#26 – The Left Hand of Darkness Review – Ursula K Le Guin

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The Left Hand of Darkness is the first novel on this list from a female author. And while it’s no secret that women are severely underrepresented in the world of Science Fiction, the ones that are (such as Ursula K. LeGuin) are so good that we often forget that they make up such a small portion of the celebrated authors in the field. Some critics have called ‘Darkness‘ a “Feminist” science fiction novel, but I think that label does a disservice to LeGuin and women writers in general. Just because the book tackles complex issues of gender identity, sexuality and politics, doesn’t mean that it should get saddled with such a politically charged label – and people’s attempts to co-opt the book to support their own agendas or worldview are missing the point entirely. The deftness of LeGuin’s writing is not in its ability to make grand pronouncements on the inherent evils of a male dominated culture, but in its capacity to pose fascinating questions on the nature of gender and its role in society so that we can examine them ourselves and reach our own conclusions.

The Left Hand of Darkness Summary: Set in LeGuin’s Hainish universe, the novel takes place on the planet ‘Winter’, a cold, frozen world that is in the middle of an ice age. The citizens of Winter share a unique physiological trait – they are genderless and androgynous for all but two days out of each month, during which they become either male or female depending upon the partner that they are coupling with. In essence, residents of the planet contain the makeup of both sexes, leading to a society in which problems resulting from gender differences are virtually unheard of. But while male sexual dominance and female dependence may be unknown in their culture, there is still room for many other conflicting human characteristics such as love, jealousy, power and politics. And while war is also something that is rarely (if ever) seen on Winter, two of the planet’s largest countries seem to be on the brink of some sort of conflict at the beginning of the book.

Although the book is told from a few different points of view, the story mainly unfolds through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from Earth who is sent to try and bring the planet of Winter into the organization of planets known as the Ekumen. Genly faces many obstacles upon arriving in the kingdom of Karhide and is ultimately saved by the Prime Minister Estraven. The political intrigue surrounding a piece of disputed territory causes Estraven to be sent into exile. After resistance from the King of Karhide, Genrly goes to the neighboring territory of Orgoreyn to plead with its leaders for help. Meeting up with Estraven again who is living in exile, the pair make a harrowing journey across ice and snow to return to Karhide. During the journey, Genly becomes close with Estraven and learns many things about his companion, including a period of “Kemmer” in which Estraven briefly becomes a woman, which helps him understand the true nature of the androgynous people of the planet.

The Left Hand of Darkness Review: While the narrative gets bogged down a little in the middle (and during their interminable trek across the barren ice), the unique nature of the characters and conflicts keep the book moving along at a brisk pace. The fact of whether or not the planet becomes a part of the Ekumen is secondary to the fate of the characters and how they reflect the society that they are a part of. For me, it wasn’t until after I had finished the novel that I started pondering some of the larger questions and themes that the book presented – and that is a good thing in my opinion. LeGuin’s ability to paint a believable portrait of a society in which all members are both male AND female draws the reader in so deeply that they don’t even realize the staggering implications of what it means for a culture to not have a clearly defined barrier between genders. It is this ability that makes her not merely a great “Feminist” science fiction writer, but one of the best overall Science Fiction authors writing today.

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September 5, 2010

#20 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Review – Robert A. Heinlein

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In many ways, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is Robert Heinlein’s crowning achievement. Carefully plotted, stylistically unique, politically sophisticated and thrilling from page one, it’s hard to imagine anyone else writing a novel that packs so many ideas (both big and small) into such a perfectly contained narrative. Whether you agree with the political philosophies espoused by the main characters or the revolutionary techniques that are used to achieve their ultimate goal, you have to admire Heinlein’s ability to make you root for a rag-tag bunch of criminals, exiles, and agitators as they try to assert their political independence from an adversary as large and as intimidating as the Earth. And while the narrator’s unique lunar dialect (a mixture between colloquial English and Russian) might be a bit hard to follow at first, it won’t take you long to get swept up in the adventure and intrigue.

Summary: Set in 2075, the novel takes place mainly in the underground colonies of the Moon. The Earth’s policy of shipping criminals, exiles, and other unwanteds to the Moon over the years has resulted in a population of almost three-million people (including relatives and descendants of the first settlers). Although it’s not exactly a penal colony, it is a harsh environment that has its own set of rules and customs. While the Earth maintains tentative control over the lunar population through an armed presence, lunar society is, for the most part, allowed to develop on its own. The exception to this is in their trade policies, with the Earth relying on wheat exports from the Moon in order to feed the starving masses in India and Asia. As the material to produce wheat on the Moon is a finite resource, the “Loonies” soon come to realize that if the trade balance doesn’t swing back their way soon, there will be mass food riots on the planet. While anti-authority sentiment has been growing among the Loonies for a while, it is the looming food shortages that provide the trigger for the all-out revolution that follows.

The fight for self-determination and freedom on the part of the Loonies is spearheaded by an unlikely quartet of agitators. We have Manuel “Mannie” Davis, the narrator of our story; a native-born Loonie and computer repair technician with a robotic arm who becomes a reluctant hero in the struggle. Wyoming “Wyoh” Knott, a beautiful young agitator with her own personal reasons for hating the Lunar Authority. Professor Bernardo de la Paz, an elderly scholar and intellectual with advanced ideas about the process of revolution and the ideal political structure. And last but not least, we have the HOLMES IV, also known as “Mike,” the sentient supercomputer that controls all of the machinery and infrastructure of the Lunar colony. Having discovered Mike’s self-awareness when performing routine maintenance one day, Mannie becomes Mike’s first friend and recruits him to help in their efforts. With Mike’s true identity and role in the revolution kept a secret, he inadvertently becomes the figurehead of the revolution under the alias “Adam Selene.”

Review: The first two sections deal with the planning and build up to the insurrection, while the final act deals with the inevitable confrontation with Earth. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you whether or not they succeed in creating an independent, self-determining Lunar state, but I will say that the suspense and momentum that Heinlein is able to achieve is truly remarkable. Along the way you learn to care about these characters not only for who they are, but what they represent. While some people argue that the book is an argument for Libertarianism, I think that interpretation misses the point that Heinlein is trying to make. While he does seem to promote individual liberty and self-determination as a primary goal of society, he doesn’t come to any neat and tidy conclusions as to what the perfect structure to achieve that is. In discussing his own personal philosophy, the Professor admits to being a “Rational Anarchist” – something I’m not even sure Heinlein would admit could work in the real world.

Don’t be intimidated if you’re not passionately interested in the minutiae of political schools of thought. This book can be enjoyed without getting into that element. For everyone else, it’s simply a great story about a group of underdogs fighting for their freedom against authoritarian rule and oppression. And while it may not make you want to travel to the Moon anytime soon, it will make you think twice about crossing anyone who considers themselves a Loonie.

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#17 – Brave New World Review – Aldous Huxley

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While Brave New World is often compared to Orwell’s 1984 in that they both present a portrait of a disturbing future dystopia, the mechanisms in which their future societies impose control over the individual are actually in stark contrast to one another. Where Big Brother controls society through intimidation, fear and the violent suppression of individual freedoms, Huxley presents a world in which true social and mental conditioning have eliminated the need for strict government enforcement at all. Although Orwell’s future is more viscerally disturbing and repulsive, the society in Brave New World is just as frightening in its implications, with Huxley giving us a more subtle condemnation of the effects of population control and the social caste system.

Brave New World Summary: In London of 2540, the world’s population is kept at a stable 2 billion, resources are plentiful, there is near-universal employment, and global society is peaceful and stable. Babies aren’t born in the traditional sense, but are instead grown in test tubes and molded (through chemicals and sleep-hypnosis) to become a member of one of society’s five main castes. Since natural reproduction is non existent and sex is seen only as recreation, people are encouraged to be sexually promiscuous and open. In order to keep the economy stable, citizens are conditioned to be voracious consumers of products and materials. While individuality and solitude isn’t outlawed, it is looked down upon by society to the extent that those who value it are deemed “Unstable.” In place of religion, citizens are encouraged to take the Hallucinogenic drug Soma to combat any feelings of stress or anxiety. Actually, now that I think about, this doesn’t seem like such a bad way to live after all 🙂

The conflict begins when the main character Bernard (who is a bit unstable himself) travels to a Reservation during a holiday in order to view a group of “Savages” -a primitive people who exist outside of society and who still live in the traditional manner. When Bernard brings one of the savages back to London, he quickly becomes a celebrity as the savage (John) is seen as different and unique. John quickly becomes disenchanted with the decadence of society and the values which conflict with his own and tries to escape civilization. John’s isolation and self-flagellation eventually cause even more interest in him by the citizens, leading to an encounter that has tragic consequences.

Brave New World Review: The true prescience of Huxley’s vision, I think, is that many of the customs and structures that he describes are logical extensions of things that can be found in modern day culture. From population control programs and test tube conception techniques to the use of drugs and material consumption as a salve for depression and discontent, the book accurately predicts some of the emerging social and societal trends of the last 50 years. And while Orwell’s vision warns us of the dangers of a totalitarian regime that forcibly limits our intellectual curiosity and freedoms, Huxley seems to instead be warning us of a future in which prosperity and imposed happiness have caused us to suppress our own individuality and search for meaning.

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September 15, 2010

#7 – Fahrenheit 451 Review – Ray Bradbury

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Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 shares a lot of similarities with Orwell’s 1984. Both take place in a dystopian future where intellectual freedom and free thought are suppressed. Both tell the story of a man who begins to question the basic cultural assumptions and rules that his society is built upon. And both show the consequences of rebellion in a society bent on maintaining censorship at any cost. And while Fahrenheit 451 may be slightly more optimistic when it comes to its belief that an individual can be set free from the collective prejudices of their society, it is no less an indictment of the anti-intellectual tendencies that can emerge when a society starts to value happiness and order over truth.

Fahrenheit 451 Summary: The novel takes place in a future in which reading has been outlawed by a population that values the pursuit of pleasure over knowledge. “Illegal” books are rounded up and burned by “Firemen” for the good of humanity (The title of the novel refers to the temperature at which book paper will burn). Our protagonist, Guy Montag, is a Fireman who begins to question the practice of book burning after an incident at the home of a woman whose books were going to be burned. After inadvertently reading a line in one of her books, he decides to steal the book. When the woman eventually allows herself to be burned alive along with all of her books, Guy begins to reconsider his belief that books have no value.

As the novel progresses, Guy starts to become more and more obsessed with collecting and memorizing books and begins to find kindred spirits who have been actively trying to preserve as many books as they can (often going so far as to memorize their contents before burning them to avoid detection). At the same time, Guy’s superiors at the Fire department begin to suspect his book hoarding tendencies and eventually force him to burn his entire house to the ground. All of this takes place while newscasts warn of a pending war that is foreshadowed throughout the book.

Fahrenheit 451 Review: While many critics have declared the book to be a critique of state-sponsored censorship and oppression, Bradbury himself has noted that it is society itself that has initiated and allowed the censorship to take place by turning its back on books and intellectual curiosity. While Bradbury may have originally intended it as an attack on television and its effect on people’s interest in Literature, today’s reader could make the connection with any number of new forms of entertainment (movies, video games, etc.) that seem to be distracting people from the joys of reading. And while intellectual censorship stills occurs with alarming frequency around the world, modern technical advances have also given books, thoughts and ideas the ability to travel around the world in an instant and live independently of the physical pages that use to hold them bound.

Fahrenheit 451 Quotes: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war.”

“Remember the firemen are rarely necessary. The public stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but its a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line. So few want to be rebels anymore. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily.

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September 24, 2010

1984 Review – George Orwell

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This is another novel that I’d been meaning to read since I was young but only just recently got around to. I knew what the basic premise was, and I was familiar with plenty of the concepts that surrounded the book (Big Brother, ThoughtCrime and the use of the adjective Orwellian to describe an oppressive, totalitarian state), but I hadn’t actually sat down to see what all the fuss was about.

When I finally did, I was blown away. No other book that I’ve read even comes close to the constant level of dread, anxiety, claustrophobia and fear that 1984 is able to sustain. From the opening paragraph you can feel the main character’s feverish need to rebel against his oppression, as well as the impending sense of doom and fatalism he feels in the knowledge that he will mostly likely be caught and punished for his transgressions.

1984 Summary

If you don’t already know the basic plot, 1984 tells the story of middle-class bureaucrat Winston Smith in the fictional super-state of Oceania – a nation controlled entirely by the ruling Ingsoc party and its figurehead dictator: BIG BROTHER. Needless to say, Big Brother controls all aspects of life in Oceania, from where people

live, work and eat to the most intimate details of people’s personal lives (including their thoughts). Operating in a surveillance state in which ubiquitous telescreens keep watch over the population at all times, the mere thought of rebellion or disobedience is considered a crime punishable by death (or worse). It’s in this climate of fear and paranoia that Winston tries to assert his individuality and independence.

Winston finds a kindred spirit in Julia, a colleague at the Ministry of Truth, who at first seems to conform to the rigid ideals of the party but who eventually reveals herself to bea fellow libertine with a history of promiscuous behavior. Their secret love affair is a tender respite from the constant gloom and degradation of their daily lives – although the constant threat of detection looms large throughout. Along with their secret meetings, the pair also become interested in learning more about the mysterious rebel organization The Brotherhood (whose leader Emmanuel Goldstein is said to be an early member of the Party – and who is now Public Enemy #1). Their meeting with one of the Brotherhood’s supposed leaders marks a turning point in their rebellion.

1984 Review

The sheer visceral impact of the book’s not so subtle implications and warnings of the risks of unchecked totalitarianism and government surveillance do nothing to distract us from our intense sympathy for Winston and the emotional and psychological torment that he is forced to endure at the hands of the Party for transgressions that seem, to us, to be the basic rights of any human being. And even though the temptation is to think that this type of society could never really exist, even a cursory look back at the political landscape of the 20th century will reveal multiple instances of societies and regimes that foreshadow this type of manipulation and control.

While 1984 might not be a light read, it is still a powerful, engrossing book that has lost none of the impact that it had when it was first published in 1949.

1984 Quotes

“From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites.”1984 Movie: A film version of 1984 was produced (released conveniently in 1984) that starred John Hurt as Winston Smith. The film got generally good reviews upon its release and adheres relatively faithfully to Orwell’s original text.

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September 26, 2010