Le Guin on Atwood

I would like to believe that the gambit Ursula Le Guin deploys in her review of The Year of the Flood works:

In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can’t be science fiction, which is “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today”. This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.

Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.

Since she ends up calling the book “extraordinary”, however, it seems that it doesn’t count for that much in the end. On the other hand, she calls the book “extraordinary”, which bodes well for me as a reader.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Ursula Le Guin is two for two. It was her review of Jan Morris’ Hav that first pointed me in the direction of that wonderful book; and likewise her review that persuaded me to add Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which turns out to be nearly as good, to my wish-list. It is, of course, a love story, between a young Chinese woman and an older English man. 23 year-old Zhaung Xiao Qiao arrives in the UK one February (2003, I think), nervous and alone, fearing the future, to learn English at a school in Holburn, hardly even understanding why her parents have sent her. A little over a month into her stay she meets a man at a cinema in South Kensington, falls easily and comprehensively in love, and as a result of a miscommunication ends up moving in with him. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is Z’s story over the following year, up to the point where her visa expires. It’s presented as a diary-stroke-language-notebook; Z carries with her a Chinese-English dictionary, and later, a Collins Concise English Dictionary, at all times, and often refers to them in her attempts to understand and describe the world around her. Chapter headings (e.g. “romance”) are taken from the latter, with accompanying definitions (“fantasy, fiction, legend, novel, story, tale; exaggeration, falsehood, lie; ballad, idyll, song”), and the whole thing is written in the second person, addressed to the never-named man.

Which inevitably means that the most immediate thing about the book is the language in which it’s written. Here, for example, is part of Z’s first encounter with a full English breakfast:

What is this ‘baked beans’? White colour beans, in orange sticky sweet sauce. I see some baked bean tins in shop when I arrive to London yesterday. Tin food is very expensive to China. Also we not knowing how to open it. So I never ever try tin food. Here, right in front of me, this baked beans must be very expensive. Delicacy is baked beans. Only problem is, tastes like somebody put beans into mouth but spit out and back into plate. (17)

I concede this is probably the prose equivalent of Marmite, but I love it: particularly the innocent directness, the seeing-for-the-first-time-ness of it. Leaving aside the question of taste for a moment, however, there might also seem to be a question of authenticity. On the one hand, the artifice of this sort of writing, bad in very specific ways, is obvious: for example, it’s hard to believe that Z’s grammar would be so bad while her spelling is impeccable (although a few artfully misheard nouns are dropped into the text every so often — “rocksack”, “peterfile”). On the other hand, the book apparently grew out of a diary Guo herself kept when she moved to London (Concise Dictionary is her first novel to be written in English, although her seventh in total), which raises various questions but does at least suggest that the portrayal of the learning process is likely to be accurate. And an aspect that may seem the most contrived — the present tense; bear in mind that these are not Z’s thoughts as she is having them, they are entries written later in her notebook — is a consequence of incompletely translating Chinese thought into English. “Chinese, we not having grammar,” Z explains. “We saying things simple way. No verb-change usage, no tense differences, no gender changes. We bosses of our language” (24). The fact that Guo conveys the difficulties of translation so lightly is one of the most impressive things about the book, for me, and I think you have to respect at least that, even if you find Z’s voice to be nails-down-chalkboard grating. She does, of course, learn over the course of the year, but her position as a naive teller of truths never changes. This, for instance, is another breakfast, in Berlin:

The early morning air feels cold, like autumn coming. Occasionally, one or two old mans in a long coats walk aimlessly in the street, with the cigarettes in their lips. Under the highway there is bridge. By the bridge there is a sausage shop, lots of large mans queue there to get hot sausages. Gosh, they eat purely sausage in the morning! Even worse than English Breakfast. The morning wind is washing my brain, and my small body. This is a city with something really heavy and serious in its soul. This is a city which had big wars in the history. And, I feel, this is a city made for mans, and politics, and disciplines. Like Beijing. (218)

Again, it’s characteristic of Z’s writing — the fresh phrases that seem careless (“The morning wind is washing my brain”), the odd but valid word choices (“Gosh”), the unabashedly obvious observations (“This is a city which had big wars in the history”). There is something memorable on nearly every page of the book. Walking home one night, Z observes that “Also, the robbers robbing the people even poorer than them. In China we believe ‘rob the rich to feed the poor’. But robbers here have no poetry” (42). They may not, but Z does – the poetry of an acute observer, plain in everything from her descriptions of a pub to her consternation on discovering that her man is a vegetarian, to her reaction to a David Lynch double bill. In a number of ways, Z is not an easy character to love — apart from anything else, she is stubborn, and rude – but she is always sharply aware and, at least from a reader’s remove, inescapably charming.

Which is not to imply that this is always a comfortable book, though it is one with an extremely generous view of human nature (certainly in contrast to, oh I don’t know, The Inheritance of Loss). By far the majority of the people Z encounters are good-hearted, even if they sometimes can’t resist teasing her; only twice, during a solo jaunt around Europe, does she encounter someone who tries to take advantage of her, and while the encounters are unpleasant, they are not irretrievably horrific. And if Z is frequently baffled by the world she finds around her, she is not intimidated by it. In fact, she is often indignant in the face of it. “English is a sexist language … always talking about mans, no womans” (26), she observes — although despite this awareness her view of what constitutes a relationship is extremely conservative (at least in our terms; more on this below). Moreover, she’s always conscious of the distance between herself and her man: “You a man of free world. I am not free, like you” (113); “In the West, in this country, I am barbarian, illiterate peasant girl, a face of third world, and irresponsible foreigner” (153); “You are boss of yourself, so you have dignity” (184). Strung together like that, such moments look obtrusive, but in fact they are more often grace notes to scenes about other things. Which is to say that they describe the reality of Z’s life — we’re put in her man’s shoes; we can’t ignore what she says — but not the extent of it. (Again, the contrast with Desai’s novel couldn’t be more striking.)

The fear at the heart of such worries, though, inevitably informs her relationship. Here we come back to love. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is built around a distinction expressed with particular elegance, to my mind, in KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, between love that exists “as a mutal sentiment or not at all” and implies “a voluntary blending of identities”, and love that denotes “two travellers meeting, enjoying each other’s company, then parting and moving on.” Z and her man do love, with joy and vigour, but — it becomes increasingly clear — in different ways, ways that have an awful lot to do with their differing backgrounds. To Z, love is a mutual act, a commitment that abolishes privacy and (for example) entitles her to read her man’s diaries, and enables her to blithely tell him that she’s done so. Love is about creating a home, a family, and a future: the three are inextricably related, aspects of an incompletely translated cultural inheritance, and lead to the conservatism I mentioned earlier. Love as security, as community. But the man Z has fallen in love with is more casual — as Z notes, he can afford to be. He is something of a bohemian, an artist who’s drifted through his life believing “the future only comes when it comes”, that nothing is forever; he values his independence. To him, love is about the preciousness of the present moment, not the promise of the future.

In other words, the lovers occupy positions opposite to those staked out by their native languages, an irony that defines their relationship. Z is so engaging that we badly want to see her grow into a more complete sense of self: but we fear that in doing so she will almost certainly doom her relationship, despite the fact that said relationship is the original catalyst for her growth. In fact it is specifically the physical relationship that is the catalyst. Z’s descriptions of sex, whether going right or going wrong, are as refreshingly matter-of-fact as her descriptions of everything else; and though her initial understanding, both of the act and the emotional paraphernalia it requires, is limited, she’s a quick study. She goes to a peep show, and has a lot of sex with her lover, and starts to explore her own body, and along the way she begins to believe in her own independence. More and more, this (as we feared it might) hems her into an absurd, uplifting, heartbreaking paradox: a catch-22 of love. Almost miraculously, Guo finds an honest resolution — one good enough that the other books shortlisted for the Orange Prize are going to have to go some if they want to replace A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers in my affections.

Vector #90

New Worlds (re the comments in your interview) was not aiming to take sf into the mainstream or move towards ‘personal’ (subjective technique as opposed to objective) fiction. We were hoping to borrow sf’s interest in the objective world and use that impulse in subtler ways. The U.S. ‘new wave’ was primarily a move towards subjective romanticism a la Pynchon, and I for one found this move depressing. Personal images are one thing. Writing about the self is another. VORTEX didn’t fail through lack of money – it failed through lack of faith and lack of professionalism. I heartily agree with you that new names are worthless in themselves unless they are connected with fresh ideas and talent. Asimov’s is building up a stable of hacks. It’s disappointing.

Michael Moorcock

Vector #67/68

Yet I believe that my hestitation, my instinctive distrust of these three volumes in the university library, was well-founded. To put it in the book’s own terms: Something of great inherent power, even if wholly good in itself, may work destruction if used in ignorance, or at the wrong time. One must be ready; one must be strong enough.

I envy those who, born later than I, read Tolkien as children — my own children among them. I certainly have had no scruples about exposing them to it at a tender age, when their resistance is minimal. To have known, at age ten or thirteen, of the existence of Ents, and of Lothlorian — what luck!

But very few children (fortunately) are going to grow up to write fantastic novels; and despite my envy, I count it lucky that I, personally, did not, and could not have, read Tolkien before I was twenty-five. Because I really wonder if I could have handled it.

From the age of nine, I was writing fantasy, and I never wrote anything else. It wasn’t in the least like anybody else’s fantasy. I read whatever imaginative fiction I could get hold of then — Astounding Stories, and this and that: Dunsany was the master, the man with the keys to the gates of horn and ivory, so far as I knew. But I read everything else too, and by twenty-five, if I had any admitted masters or models in the art of fiction, in the craft of writing, they were Tolstoy and Dickens. But my immodesty was equalled by my evasiveness, for I had kept my imagination quite to myself. I had no models there. I never tried to write like Dunsany, nor even like Astounding, once I was older than twelve. I had somewhere to go and, as I saw it, I had to get there by myself.

If I had known that one was there before me, one very much greater than myself, I wonder if I would have had the witless courage to go on.

But the time I read Tolkien, however, though I had not yet written anything of merit, I was old enough, and had worked long and hard enough at my craft, to be set in my ways: to know my own way. even the sweep and force of that incredible imagination could not dislodge me from my own little rut and carry me, like Gollum, scuttling and whimpering along behind. — So far as writing is concerned, I mean. When it comes to reading, there’s a different matter. I open the book, the great wind blows, the Quest begins, I follow. . . .

It is no matter of wonder that so many people are bored by, or detest, The Lord of the Rings. For one thing, there was the faddism of a few years ago — Go Go Gandalf — enough to turn anybody against it. Judged by any of the Seven Types of Ambiguity that haunt the groves of Academe, it is totally inadequate. For those who seek allegory, it must be maddening. (It must be an allegory! Of course Frodo is Christ! — Or is Gollum Christ?) For those whose grasp on reality is so tenuous that they crave ever-increasing doses of ‘realism’ in their reading, it offers nothing — unless, perhaps, a shortcut to the looney bin. And there are many subtler reasons for disliking it; for instance the peculiar rhythm of the book, its continual alternation of distress and relief, threat and reassurance, tension and relaxation: this rocking-horse gait (which is precisely what makes the huge book readable to a child of nine or ten) may well not suit a jet-age adult. And there’s Aragon, who is a stuffed shirt; and Sam, who keeps saying ‘sir’ to Frodo until one begins to have mad visions of founding a Hobbit Socialist Party; and there isn’t any sex. And there is the Problem of Evil, which some people think Tolkien muffs completely. Their arguments are superficially very good. They are the same arguments which Tolkien completely exploded, thereby freeing Beowulf forever from the dead hands of the pedants, in his brilliant 1934 article, “The Monsters and the Critics” — an article which anyone who sees Tolkien as a Sweet Old Dear, by the way, would do well to read.

Those who fault Tolkien on the Problem of Evil are usually those who have an answer to the Problem of Evil — which he did not. What kind of answer, after all, is it to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano? No ideologues, not even religious ones, are going to be happy with Tolkien, unless they manage it by misreading him. For like all great artists he escapes ideology by being too quick for its nets, too complex for its grand simplicities, too fantastic for its rationality, too real for its generalisations. They will no more keep Tolkien labelled and pickled in a bottle than they will Beowulf, or the Elder Edda, or the Odyssey.

It does not seem right to grieve at the end of so fulfilled a life. Only, when we get to the end of the book, I know I will have to put on a stiff frown so that little Ted will not notice that I am in tears when I read the last lines:

“…. He went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Home drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

“He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

Ursula Le Guin

A comment or two on Brian Aldiss’ excellent essay on H.G. Wells ((in V65)). I wouldn’t agree that William Golding’s The Inheritors is the first masterpiece dealing with prehistoric man. There are at least two earlier, one French — La Guerre du Feu by H-H. Rosny Aîné, first published in 1908 — and one Danish, the earlier sections of Den Lange Rejse by Johannes V. Jensen, which appeared not many years later. A fairly good English translation of the latter exists under the title The Longest Journey. I don’t know about English versions of the Rosny (except for its not quite so good sequel) but a handsome reissue of it was published in 1956 and may still be in print. Both deserve the highest recommendation.

Then elsewhere Brian declares: “A mass audience expects to be pandered to. Wells never pandered.” But he had a mass audience — as did Shakespeare, Conrad, Kipling, and any number of others — which seems to deny the first sentence. It isn’t only hucksters who underrate the public taste; the intelligentsia do it even more.

Poul Anderson

I hate being pushed into the position of defending Causes but somebody’s got to. I am a coward at this, but I’m also offended. On p.6 ((of VECTOR 64) I got to a joke in Phil Dick’s article about rape — which is about as funny as lynching — and wondered why female sexuality is such a tittery subject. It isn’t for women (although we sometimes laugh at men’s jokes about rape, usually nervously), and women never tell such jokes among themselves/ourselves, nor do we find rape funny at all when talking among ourselves. “Let us hope it is a female sewing machine” — the obligatory nervous/macho assurance that he isn’t queer, by God! (although many of the readers of VECTOR must be, by simple statistics) […]

Joanna Russ

[…] Honest to God, the blasted inanity of it! “Regrettably” past the menopause. Tee hee again. What on earth is regrettable about it or magical about it or so utterly embarrassing about it that grown men revert back to nine-year-olds? I am tempted to say, rather savagely, that if Dick (or Lem) had any idea of what it means to live in a society which has no reliable (or until recently legal) method of allowing you to control your fertility and all sorts of exquisitely awful ways of punishing you for it (from botched abortions to illegitimacy to losing your job to sole care of any and all children for 18 or more years after birth to viciously enforced guilt over not keeping a baby) they would not make these jokes. But if they had any idea of the above they would, of course, be feminists like me & would be writing letters like this to other idiots.

Joanna Russ

Vector #65

Dear Malcolm,

I really don’t understand James Blish: is his memory failing him, is he fishing for compliments in a very curious way, or has his dislike for me reached such heights that his reasoning powers have suffered? (++ Puzzled readers are referred to Vector 62, p. 34 ++) I could answer him that he underrates me: he has no idea of what expressions of contempt I am capable when he thinks I have treated him with the utmost contempt “up to now”. But such flippancy probably isn’t necessary. Besides, what he says simply isn’t true; for one thing, James Blish hardly is in a position to pass any judgement on all I have written about him, for the simple reason that there undoubtedly is much that he has never seen; and while most of it is unfavourable, not everything is unfavourable. As to the specific case of Solaris, I have quite explicitly commented (in a letter to him) on several points of his F&SF review that I thought especially perceptive; so why should Blish now be “stunned” to find his name included in an enumeration of people who liked Solaris; or indeed, why should he think such a mere listing has any special significance either for him or me? And that makes me the devil who would quote Scriptures?

I must also deny that my favourite word “for the rest of us” is “dishonesty”: my favourite word probably is “hack”. I may have used “dishonesty” one or two times, and if Blish wants to assert that I used it more often than that, or more often than hack, he is invited to count it. It seems to me that Blish may be allergic to this word since he himself likes to apply it to such journals as Time Magazine or Partisan Review; but I certainly once accused him of literary cheating.

What I’d like to know of Mr Blish now is whether he includes the fact that I translated his “Cathedrals in Space” in my German language fanzine, or that we made him a German offer for A Case Of Conscience among the alleged “expressions of utmost contempt”? It’s of course Mr Blish’s privilege as an author to prefer bad translations to good, a paperback deal to a combined hardcover/paperback sale, and the publisher of Lewis B. Patton, Dorothy Eden and Poul Anderson to the publisher of T.S. Eliot, Hermann Hesse and James Joyce; but the fact that we made him an offer is hardly evidence for his claims and I should also think that offering somebody a contract is of somewhat greater significance than a few remarks in the most ephemeral of publications, the sf fanzines.

Franz Rottensteiner

Dear Malcolm, I was glad to see your discussion of the last Hugo awards, disseminating the information Locus gave us. I have felt extremely unhappy about the whole thing, ever since I read that Locus. It is almost impossible to say anything about it, though, and I don’t know who to say it to. I do immensely appreciate the honor — it is a real honor — of being nominated and voted for by all those people, all those strangers who have “met” one only in one’s book — it gives me a pleasure that no nomination or award from a selected jury could give. But this “Australian ballot” (my conviction is that it’s called that because it turns everything upside down) spoils it all. My novel, which clearly placed a poor third, comes in second; Anne McCaffrey’s, which as clearly placed first, comes in third! Well, all that juggling and recounting is supposed, I suppose, to insure justice. But it doesn’t. First place is first place, and when people vote for it that’s what they want — and that is the only place the business end of science fiction, the editors ad publishers, are going to pay any attention to at all. They couldn’t care less who makes second, third, and fourth; all they care about is The Prize. I think the book that received the most votes for The Prize should get the prize. And, if justice or consolation is what the Hugo committee are after, then perhaps they could designate all the second-third-fourth-fifth people, the runners-up, as “Hugo Honor Books” or something, as the Newbery Awards committee has recently taken to doing.

As it is, I haven’t been able to bring myself to vote on the Hugo nomination at all yet this year, because I have this feeling that however I vote they will add it up to come out to just the opposite of what I meant!

Your reply to Chistopher Evans’ letter in No.62 is absolutely right — for England! — but alas, not for America. There are a few excellent reviews (Horn Book for instance) and reviewers, but in egneral writing for children puts one in a ghetto just as writing sf does: and people say to me with hearty camaraderie, “I know you write for children, do you write real books too?” In fact, to put it rather crudely but I think accurately, literature for children here is considered woman’s work — in every sense of the word.

Ursula Le Guin