the one from which all else follows.)

But that action doesn’t change the world so much as it illuminates something that was already going on, and would have happened even if she and Agat had never met. The Terrans' belief that they don't belong, are an island of civilization on a primitive planet, and should have nothing to do with the hilfs is driven and supported by their actual physical differences: they can't eat the food without taking digestive enzymes with it, they can't interbreed, they're telepathic with each other but not with the hilfs, and they can't be infected by native bacteria. But the Terrans have been slowly adjusting to the planet over generations, and some hilfs can, in fact, be telepathic. Rolery and Agat can mindspeak to each other, and Rolery recognizes that a Terran is dying of an infected wound. (And very possibly saves Agat by cleaning out a minor wound of his, which Terrans normally wouldn't bother to do.)

Rolery is the first to point out the change, though it takes a Terran to understand its implications. But she didn't cause it. Presumably someone else would have eventually figured it out if she hadn't, though it might have taken a while; the Terrans had already noticed some of the changes, but ignored or discounted them because they wanted to hold themselves separate, and didn't want to believe that they were not so different from the "primitive" hilfs.

Rolery isn’t particularly an unconventional heroine in terms of her actions, from a current perspective – she falls in love and chooses a forbidden mate, and becomes a bridge between cultures – but the world does feel very different seen through her eyes. To me, it’s her perspective rather than her action that’s unusual and interesting.

Worlds of Exile and Illusion: Three Complete Novels of the Hainish Series in One Volume--Rocannon's World; Planet of Exile; City of Illusions
This is a re-read. I’ve read this book multiple times. It’s one of Le Guin’s earliest works, novella-length and an expansion/continuation of a haunting short story, “Semley’s Necklace,” which is a science fiction version of a very ancient folkloric theme, the human visitor to Faerie who returns to find that during their brief sojourn, years have passed, their spouse is old or dead, and their children have grown. In Le Guin’s version, Faerie is another world and the time change is due to faster than light travel.

Rocannon is a scientist who gets stranded on a less technologically advanced world; there’s a loose plot involving him trying to communicate with his people on his own world and getting involved in a war on the world he’s on, but it’s mostly a picaresque about exploring a new world. The plot is not the point. (Nor is Rocannon himself, who is a blank slate and really exists as a body for the reader to inhabit.) The point is a series of beautiful or terrifying or strange encounters: the windsteeds, which are giant cats with wings; the city of angels and its shift from awe to horror as Rocannon realizes that beauty does not mean intelligence; the small furry creatures that rescue and guide him; his ordeal by fire, with echoes of the phoenix and Odin upon the tree. It doesn’t hang together particularly well as a smooth, continuous narrative, but then again, the picaresque is a perfectly legitimate form that just happens to not be much respected now.

Rocannon’s World is one of those books whose flaws are what make it wonderful. Le Guin has written about how it was written while she was still finding her voice and working out the rules of her universe; she points out that Rocannon’s impermasuit, which protects him from physical harm, was a clunky attempt to transfer magical armor into a science fiction setting, and ought to have suffocated him. No such thing exists in her later books. She’s correct that it is something of an awkward marriage between myth and science, and yet it creates the stunning scene in which he’s captured and burned alive, forced to stand unharmed but helpless within the flames, and finally emerges from the ashes, takes off the suit which, once off his body, appears to be nothing more than a handful of plastic and wires, and bathes naked in the river, trying to wash away the memory of flames licking at his eyes. How marvelous is that! We are lucky to have the book that Le Guin didn’t get quite right, that didn’t do what she wanted it to do. If it had been more perfect, it might well have ben less memorable.

This is the edition I have: Rocannon's World. I have to say, I really love that cover. What could possibly be better than a dude in a cape and armor, carrying a torch and riding a giant flying cat in a surprisingly practical-looking harness?
My case studies on disappointing revelations to fascinating mysteries:

Gateway, by Frederik Pohl. Though dated and likely to offend, in purely artistic terms this is a perfect little novel. Earth is slowly dying of overpopulation and ecological damage, but humans found an abandoned fleet of alien starships, which can accommodate no more than five passengers. If you fiddle with the computer until a valid destination pops up and hit a button, the ship will go to that destination. The catch is that humans have no idea what the destination actually is until they get there, so they are liable to fly the ship into a star, go so far that their food runs out before they even arrive, etc. Most voyages discover nothing of value; lots return with all the crew dead, or never come back at all. But a few strike it rich. In two alternating timelines, the protagonist, who struck it rich on an otherwise disastrous voyage, recounts his time at Gateway and, back on Earth, explores the depths of his own psyche with a computerized psychologist. The novel stands completely on its own. No sequels were necessary.

Gateway is about mystery: the mystery of the ships, the mystery of shipping out for an unknown destination (metaphorically, life), the mystery of one's own motivations. These are not mysteries that can be completely solved; the mystery is the point. The sequels produce the most mundane and dull explanations possible.

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, is an sf-nal Canterbury Tales in which seven travelers share their origin stories, all involving mysterious events. This is a bit different in that while it also sets up fascinating mysteries, they are the sort for which one does want explanations. But one wants interesting explanations. The Fall of Hyperion is a mixed bag, with some good ideas but some not. It also defangs spooky beings who should have remained spooky. Subsequent sequels continue explaining and explaining, with explanations that make increasingly less sense, until it explains the entire cosmos with the stupidest explanation possible. Ybir YVGRENYYL ubyqf gur havirefr gbtrgure. Yvgrenyyl. Zbyrphyne obaqf ner znqr bs ybir. (Be cbffvoyl dhnaghz fgevatf. Fnzr cevapvcyr, gubhtu.) (Decipher with rot13.com.)

And then there's The Other Wind, by Ursula Le Guin, in which the main thrust of the story is explaining and solving the world of the dead, which was never set up as a mystery or a problem and did not require any explanation or solution. (Yes, it was depressing. But in a mythic way which fit the tone of the earlier books.)

Religious/spiritual/mystical explanations for physical phenomena are generally unsatisfying in science fiction novels. It can work in short stories, where less build-up is required, or, of course, in mainstream novels about religious people, in which one expects something like that.

What other novels fell prey to unsatisfying explanations, whether or not any explanations were even necessary? Which novels managed solutions that lived up to the mystery, and didn't destroy the sense of wonder?
Sponsored by [personal profile] kore.

The middle book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s loosely connected trilogy “Annals of the Western Shores,” but the last one I read. I liked it the best. It’s better-paced than Powers and has much more vivid characters, and is deeper and way less glum than Gifts. The writing is clear, beautiful, and vivid.

Seventeen-year-old Memer lives in a city once known for its libraries, which has been conquered by people who ban writing for plausible religious reasons. (The word is the breath of God, and it’s blasphemous to trap it on paper.) The invaders destroyed as many books as they could find, but Memer’s house has a secret library. We learn early on that the library has more than cultural significance, but the magical nature of the books – and of Memer – unfolds slowly over the course of the story. Unsurprisingly, given that this is a Le Guin novel, it’s a complicated and many-faceted thing.

In other hands, this story could have easily become a simple and implausible “Books are banned and the government controls writing” dystopia. It’s not, of course. There’s way more going on than books being banned, and the government has motives that go far beyond controlling writing. The interactions of the conquerors and the conquered feel real, and make sense in the context of their convincingly detailed cultures.

Like the other books in the series, this deals with serious political and moral themes, but it does a better job than the other two of also telling a moving human story. Ultimately, it’s not only about the fate of the city or even about Memer growing to accept and claim her own power, but about her relationships with a trio of parent-figures: the Waylord (the keeper of the library and her surrogate father) and two strangers who come to town, a poet and his lion-taming wife. (Orrec and Gry from Gifts, many years later.) Memer both grows up and reclaims relationships she missed out on as a child. I don’t recall ever seeing that particular dynamic play out before in a YA novel, but it’s very moving.

Voices (Annals of the Western Shore)
Sponsored by [personal profile] coraa and [profile] ellen_fremendon.

This is the third book in Le Guin's Annals of the Western Shore trilogy; I read the awesomely depressing Gifts a while back, which did not inspire me to read more, and apparently mixed up this and the actual book two, Voices. However, this is only loosely connected with Gifts (not sure about Voices and reads fine on its own. Thankfully, though rather solemn and melancholy, it is not awesomely depressing.

Gavir, a boy who occasionally has visions of the future, and his sister Salla are house slaves, brought up in material comfort with the free children of the house. Unsurprisingly, Le Guin excels at showing the emotional and political complexity of the situation - her motto, like [personal profile] oursin's, is "it's always more complicated" - without downplaying its horrors.

I am making this book sound excruciating and tract-like, I realize. I actually liked it, though I didn't love it. The final section, in which all the seemingly episodic elements come together, is very moving. But the structure is oddly unbalanced, with various episodes given uneven amounts of space - I don't think Gavir's stay in the wooden city of the bandits needed to have all the verbiage it was given, especially compared to his time in the marshes. I also didn't find him a very compelling character, and was consistently more interested in the worldbuilding, the ideas, and the beauty of the prose than in him as a person.

I am amused to note that I have now read enough of Le Guin that when someone informs Gavir that he is the long-awaited chosen one, contrary to what I'd think if that happened in most YA fantasy, I immediately thought, "That won't end well!"

I seem to recall that the cover was initially whitewashed, then changed at Le Guin's request. SIGH. It's quite a beautiful cover, though I note that if the actual Gavir had half the model's intensity, I would have liked him a lot more, and also that contrary to what the glowy light around POWERS implies, his psychic power, while emotionally important, is given comparatively little page-time and only affects the plot once.

I will read Voices at some point, since people seem to like that one the best.

Powers (Annals of the Western Shore)


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