2016-08-31 10:00 dark-curricula

Dark Curricula: August 2016

The old ways. Sometimes the old ways are best. If they aren't the best, often they are entrenched, irresistible. Stories. Told by talking lizards. Or by the ancient shopkeeper who knows the history of the town. Or by the wandering mendicant. Or by the fireside shaman. Or by the young savant. Everywhere you look, old stories.

Not a ton of free time this month, so only two books in the report.

The Drowning World

J G Ballard

I've always liked Ballard. This is his second published novel. It is complete. It amazes me that it was written in 1962. Not because it is predictive, or futuristic, but because it mostly reads like a modern novel, it reads apropos. There is one glaring anachronism, there are scenes that could be considered racist. Given the white/black metaphors of the book's theme, it rides a line, he is either being obviously mechanical in the construction of the racial images, or he is channeling some heavy British colonialism. My bet is, both. He's using the master slave theme as a device, and I'll bet that feels more uncomfortable now than it did in 1962.

Writing in 1962, when such notions of evolutionary psychology were being transformed by new scientific paradigms, Ballard’s thinking was certainly avant-garde (and arguably, aspects of The Drowned World closely anticipate EO Wilson’s Sociobiology, published over a decade later); and I think it was in this fearless voyaging into what he himself termed “inner space” that Ballard proved most prescient: many of the images Kerans dredges up from submarine London – of wombs, uterine canals, pulses and pushing – echo the cryptoamnesiac primal screams provoked by Arthur Janov in the early Seventies. -- Will Self on JG Ballard's 'The Drowned World'

Just as "The Burning World" impressed me with its specificity, this impressed me with the wide scope, how he has described what has happened to the world but without any exposition about why. Why is unnecessary. As a culture full of dystopian scenarios rambling on didactically about "why", this is refreshingly existential. We are at the end of the world, a drowned world, and we revert, we're all just lizards in suits.

It's not in the current sense, strictly speaking, science fiction. My subterfuge in reading all of these books, and reporting on them, is to smash your notion of what "science fiction" has become -- it has become an awfully restrictive, boring thing in the last forty years.

The Ballard template is worked out first in this book -- the male protagonist, logarithmic descent into atavism, and female romantic interest, but in a detached or rarely passionate manner. He reserves that for cars and chrome and steel and architecture. The antagonist is on the surface refined, tending to repeated descriptions of "white", things cultured, coldly manipulative, and mirrors the descent into chaos. The British colonial facade flips upside down. London is submerged in a lagoon, full of dangerous alligators and bats. The militaristic trappings are ineffectual, but all ritualized behaviors kept up as a crutch until the last possible moment. Then, a thorough loss of modern culture, of presumptions, of etiquette and cultural anchors.

There is very little high drama here. As a culture now feeding off the teat of neo-reality, constantly produced high drama, disaster porn, this will not be enjoyed by people expecting a zombie apocalypse.

The Telling

Ursula K. Le Guin

Hainish Cycle

Perhaps I've cheated. Many consider what constitutes the Hainish Cycle to include "Four Ways to Forgiveness", a collection of short stories. I did not read that. This will be the last Le Guin book before a bit of a Le Guin vacation.

The Ekumen, the cultural observers for the league of worlds, have several members on the planet Aka, one of whom, Sutty, is a Terran. Sutty grew up in a time when monotheists violently purged dissenters or anyone else they didn't like. She studied the culture and languages of Aka, and Hainish, preparing for a life in the Ekumen. However, during her time in travel between her world and Aka, Aka undergoes similar upheaval by an anti-religous faction, a Corporation, that destroys all books and any other traces of "old ways". Not montheists, but monoculturalists. They replace culture with a simplistic corporate speak and propaganda. Sutty travels into the mountains of Aka looking for any traces of the old things. She of course finds a rich tradition of storytelling, "The Telling".

The actual plot here is thin. This is a book of social exposition and criticism. The warnings of a monoculture are obvious to those who already dislike a monoculture, to everybody else, "Why Don't You Like Walmart and Chilis?". So in this sense the book is less successful than "The Dispossessed" because it is somewhat indulgently preaching to the choir. Admittedly I am in the choir.

Le Guin provides Sutty with an antagonist, a state functionary as devoted to Akan Corporation dogma as Sutty is to learning the truth. But their clashes strike no sparks. We are told about, but we never feel, Sutty's personal stake in her task on Aka. For all her eagerness to share her vision, Le Guin has forgotten that even in didactic fiction, showing is always preferable to telling. GERALD JONAS

It was worth reading as part of the cycle, a piece of the puzzle about the nature of Le Guin civilization. But I don't disagree with the sentiment of that review, as a book it's a bit flat.

And so ends the Hainish Cycle for me. Well worth it, very enjoyable. I think if you didn't want to invest the time for 7-8 books, I'd pick "The Dispossessed" and "The Left Hand Of Darkness" as a starter pack.

  • The Dispossessed (1974)
  • The Word for World is Forest (1976)
  • Rocannon's World (1966)
  • Planet of Exile (1966)
  • City of Illusions (1967)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
  • The Telling (2000)