I mean, what you’re escaping to is death and fear and destruction and love, but the worldbuilding is particularly impressive.
One of the benefits of growing older is that you collect authors as you go. Instead of slumping through an inexhaustible backlog great authors compiled before I was born, I now have a handful whose product I can pick up fresh, confident that the prose is clear, the characters well-developed, and the story twisty and powerful. Naomi Novik is one of those authors.
I read Uprooted in one cold January day and fell deeply in love with its expert tension-building, its magic-for-a-steep-price, and the strange, pleasing depth of the world Novik builds out of scraps of folktales. Her talents are on display in the not-really-sequel out now, Spinning Silver. She draws from Rumpelstiltskin (a tiny folktale you shoulddefinitely read first), but it’s not a fairytale retelling — classifying it as such takes away from Novik’s creativity. She uses Rumpelstiltskin as the spiritual base of the book, but the folktale only gives to the novel what onions give to a beef stew — a great stock, an important savor permeating the whole, but most of the nutritive value is added by Novik herself. It’s not a sly retelling but a brand new story, influenced by but not indebted to its source.
Spinning Silver centers on three women who are very similar, but are in very different circumstances. All three are marginalized, and the book is the story of how all three found themselves in an intolerable situation and refused to continue tolerating it. It’s a story of how they got angry. It’s a story of how they got revenge. Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, Irina is the daughter of a Duke, and Wanda is the poor daughter of an abusive drunk. Their paths intertwine throughout the story, and I don’t want to get bogged down on plot here (it’s Naomi Novik — the plot is good, trust), but I do want to look at her worldbuilding.
I’m not even sure it’s named for the first part of the book, but Lithvas is a vaguely Slavic non-place, a land where the winters have been growing worse and worse, a land where sometimes a strange silver road can be glimpsed through the trees, the road of the Staryk, people of ice and hardness who come off the road to hunt treasure, to hunt gold, to hunt people. The first 100 pages of the book, there’s not even a whole lot of magic. It’s Miryem collecting debts and logging them in her book, Irina preparing to be married off to the tsar, and Wanda trying to protect her small raw nub of a family from any further depredations of her drunk, greedy father (she most especially does not want to be sold in marriage for a few goats). The first fourth of the book is filled with the concerns of a vaguely post-Medieval Renaissance town, with weirdness peeping out here and there through the pages like the Staryk road through the trees. It’s people worrying about their crops, worrying about their futures, trading in the market, cooking food for dinner. Novik builds her character’s lives on a broad, heavy base of normalcy so that when Miryem gets whisked away by the Staryk king to his glass mountain in the middle of a timeless frozen waste, it doesn’t feel fanciful. The description of fishing in the ice pools for silver fish and of gathering sweet fruit from snowtrees in the mountain’s core mirrors the more mundane growing of rye and boiling of kasha already described earlier. Novik’s attention to the “factual” underpinning of her world gives the fantastic aspects a better foundation to fly from. If one of the characters needed a weapon (they don’t, at least not a conventional one) they might get a magic sword, but they wouldn’t have just plucked it out of a stone. They would have saved for it, brought the strange metal to an accomplished smith, and spent hours honing and oiling the blade. Novik shows the work that goes into achievement, even in a fantasy setting.
This book is great. It has strong, swift prose, appealing characters, and a plot so quick and twisty that, at the end of it, I’m worried that I cheated myself by reading too fast, like scarfing down a particularly amazing sandwich. What really stands out to me though is Novik’s skill with detail. She supplies not too much, and not too little, and equally when describing workaday and fantastical events. She goes into the nuts and bolts of it, and this attention gives a reality and weight to her work that is one of its chiefest pleasures.
Her early work (Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions) contains all the pulpy goodness of 60s SF but is still distinctly Le Guin.
Science Fiction is beautiful. It can transport you to a planet of endless winter, make you feel the cold air prickle your lungs, see the strange clear emptiness of the sky. Science Fiction is powerful. It can make you question the foundations of human identity. Sturgeon’s Law, posited by Theodore Sturgeon in response to attacks on the quality of SF, states that 90% of everything is crap (including the High Literature from whose peaks some critics scold speculative fiction). He’s not wrong. In my early 20s I was under a different impression — almost all the SF I read at that point was steeped in beauty and shot through with clarity, because I was reading mostly Le Guin. Science Fiction, as practiced by Ursula K. Le Guin, is perfection, even in her early days when she was still finding her footing.
I picked up the Library of America 2-volume Hainish Novels and Stories a while back. It is a breathtaking example of just how beautiful physical books can be, and it contains most of Le Guin’s SF novels and many of her stories. After a few months just staring at the talismanic presence above my desk, I actually opened vol. I and read the first three novels of her Hainish cycle — Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions.
The three books are a loosely related trilogy chronicling the efforts of the League of All Worlds to prepare for the oncoming Enemy, their subsequent failure, and what happens next. The books don’t bother with the actual war, fiery space battles, or high statecraft. The collapse of galactic society happens almost in the background, and Le Guin focuses on the small, human stories of those who have to live through it.
In Rocannon’s World, the title ethnologist is sent to further study Fomalhaut II, an unadvanced planet whose people the League is attempting to train up for use in the coming War. His ship is destroyed by rebel elements, and the novel is him journeying across the strange planet to find a way to notify the League and retaliate.
In Planet of Exile, Terran colonists came to the planet Werel to bring the inhabitants into the League, again in an attempt to build their strength for the coming War with the Enemy. The war starts right after they land, and some of them take the ship and go back to help. The book starts 600 years later and follows the interactions between the native Tevar, a semi-nomadic culture whose major variance from Terran-standard is catlike eyes, and the colonial remnants, who call themselves Alterrans. Distrust becomes grudging respect becomes unity as both cultures work together to prepare for the dual threat of the oncoming (15-year-long) winter and barbarians who are marauding their way south.
In City of Illusions, the victory of the Enemy and the dissolution of the League is an established fact. The Shing control Earth and have made it fallow — the population is sparse, great forests and prairies are reclaiming forgotten cities, and humanity lives in small enclaves scattered throughout the wilderness. If they attempt to build anything of greatness (advanced science, a spaceship, a true civilization) the Shing wipe them out. Enter Falk, a man with cat’s eyes who wakes with no memory in the middle of the Eastern Forest. He spends five years with the kindly House who nursed him back to health, and then he goes on a mission to the Shing city of Es Toch (apparently in Colorado) to find out who he was.
The greatness of these novels isn’t so much their plot — the outline for 1 and 3 are fairly basic journey narratives, and book 2 is a forbidden love Romeo/Juliet thing with barbarians thrown in. It’s not the plot, though, it’s what you do with it. Shakespeare stole the plot of Hamlet outright from Thomas Kyd, a guy whose name no one knows. The framework, the general structure of the story is not what’s important here. It’s what Ursula Le Guin does with it. Steak is a basic foodstuff, but there’s a huge difference between well-done with ketchup and medium-rare with béarnaise sauce. The greatness of these early novels lies in Ursula’s knack for invention and cognitive estrangement, her descriptive power, and her anthropological depth.
Games of Perception
Cognitive estrangement is the gap between the reader’s reality and the alternate reality presented by Science Fiction — that rubber-band snap of “oh, that’s not how things are here” that serves as a jumping-off point for further reflection. Le Guin is a master of it. Throughout these books, there is a shifting of perspective, both between the “what is” of reality and the “what is not” of fiction, and between our perception of basic objects and how an alien or far-future society might see those items. That second part, where the characters in the story don’t recognize futuristic objects, isn’t technically cognitive estrangement, it’s more dramatic irony, but the effect is still intriguing.
Erkar — In City of Exile, Rolery, a member of the nomadic Tevar tribe, has married into the Terran colonist society and sees a picture that confuses her. She asks what it is.
“And that?” [asked Rolery]
“I listen again,” Rolery said politely — she was on her best manners at every moment now — but when Seiko Esmit seemed not to understand the formality, she asked, “What is an erkar?”
The farborn woman pushed out her lips a little and said indifferently, “A…thing to ride in, like a…well, you don’t even use wheels, how can I tell you? You’ve seen our wheeled carts? Yes? Well, this was a cart to ride in, but it flew in the sky.
An aircar — the way Le Guin constructed this exchange, the reader’s realization of what the erkar is hits at the same moment that Rolery’s does. It’s a wonderful piece of narrative.
The entire United States — In City of Illusions, Terran society fell over a millennium ago. Everything the main character sees on his journey is after centuries of degradation. When he crosses the Mississippi from a tributary river on a glider, he sees it as we never could:
“The days and the river went on, flowing with him, until on one still gray afternoon the world opened slowly out and out into an awesome breadth, an immense plain of muddy waters under an immense sky: the confluence of the forest river with the Inland River. It was no wonder they had heard of the Inland River even in the deep ignorance of their isolation hundreds of miles back east in the Houses: it was so huge even the Shing could not hide it. A vast and shining desolation of yellow-gray waters spread from the last crowns and islets of the flooded forest on and on west to a far shore of hills. Falk soared like one of the river’s low-flying blue herons over the meeting-place of the waters. He landed on the western bank and was, for the first time in his memory, out of the forest.”
In the far future of humanity, after the collapse, even something as well-known as the Mississippi River is shrouded in rumor and darkness, an unexpected glory to behold. On a barbarian planet, a local woman is completely unfamiliar with the concept of a flying vehicle. This dissociation between how things are and how things could be and the tension between the two is vastly pleasurable, and instances of this happen again and again throughout Le Guin’s work.
Exploding Starships and the Mississippi River
Other authors bring you to another world. Le Guin plants that world right inside you — she has such a strong conception of place and such power of description that she can make whatever she’s describing part of you. The passage about the Mississippi River above is one example. Another is the very beginning of Rocannon’s World, in which Rocannon’s ship is destroyed right off:
“A high tree of blinding white grew quickly, soundlessly up the sky from behind South Ridge. Guards on the towers of Hallan Castle cried out, striking bronze on bronze. Their small voices and clangor of warning were swallowed by the roar of sound, the hammerstroke of wind, the staggering of the forest.”
She could have just written, “Rocannon’s ship exploded.” Instead, she takes a few extra sentences to describe the harsh light of the explosion, the reaction of the indigenous people, the wash of sound and wind, the shaking of the trees — Le Guin anchors the reader so solidly in the world she builds that the only comparable talent I can think of is Tolkien.
Le Guin and Leakey
The sheer depth of the alternate societies in Le Guin’s work sets her apart from lesser SF writers, and that talent is on display here. The rules, structure, and mores of every place that Le Guin writes about are clear and intricate, and indicate an attention to detail lacking in a lot of other speculative fiction. All three books are filled with multiple societies, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll focus on fragments of two of them:
Rocannon’s World is inhabited by a stratified, medieval-level society. The dark-skinned, light-haired Angyar rule over the light-skinned, dark-haired Olgyior in a feudal system filled with castles, blood-oaths, forays, and marriage pacts. When all of Rocannon’s friends and colleagues are murdered, Mogien, the Angyar lord he’s been staying with and studying, pledges his sword to the defense of the League (against interstellar bombers). As Mogien drinks in sympathy with Rocannon, he states, “May our enemy die without sons,” which is a perfect, jewel-bright encapsulation of their society — what greater curse in a rigid patriarchy than to die without sons?
Planet of Exile has the Tevar, the indigenous semi-nomadic people who spend the long summer in tents in the Summerlands, and only come together as one in the Winter City, an underground warren where their grain stores are buried. In order to start clan meetings, everyone bangs on rocks in the stone circle in a cacophony until the chief comes and starts banging his own rock. Those to the right and left of him match his rhythm until everyone is hitting in unison. Any meeting starts with a mystical invocation of its ultimate goal — unity and agreement.
Le Guin builds societies of such complexity and detail that it feels like they would exist even if we weren’t there to watch. Their foundations are stone-solid and deep.
The Late Pulpalignean Era
These three books are early, not as polished, from the “Late Pulpalignean Era” as Le Guin calls it. The pulpiness is part of what I love about these though — the laser guns and barbarians. As Le Guin advanced through her career, she moved more away from violence and pulp (in her two masterpieces, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, I don’t think the protagonist kills anyone at all. In fact, the latter is mostly an alien physicist talking to other alien physicists), but in these, people burn down castles, stab each other, burn peoples’ heads off with laser guns, and just generally treat the reader to a smorgasbord of aggression. These books are still distinctly Le Guin, with their tight prose, strong sense of place, and anthropological depth, but they have a pleasant roughness to them, like a chunk of amethyst pulled straight from the living Earth.
It’s here. One of the most impressive cinematic feats in the history of film — the capstone of a ten-year cycle of eighteen interrelated films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has built such a gallery of heroes that they can pick and choose whomever they want for this party. The MCU also has an impressive track record when it comes to set-piece action scenes. Does Infinity War bring together all the threads of the series into the greatest sweater ever knit, a flawless action extravaganza to satisfy even the most rabid fan? Well, kinda.
Mild spoilers follow. Massive spoilers at the end of this thing, but there’ll be a big warning.
There’s a lot of running in this movie
The action itself is peerless. I won’t analyze each action scene, mostly because I lost track, but after a decade of practice the people behind the MCU really know how to put superhero powers on display. There’s a particular scene in which War Machine hovers above the combat, every doodad and whatsit on that over-soldered monstrosity deployed, raining hellfire — an apotheosis of violence and spectacle so pure that it becomes art. Dr. Strange is also impressive — of all the heroes, he seems the one most able to go toe to toe with Thanos with an inventive mystic arsenal. Iron Man has built himself some type of nano-suit (that suit has got to be his midlife-crisis Camaro, the way he won’t stop tinkering with it) whose flexibility and cache of new weaponry lends a pleasant variety to any Iron Man scenes.
Too Much of a Great Thing
The film doesn’t take long to run into a problem anyone who has made the mistake of eating a pizza by themselves is intimately familiar with — two slices are amazing, five is folly, and the whole pie is just exhaustion and regret. The film creates action exhaustion after about forty-five minutes. Each fight is amazing, the culmination of ten years of careful buildup, but like, all at once? Right now? For Christ’s sake, put some in the fridge for breakfast tomorrow. The high-stakes action-adventure explosionism almost completely shoves out any part of the movie that might be described as character-driven. Sure, it’s there, each marquee hero gets five minutes with the person s/he cares about to build narrative tension, but then they just run off to punch things. Punch things in an innovative, entertaining, incredible way, but still just punch things. The directors are aware of this — they insert a bit of comedy when, in the ultimate battle, Captain America sees Thor for the first time in years and they exchange a rushed hey-how-you-doing bro greeting before they have to get back to punching (again, amazing punching. Tremendous punching. Punching like you wouldn’t believe…but still, just punching). Take Black Panther for comparison. That film had the same great punch choreography, but it was also primarily character-driven. T’Challa was driven by the loss of a father and doubt of the legacy of his family and his country, and Killmonger was driven by a rage and pain beaten into him over decades. When the two of them meet, it’s about more than their fists. It’s really not in Infinity War. It’s about Thanos.
Never Trust a Man with a Big Magic Glove
Well, it’s not so much about Thanos as it is about stopping Thanos. He gets a few shreds of backstory like everyone else, but the problem is that while the other characters have ten years of worldbuilding stiffening them, Thanos is just that guy who wants to kill half of the universe, because trauma. There was a planet or something, who cares. Hey, did you see his Big Magic Glove?
Fighting Thanos is only a couple steps above fighting the literal abstract concept of death, which isn’t such a popcorn-eating dynamic. The best movies have antagonists who are as fully developed as the heroes (cf. Black Panther). Thanos is none of that. He’s “oh god oh god we’re all gonna die!” poured into a purple CGI suit. Come on, even his name — Thanatos is the Greek god of death.
Anyway, Thanos sucks as a villain, but again, it’s still a lot of fun to watch people punch him. Tony Stark and Dr. Strange banter a bit, then punch Thanos. Tony and Spider-Man banter, and then they both punch Thanos. It’s all great summer blockbuster fare, but it feels formulaic, and it’s a shame because the very best of the MCU movies manage to rise above that.
I’ll use my infinite power to remake the universe, but first could you open this jar of pickles for me?
Not only is Thanos a hollow character, but his main weapon makes no sense. The Infinity Gauntlet is a great concept — it harnesses the power of the Infinity Stones, giving the bearer ultimate power over every aspect of existence so long as they have all the stones. The problem is, even without the gauntlet being complete, having just a few stones (which Thanos has for most of the movie) should make him unbeatable. One example: the Reality Stone gives the bearer the power to alter reality. When all the assembled heroes are wailing on him in the climax, why doesn’t he just change the reality to one where he’s not repeatedly getting punched in his big purple face? When he used the Power Stone to throw a moon at Iron Man, why didn’t he just hit Iron Man directly with enough force to liquefy his bones? Oh? Because there’d be no movie then? Fair enough, but whenever that’s the excuse it takes something away from the narrative.
Massive Spoilers Follow — View Movie Before Proceeding
Also, the way the ending shakes out means the stakes are meaningless. Thanos succeeds and uses his Big Magic Glove to wipe half of the people in the universe out of existence. They just disintegrate into nothingness, including half of the assembled superheroes. If Captain America and Iron Man died, there would be actual concern about whether they’d come back or not. The people who died though already have other movies slated for release. Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, each of whom have just one solo entry in the MCU? T’Challa, the lead for one of the most wildly successful movies in the entire series? No. Their dust hadn’t even hit the ground before it was obvious they would be resurrected, which will be a pretty cheap way to start the next movie, right up there with “it was all a dream!”
The movie is definitely an achievement, and if you’re not a sourpuss you’ll enjoy it. The sheer scope of the film — tying together the disparate threads of eighteen other movies — is impressive, but the frame holding everything together starts creaking by the end. The lack of human, character-driven action at the center of the movie makes it feel so clearly like a constructed thing, a work of artifice. The unrelatable villain who wields a power with no rules and whose ultimate success exists just to give superheroes something to undo in the sequel doesn’t help the situation. It’s not the best sweater ever made, but it’ll still keep you warm. It’s just one arm is shorter than the other, and the bottom hem is unraveling. Ah well. It was a well-done action blockbuster, and seeing Captain America run around with a beard and long hair is, by itself, worth the ticket price.
Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation is the story of Jane McKeene, a seventeen-year-old who attends the premiere ladies’ school in all of Maryland, Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls. Young women go there to learn proper tea service and the most efficient way to separate a zombie’s head from its body. It is set in the decades after the Civil War, which ended in a very different way in this alternate history. At Gettysburg, slain soldiers rose up and began eating the living, so both sides banded together to repel the zombie threat. Humanity lives in a handful of fortified cities — Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. The West is wild and open, but dangerously unprotected. The Lost States of the South are, well, lost. The only way to live there is in a bunker. Congress signed the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, which made it mandatory for Native and African Americans to attend zombie-slaying schools and hold the line against the undead, continuing America’s history of forcing marginalized groups to perform vital nation-building services. I read it because N.K. Jemisin (who wrote the best epic fantasy of the decade) recommended it repeatedly, and because I have a weakness for postbellum alt-history zombie yarns.
Ireland’s pacing is top-notch. There’s nothing on this story but lean muscle. Each location, each character is described with only the words necessary to generate clear, vivid immersion. The narratives moves forward smoothly, impelled by alternating between the type of emotional involvement that YA does particularly well — the character you love is in a bad spot, is facing injustice or danger and you won’t be satisfied until you see how she gets out of it — and spare, bright action scenes like this one:
By the time I get to the girls I have a stitch in my side and my feet are screaming, but I push it all aside. I pick my way down the wall, jumping too early and dropping a sickle, nearly losing my balance when I hit the bottom. I grab my fallen weapon and pick my first target, a Negro girl wearing clothing that looks eerily like mine, and leap, sickle swinging to take the thing down. Here’s the thing. If these were my sickles, my beloved, sharp, well-weighted combat sickles, they would’ve gone through the shambler’s neck like a hot knife through lard. But these are not my sickles. So the blade gets stuck halfway, the beast snapping its teeth at me and clawing at my arms as it tries to get free. I place my foot behind the shambler’s and use my sickle to push it backward. Once it’s down I use a mule kick against the curved edge to force the blade through. The head goes rolling off down into the culvert and the body goes still.
Ireland somehow avoids breaking the sense of urgency and peril in the scene, even as the viewpoint character takes a paragraph to talk to herself about her sickles. Not quite sure how that magic works, but it does. The action is always satisfying, and each of Jane’s actions builds who she is.
* the relative speed of a zombie depends on how recently they turned — the newer, the faster
The Wind-Up Theory of Character Creation
Ireland builds her characters using minimal description. She gives an introductory sliver and then sets the character going. The clockwork engine of the narrative itself gives depth to the characters as they interact with each other. There’s the main character, Jane, who just wants to get home to protect her family. There’s her beautiful frenemy, Katherine, a fellow student at Miss Preston’s, whose dream is completing her education and becoming an Attendant (lady’s maid/zombie killer for the rich). There’s Jackson, the smuggler and once-sweetheart of Jane, who just wants to find out why his sister disappeared. There’s Gideon, the head scientist of a Midwest enclave who wants to use his knowledge to help humanity survive. Ireland introduces a character, gives a light description and an overriding motivation, and then, through interaction with each other and the narrative, who they are deepens, grows and changes. An example is the description of the white supremacist pastor who serves as the main antagonist of the book:
“The old man still smiles, thin red lips stretched garishly over large front teeth. His eyes are watery, the brown washed out to the color of a penny, his hair completely snow white and thinning. He looks like a walking skeleton, sun bleached and pale…”
There’s not a lot of description after this first introduction, but his actions throughout the book build every noxious layer of him.
It’s good to see Katherine and Jane, who start out as enemies, grow closer as they deal with the same difficulties. What’s great though is the book’s treatment of that required emotional geometry of the YA novel, the Love Triangle. It’s hilariously underplayed here. Jane basically looks at Jackson and Gideon every once in a while, thinks “they look good…” and then gets on with her life. She’s interested, and both boys are nice in their own way, but she’s got things to do. Very healthy approach compared to the general “OK sure, I have to save the world, but does he like me though?”
The moral shape of the book is impressive. It does not shy away from the founding sins of our nation, i.e. that most people who wrote the Constitution to ensure their own freedom thought owning people was acceptable. Even post-slavery, America is still built on the exploitation of marginalized groups. Ireland puts these concerns front and center, with “scientific” discussions from certain characters about polygenesis (the idea, current in the 1800s, that different races had different species of origin, a way to promote Othering and justify white supremacy). The main antagonist is a virulent racist. The two-tier racial system of zombie fighting, in which POCs are legally obligated to kill zombies to keep everyone else safe is most troubling, because it wouldn’t take much modification to make it work today. All it would take is a.) a zombie uprising, b.) the racial bias inherent in our legal system, and c.) a “Fight the Dead” program for convicted felons, because the 13th amendment has a hell of a loophole:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Fun, Not Fluff
Dread Nation has all the explosive, page-turning action inherent in a zombie novel, a spare but powerful style, and realistic interactions between vivid characters. It’s a great book — fun without being fluff. The foundation of its world and the stakes of its narrative are too heavy for that.
Tolkien is the single most influential fantasy writer in history, but I’m struggling with my re-read of Lord of the Rings
Few authors are as impressive as J.R.R. Tolkien, and few literary feats are as influential as The Lord of the Rings and its extensive legendarium. In the first half of the 20th century, Tolkien built a cohesive, powerful lore that would determine the shape of fantasy writing for decades. Fantasy without Tolkien is like astronomy without the solar system. There are other stars, like Dunsany, the Brothers Grimm, and the Arabian Nights, but the foundation and vantage point of modern fantasy would be annihilated. That being said, there are definite problems in LOTR that are keeping me from completing a successful reread.
Hobbits and MacGuffins
First off, everything in LOTR is subjugated to the Quest, to taking a MacGuffin of Power to a Place of Significance (credit for that phrasing to N.K. Jemisin). It’s a great quest, a beautiful quest. No quest greater. The problem is, once the ultimate outcome of the singular driving force of the books is known (they melt the One Ring, hooray!), a lot of the page-turning juice evaporates from the story. As Frodo evades Nazgûl, orcs, and barrow-wights, the certainty of his mission’s ultimate success makes the prospect of him becoming an abrupt damp spot somewhere in Eregion much less concerning, especially when I can remember every betrayal and obstacle along the way. No future readthrough of LOTR will ever be as exciting as the journey I took in 7th grade.
Right, Wrong, and Nothing in Between
Also, the morality of the world is so stark it’s barren. The characters range from demonic malefactor to angelic savior. Anyone between those two extremes is either an upstanding and respectable servant of good or a servile and contemptible thrall to evil — no one has complex motivations. For comparison, Voldemort is one of the most cartoonishly villainous antagonists in the history of the written word, but even Harry Potter had people like Snape and Draco. The first repents and becomes a double agent, and the second is just a particularly virulent bully who gets in way over his head. Neither is a gleeful servant of evil. LOTR’s absence of moral nuance leads to an empathic flatness — it’s hard to gain purchase on anything emotionally interesting. Not to mention this all-or-nothing black-or-white approach to right and wrong facilitates orcing, the problematic classification of a race as less-than-human and deserving of genocide. N.K. Jemisin discusses it succinctly here (she is the current apex fantasy writer, and fingers crossed that The Stone Sky wins her a third Hugo in a row). The presence of an entire underclass that deserves to be murdered in LOTR sours the whole narrative.
Who Run the World?
Finally, there are almost no women of significance. Margaret Atwood sums up the third problem well:
In Tolkien, there are hardly any women at all, only two, but three if you count the spider, which I do. With a name like Shelob you really can’t miss it.
If your first impulse is to say “But there are four women — you’re forgetting Éowyn!” you’re missing the point. The principal cast of characters is overwhelmingly male, so much so that their quest becomes kind of a stag party, which leaves the book with all the interpersonal depth of Hot Tub Time Machine. One of the major beauties of literature is how it explores the struggles and complexities of being human, and that’s hard to access fully if the main narrative is basically a bunch of dudes on a camping trip.
The good outweighs the bad, but not for me, not right now
Lord of the Rings is glorious, and always will be. I can still see, clear and entire, Fangorn Forest, the Mines of Moria, and the white towers of Gondor. I can smell the ale spilled on the floor of the Green Dragon at Bree and feel the bite of the cold wind on Weathertop. Middle-earth has been paying rent in my brain since I was in middle school. It smashed its way in through the sheer weight of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, the thick, heavy bones that support everything he wrote. Tolkien’s masterpiece is a wonder. It is irreplaceable and irreplicable, but the MacGuffin-based plot, the simplistic morality, and the lack of interpersonal texture are all making my 3rd readthrough difficult.
This Nebula Award nominee disorients and terrifies from the start and only tightens the screws from there
Your eyes pop open, and you’re locked in a pod with no memory of having entered it. You don’t know how to get out. You start remembering — you’re a member of a small crew on an interstellar ship. Your last memory is moving into your quarters and attending the pre-launch festivities. When you finally struggle free of the synth-amneo fluid cradling you in your pod (no small feat in zero-g), you see your corpse floating in front of you, among the rest of your slaughtered crew. And your (dead) body is decades older than you remember it being.
That’s how Six Wakes starts, bombarding the reader with particle after particle of WTF until the narrative splits entirely from the mundane world. It’s the story of six clones selected to tend an interstellar ship carrying thousands of frozen people to an Earth-like planet. Cryo-sleep is fine for the humans, but clones (which are, legally, a different species) can just regenerate themselves endlessly and run maintenance for the hundreds of years it will take their less durable counterparts to get from point A to point B. Once you legally become a clone, you can maintain a “mind map,” basically a terabytes-big thumb drive that holds an imprint of everything you know and are. When you die, your mind map is loaded into your new brain, and you wake up as a 20-year-old. Of course, you are sterilized by law, as you are considered your own offspring. You have to maintain a mind map, which is subject to search and seizure by the authorities at any time. If you kill yourself, you’ll never be resurrected, so even if you’re practically immortal, you still have to deal with your 80s every time.
The problem in Six Wakes is that the crew wakes up to see their old bodies strewn gruesomely across the cloning bay, with no memory of how it happened. The terror is deep and weird from page 1 — the crew knows they were murdered, but have no idea how it happened.
A ship whose habitable space is fairly small, the grimness that comes from being a fresh murder scene, and the fear of not knowing what happened aren’t even the main source of dread. The big problem, the terrifying problem, is that you’re certain one of the people you’re looking at killed you.
As the characters attempt to figure out what happened, they start learning more about each other. The most interesting part of the book, aside from the high concept of cloning, is this narrative trick of having the primary action happen in the most claustrophobic place, trapped on a ship with [a] murderer[s], but having each of the six main characters’ backgrounds happen all over a wide-open far future world, ranging from a jail cell in Asia to a hacking lab on the Luna colony.
In the primary “oh no we’re trapped on a murdership” narrative, the story terrifies and creates constant pressure. The secondary narrative, the six backstories that are key to figuring out what happened, expands and deepens the world by exploring how each multi-century old clone became who they are.
As more facts about each clone are slotted into place, the shape of their predicament becomes more and more clear — the deep dive into the psyche of each character builds the map of what happened directly prior to their emergency resurrection. Each step in the spare, high-tension environment of the ship propels the story forward, and each revelation of a character’s past lends the narrative a depth and majesty. It’s a welcome contrast, like rich cream poured over an acidic key lime pie — both are good alone, but together they’re perfect.
This is a murder mystery action thriller, with a heaping helping of “look at all this cool tech” thrown in. The magic of it is that the very basis of the mystery (oh no we died we better find out who killed us) brings up such profound questions of identity, of personhood, that the glorious pulpiness of fleeing a murderer is layered over the granite bedrock of serious philosophical enquiry — when I say “I”, who do I mean? What makes a person a person, and what can unmake them?
The novel is so good from the very start. I flipped through the first few pages in a bookstore months ago and immediately put it back, thinking it had to be a trick — no way can the rest of the book maintain that level of greatness. I picked it up when I saw it was nominated for a Nebula — it does deliver on the promise of the first five pages. There are a few things to nitpick (one specific part of the resolution, involving saliva, broke suspension of disbelief for me), but Mur Lafferty is a powerful, imaginative author. Any writer who can build worlds as deep and rich as she can, who can craft a story that delights with its inventiveness and terrifies with its revelations, is one who deserves rapt attention. I am definitely snapping up whatever book she puts out next.
You should read everything Le Guin ever wrote, but here are some quick options
My literary hero, Ursula K. Le Guin, creator of worlds, challenger of the pompous and complacent, inspirer of generations of writers from Salman Rushdie to Neil Gaiman to N.K. Jemisin, died. I never met her, never saw her read, never wrote her an email, but she changed my life. No other author can be as lyrical without becoming enamored of their own lyricism, as straightforward and clear without being blunt and empty. If you are lucky enough to read her, she will change your brain. Bite-sized options to follow, but here are her most important books:
The Dispossessed, set on two moons stuck in mutual orbit — one lush capitalist, the other desert-anarchist. It is an honest exploration of anarcho-syndicalism and capitalism, both their flaws and benefits.
The Left Hand of Darkness explores a world where gender doesn’t exist — the entire population is androgynous, going into kemmer (basically “heat”) once a month, with an equal chance of becoming male or female before reverting back to androgynes unless, of course, there’s a pregnancy. It’s taken for granted today that gender is a fluid, mostly societally-determined construct, but a half-century ago, Le Guin was already writing lines like “[t]he king was pregnant.”
A Wizard of Earthsea, aside from having the most satisfying approach to magic across all modern fantasy, is a beautiful fable on the importance of accepting change and seeking balance. Anyone who dismisses it as a children’s book (or at least only a children’s book) does themselves a grave disservice.
These three are her heavy-hitters, the books that redefined what two genres and literature as a whole could do, and if you want to immediately dive into the deep waters of this literary Titan, you should get those first. However, the good news about a writer with a 60-year long career is that she wrote a lot. There are multiple smaller works for those who want to spend half an hour getting their toes wet instead. The five suggestions that follow will take between 10 and 30 minutes of your time.
Read everything, but start here
“The Word of Unbinding” — https://www.amazon.com/Word-Unbinding-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01N6G07B8/
Here is the first glimmer of the Earthsea stories that would later reshape fantasy. It’s an incredibly simple, incredibly deep tale. It is the story of a wizard trapped by the minions of a dark, magic-wielding warlord, and his multiple attempts at escape, until he sees there is only one way to end the conflict. I write about it in more detail here.
“Semley’s Necklace” — https://www.amazon.com/Semleys-Necklace-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01NCJ1O13/
This is the first entry in the Hainish cycle, a loosely connected series of short stories and novels that share a universe in which the ancient, highly advanced humanoid inhabitants of the planet Hain-Davenant seed multiple colony worlds (including Earth) with genetically modified versions of themselves. Their galactic Empire collapses and leaves their client worlds to evolve on their own for millennia, before a new, more democratic “League of Worlds” rises from the ashes of the fallen Hainish people. It solves the Star Trek problem (wherein every alien species is actually just a human in funny makeup) by giving all different planets common ancestry. “Semley’s Necklace” concerns the inhabitant of one of these now-backwards planets seeking to recover an important heirloom from a museum in which a League anthropologist has placed it. It follows so perfectly the fantasy convention of leaving home, changing yourself, and coming back to a changed world, but the setting is science fiction, with spaceships, lightspeed, and galactic governance. The melding of science fiction with a fantasy feel is made possible by Clarke’s Third Law, which states that “[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This interplay between the fantasy perspective (for the main character, a rube princess from a backwater world) and the science-fiction perspective (for the reader, who recognizes all the technology and conventions of SF) is delicious, and is a good example of how Le Guin uses the conventions of the field in which she works, but also reshapes them. To give a hint of this dynamic, here’s the opening paragraph:
How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away?–planets without names, called by their people simply The World, planets without history, where the past is the matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his own doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god. Unreason darkens that gap of time bridged by our lightspeed ships, and in the darkness uncertainty and disproportion grow like weeds.
“The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas” — https://www.amazon.com/Ones-Who-Walk-Away-Omelas-ebook/dp/B01N0PZ35J/
This story, also known as “The One You Read in High School,” is a perfect little allegory. Le Guin describes in broad strokes the happy city of Omelas in her characteristic bright and shining prose, but also explores, in prose no less evocative, the dark bargain at the center of this perfect place. It is a wonderful answer to the moral absurdity of Utilitarianism, and an important story for everyone who lives in our current society, where most of us enjoy cheap shoes and laptops (like the one I’m currently typing on) but try as hard as we can not to think of who’s making the shoes and circuit boards.
Le Guin stopped writing books later in life, but she didn’t stop writing about them. If you only want to spend a few minutes getting acquainted with her analytical flair, she wrote a lot of reviews. There’s Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (not effusively positive, but he said he’d rather be chided by Le Guin than worshipped by another reviewer), China Mieville’s Three Moments of an Explosion, and Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty‑Eight Nights, just to get you started. Her opinion of these works, informed by decades of reading and writing, are some of the best examples of modern book reviews. They aren’t simple vehicles for front-cover blurbs — they fairly weigh the good and the bad of each with a clarity of prose and depth of understanding that is a trademark of everything Le Guin did.
Ursula K. Le Guin was a lot of things, but she was never silent or out of touch. Throughout her life, she wrote about art, about politics, about people. Her fiction is the biggest gift she left behind, but it’s not the only one. My favorite is when she took umbrage at a book review that was dismissive of genre fiction and wrote a short pulp pastiche, “On Serious Literature.” Another in the same vein is when Important Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro worried that readers of his most recent novel, which uses the tropes of fantasy other authors spent decades refining, would “be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?” Her response is a delightful, bristling defence of genre. Even after the National Book Awards honored her for lifetime achievement, even after the Library of America printed her books while she was still alive (an honor shared by only one other author, Philip Roth), she was still going to bat for SFF. Her perception of the book was not kind — as fantasy, it was a failure. Her last line throws shade as only an 80+ year old grandma could, enough to blot out the sun:
I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”
She also commented on current events. In one letter to the editor at The Oregonian (imagine receiving a letter to the editor and realizing it’s from Le Guin), she attacked the concept of Trumpian “alternative facts.” In another, she took issue with the newspaper’s sympathetic coverage of the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Her comments apply to the equally confusing sympathetic coverage outlets like The New York Times keep giving to white nationalists:
“Instead of parroting the meaningless rants of a flock of Right-Winged Loonybirds infesting the refuge, why doesn’t The Oregonian talk to the people who live there?”
Finally, there’s her National Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech. Maybe some people there expected a little old lady to deliver gratitude-filled pablum, but that’s not what they got. At an event partially sponsored by Amazon, with Amazon representatives in the audience, she unleashed a Jeremiad against “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.” She said, “[w]e live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” You should really watch the whole thing below:
Now cracks a noble heart
Le Guin is the greatest American writer of the last century. In these five suggestions, sadly too meager to get a full idea of the colossus that was Ursula K. Le Guin, there are hints of her vivid, crystalline prose and depth of feeling, of her incisive intellect, and of her unerring morality. She was a gift, a node of sanity in a world of increasing confusion, and she is irreplaceable.