" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin, October 21, 1929 - January 22, 2018, The Lathe of Heaven

"What will the creature made all of sea drift do on the dry sand of daylight; 
what will the mind do each morning. waking?” (7) The Lathe of Heaven

Some time ago my wife mentioned that Ursula K.Le Guin had passed away, we read and enjoyed her science fiction and many years ago had the opportunity to attend a talk she gave in Calgary. She was a thoughtful and compassionate voice, within the libertarian sea infesting much of science fiction.

Helen also supplied to this link to a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation with Le Guin by John Freeman which appeared on The Literary Hub.

While I have read science fiction since I was a teenager I suspect I came to Le Guin rather late. I received an undergraduate degree in Anthropology in the late 1970’s and I knew of her parents Alfred Louis Kroeber and Theodora Kroeber, as well as Ishi the Native American of the Yahi/Yana culture who was the subject of some of their research, (including Theodora’s book, Ishi in Two Worlds: a biography of the last wild Indian in North America) before I read any of Le Guin’s work. One thing I enjoy about LeGuin’s work is the obvious knowledge of anthropology that she brings to her world building and the cultures that inhabit it.

"Christopher Priest has said all that needs to be said. I had never met her, nor read enough of her, but I regard The Lathe of Heaven as one of the greatest SF novels of the last fifty years."

Alistair Reynolds

From Tor

An interview with Wired from 2012

Which includes the following quote:

"Wired: I’m a big fan of Philip K. Dick, and when I attended the Clarion writers workshop, Tim Powers and Karen Joy Fowler assigned each of us a book to read that they thought would resonate with us, and the book that they assigned me was The Lathe of Heaven, which they described as an homage to Philip K. Dick, and I’ve always wondered if that’s true?

Le Guin: Oh yeah, definitely. You know, I couldn’t write a Phil Dick book, but I could steal some of his tricks, in a way. Pulling reality out from under the reader all the time, changing reality on them, the way he does. Well, I did it through dreams. Phil would have done it another way. But yeah, homage to Phil Dick is right."

Rather than look at Le Guin’s entire career, (I do not pretend to have read everything she wrote and I have not read any off her recent work), I want to focus on my favourite Le Guin novel, The Lathe of Heaven. The first step was to reread the novel to see if it held up to my memory and if I still enjoyed it. I enjoyed it even more and was even more impressed with Le Guin not just as a science fiction writer but as a writer and stylist is general.

The book is filled with bits of observation or description that illuminate the text like gemstones suddenly appearing within a stream bed.

“She had French diseases of the soul” (82)

It was no longer pleasant to exchange glances with the moon” (82) 

“At dreaming - at what dreaming is an aspect of. They’ve done it for a long time. for always, I guess. They are of the dream time. I don’t understand it. I can’t say it in words. Everything dreams. The play of forms, of being, is the dreaming of substance. Rocks have their dreams and the earth changes. “ 143 

‘I don’t know. Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe was a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.” (73)

‘“ “Sleeping people are so remote,” she said, still looking at Orr, where are they…”  (60)

On to the novel. George Orr is a draftsman living in Portland Oregon in 2002. When the book opens George is dreaming that he is walking through a bombed out Portland while dying of radiation poisoning. The dream is disturbing enough that the building medic has been summoned. As he treats Orr it is revealed that Orr has exceeded the amount of medication allowed on his government issued Pharmacy Card by borrowing from friends.  As a result Orr has been recommended for VTT (Voluntary Therapeutic Treatment), refusal to participate could result in a jail sentence or imprisonment in a mental institution. In time Orr’s case is referred to Dr. William Haber an oneirologist specializing in dreams because Orr has been using drugs in an attempt to suppress dreaming. Orr has done this because he is convinced that certain, particularly vivid dreams that he has, especially when he is stressed can actually alter reality. And as he tells Haber while Orr can remember the changes everyone else simply accepts the changed reality as normal. Hamer decides he can treat Orr’s delusion using hypnosis and a EEG machine fitted with a trance cap of his own design.

The America Orr and Haber inhabit has been changed radically, the world population is now 7 billion. The world has been altered by climate change with rising sea levels destroying major cities and Portland experiences  almost continuous rain. The poor including working poor like Orr are squeezed into tiny rooms and have inadequate food causing them to exhibit many of the symptoms of malnutrition. A huge war in the Middle East threatens to draw in the rest of the nuclear powers. 

I thought Le Guin’s strength at characterization was really on display in this novel. She vividly and concisely presents the personalities of the characters. Orr, unhappy with Haber’s treatment eventually turns to an attorney, Heather Lelache in the hope she can extricate him from Haber. Lelache views herself as having a personality very different from the rather passive Orr. 

 Lelache “ thought of herself as a Black widow. There she sat, poisonous, hard, shiny, and poisonous; waiting, waiting.
And the victim came.’’ (40) 

It is interesting that both Harber and Lelache see something feminine in Orr. The passage detailing Lelache’s first meeting with Orr quoted above continues,” A born victim. Hair like a little girl’s, brown and fine, little blond beard; soft white skin like a fish’s belly; meek mild, stuttering. “ (40) 

Haber during his first meeting with Orr notes “ there was a acceptant, passive quality about him that seems feminine or even childish. Hamer recognized in himself a protective/bullying reaction towards this physically slight and compliant man. To dominate, to patronize was so easy as to be almost irresistible.” (21)

Although later in the novel Lelache comes to see something else in Orr. 

‘the infinite possibility, the unlimited and unqualified wholeness of being of the uncommitted, the non acting, the uncarved: the being who, being nothing but himself, is everything.” (84)


Wikipedia has an excellent discussion of this novel. It discusses the various movements and philosophies that Le Guin may be examining as well as possible influences and is well worth reading. What I would like to do is simply to offer my reaction to the novel here. First I will say that since I have been reading science fiction with the intention of posting here, several books have come to represent for me the science fiction imagination or experience, I intend to develop this idea further in a future post but The Lathe of Heaven has definitely joined that list.

Note there are spoilers ahead. 

I enjoyed and got more out of this novel as an old duffer than I did as a more callow youth. As someone who has both insomnia and sleep apnea I emphasized with Orr's dilemma of not enough sleep, even though I rarely remember dreams and dreams were the source or Orr’s problems. I also loved that Orr was not the Van Vogt superman of much of science fiction but a typical human, sometimes a victim but often with unsuspected strength and depth. I really enjoyed the way the main premise of the novel allowed Le Guin, through Orr’s dreams, to examine so many of science fiction’s themes or tropes, utopias, dystopians, nuclear war, climate change, alien invasion, etc. 

Once the aliens appear ( you were warned about spoilers ) I appreciated how they continued to be a constant element and that they continued to interact with and support Orr regardless of subsequent changes to reality. This really was a nice personal take on the trope of benevolent aliens saving a damaged humanity. The character Mannie also seems to continue to exist throughout the various versions of reality, possibly a indication of how important he is to Orr. It is interesting that the Beatles tune " With a Little Help from My friends" plays an important role in one of Orr's bleaker realities.

“The Alien watched them from within the the glass-fronted shop, as a sea creature might watch from an aquarium, seeing them pass and disappear into the mist.” (156) 

This plot also allows Le Guin to look at the (possibly even more important issues today) of the unintended consequences imbedded in change and the moral responsibility (if one accepts it) of power.

“I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences—Freud to the contrary with his puerile symbolism—there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable barrier.”

from Beyond the Walls of Sleep H.p. Lovecraft

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

New Arrivals from Digit and Pan

Before our trip to London in October, I pondered what I would find in the way of used SF Penguins, and the answer was not much. 

I was also hoping to find some books from the UK publishers Badger Books and Digit Books. Before I left I found some titles from Digit on ABE and wondered whether to buy them or hold off in the hopes of finding cheaper copies in London. I went ahead and bought them, which was good because I found none in London. 

As a Canadian I am always on the lookout for a Van Vogt cover I have not seen. This cover for Mission to The Stars by Ed Valigurskyion (Digit 1962) was also used for an Ace edition of Clifford D. Simak's City (ACE 1958).

The next four covers were purchased from ABE bookseller Raymond Tait and carried the description "From the collection of Derek Ingram, late Fellow of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge". In additional emails with Mr Tait, I found him to be a very pleasant and fair individual and I loved the idea of providing a home for a small portion of another collector's library. If you liked Harry Potter google Gonville & Caius College and take a look at the photo of the dinning hall

The Pawns of Null-A  (Digit 1960) cover by Ed Emshwiller.

The Weapon Makers (Digit 1961) cover by Ed Valigursky, this illustration also appeared on
Ace Double 457, for John Brunner's The Skynappers, (Ace 1960).

City Under the Sea, (Digit 1961) this gem of a cover is by Brian Lewis.

I could not resist this Heinlein collection from Pan Books in part because it depicted an older individual, something that seems rare on SF covers. That Man Who Sold The Moon, (Pan 1955) cover by Gerald Quinn. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Saturday, December 9, 2017

JoyLeg by Ward Moore and Avram Davidson

  A rather unappealing cover by Ed Emshwiller for the 1962 edition, that did not encourage me to read this novel. (cover image from ISFDB)

One day while visiting my SF buddy Doug he suggested I try JoyLeg by Ward Moore and Avram Davidson. Doug and I both share an admiration for many of the same "golden age" writers. But we also diverge in many areas, I am not a huge fan of alternative history while Doug enjoys books like Turtledove's Guns of the South. He has recently been reading David Weber's Safehold Series which I will never agree to read. He did convince me to reread the Foundation Trilogy for the first time in over 40 years and I enjoyed it. Since Joyleg was one short book compared to Weber's nine volume and growing opus I though I could at least start it. Did I mention that I also dislike satire? 

I was pleasantly surprised. Joyleg begins in Washington when two members of a congressional committee discover that a veteran living in Rabbit Notch Tennessee, one Isachar Joyleg is receiving a pension of some 11 dollars a month, and has been for a considerable period of time. So long that the committee is not clear on exactly which war Joyleg is a veteran of. Republican Congresswoman Lucinda Habersham is convinced the duration of the pension indicates fraud, Democratic Congressman Tully Weathernox that the amount indicates a miscarriage of justice. Both represent Tennessee and are determined to get to the bottom of the mystery that is Isachar Joyleg. Accompanied by Habersham's aide Martha Forsh, they set out for Rabbit Notch. The journey itself is a trip through time as they venture into increasingly uncharted areas of rural Tennessee. They travel by a somewhat antique train to Bountsburg then from there to Sevier via a hired vehicle that appears to be a variation of a Stanley Steamer. Once in Sevier they learn several things, that no one travels to Rabbit Notch, that the inhabitants of Servier have not seen Joyleg for generations, and that the inhabitants of Rabbit Notch are considered odd even by the somewhat idiosyncratic inhabitants of Bountsburg and Sevier. They also learn that any further progress will involve waiting for one Caesar Augustus Praiseworthy, an inhabitant of Rabbit Notch (and one of the few to venture out of the Notch) to arrive in Servier with his team of donkeys.

The novel itself only uses one science fictional or fantastic component to propel the story. Rather the authors use the novel to take a light hearted look at politics on many levels from the party politics of the United States to the wider brinkmanship of the Cold War world. They also use the character of Joyleg to present an alternative version of American history stripped of romanticism surrounding key events and the lionization of political figures. That said the satire is relatively low key rather than heavy-handed. I must admit I felt the characters of the two congresspersons could have been better developed in light of the resolution but I really liked the way the authors treated the gossip columnist Jill Brittin who morphed from a cardboard stereotype in the first chapters to a savy political insider by the end of the novel. I also enjoyed the all too brief examination of the economy of Rabbit Notch.

I am always curious when I read collaborations as to which authors wrote which parts. While I have no evidence I like to think that, based on their body of work in general, 
Ward Moore, who penned the important alternative history novel of the Civil War Bring The Jubilee  brought the historical component and that Avram Davidson who wrote the lovely Hugo winning Fortean rumination Or All the Seas with Oysters might have supplied the satire, but who knows.

Overall Joyleg was an enjoyable read, while it was by no means a straight forward science fiction plot, it was a lovely if unexpected time travel story just not in the traditional sense. 

For another review I recommend Robert Wilfred Franson's which can be found here.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Golden Age Optimism and the Lords of the Starship

  "Yes,"Getting the country back on its feet," is the usual phrase. Although I am, at times, quite confounded as to how I am to recreate a world that I know nothing about and one which might"—Limpkins's voice dropped slightly—"exist only in legend." (15)

"But the ship's primary purpose will not be one of simple transportation, but that of a Cause, the thing about which all of the dormant hopes of our nation can crystallize.
"And here is the trick: the ship will betray the people for their own good."(26)

Lords of the Starship

As I enter my 60's, I realize I have been reading SF for what must be approaching 50 years. I started with SF intended for children in my school library in Windsor. Titles that spring to mind, John Keir Cross's The Angry Planet or Miss Pickerell On the Moon, she also goes to Mars. I graduated to Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov's robots and Ray Bradbury, who I loved, still do, but even then he was a bit of an outlier, what after all was I to make, as a white kid who lived across from a Detroit in flames, of "The Black and White Game" (1945) from The Golden Apples of the Sun.

 Even at the time many of the titles were old, although I was oblivious to this, even after reading Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo with its Nazi base on the moon. I did not realize that these books and their visions of the future were often 15 to 20+ years old. SF was by no means my only reading, as a geeky kid, books were a refuge, myths, mysteries, historical novels aimed at teens, adventure stories, even the occasional sports novel were gist for the mill, although SF has remained my greatest love.

As I look for like minded enthusiasts on the web, I have been interested in reading about their youthful experiences with SF. One I found was the late Bud Webster, who I have mentioned before on my blog. A link to his columns on SF authors and anthologies appears under Handy Resources, I recommend starting with Anthopology 101: The Best of Time and Space

"But the library was sanctuary for me. Nobody would chase me, nobody would yell at me, and best of all, nobody there would rag me for reading books. I'd have stayed there forever if I could have. It was quiet, cool, and it's where I became addicted to books, both as artifacts and because of the content.

I was probably all of nine years old when I first found the thick, heavy collections of stories edited by Conklin and Healy & McComas for the first time. But there they were, that pair of behemoths: Adventures in Time and Space (ed. Raymond J. Healy and Francis McComas, Random House 1946) and The Best of Science Fiction (ed. Groff Conklin, Crown 1946). They changed my life, and without a doubt altered the way I read science fiction, and I wasn't the only one."

Another fellow reader is  James Harris with his blog Auxillary Memory and his great lists of SF by the decade. I have enjoyed many of this posts but I think his post, Who Still Reads 1950's Science Fiction is a great start, capturing his thoughts on SF. His comment 

"The kind of reader I’m trying to identify is different. Science fiction was their childhood religion, born again into faith in the future, like the theological have a faith in the past. " 

is one I want to discuss more in a future post.


But the main impetus for my current post is a post by Ralph E. Vanghan, discussing the effect reading Lords of the Starship by Mark S. Geston had on him. What struck a chord with me was this quote,

"At the time, I was a futurist. I did not really think I would see flying cars by the Year 2000 (though I hoped so), I did believe that the ills of the world would be solved through technology and science, that starving millions would be fed by scientific farming, that the world would embrace peace once everyone's standard of living had been raised by ubiquitous technology and that the the frontier of human experience would be expanded by colonization of the solar system and journeys to the stars beyond. Unfortunately, the future turned out not to be quite what I had envisioned. I'm no longer a futurist, not even much of an optimist anymore, and quite often I find myself thinking, Where are we going so fast"


I don't think I considered SF my childhood religion, and like Ralph I did not have a time table for the delivery of my flying car but like Ralph i did think science and technology would begin to improve the lives of people worldwide. That a rational approach would break down the barriers of social status, nationalism and race. This idea could be found in science fiction. Arthur C, Clarke was one of its greatest proponents, in the Deep Range we not only farm the oceans, but learn a deeper connection to other species. In his non-fiction books like The Exploration of Space or novels like The Sands of Mars and A Fall of Moondust mankind begins the often perilous exploration of the solar system. 

But the SF I read was not always a literature of optimism, Heinlein saw us repeating the errors that lead to the American Revolution in The Red Planet, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and a personal favourite Between Planets, even in his more optimistic Farmer in the Sky, the colonists on Ganymede discuss the fact that the overpopulated Earth will want to send too many new colonists, but are told that the inevitable war on Earth will prevent this. Like many SF writers, Andre Norton embraces a cyclical view of history, with civilization repeatedly rising and falling. In Star Rangers the Galactic Empire is collapsing. Nuclear war has occurred in both Sea Siege and Star Man's Son 2250 A.D. The Stars Are Ours sees a persecuted band of "Free Scientists " escape a tyrannical police state for space and even when we get out into the universe we are relegated to acting as mercenaries in Star Guard.
In Asimov's Foundation, the most optimistic outcome is a Dark Age lasting 1,000 years rather than 30,000 years and Lathan Devers the trader, instrumental in saving the Foundation, in Foundation and Empire, later dies in its slave mines. Ray Bradbury offers us the dystopia of Fahrenheit 451 or the Mars of the Martian Chronicles in which, in a parallel to the settling of the Americas, the native Martians are eventually wiped out by contact with the Earthlings, who then launch a nuclear war on Earth.

My feeling of optimism, now largely lost, came from the world itself. My wife a few years younger than myself and also a SF reader said the same thing when I asked her. My father and my uncles on both sides of the family had gone from poor farm boys in the depression, into military service in WWII, and had come home to steady jobs in the trades or factories of southern Ontario. (Canada also had a version of the GI bill which provided money for education, low-cost mortgages and  businesses loans.)

  The interstate highway system in the USA started in 1956 and similar infrastructure projects were carried out in Canada. The post war economic expansion lead to sustained economic growth, high levels of employment, the expansion of the suburbs and what is sometimes called the Golden Age of Capitalism. (see link below) Vaccines and improved public health practices and screening meant polio, TB and more exotic diseases like smallpox were eradicated or at least controlled. (I spent a year as an infant in a sanatorium being treated for TB, this was a big deal) Yes there were the race riots of 1967 and the Vietnam war, but also the anti-war and civil rights movements and even a bit of environmental consciousness (in elementary school I wrote an essay on the pollution of Lake Erie). In Canada, 1967 was the Canadian Centenary featuring the Expo 67 World's Fair. (One year later my wife's family would move into their new house, which actually had running water, another big deal during winters in the Canadian Prairies). 

  The first news event I remember watching on TV was the landing of Alan Shepard after his suborbital flight in May 1961 as part of Project Mercury, and I had a plastic space centre with rockets, a launch pad and missile launching platform. How and Why books told us about the sciences.  We could collect cards from tea leaf packages with pictures about trees, birds, animals and the exploration of space and the oceans. The world, even the solar system was our oyster. A rational approach and advances in science and technology would lead us to a bright future. Things were not perfect at that time, not in North America, and certainly not in the world. But the way seemed clear. 

Now that short period of unsustainable prosperity after WWII has engendered some oddly selective nostalgia on the part of a lot of people and the possibility for a bright new science-fictional future seems more remote every day. 


SF may have shown me a variety of possibilities, both good and bad, but it was the apparent progress we were makings as a race that gave me hope for the future.

"he learned of asphalt roads that had once covered the world, and of the vehicles that had carried man upon them; ships that dived into the seas, and ships that had carried other men on some few faltering steps towards the stars, before there was no more time for such things." (40)

Out of the Mouth of the Dragon, by Mark S. Geston

This might have been he future we envisioned but with bigger televisions.


In Part Two I will give my thoughts on Lords of the Starship by Mark S. Geston.