1984, George Orwell

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That I have reviewed two classics one after the other (Pride and Prejudice and 1984) is just a coincidence based on what audiobooks become available at my local library, but if I had the chance, classics would be all I read. And some new releases I suppose, one must ‘keep up’. Of course I’ve read them both before, but that’s why they’re classics – they stand, demand even, re-reading.

I pick up Orwells as a matter of course whenever I see them second hand and in looking for my copy of 1984 for this review I see I have a a few yet to be read – The Unknown Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Collected Essays, The Road to Wigan Pier, Coming up for Air – so expect some more reviews.

As a young man growing up, 1984 was in the distant future, a dystopia hanging over us in a way that is difficult to explain now that it is so far in the past. Later,  we congratulated ourselves that we had dodged a bullet, but what shocked me on this re-reading was Orwell’s prescience. The Introduction to my edition points out how many concepts from 1984 almost immediately entered the language:

… in common use by people who have never read the book – for example Newspeak, thought-crime, Big Brother, unperson, doublethink – most relate to the power of the state to bend reality.

These concepts, and particularly doublethink, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”, are at the core of right wing orthodoxy today.

1984 was Orwell’s last work, written in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The right, of course, promptly adopted it as an attack on Stalinism, which indeed it was, while ignoring any meaning it might have for their own tendency to totalitariansim. Orwell’s anti-Stalinism was not anti-communism, though the right and their fellow travellers in the ‘centre’ like to conflate the two. Orwell was clearly of the far left, he admired the anarchists in Spain, though he chose to fight with POUM who were basically Trotskyite (my review of Homage to Catalonia). The Republicans probably lost the war in Spain because the Soviet-supported Communists were as dedicated to defeating POUM as they were to combatting Franco. When the Republican government rounded up the leadership of POUM, Orwell was lucky to escape with his life, and this of course informs 1984, where the ruling Party is led by the Stalin figure, Big Brother and the shadowy opposition by Goldstein, clearly standing for Trotsky.

For a novel of such universal themes 1984 is suprisingly provincial. The ‘world’ it describes is the drab, post-war London of socialism, shortages and rationing. The world is divided into three blocs who have fought themselves to a stalemate. England belongs to the Oceania bloc of Great Britain, North America, South Africa and Australia, but Orwell makes no attempt to explain how English socialism prevails over US capitalism, nor how the UK is never overrun by Eurasia (Europe/Russia/South Asia).

Society is divided into Inner Party (Ruling Class), Outer Party (Middle Class) and Proles. The Inner Party rules by doing its best to prevent casual sex, channelling the resultant sexual frustration into political hysteria, with cameras and microphones everywhere so that the Thought Police may monitor every person’s activities, and children encouraged to report on their parents.

London today has an ‘Orwellian’ 500,000 cctv cameras in public spaces, though they’re probably not as informative as our communications and search records, with computer algorithms taking the place of the Ministries of Love and Truth in analysing and storing the resultant data, all available to the government and the police at the push of a button (or to you, if you want to watch, here).

At the core of the story is 39 year old Winston Smith, a minor bureaucrat whose job is to rewrite past newspaper reports so that they do not contradict current ‘truths’. Smith, who has one failed marriage behind him, lives a lonely and largely sexless life, though he did once give in to a hideously painted prole prostitute (for a socialist, Orwell is very ambivalent about the Proles). Smith is discontented with his life and has begun writing down anti-State thoughts in a journal he found in a junk shop. He becomes aware at work of a younger woman who appears to be paying him some attention. Although at first he fears she may be an informer for the Thought Police, he meets her and they become lovers, meeting first in parks then in a room he rents above the junk shop.

When they are, inevitably, betrayed the novel follows two courses, the Political and the Personal. Smith undergoes months of imprisonment, torture and indocrination to force him not just to agree with the Party, to engage in doublethink whenever he thinks he knows two facts which are at odds, but to internalise his agreement, to love Big Brother.

The Personal, the horrors of Room 101 which force Smith to disavow his feelings for Julia, his lover are well known, and anyway, as with many dystopian works, are merely a vehicle for the real message.

It’s clear that Orwell’s cynicism about ‘truth’ or about our leaders telling us the truth was a direct result of his participation in the war in Spain. In Looking Back on the Spanish War he writes,

As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on and off like a tap, are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis. In the intelligentsia I should say they rather result from money and mere physical safety. At a given moment they may be ‘pro-war’ or ‘anti-war’, but in either case they have no realistic picture of war in their minds.

As a participant, he was able to make the comparisons first-hand between what was happening in Spain and what was reported in European newspapers:

I saw great battles reported where there was no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed… I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’…

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.

The middle part of the book is taken up with Smith reading a critique of the Party, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by the rebel leader Goldstein, a pretence to get us to absorb a lot of Newspeak and Doublethink theory.

The war between the blocs is explained as very little to do about territory gained and lost, and all to do with motivating members to unquestioningly support the Party – reprising the anarchist argument War is the Health of the State. In reality –

the war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.

I won’t take the theory lesson much further except to point out the almost exact parallels between the orthodoxy required by the Party in 1984 and the contortions of apparently intelligent people on the right of politics today to hold, and to insist that we also hold, beliefs that are completely at odds with what we, and they, know to be true.

To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.

Does that sound like Creationism to you? Does that sound like Climate-Change denialism? Like the arguments in favour of invading Iraq? Of course it does, because that’s how those in power work, in Orwell’s time, in our time.

 

 

George Orwell, 1984, first pub. 1949. My copy (not pictured above) Penguin 1989 with Introduction by Dr Peter Davison [I sourced the illustration from another blog (here) but couldn’t identify the illustrator. Tetiana Aleksina who often ‘likes’ my excursions into SF might have more info.]

George Orwell, Looking Back on the Spanish War, written 1943, first pub. 1953. Published with Homage to Catalonia, 1968.

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Rubik, Elizabeth Tan

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Elizabeth Tan is a young woman writer from Perth,WA. She is not a 25 year old pop singer from Malaysia, well I don’t think so anyway. The Brio site says,

In 2015, [Tan] completed her PhD in creative writing at Curtin University. Her thesis investigated the intrusion of science-fictional tropes and iconography onto our current social reality, and the cultural anxieties that this has produced. This practice-led research culminated in her first novel Rubik, published in 2017.

It’s a bit of shame about that PhD, although too common to worry about any more. I like to think of the author as slaving away in a garret [from the old French “guerite”, meaning “watchtower” or “sentry box.”] to get her dreams down on paper, not poring over textbooks to assemble concepts in an order acceptable to her supervisor, and  I’ve written before that I find novels by literature academics often too self-consciously post modern. But not, I’m happy to say, in this case.

One of the great pleasures of reading C21st writing – for me – is the way Science Fiction has leaked into the Lmainstream. Think Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things, Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light, Claire Coleman, Terra Nullius, and all right, Margaret Attwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Wait, there’s more, Krissy Kneen, Rodney Hall, Georgia Blain, Robert Edeson, Nathan Hobby, and these are just authors that I’ve reviewed.

SF is a way of making sense of the world, and this is a world that needs to be made sense of. Early, 1950s SF fought WWII and the Cold War in space, America to the rescue, a trope laughably referenced recently by President Trump.

In the 1960s and ’70s SF reflected not just psychedelia, experimental writing, the drug culture, different ways of living, though there was lots of that, but also the consequences of nuclear and climate disasters. Sadly the literature was regarded as genre, and to be honest, the purview of nerdish young men. Consequently, great writers like JG Ballard, Doris Lessing, Ursula le Guin, Phillip K Dick received far less attention, as writers, than they deserved.

Mainstream writing proceeded on its way with social realism. Mostly. There were outliers like David Ireland’s A Woman of the Future and Thomas Keneally, A Dutiful Daughter. Postmodernism which had begun in the 1950s as a way of describing and deconstructing writing was by the 1980s merely a fashion in which all literary works had to contain elements of meta fiction. Likewise Magic Realism, interesting in a South American context and later in Indian, African and Indigenous writing, but just a base to touch for Anglos, pointless and handled badly.

So, to Rubik. First, this is a work set unselfconsciously in Perth, not in a descriptive way, you won’t get much of an idea of what Perth is like, but fun to follow for a local as characters flit from Northbridge (inner city arts and restaurant precinct) up and down the Mandurah (south) and Joondalup (north) rail lines.

Rubik is a novel about the intersecting lives of a range of characters, through a series of vignettes, not sequential, and sometimes exploring alternate time lines. Even if you miss some (or most) of the connections, and I’m sure I did, it is immensely enjoyable. In particular, Tan writes likeable characters and I hope in a future novel she takes the opportunity to let us know two or three characters really well.

The eponymous Elena Rubik is knocked down by a car and killed in the first scene but persists in various ways throughout. Her housemate Jules Valentine is asked to stand in for the ‘falling woman’, a widely distributed meme associated with the new in-phone. A little girl is cared for by an octopus/transformer. Peter’s piano teacher disappears and he and his new school friend attempt to find her. Ursula and Penny create mobiles for an exhibition at the Cultural Centre (in Northbridge of course). They fixate on a voice-over man whose cat may exist in alternate universes. Everyone sort of recognises Jules, as she has been the face of the Ampersand product range. Audrey repairs robot birds and insects, which are all we have left. A student newspaper begins pulling some of the strands together. With surprising results.

Some of these strands may be stories on an old fan fiction site of which Ampersand sales people Michael and Bette are or have been members. As was/is Elena.

This is a novel for our neo-liberal times where corporations run by faceless old white men both know and control everything about us. Tan fights back subtly, with satire, with ‘acceptably brown’ characters, with off-hand analyses of the way we submit to being manipulated. I forget who recommended Rubik now, but thank you, I loved it.

 

Elizabeth Tan, Rubik, Brio/Xoum, Sydney, 2017

Ice, Anna Kavan

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“Few novelists match the intensity of her vision,” JG Ballard
“There is nothing else quite like Ice,” Doris Lessing

Ice was first published in 1967 and republished in the Penguin Classics edition above in  2017. The sticker on the back indicates I bought it new though I don’t remember why, perhaps it was those testimonials from two of my all-time favourite writers.

Kavan, born Helen Emily Woods in 1901 (in France to English parents) had a troubled life. Her father suicided when she was 10, her mother married her off to her (mother’s) lover. She began writing in her twenties and published first under her (first) married name Helen Ferguson before legally adopting the name Anna Kavan, and changing her hair from brunette to ice blonde, in 1940. She had multiple hospitalizations for depression and a lifelong heroin addiction (wiki). She has a considerable body of increasingly experimental work to her credit. Ice was the last work published before her death in 1968.

1967 was the year of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the Monterey Pop Festival, The Ticket that Exploded, Ballard and Lessing were both established writers, I was a year or so away from university and already started on the edgy science fiction of Phillip K Dick, John Sladek and Robert Sheckley. The USA and the USSR were held back from annihilating each other and us all only by the certainty of MAD.  France was testing nuclear weapons at Mururoa.

This is the context that produced Ice.

The world is coming to an end as nuclear winter leads to walls of ice converging from the poles towards the equator. As individual countries break down into lawlessness our protagonist, a guy, seeks his old love, an ice blonde wraith who is currently living with his rival. In sunshine he makes his way to their retreat in the country. His rival stands back, is condescending. She doesn’t trust him, turns away when he approaches, chooses to stay. As he leaves, snow begins to fall. He knows the girl’s relationship with his rival is abusive.

She goes abroad, or is taken – it feels like from England to Norway, but nowhere, no-one is named. He makes his way by sea to the northern country where the girl is with/being held by the Warden, his rival, the local military commander. Social structures are collapsing as the ice approaches.

The whole short novel, 180pp, a fable Kavan said later in answer to criticisms that it has no plot, is a dream/nightmare as the protagonist braves ice and war to get near Her only to lose out and have to restart as his rival becomes increasingly powerful in regional and then world terms. As with any dream, we proceed in discontinuous fragments. She is consumed by ice, by marauders, is sacrificed to a dragon

Armed men came up, pushed me back, seized her by her frail shoulders. Big tears fell from her eyes like icicles, like diamonds, but I was unmoved. They did not seem to me like real tears. She herself did not seem quite real. She was pale and almost transparent, the victim I used for my own enjoyment in dreams… The men did not wait any longer but hurled her down, her last pathetic scream trailing after her.

As with Ballard, the post-apocalyptic world is just a backdrop for the disintegration of the protagonist. The real theme of the novel is that the woman fears her rescuer, fears most of all that if she trusts him he will let her down. Even when he does at last rescue her, takes her to a Pacific island, she turns away from him, tells him to leave, and when he does, takes that as proof that she must not rely on him. Been there!

The guy leaves, fights a few wars, meets up with his rival, now Supreme General, has a change of heart and fights his way back to Her. The ice has nearly reached the Equator. He persuades her to ‘escape’ with him. There will be no escape.

The point is that the girl is a victim:

Fear was the climate she lived in; if she had ever known kindness it would have been different… All her life she had thought of herself as a foredoomed victim.

Systematic bullying when she was most vulnerable had distorted the structure of her personality, made a victim of her, to be destroyed, either by things or by human beings, people or fjords and forests; it made no difference, in any case she could not escape.

This is Kavan writing out her pain. Ignore the male protagonist, he is not Kavan’s focus, merely the instrument of the girl’s suffering, her suffering. Ignore the SF, Kavan just needed a setting to explore victimhood and nuclear winter was topical. I have not read Kavan before, now I am interested to know if Acker or Ettler did. Kavan seems like a precursor. The results of Googling ‘Anna Kavan Kathy Acker’ suggests that others have had the same thought.

 

Anna Kavan, Ice, Peter Owen, London, 1967, Repub. Penguin, 2016

 

 

 

 

An Uncertain Grace, Krissy Kneen

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When I was a kid in the late 1950s the only commercial radio I heard was on the farm during school holidays, the radio in granddad’s ute tuned to 3SH Swan Hill (except around midday when he insisted on Blue Hills and the rural stock prices), playing Bobby Darrin, Dion, Ricky Nelson; I can still sing Vic Dana’s Red Roses for a Blue Lady. Even when I was a teenager the most popular singers on radio included Frank Sinatra, Matt Munro, and Tom Jones, and this at a time when The Beatles and the Rolling Stones had been around for 2 or 3 years. As the 60s passed I got into the Animals, the Loved Ones, Janice Joplin, King Crimson, the Doors – though sadly my all time favourite was and is Roy Orbison – but Sinatra et al were still around.

It was years before I realised that this confusion of singers hadn’t popped up out of nowhere but represented the continuation of a variety of streams – pre-war Swing (Sinatra), African-American Blues and White Country Rock. And of course over time they merged, continued, threw off new streams (and somewhere around Hip-Hop became unlistenable*).

Literature has as many streams as music. And for some reason – maybe with Climate Change its time has come – the stream that has come to the fore recently is Speculative Fiction and in particular Women’s SF – which I have argued elsewhere differs in significant ways from Men’s (aka ‘Mainstream’) SF. I wonder (idly!) if a part of the reason for this emergence -within Literature, rather than off to one side in genre – is the popularity of Margaret Attwood and her resolute refusal to be genre-ised.

In the past few years I have reviewed Jane Rawson (here, here, here), Ellen van Neerven (here), Alexis Wright (here). Charlotte Wood (here), Claire Coleman (here), and, to throw in a guy, Rodney Hall (here) not just because of my ongoing interest in SF but because they are genuinely at the forefront of new literature in Australia. And then there’s also Georgia Blain (here), Nathan Hobby (here), Robert Edeson (here, here) and Sue Parritt (here), of whom only the last is completely ‘straight’ SF.

Krissy Kneen is not an author I know, but this appears to be her sixth novel. It is a mixture of Speculative and Erotic fiction that I enjoyed. As for “streams”, the only direct predecessor I can think of is Linda Jaivin and the lightweight, amusing, sexy Rock ‘n’ Roll Babes from Outer Space (1996).

The novel begins with Caspar, a lecturer in Literature – a guy in the first person, lecturing: “If an author uses first person, a reader is trapped in her or his perspective …” – focusing his attention on the prettiest girl in his class. It soon becomes apparent that Caspar serially has affairs with a girl from each of his classes.

He gets his comeuppence when Liv, a previous afairee, leaves him a gift of a memory stick and a virtual reality suit which enables him to re-live their love-making as she experienced it, and he becomes “trapped in her perspective”. This on its own is a powerful short story. To be a man experiencing his fumblings and shortcomings from the woman’s point of view is intensely humbling,

I still have her skin on me. I still feel her hurt, her disappointment, her terrible bittersweet scent of ennui.

I wonder if the weeks will scour her body from my skin. I will become myself. I will return to myself unchanged because we don’t change, not ever. Or at least, I have not ever before.

 but Kneen’s ambition is greater than this and she leads us on through four more ‘short stories’, each also in the first person, from the POV of a person other than Liv, as Liv ages and refines her use of the suit.

Liv is a researcher working with paedophiles to see if they can use the suit to develop empathy. Her subject, Ronnie becomes a jellyfish, becomes all jellyfish through all time.

Cameron is a – 50 years of science fiction and I can’t recall the word for a robot with human consciousness, ahh, android – an android who looks like a pre-teen boy and who ‘genuinely’ wishes to make love with paedophiles, no. 35 in a sequence of androids who have been progressively “improved” and their predecessors eliminated, happy in his work until he is subverted by a girl his own age, Ellen.

M is trans, in a time when gender reassignment is readily available to minors. She has a genuinely asexual partner but slowly becomes attracted to an old lady, Liv, who is belatedly undertaking her own transition to trans.

Finally the ‘first person’ is Liv, beyond a century old, using all her money to to hire, becoming friends with a beautiful prostitute, in the suit experiencing youth and sex for the last time. In each of the stories Liv is a person who constructs narratives from the captured experiences of herself and others.

If this were one of my narratives I would begin here.

The first time I paid a prostitute to masturbate me was when my body had died. I was nothing more than a collection of thought patterns, memories stored digitally, circuits firing like synapses, and yet this woman was slipping her fingers up and inside me.

Kneen is an accomplished writer, melding metafiction, erotica and speculation to produce entertaining yet thoughtful fiction. If she were a singer I think she would be Ani DiFranco.

 

Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2017

see also: Kate W’s review at booksaremyfavouriteandbest (here)


*Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer shows how much I know – New Yorker

The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin

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One of my favourite novelists, Ursula Le Guin (b.1929) died last month (22 Jan 2018). I was barely aware of her children’s fantasy fiction which brought her so much acclaim but her adult novels, which are both Science Fiction and Literature, brought me, Mrs Legend and eventually our children, both pleasure and an awareness of what-might-be. Throughout the seventies and eighties she was the first writer we both looked for in second-hand stores and whose work we discussed, and just this xmas we inducted out oldest granddaughter into the club with Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest.

Ursula K Le Guin in her writing and no doubt in herself, was a feminist, an anarchist and a conservationist, a (quiet) revolutionary in the sixties and seventies when it all seemed possible, right up to now when it seems less possible but rather more necessary. She was a fine story-teller who used her adult science fiction to picture and discuss her beliefs and who argued that science fiction was an important and necessary part of Literature. Her obituary in the Guardian says that

… she conveys her strong conviction that science fiction and fantasy, though fascinating in themselves, are also essential literary constructs or tools through which the world could profitably be described – but only if one honoured the tools. She was impatient – though respectfully so – with her friend Margaret Atwood’s disinclination to call some of her own novels science fiction.

Some time in the nineties or oughties I lost track of her and so was pleased when Michelle (MST at Adventures in Biography) wrote of her family’s connection with Le Guin (here) and then came up with Le Guin’s great defense of Harper Lee (here) on the release of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 (my review).

The Dispossessed (1974) was one of three political masterpieces Le Guin wrote at the height of her powers in the sixties and seventies, the other two being Left Hand of Darkness (1969) on feminism and The Word for World is Forest (1976) on conservation and the rapacity of capitalism.

The Dispossessed is the story of a man, Shevek, a physicist working on the Unified Field Theory which eluded Einstein, living on a planet Anarres which 200 years earlier had been colonised by ‘Odonians’ – followers of the woman, anarchist philosopher and revolutionary, Odo. Anarres circles a slightly larger and much more fertile planet, Urras. (The physics of their situation, which Le Guin glosses over by referring to each being the other’s moon, is that they would in fact have orbited each other around their common mid-point and their daily rotations would have synchronised so that they constantly showed the same face to each other.)

Urras, which acts as an analog for present-day Earth, is heavily populated and divided into countries with authoritarian governments. The wealthy country A-Io is an analog for the USA and the communist country Thu of course stands in for the USSR. They are not at war but during the course of the novel fight a proxy war in a third country, putting down a peoples revolt, with A-Io victorious and reinstalling a dictatorship (a reference no doubt to the USA’s intentions in Viet Nam at the time of writing.)

In the background of this story, of all Le Guin’s SF, are the space-faring and long-civilized Hainish who posit that an even earlier civilzation seeded thousands of planets throughout the galaxy with ‘mankind’. The Hainish have near-lightspeed travel, which they are happy to share, but Shevek’s work on ‘Simultaneity’ carries the promise, for the first time, of instantaneous communication. The Hainish, and Terre, almost destroyed by global warming (Yes, that was a thing in 1974. We have been ignoring it for a very long time. The only fiction I ever had published was on a Melbourne inundated by rising sea levels (RMIT Engineering magazine, 1970) ), have embassies on Urras which play a small part at the end of the story. The Terran ambassador tells Shevek:

“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species … There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot … There are nearly half a billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do …”

The story follows two paths: chapters of Shevek’s life growing into adulthood on Anarres, from maths prodigy to physicist, working within his chosen field and as a labourer as the people struggle to deal with shortages and drought, meeting women, getting married, having a family, increasingly having to deal with structural rigidities and social pressure which serve to prevent him disseminating his work; alternating with his time as a mature scientist in A-Io, feted but closeted away from ordinary people, becoming increasingly aware that by being the first person ever to make the trip back from Antarres to Urras he has sold himself, sold his groundbreaking work to the State.

I know there is plenty of boy own stuff in SF, lots of militarism and soft-sex fantasies (the mild, clerkish Robert Heinlein was derided for the enormous muscles of his heroes and breasts of his heroines), but there is also social and literary experimentation which did not, could not find a place elsewhere. The Dispossessed is not space opera, Le Guin makes us care about her protagonist, about his inner struggle to conform his conscience with a workable anarchist ethic. She gives him a life partner, Takver, and friends who share and guide his struggle. She is aware of the problems that will confront a working revolutionary society, and confronts them head-on: the decline of systems of work into bureaucratic rule-following; the failure of voluntary work-sharing and rationing when resources are scarce; the problem of inertia in science which Popper describes in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934) and of analagous failures in the arts. And she balances her male protagonist with an overtly feminist, “womanish”, political philosophy. Odonianism. Anarchism, syndicalism, socialism, pacifism.

Shevek in A-Io struggles with the comfort of his rooms, with the idea of servants, with the absence of women from all areas of work, with his increasing awareness that he is being “duchessed” – inundated with luxuries – in return for the completion of his thesis on Simultaneity. At a ball, consuming alcohol for the first time, he makes a fool of himself with his hostess – the women are naked from the waist up which he takes as an invitation – but in his subsequent hangover determines to defect to the workers, takes part in a massive demonstration which is dispersed by machine gun fire and, finally, ends up at the Terran embassy.

Shevek, a diffident man, is persuaded to address the demonstration. “There might have been a hundred thousand human beings in Capitol Square, or twice that many”. Exactly the situation in Bourke Street, Melbourne on Moratorium Day, May 8, 1970, when the capitalist press attempted to play down our numbers, 20 wide and packed solid all the way, a kilometre, from the GPO to Parliament House and back into the Treasury Gardens.

“I am here because you see in me the promise, the promise that we made two hundred years ago in this city – the promise kept. We have kept it, on Antarres. We have nothing but our freedom. We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful…”

Ursula L Guin was a great, great woman. We are the poorer not for her passing, but for our failure to pay her the attention she deserved.

 

Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed, first pub. 1974. Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2002

see also:

John Clute, Ursula K Le Guin obituary, the Guardian, 25 Jan 2018 here
Ursula K Le Guin, A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman, 3 Aug 2015 here
Ursula K Le Guin, website here


Australia’s First Women Writers – Giveaway

Michelle in her guest post (here) promised a copy of Clarke, P, and Spender, D, Life Lines: Australian women’s letters and diaries 1788-1840 to a lucky commenter. She has written to tell me that the winner is … Jay Hicks. Congratulations Jay. Drop me a line at theaustralianlegend@gmail.com with your postal address and your book will soon be in the mail.

The Last Love Story, Rodney Hall

The Last Love Story

Rodney Hall (1935- ) is only a couple of years younger than my mum, which is to say pretty old, and he has two Miles Franklins to his name – for Just Relations in 1982 and The Grisly Wife in 1994 – and has three times been ‘nominated’ for the Booker, and yet I can’t say I have ever been aware of him. Luckily Lisa (ANZLitLovers) is not so ignorant and in googling him I came across her 2012 post ‘Meet an Aussie Author: Rodney Hall’ (here).

The Last Love Story (2004) continues a trend, in my reading, of Australian literary fiction that is slightly offset from reality, the best of them Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, but there’s all of Jane Rawson, Ellen van Neerven, and more recently Claire Coleman and Robert Edeson, who all give reality a dystopian twist to describe a near future which says a lot about our fairly unhappy present.


I’ve had an SF couple of weeks, relistening while I work to Haruki Murakami’s wonderful 1Q84 (46 hours 16 min.s!) and then to The Natural Way of Things whose polite, middle class narration by Ailsa Piper detracts from the vibrancy of the story IMO. Kate W has just reviewed Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace (here) which I must read, and meanwhile I have started on The Dispossessed (1974), Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece of anarchist SF in preparation for a tribute following her recent death.


The subtitle of this novel is A fairytale of the day after tomorrow and Hall, not always successfully, has attempted a fairytale type of story telling, reminiscent perhaps of Angela Carter. The first chapter begins:

First, there is a river. Without the river there would be no story. Like many other rivers this one has a ford for people to cross. And, wherever you find a ford, a small industry of communications tends to spring up – a cable ferry, an inn on one side, then a rival inn on the other…

And so, a city is born, “not often heard of outside its own boundaries and known simply as The City.” But with all the workers and factories north of the river, and all the offices and better off people south of the river. When the workers rise up The City breaks up:

And because there were three times more people in City North than rich people in City South, the stalemate of numbers against superior equipment soon set hard. Both divisions of the army focused their resistance along the river bank and took turns at strategically blowing up every bridge linking them except Friendship Bridge.

That’s how swiftly the Great Day happened. And that’s how swiftly the disaster got out of hand.

As the divisions solidify and rival authoritarian administrations take control, Catholics in the South, Christian Fundalmentalists in the North, one man, a working man, Paul, the man of this love story, is stranded, unable to return to his home in City North, takes a little flat and continues to find work on building sites.

The woman of the story, Judith, is an only child, treated as ‘slow’ by a domineering mother, still home at 22 in the comfortable suburbs of City South. Until she meets Paul, is picked out by Paul, at a dance, just waiting to be asked. Then there are Judith’s mother, Mrs Stott and the sadistic head of the City North border guards, The Lieutenant.

Judith is wooed by Paul, runs off with him, is betrayed, abandoned and imprisoned, then released just as he, filled with remorse, comes back to her and is imprisoned in turn and she must come back for him.

In this middle section Hall loses his already tenuous grip on his folk-tale style and descends into mawkishness:

Here on the railway line, as Paul wept with remorse, wept at the cruelty of his own will … Judith, Judith! He had taken her, that precious woman, as if she were a sexual repository, a vassal. He had taken her carelessly, so carelessly he learned nothing of her needs, nothing even of his own heart.

Kerryn Goldsworthy in the Age writes, “Writing non-comic, non-realist fiction for adults is a fiendishly difficult task; among other things, it requires plain language, and it’s here that Hall’s skills as a poet tend to get in his own way.” Though she has a more positive view of his overall success than I do.

Judith, home again and closely watched, slips out but Mrs Stott sees her:

… she set off in pursuit as fast as her elegant shoes would allow. But she was too far behind. She had simply no idea whether Judith’s mission was a repetition of the previous day, nor whether that long absence had been a mission at all, or a mere whim on the child’s part, or maybe the need to conceal some ongoing trouble. She was getting puffed. Her hat slipped over one ear. Her smartness exposed her ridiculously. Then, at the very moment of abandoning the pursuit, she caught a glimpse of Judith, in the distance, disappearing into the mainline railway station.

First Paul and Judith, and then Paul, and then Judith, and then Mrs Stott, cross the river on the decrepit train which connects the two cities, and each time one or both or all of them are held prisoner in the City North border lock-up at the mercy of the Lieutenant. Until at last it is Judith’s clearsightedness and courage that sets them free.

Hall’s metaphor is not as obvious as Charlotte Woods’ but this is definitely a fairytale for our border/internment-obsessed times.

 

Rodney Hall, The Last Love Story, Picador, Sydney, 2004

Kerryn Goldsworthy’s review in the Age  (26 June 2004) here

 

Bad to Worse, Robert Edeson

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Bad to Worse (2017) is a second novel and suffers from second novel syndrome. Which is to say that all the things which were exciting and new in the first novel are repeated in the second where they are self-evidently not new and nor are they very exciting.

Further, Bad to Worse suffers also from we’re on a roll here let’s go for a series syndrome. So we have the same mix of good guys, though in different proportions, as in The Weaver Fish (here), facing off against a new line-up of villians. As we will again in book 3 no doubt, as Worse believes firmly in permanent threat eradication, ie. killing. And just enough threads are left open at the end.

Worse, the principal good guy, is an independent, Perth-based, secret agent type, deadly in armed and unarmed combat and a supremely competent computer hacker; he has foils in philosopher detective Victor Spoiling of the WA Police, and in his friend philosopher psychiatrist Sigrid Blitt. In fact all the good guys are philosopher scientist poet mathematicians though their philosophy science poetry logic is mostly (ironically) bogus.

Worse’s love interest from The Weaver Fish, Millie Misgivington, almost makes it to Perth in time to be included in the action, but doesn’t. And the other members of the supporting cast – Walter Reckles who survives a mid-air collision, as he said he could, over the Arizona desert, and Millie’s brother Nicholas, and his team leader Paulo on Greater Ferendes play relatively minor parts; while Anna Camenes and Edvard Tøssentern, though frequently mentioned, like Millie stay out of the way in Cambridge.

The Chinese, who in The Weaver Fish were illegally clear-felling and mining the northern coastal plain of Greater Ferende, have been discarded by the author as a source of ongoing conflict/outrage after promising much and delivering little; and neither the Asiatic Condor nor the Weaver Fish is given even a walk on part, though a giant, upright, cave-dwelling crab plays a minor role in terrifying Nicholas and Paulo.

The story this time is that the enormously wealthy and dishonest Mortiss family from Chicago have an ongoing vendetta against the Worse family in Dante, Arizona arising from a shoot-out between Sheriff Thomas Worse and members of the Mortiss family in 1877. When our Worse hears that Walter Reckless has crashed and survived after a collision with a drone from the mysterious Area Pi facility outside Dante he writes and introduces himself to Sheriff Thomas Worse the sixth, and begins investigating, soon finding links to the Mortiss family.

Of course there is stuff going on in the Ferendes that also has links to the Mortiss family, and the family has a fleet of dodgy cruise liners that leads to Worse and Brigit taking an unfortunate trip where they meet Hilario, an apparently telepathic steward, who is clearly destined to play an on-going role (perhaps as chaperone for Millie, if she ever makes it to Perth).

My favourite line: “There was another loud obstructed inspiration from Haberdash” [ie. the villian was having trouble breathing] illustrates perfectly how Ederson uses scientific/medical language to both obscure and enhance meaning. And then amid all the science there is an ultimate ocker moment, billy tea in the bush:

Worse grabbed the lidless billy’s wire handle, using green forest leaves for insulation. He stood back from the fire, and began to swing the billy like a pendulum. Suddenly, from a forward under-swing, it went full circle at high speed, revolving round and round at arm’s length, the boiling tea retained by nothing but centrifugal force. He stopped the exercise by running forward as it slowed.

Eventually, it all comes together in Arizona and the bad guys, and one very bad gal, lose.

Too often the plot is advanced by the characters writing letters to each other, which I find infuriating; there is a conceit about the author of the Worse chronicles being unknown, which you should ignore; and some unnecessary appendices which if you are going to read at all read during the course of the novel because you certainly won’t be bothered when you’ve finished.

I’ve been hard on Bad to Worse because I expected more. The writing in The Weaver Fish sparkled, there was a good balance between experimental writing, action and character development. Some of the ‘experimental’ elements remain in Bad to Worse – particularly long and sometimes amusing footnotes – but the writing is mostly bog standard SF. Long on action, short on character. What was Literature in the first novel is now just Genre.

But. Read it anyway. Teacher son enjoyed though he wished had read The Weaver Fish first. It’s still fun despite all my carping, if a bit on the bloody side, and book 3 is bound to be better. We might even get a bit of cosy, Cambridge, hand-holding romance.

 

Robert Edeson, Bad to Worse, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2017

see also my review of Robert Edeson, The Weaver Fish (here)