Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Originally published as short stories in The New Yorker, and first collected in 1977, Kingdoms of Elfin was the last of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s books to be published in her lifetime. Although some of her books were among the first to be published as Virago modern classics in the late 1970s and her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), with its witch protagonist, is now well known, there was a period when Warner was chiefly remembered for her role in the anti-fascist generation of 1930s writers. Along with her life-partner, Valentine Acland, she joined the Communist Party and worked in support of the republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. Kingdoms of Elfin, with its enchanting and enigmatic tales of fairies scattered across Europe and beyond, seems far removed from such political concerns and yet under the surface there is something inexorable which gives these stories an exquisite, but nonetheless mortally sharp, edge.

Warner’s fairies are fascinated with the short-lived humans around them but not overly bothered about their individual welfare. In the first of these stories, ‘The One and the Other’, a changeling accidentally kills the human he replaces – who has already grown old and been evicted from the fairy kingdom he was taken by – while experimenting on his blood, but consoles himself with the thought that he can probably sell the body to the anatomists in Edinburgh. In ‘Elephenor and Weasel’, Elephenor finds himself working as the assistant to a travelling necromancer – involving, amongst other tasks, deploying his wings to imitate the devil – and loving every minute: ‘To have a great deal of power and no concern was the life for him’. In ‘The Occupation’, a group of fairies drive a Scottish clergyman mad by making a home in his manse and even attempting to clean it. In a rare but neat political twist, his wife leaves with the children ‘to live with her sister above a grocery shop in Glasgow, where she was much happier, just as dirty, and insisted on her standing as a Minister’s wife’. 

Yet, if humans and their foibles are relentlessly subjected to dispassionate scrutiny, Warner’s fairies, themselves, are also often shown as the victims of capricious fate. Or, at least, that is how it appears when viewed from a conventional perspective, but perhaps Warner’s greatest achievement is to encourage readers to dispense with their pre-existing moral frameworks, which are made to look narrowly time-bound in comparison with a more fluid fairy temporality. In ‘The Five Black Swans’, the dying Queen Tiphaine (Warner’s fairies are not immortal but have lifespans of centuries) of the Scottish elfin kingdom of Elphane, relives her relationship with the human Thomas of Ercildoune, making love outside whether in the dew-drenched grass, rain or even hail: ‘Love was in the present: in the sharp taste of the rowanberries he plucked for her, in the winter night when a gale got up and whipped them to the shelter of a farm where he kindled a fire and roasted turnips on a stick, in their midnight mushroomings, in the long summer evenings when they lay on their backs too happy to move or speak, in their March-hare cuvettings and cuffings.’ Here, the pure moment contains all of existence and thereby encompasses eternity as opposed to the insubstantiality of the conventional human present, enslaved by causality and condemned to endless unfulfilling repetition.

It’s not that fairies don’t have their problems. There is rather a lot of overly formal court procedure and an annoying class system that constrains those of the higher ranks from some of the more bodily pleasures, such as flying. However, being fairies, these boundaries are frequently transgressed. Long after they find themselves ejected at the text’s end on to the cold hillside, the memory of these tales will haunt readers with the lingering sense that we could live differently.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The House of Binding Thorns follows on from the BSFA Best Novel winner of 2015, The House of Shattered Wings but both is and isn’t a sequel to that earlier book. While key characters, such as the addicted alchemist, Madeleine, and weak-willed immortal, Philippe, are still central to the proceedings, they are joined by a range of new protagonists, such as the heavily-pregnant Françoise, who lives with the dying ‘Fallen’ (magical returned angel), Berith, outside the big ‘House’ system through which the Fallen exert their power over this alternate Paris, and Thuan, a nephew of Ngoc Bich, the ruler of the Dragon kingdom under the Seine. While the first novel concerned the fortunes of House Silverspires, the action in the second is centred – as its title suggests – on House Hawthorn, headed by the enigmatic and deliciously evil Asmodeus. 

The House of Binding Thorns

The advantage of unabashed genre fiction over mainstream realist fiction is that it enables a much clearer depiction of how power relations, both at individual and societal level, function. In a modern society with the ideological veneer of the political equality of citizens, Asmodeus would no doubt be the epitome of the manipulative centrist politician who is truly monstrous. However, as de Bodard gradually reveals to us, the seemingly absolute power of the House system actually forces him to take responsibility for his actions. By the end of the novel, his relationship with his dependant, Madeleine, who is initially terrified of him, has been transformed into something mutually meaningful in subtle and complex ways. 

Of course, the idea that relationships in a feudal system might be both richer and more human than those in a capitalist democracy has been a mainstay of genre since Walter Scott’s historical novels of the early nineteenth century. But while this understanding is central to The Lord of the Rings and the subsequent works it influenced, this doesn’t mean that all fantasy writers employing feudal elements share the politics of Tolkien. De Bodard takes pains to show us the difficulties but also the possibilities of building a community outside the Houses in the poor dockside region of La Goute d’Or, where Françoise, Berith and Philippe are trying to make their lives amongst the Vietnamese Community. More significantly, however, the world she depicts is devoid of the patriarchal and compulsory-heterosexual logic that once upon a time was taken for granted as the natural mechanism of fantasy.

A queer feudal society in which power relationships are openly visible and consent proves central to meaningful relationships turns out to be highly seductive. It is not fear alone that maintains the loyalty of House Hawthorn dependants to Asmodeus. Indeed, in perhaps the most important political dimension to the novel, de Bodard shows how fear corrupts the potential for dynamic consensual relationships in her society. Fear is shown to be self-perpetuating and immune even to attempts to begin with a clean sheet, as the revolutionary terror at the beginning of Asmodeus’s reign as Head is retrospectively revealed to have been. Instead, we are offered the prospect of a future with no promises other than the opportunity to live in it and see what happens.

The House of Binding Thorns blends the power plays and magical exchanges of classic fantasy with intriguing mystery, queer romance, Parisian settings, Vietnamese legends, and the sensibility of the nineteenth-century gothic novel into an intoxicating potion. While the plot is skilfully constructed to move the protagonists through a series of interlocking climaxes, the overall effect is not so much resolution as a delirious feeling of sensory overload. The reader is left with that kind of hangover in which dizziness and pain are experienced as sensual pleasures; still able to feel the burn of angel essence at the back of their throat and in thrall to the orange-blossom-and-bergamot scent of desire.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved

What Not: A Prophetic Comedy by Rose Macaulay

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Originally published in 1918, Rose Macaulay’s speculative satire, What Not: A Prophetic Comedy, extrapolates from the wartime state’s unprecedented intrusion into private life – conscription, censorship, food rationing – to imagine a Ministry of Brains committed to raising public intelligence through various measures such as the ‘Mental Progress Act’, the introduction of a ‘Mind Training Course’ and, more sinisterly, stipulating who may marry who according to an A-C intelligence classification. Babies born according to the regulations gain their parents financial bonuses, but unregulated infants are taxed on a sliding scale ‘so that the offspring of parents of very low mental calibre brought with them financial ruin’. 

A Handheld Press Publication: What Not, A Prophetic Comedy by Rose Macaulay

As Sarah Lonsdale points out in her helpful introduction to the novel, there are clear points of comparison with better known works of utopia and dystopia. Like William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), What Not begins in a carriage on the London underground. More significantly, Macaulay moved in the same circles as Aldous Huxley and it is difficult to imagine that her work was not in some way an influence on Brave New World (1932), which might be seen in Lonsdale’s words ‘as the world of What Not some few decades into the future’. Finally, the novel also anticipates George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), in its story of one clerk’s revolt against the system in the name of love. 

Macaulay’s protagonist is Kitty Grammont, introduced to us as a woman who takes both the New Statesman and the Tatler: ‘She was partial to both, which was characteristic of her attitude towards life’. This attitude of seeking to have her cake and eat it corresponds to the general sense conveyed by the novel – people’s experience of the war having overturned all sorts of time-honoured and apparently stable social norms – of nervous, reckless times in which people are determined to make the best of whatever they can get and live life to the full. However, what makes Kitty stand out from the crowd of female clerks, whose culture is nicely evoked, is her determination ‘to defeat a foolish universe with its own weapons’. Her romance and secret marriage to Nicholas Chester, the Minister of Brains – who is forbidden to marry by his own laws due to the mental deficiency of his siblings – is played out as a scathing comedy rather than the tragedy it might be in a lesser work.

The relentless cynical wit means that the novel remains, as Lonsdale suggests, an ambiguous and ‘sometimes slippery book to grasp hold of’. On the one hand, Macaulay clearly does not endorse the eugenics programme of the Ministry, which unsurprisingly leads to many abandoned babies turning up on doorsteps around the country. On the other hand, What Not is not a straightforward dystopian warning or ‘protest against social engineering’ as the back-cover blurb suggests. One of the most heart-felt passages in the novel is Chester’s bitter complaint at the stupidity of a society that fails to educate people and provide effective medical care. Equally in favour of social reform is this pointed narrative gloss on male audience responses to Kitty publicly talking on behalf of the Ministry: ‘Rural England [. . .] was still regrettably eastern, or German, in its feminist views, even now that, since the war, so many more thousands of women were perforce independent wage-earners, and even now that they had the same political rights as men.’

Therefore, it probably makes sense to see What Not as a comically-resigned lament for the impossibility of evading the cruel stupidity of life without imposing a system that is even crueller and more stupid. However, there is also just the faintest suggestion in Kitty’s momentary out-of-body experience, in which she realises the entire society depicted in What Not is no more than a ‘queer little excited corner of the universe’, that other worlds are possible. Overall, the novel should be recommended as more than a historical curiosity.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

War of the Maps by Paul McAuley

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

On one level, War of the Maps is a really well-told, slightly old-fashioned science-fiction adventure novel, which is accurately summarised by the front-cover tagline: ‘Across a giant artificial world in space, the lucidor hunts his man’. As McAuley notes in his ‘Acknowledgments’, the inspiration for the world depicted is an article by Ibrahim Semiz and Selim Oğur, ‘Dyson Spheres around White Dwarfs’. However, as he has pointed out on his blog, the story grew from ‘a character and a situation’ and an idea for the ending. Once he had the character’s voice right, the novel flowed because ‘the protagonist’s path through the world was mapped by his needs, desires and beliefs, and his interactions with other characters’. I quote at length both because this seems like useful advice for anyone wanting to write this kind of novel but also because I think this accounts for how convincing and satisfying this novel is to read; there are no false notes. 

War of the Maps

Lucidors are law-keepers in the Free State. While there are more than one in the novel, the protagonist is referred to throughout as the lucidor. Although he is retired, he is on one last mission to bring back to justice the villainous Remfrey He, who he had previously tracked down and captured at great cost but who has now been released by a political faction to go and help the war effort in neighbouring Patua against ‘the invasion’. This set-up is reminiscent of a classic Western and indeed the opening finds the lucidor on horseback fleeing bandits in a beautifully written sequence which recalls the spare poetic tone of Cormac McCarthy. While this genre setting changes – at one point later in the novel the action switches into a Hornblower-style naval voyage – the lucidor retains the moral and narrative integrity of the sheriff pursuing justice. I imagined him as like Gary Cooper or James Stewart or possibly even Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country.

The novel turns on two linked questions: is the lucidor’s single-minded hunt for Remfrey He correct, and what the right values to live by are. There is an ongoing disparity between the plain egalitarianism of the Free State and the aristocratic hierarchy of Patua. This latter contrast forms part of the war (although to be clear the two countries are ostensibly allies) mentioned in the novel’s title. The term ‘map’ refers equally to land masses, countries, societies and the genetic make-ups of organisms and thus indicates some sort of scaled fractal relationship between the particular and the universal. ‘The invasion’ is a creeping wave of mutation producing a new biology, including the ant-like ‘alter women’ whose nests are gradually overtaking the north of Padua despite the best efforts of the army. 

We see what is at stake in all of these struggles through the lucidor’s various encounters with others: often women who, as the lucidor observes ‘don’t have the same obsession with hierarchy as men’. This is a point of superficial similarity between the lucidor and Remfrey He, who extols the alter-women colonies as utopias in which everyone works peacefully for the common good, even as he manipulates them for his own ends. Gary Wolfe likens Remfrey He to a Bond villain in his review of the novel for Locus and suggests that the archetypal confrontation between the two men is a little too clichéd. But I wondered if that was the point. The lucidor’s most important relationships are actually with his dead wife (in memory) and with the novel’s other main protagonists, the ‘map-reader’ Orjen Starbreaker and her steward Lyra. The standoff with Remfrey He seems more like a commentary on such male rivalries rather than the key point of the plot. Indeed, War of the Maps, with its intertextual allusions to ‘new flesh’, ‘dire wolves’ and Pratchett, may be read as a metatext subtly commenting on the traditional form of the genre and thereby opening the way to representing social change. Perhaps the novel is not so old-fashioned after all. It is certainly one that I recommend reading and which I will myself reread.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

SFF and Class

Vector and Focus are inviting submissions on the theme of class, with proposals due 15 April, and articles due 15 July. Please see the full call for more information. Vector will be publishing a special themed issue, guest-edited by Nick Hubble.

Keep an eye out for more CfPs for future special issues to be edited by Stewart Hotston, Stephen Oram, Phoenix Alexander, and Nina Allan.

The Breach by M.T. Hill

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Reading this book about an infection changing us in the middle of a ‘lockdown’ in which an infection is changing us turned out to be a strangely calming experience. The topic of invasive biological agents is a not a new one, but even so it has reached an intensity in recent years in works as varied as Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin, Tade Thompson’s Wormwood trilogy and, most recently, Paul McAuley’s War of the Maps. Following these exotic species of fantastika, The Breach’s cold, sharp bite of Northern realism is a welcome anaesthetic that numbs the pain once the shock has worn off. Whether the invasive force are fairies, insect lifeforms, parasites or a type of virus is never made clear and doesn’t really matter to Shep, the trainee steeplejack, who only comes alive when climbing or urban exploring. As he says, with shrugging acceptance, ‘I think they turned up here, and now they just are.’ 

Image

‘Here’, at least in the opening two thirds of the novel, is the North sometime in an all-too-foreseeable post-Brexit future when even the promise of ‘ENGLAND’S YEAR OF REGROWTH’ is only a faded slogan on one of Freya Medlock’s retired father’s old corporate planners. Freya is living in the box room of her over-fussy parents’ bungalow following the breakup of her relationship and barely going through the motions of her job as a reporter on a dying local paper. An assignment to cover the death of a local climber leads her to the night-time world of ‘urbex’ and Shep. Shep is basically a dangerous chancer and something of a cowboy but he has a redeeming innocence. His only mode of expressing agency is through the equivalent of enacting slapstick pratfalls, rather like Buster Keaton performing his own stunts. The first three meetings between Freya and Shep are by turns charming, funny, and like something from a found-footage horror film. Rationally there is no reason why Freya should feel responsibility for Shep after this but emotionally it makes perfect sense.

In the England Hill depicts, everyday life is attenuated to the extent that all meaning seems to have been leached out of the blighted, post-industrial landscape. This present haunted by the ghosts of a future that never came is not so much tragic as farcical. A trip to the (gene) splicer’s market is neither the utopian or dystopian marker it might once have been but simply an excuse for a coffee in the garden centre on a Sunday morning. Yet while Freya has the skills to head to the place in England which has drained all the rest, London, she never really contemplates this possibility. She is still looking for something else even though there is nothing indigenous left.

The existence within this world of the attempt of an English corporation to build a version of the space elevator from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise is not just incongruous but in itself a form of extraterrestrial intervention. On the one hand, this is a parody of past dreams of the future in which the once industrious engineers who peopled the golden age are replaced by no-nonsense Northern steeplejacks and riggers like Shep. On the other hand, Clarke would probably enjoy the black humour of Hill’s novel, with its twisted take on Childhood’s End. Indeed, in some ways The Breach is the most optimistic novel I’ve read for some time. Let’s face it, the best hope for a future in most parts of England is probably alien invasion. As the cryptic text Freya reads on an urbex forum thread proclaims, ‘The path for its replicants is decided, for the extremities of worlds are essential’. Even as experience recedes further into memory, The Breach imparts a visceral sensation and promises an awakening. And while this might be like Shep’s at the beginning of the novel, in the back of his van, face pressed numb into the cabin bulkhead and with a tin of cheap lager spilled inside his sleeping bag, it’s still a new day with the promise of something actually happening.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

Firefly: The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

It is now coming up for fourteen years since the one and only series of Joss Whedon’s Firefly first aired but we still want more. If anything the basic premise of a likeable bunch of losers – literally so in the case of Mal and Zoe, veterans of the defeated ‘Browncoat’ side in the recent Unification War – scraping an often less-than-legal living at the edge of the star system speaks more to the present than the early pre-crash years of the century. Forget the brief flurry of hot takes a few years ago that the crew were really the bad guys, camaraderie in resistance is increasingly the only option for many, rather than simply a choice over the corporate progressivism of the Blair and Clinton years made in the name of ‘freedom’.

Firefly - The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove

The Ghost Machine is the third in Titan’s series of Firefly tie-in novels, all of which have so far been written by Lovegrove (and he has another one due to come out next year). An ‘Author’s Note’ informs us that the action is set between the Firefly TV series and the movie Serenity. In an interview with sci_fidelity.co.uk, Lovegrove points out that ‘essentially what I’m doing is fan fiction but by a professional writer’. His love for the characters certainly comes across and the obvious fun he had writing them makes this an entertaining read. I hadn’t seen any of these before and so I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was immediately convinced by the opening scene, in which an exchange of dodgy merchandise in the remote outback of an obscure planet rapidly goes pear-shaped. The voices and characterisation are spot on and I sat back to enjoy the ride but, as with the high points of the series, I also found that the story ended up making me think about some of those fundamental questions, which genre fiction can be better at highlighting than more self-consciously literary work. As Lovegrove says in the interview, if we think of these novels as a mini season two then ‘The Ghost Machine is the season’s “high concept” episode’.

The dodgy merchandise in question turns out to be a bit of black tech developed by the Blue Sun Corporation in an illegal lab for the purposes of social control. Within hours of taking off from the planet where the novel begins, all of the crew except River are hopelessly ensnared in wish-fulfilment fantasies oblivious to the fact that their ship is heading full speed for a direct collision with the nearest moon. As the story progresses, these fantasies break down into overt horror but perhaps the most horrible thing about it all is just how conventional and capitalist the fantasies are in the first place. Mal imagines himself in domestic bliss, married to Inara with two kids; Wash dreams of being the wealthy head of an interplanetary freight corporation, the subject of puff pieces in society magazines; Simon wishes himself back as the privileged son of his wealthy family. Success breeds fear of betrayal as shown by the disintegration in Wash’s fantasy of his marriage with Zoe; while Zoe’s own fantasy of the Browncoats having won the war is to the detriment of her friendship with Mal. Tellingly, Zoe suspects Mal would have been happier if the war had been lost: ‘He defined himself by what he resisted, and therefore without anything to oppose he was nothing’. However, the novel is not critiquing the series for endorsing a loser mentality. Rather, it is reaffirming that oppositional mentality against the truly obscene consequences of adopting a winning mentality in what we might think of as ‘capitalist realism’. In particular, the sequence featuring Simon reveals the sheer violence underpinning patriarchal systems. Fortunately, resistance turns out to be too ingrained in some of the crew members for them to succumb completely. In its own way therefore, Firefly: The Ghost Machine has a very strong moral message: it has certainly put me on my guard against idly indulging in wish-fulfilment daydreams of conventional success.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

The Evidence by Christopher Priest

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Christopher Priest’s sixteenth novel, his fifth in the last decade, returns to the uneasy setting of the Dream Archipelago, most recently traversed in 2016’s The Gradual. On the one hand, The Evidence is classic Priest with the full panoply of twins, stage magicians and the endless war between Glaund and Faiandland trundling on in the background. But, on the other, it’s a crime novel with several variants on the locked-room mystery and a particularly violent murder scene. Has Priest sold out to the demands of commercial genre writing or is he sarcastically deconstructing the format?

The Evidence

The novel begins with crime writer, Todd Fremde, on a train on Dearth Island heading to Dearth City, where he will be staying in the Dearth Plaza Hotel, in order to give a keynote lecture, to a conference organised by the University of Dearth Literary and Historical Society, on ‘The Role of the Modern Crime Novel in a Crime-Free Society’. Fremde has accepted the invitation against his better judgment, swayed by the promise of top cuisine, a suite at the hotel, and being driven around in a university car. Therefore, he makes it clear he only has time to give the lecture and then leave the next day. While it would no doubt be a mistake to conflate Fremde with Priest himself, the following fear seems heartfelt: ‘The prospect of prolonged and detailed academic discourse from theoreticians who knew little of the art and craft of writing filled me with dread’. Ouch! Suitably chastened, I shall try and rein in my well-known proclivities to quote large chunks of Derrida, Lacan or Agamben for the duration of this review.

Needless to say, the amenities on Dearth fail to match up to their billing but the real trouble arises from Fremde’s inability to adhere to the ‘Seignioral mutability regulations’ with the consequences that his watch stops, the electrical equipment in his room (not suite) takes on a life of his own, letters disappear from his emails and texts, and he incurs hefty fines for ‘electrical mutability abuse’ and a ‘Seignioral surcharge’ for ‘unauthorized horizontal prejudice’. Fortunately, he is able to offset some of the cost of these by cashing in the return half of his rail ticket and accepting the offer of a lift back across the island from a woman, Frejah Harsent, who attended his talk. But even this has its consequences as Harsent, who drives a gullwing roadster with a barely-concealed automatic weapon in the boot, turns out to be a semi-retired detective in the ‘Transgression Investigation Department, Dearth Seignioral Police’. Not only does she insist on telling him extensive details of a cold case that she was involved in because it will give him material for his writing but it also transpires that she is incredibly prejudiced against serfs leading to his blunt admission that he is a ‘citizen serf’, which provokes the following exchange:

‘I’m embarrassed – I assumed you were a professional, a vassal.’

‘That’s just your assumption,’ I said. ‘Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m a writer. All writers are serfs.’

Subsequently, Fremde gets back to his home island of Salay Raba and over the following days all seems back to normal apart from the fact that there is no sign of his expenses and fee from the University of Dearth. But then, once more against his better judgement, he finds himself slowly dragged into the ongoing fallout of the cold case that Harsent insisted on describing to him and the attendant complications of twins, magicians and illusory perfect crimes. None of which is helped by the financial collapse and run on the banks, which threatens to destabilise the economy of the entire Archipelago that Fremde may have inadvertently triggered through his mutability transgressions. All of this is great fun, narrated with deadpan irony to characteristic understated comic effect; but with a marked political charge. 

The feudal class system of the Dream Archipelago has never been laid out so starkly as in the drop-down list of ‘social level’ options that Fremde accesses at one point in the proceedings: ‘Serf, Citizen Serf, Villein, Squire, Vassal, Corvée Provider, Cartage Provider, Demesne Landed, Knight, Manorial Landed, Baron, Seignior.’ Although, amusingly, magicians are categorised as a separate category of ‘Mountebank’. In The Evidence, this outdated class system is linked with finance as a manifestation of mutability, which is both a real and unreal process that happens or is thought to happen: ‘best understood as existing somewhere between quantum physics and psychology’. 

The unexpected appearance of the medieval term ‘Vassal’ in contemporary British usage presents an example of this kind of simultaneously real and unreal existence. It is used to express the concern of Brexiteers, such as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, not to be reduced to the status of vassals of the European Union regardless of the fact that this is neither a likely outcome nor necessarily an undesirable one. That this kind of absurdity now constitutes the political reality of the UK is a reflection of the state of affairs described in a recent book, This is Not Normal: The Collapse of Liberal Britain (2020), by William Davies, Professor of Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. Davies posits that the mismatch between ever-expanding digital data and timebound analogue frames of meaning is generating ‘escalating opportunities for conflict over the nature of reality’. This strikes me as essentially the same phenomenon that Priest describes as mutability. Fremde might have been tasked with the seemingly paradoxical task of talking about the role of the modern crime novel in a crime-free society but Priest sets himself the even more difficult problem of writing about the relationship between illusion and reality in a world in which the distinction between them has collapsed. Somehow, by sleight of genre and time-honed skill, he achieves this, and order is restored at the end of The Evidence with revels ended as all is mended. The dream still works even as all falls apart around us.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set on the planet Gethin, also known as Winter where there is no sexual difference between people apart from a monthly period of kemmer. When the androgynous Gethenians meet in kemmer, hormonal secretions increase so that either male or female dominance is established in one and the partner takes on the other sexual role: 

Normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role in kemmer; they do not know whether they will be the male or the female and have no choice in the matter. (Otie Nim wrote that in the Orgoreyn region the use of hormone derivatives to establish a preferred sexuality is quite common; I haven’t seen this done in rural Karhide.). Once the sex is determined it cannot change … If the individual was in the female role and was impregnated, hormonal activity of course continues, and for the 8.4 month gestation period and the 6 to 8 month lactation period this individual remains female. … With the cessation of lactation the female … becomes once more a perfect androgyne. No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more. (91)

Thus read the field notes of Ong Tot Oppong of the Hainish Ekumen on her initial observations concerning the sexual life of the Gethenians. These notes are in the possession of Genly Ai, who has openly come to Gethen as an ambassador from the Ekumen with the purpose of inviting the Gethenians to join the wider interstellar community. ‘The Question of Sex’ – as the chapter in which Ong’s notes appear is titled – is the aspect of The Left Hand of Darkness which has attracted most attention over the near half century since its original publication.

Front cover of the first edition, with art by the Dillons. Cover depicts two faces against an abstract background.

I was going to begin this review by arguing that ‘if Heinlein’s line “the door dilated” is often presented as an example of the cognitive estrangement of 1940s Golden Age SF, then Le Guin’s “The king was pregnant” is representative of a more profound late 1960s countercultural and feminist defamiliarisation’. But then I read China Miéville’s introduction to this new edition of Le Guin’s 1969 classic and discovered to my horror that not only does he make the exact same comparison, he also sums up its significance more effectively: ‘Heinlein renders one corridor strange: Le Guin reconfigures society’. For Miéville, the novel’s defamiliarisation of gender makes it unquestionably a precursor of the gender queerness and sexual fluidity of our twenty-first-century present. 

However, as he acknowledges, it was not always seen in such a radical light. Le Guin’s use of universal male pronouns to denote a society without a permanent sexual divide and therefore without a gender division, led to Joanna Russ, among others, criticising The Left Hand of Darkness for only containing men in practice. In In the Chinks of the World Machine (1988), Sarah Lefanu argues that the lack of sexual difference means that there is no historical dialectic and that the novel’s popularity is due to it simultaneously offering women a retreat from conflict back to the pre-Oedipal imaginary order while offering men the opportunity to roam freely unconstrained by the difficulties that arise from sexual difference. Adam Roberts went as far as to say, in Science Fiction (2000), that The Left Hand of Darkness is remarkably non-binary as a novel, with an appealing spirituality but an unengaging storyline, and mainly dependent on the quality of its world-building to attract readers’ imaginative and emotional investment.

In fact, The Left Hand of Darkness has long had all the hallmarks of one of those novels which one feels guiltily ashamed of uninhibitedly enjoying in private while publicly pretending indifference in order to fit in with the apparent critical consensus. There is something about all that apparently non-existent narrative tension concerning the fate of Genly’s mission and his relationship with the mysterious and enigmatic King’s Ear, Estraven, that makes one need to keep turning the pages even on the umpteenth rereading. The plot is not negligible by any means. The central irony that the rather backward kingdom of Karhide does eventually turn out to be more important to Genly than the apparently more modern and democratic Orgoreyn, is the inspiration for Iain M. Banks’s Culture-related planetary romance, Inversions (1998). And, of course, the Culture is also a society in which it is possible for the mother of several children to become the father of several more.

Continue reading “The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin”

Sideways in Time: A review

Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction, edited by Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel

Reviewed by Nick Hubble

On Friday 19 February 2016, Boris Johnson, wrote two drafts of an article intended for publication in the following Monday’s Daily Telegraph. The first argued in favour of Britain leaving the European Union; the second argued in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union (see Shipman 2016: 170-3, 609-18). As we know, Johnson opted to publish a redrafted version of the original, went on to become the figurehead of the successful Leave campaign and, in 2019, became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and then won a General Election by a landslide. But what if he’d published a polished version of the second article instead and decided to support Remain in the European referendum?

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