Book Review Times Two

 

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Ursula K. Le Guin

Mary Doria Russell
Mary Doria Russell c.1998
 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, Madames Russell and Le Guin, you’ve both done it again. I find that I must reiterate how baffled I am that these two Crazy Greats escaped my attention for all the formative years of my life. What lasting lessons could I have learned from these two women through their extraordinary stories! Of course, much of their genius would have likely left my narrow, tender mind much disturbed. Now that I’ve left at least some of my childish ways of thinking behind me, these books taste like graduating from milk to feasts fit for kings.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven wanders the dark and twisty path of dreams, asking the generally horrifying question: What if your most vivid, overpowering dreams all came true? Not just for you, but for all the world? Worse, what if an arrogant scientist, certain of his own unfailing rationality and good will, gained control of those dreams?

George Orr stumbles through this nightmarish series of worlds and disparate narratives with a demeanor just placid enough to permit us our own perspectives, just morally centered enough to keep us wholly on his side. Lathe of Heaven felt like a feminine love child of Stranger in a Strange Land and The Man Who Was Thursday, misanthropic and humanistic, speculative and practical, hopeful and despondent all at once. It was a quick read, but a deep one. And yet another example of Le Guin’s peculiar and powerful craft.

Children of God, on the other hand, is a work of poetry and music and ancient religion, all woven together in the lives of children and soaked in blood. A sequel to the already classic masterpiece which was The Sparrow, Children of God has very possibly surpassed its predecessor in power and prose. Mary Russell strikes me as an author with the utmost respect for her character’s personalities and histories. Emilio Sandoz would never willingly return to the planet of Rakhat, the site where his faith was first buoyed, fed, then brutally eradicated. So what does Russell do? Spoiler alert! She beats, drugs, and kidnaps the poor bastard to force his return! Brutal? Yes. Dedicated to the integrity of the character? Absolutely.

Children of God worked to redeem the irreparable tragedies and violations of The Sparrow, using faith, war, forgiveness, but most of all Time to harvest what was sown. And was it all redeemed? Read it for yourself. Just be warned, Russell is merciless. She cuts like a surgeon to those secret doubts and bastions of silent hate you thought no one knew about but you. Her work is not to be entered into lightly.

As for you, Mary Russell, I am once again in your debt. Each time I read, I am changed by your work.

And to each of you crazy great women, master storytellers, bold and faithful to the art: I cannot wait to read the rest of what you’ve created. Every single book.

Book Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Genly Ai, a “First Mobile” of an intergalactic collective of planets called the Ekumen, travels in his youth as a lone human emissary to Winter, a world comprised almost entirely of glaciers and a thin band of habitable valleys, blanketed in nearly constant snow, around the planet’s equator. The inhabitants of Winter, called Gethenians, live as humanoids without gender 28 days of each month, at which time their natural cycles send them into a state called Kemmer, when they manifest either as male or female, however the dynamics of their current mating relationship demand. As a full-time male, unchanging, Genly Ai is considered by the Gethenians to be a “Pervert”, only the first of an unending series of political, emotional, physiological, and cross-cultural barriers to his interplanetary mission. Genly Ai is tasked with drawing the various warring governments of Winter into the Ekumen, as a peaceable cooperative, to give and to take knowledge and power and protection. But the gap between the Gethenians and the rest of humanity is broad indeed. And Genly Ai is only one man, unadapted to the local social and political systems, to the nature of Gethenian relationships, or to the cold.

Ursula Le Guin, as I have learned far too late for my liking, is the godmother of fantasy and science fiction. If Tolkien re-established fantasy as a respected genre, Le Guin answered him with her own unique, reasonable, impassioned female voice. I don’t know how much more I can say about the Left Hand of Darkness than just to lay out its rich and delicate highlights as I’ve done above (spoiler alert, the left hand of darkness is LIGHT… how brilliant is that??). In a grand/epic/light-handed/gentle style, Madame Le Guin has crafted a masterpiece of intellectual science fiction. The characters are lovable, believable, and journey through dramatic changes of heart and mind. The world she created is stark, beautiful, deadly, and wild, never once stretching past the limits of reason, yet showing a face wholly “other” to the world in which we live. The language is meticulous, flowing, generous and easy to read.

My favorite part of this tale is the relationship that developed between the rational, masculine, prideful Genly Ai and Estraven, a Gethenian who started out as Genly’s powerful and manipulative enemy, and turned out, layer by delicate layer, to be a person wholly unexpected. By blurring the definitions of gender, Le Guin forces the reader to take every interaction between Genly and Estraven entirely at face value. The cultural divide between them makes far more distinct an impact than any question of sexual attraction or repulsion, and the qualities of each individual are attributed to each character as a whole, rather than to their natural-born  sexual identities. Brilliant. Challenging. Unique.

Ursula Le Guin is certainly one of the Crazy Greats. Madame, I salute you.

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