Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.


CHANGING PLANES by Ursula K. Le Guin:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/02/2004]

Ursula K. Le Guin's CHANGING PLANES sounded very promising in a review I read, about a woman who discovers how to travel to alternate planes of reality and visit unusual cultures. But I shouldn't have been surprised to find that rather than the Borgesian snippets (such as "The Babylonian Lottery") I had hoped for, what I got were stories very similar to most of Le Guin's other recent fiction, with a lot of "message" mixed in. They weren't bad, but I am seeing a certain "sameness" to her writing that makes me feeling I'm just reading the same piece over and over. (These are individual pieces, but thematically connected and all written specifically for this book, so some may consider this a novel that than a collection of short fiction.)

To order Changing Planes from amazon.com, click here.


THE DISPOSSESSED by Ursula K. Le Guin:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/15/2010]

The science fiction book discussion group book for September was THE DISPOSSESSED by Ursula K. Le Guin (ISBN 978-0-061-05488-4). (A side note: This group is now meeting bi-monthly, alternating with the science book discussion group, since the two groups are basically all the same people.) The basic story of THE DISPOSSESSED is probably familiar to most science fiction readers: Two hundred years before the time of the novel, a group of anarchists left Urras for its moon (really a twin planet) Anarres to found an anarchist society. Both sides agreed to isolation, and only now is contact re-established. Shevek is a mathematician on Anarres where, although everyone praises the principles of total personal liberty espoused in their society, the actual society is far more constrained, not by laws, but by tradition and custom. Unable to publish his radical theories about time, Shevek decides to go to the capitalist society on Urras. (There is also a Marxist society on Urras, as well as various "Third World" countries. Urras is very much a copy of 1970s Earth.) Surprise, surprise, this is no Paradise either.

Anyway, what struck me was how similar Anarres seemed to North Korea as described in Barbara Demick's NOTHING TO ENVY. Life is always fairly Spartan on Anarres due to minimal natural resources, but a famine strains it even more. There is a "cult of the hero", though it is a heroine (Odo) and she is already dead. Everyone spouts slogans, the more so when conditions are hard. And so on. And underlying it all is the fact that the reality not only fails to live up to the theory, but that the people living in it don't realize this. (ANIMAL FARM is a more familiar literary example.)

The problem with THE DISSPOSSESSED, alas, is that Le Guin is not willing to let the reader draw their own conclusions about this, but instead has the characters lecturing each other about all this. (The introduction of a Terran ambassador--someone unfamiliar with either Anarres or Urras--at the end provides even more opportunity for this.)

To order The Dispossessed from amazon.com, click here.


THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. Le Guin:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/13/2018]

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. Le Guin (ISBN 978-0-441-47812-5) was our discussion book this month. I had read it a long time ago, but I re-read it for the discussion and have a few observations. (Quelle surprise!)

One observation is that one could never confuse character names from Le Guin with those from, say, Isaac Asimov.. If I tell you that one has Cleon, Bel Riose, and Ebling Mis, and the other Genly Ai, Argaven Harge, and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, I am pretty sure you could say which was which. And the term "shifgrethor" would also be clearly Le Guin's rather than Asimov's. In part this may be because Asimov patterned his names after Roman ones in the "Foundation" series, but even out of it Asimov tends toward "European-format" names, and western Europe at that, while Le Guin ranges more widely. (This may be an effect of her father's career in anthropology.)

Le Guin, "At noon in the passes of Wehoth, at about 14,000 feet, it was 82 degrees F in the sun and 13 degrees in the shade." If there is anything that rips one out of the alien setting it is the appearance of what are now obsolete Terran units of measurement. With the United States, Burma, and Liberia the only countries left using these units, it is completely unbelievable that an international and interplanetary effort would be using them.

And much of what seemed progressive when the book was written now seems terribly dated. On Gethen, those who are permanently male or female "are not excluded from society, but they are tolerated with some disdain, as homosexuals are in many bisexual societies." The term "bisexual" here apparently means "having two sexes" rather than its current meaning of "being attracted to both men and women."

"But now there is evidence to indicate that the Terran Colony was an experiment, the planting of one Hainish Normal group on a world with its own proto-hominid autochthones." Given that it is now fairly clear that our ancestors interbred with all those "proto- hominid autochthones" (Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc.) and are also closely genetically related to other primates makes this extremely unlikely.

"Will anything [other than genetic manipulation] explain Gethenisan physiology? Accident, possibly; natural selection, hardly. Their ambisexuality has little or no adaptive value." Why Ong Tot Oppong (the author of this statement) thinks she can determine what adaptive value this ambisexuality has (or had) is a mystery. There are many peculiarities on Earth that we do not understand and that seem non-adaptive, but most biologists do not think genetic manipulation is the cause.

"As with most mammals other than man, coitus can be performed only by mutual invitation and consent; otherwise it is not possible." Actually, we are finding more exceptions to this as more research is done: various apes, dolphins, sea otters, and others. Whether Le Guin's "most mammals" is still accurate is questionable.

"... continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man ..." Again, the former may be exclusively human, but we are finding that the latter is not.

"Your race is appallingly alone in its world. No other mammalian species. No other ambisexual species. No animal intelligent enough even to domesticate as pets." This seems a contradiction, since Ai later talks about furs and leather, both of which come from mammals. The pesthry are "oviparous vegetarians", but that does not preclude them being mammals. And while no mammalian species evolving on such a cold world is possible, there would probably be no land animals at all (since cold-blooded animals seem even less likely). In any case, I am not even sure this makes sense from a survival point of view for the Gethenians.

"The seeming nation, unified for centuries, was a stew of uncoordinated principalities, towns, villages, 'pseudo-feudal tribal economic units', a sprawl and splatter of vigorous, competent, quarrelsome individualities over which a grid of authority was insecurely and lightly laid. Nothing, I thought, could ever unite Karhide as a nation." Clearly he has not looked at early eighteenth century Germany--or rather, "'pseudo-feudal tribal economic units', a sprawl and splatter of vigorous, competent, quarrelsome individualities over which a grid of authority was insecurely and lightly laid" occupying the territory that is now Germany. I am also reminded of the historian (whose name escapes me) who wrote very lucid book in 1989 explaining how Europe came to arrive at its current situation and was quite convincing--right up to the point when he explained why West Germany and East Germany would never rejoin into a unified Germany.

Estraven asks, "Equality is not the general rule, then. Are [women] mentally inferior?" And Ai replies, "I don't know. They don't often seem to turn up mathematicians, or composers of music, or inventors, or abstract thinkers." I realize that we have not yet achieved perfect equality between the sexes, but given how far in the future this is, this seems like an awfully bleak viewpoint, especially as this seems to suggest not just inequality, but a wide gap.

"But it is not human to be without shame and without desire." As we have learned more about human sexuality, it has become clear that there are humans who are asexual.

A few quotes of interest:

"The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty."

"It is hard, I found, to be called traitor. Strange how hard it is, for it's a easy name to call another man; a name that sticks, that fits, that convinces."

"Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was."

To order The Left Hand of Darkness from amazon.com, click here.


WONDERFUL ALEXANDER AND THE CATWINGS by Ursula K. Le Guin:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/06/2009]

In the last couple of weeks, I haven't had as much opportunity to read as before. In terms of well-known fantasy authors, all I can point to is WONDERFUL ALEXANDER AND THE CATWINGS by Ursula K. Le Guin (ISBN-13 978-0-439-55191-5, ISBN-10 0-439-55191-9), apparently part of a series about the Catwings. This is a children's book which my seven-year-old niece read to me last time I visited Massachusetts. She was reading it for school, and I have to say that it is a good sign that the school has books by authors such as Le Guin.

To order Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings from amazon.com, click here.


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