Category Archives: Fantasy

The Dangers of Utilitarianism in “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. Le Guin

[Spoilers: There are gigantic spoilers in every version of reality this post is a part of.]

“What comes is acceptable.”

When Ursula K. Le Guin died earlier this year, I knew that I wanted to read one of her novels this year. Then, I stumbled across the trailer for the documentary, The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, several weeks ago. (This link will take you to the website with the trailer and other information.) Seeing the preview inspired me to go on a search for a book by Le Guin that I hadn’t read before. Every time I’ve read her books, they’ve transformed me in some way. This time, I selected The Lathe of Heaven to read. I tore through it in just a few hours.

The book was highly critical of people, and even institutions, that think they know best for other people. The protagonist, George Orr, has dreams that can alter reality. And he gets paired with a psychiatrist who wants to “help” people—in the aggregate.  It’s a scathing look at utilitarianism. If you have to crush the one in front of you to help the “many,” then maybe you are losing your way.

In fact, the protagonist is feeling particularly lost in one of the realities because his love interest has been “unwritten.” He’s in an antique store and interacts with one of the aliens that he dreamed into existence (or maybe they existed all along?) “‘Is there any way to control iahklu, to make it go the way it…ought to go?’” The alien gives him a gift of a Beatles album, specifically a single of “With a Little Help from my Friends?”He eventually falls asleep listening to the lyrics: “’Do you need anybody? I need somebody to love,’” and “’I get by, with a little help, with a little help, from my friends.’”

When he awakens, the woman he loves is there, although she is different than the previous iteration that he knew. In the end, the therapist tries to hook himself up to the dream machine instead of Orr, thinking that he could change reality better than Orr because he was “superior.” (He critiques Orr repeatedly for not wanting to interfere, for being apathetic.) And he nearly destroys everything. Orr acts at the one point it was entirely necessary to act and stops the machine. As a side note, Orr doesn’t think of the psychiatrist as an evil man. He was a good man whose mistake was thinking that he could fix everything and that he knew the solution.

This novel felt like a love letter to love itself and friendship. The danger lies from grandiosity, from losing sight of the small things, which, in the end, are everything.

 

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Hugo 2018: Socialization and Agency in McGuire’s “Down Among the Sticks and Bones”

[If you don’t want spoilers, this is not your doorway.]

I skipped reviewing Hugo 2017 books because I wasn’t in a science fiction or fantasy mood often last year. This year, however, I’ve felt more like diving in to read both again. I already reviewed New York: 2140 up for best novel. Recently, I read Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanen McGuire, which is the second novella in her Wayward Children series. For a quick background on the series, you can read about it at McGuire’s website.

It’s an urban fantasy story where children and teens get pulled into other realms. From a sociological and psychological perspective, I enjoyed how McGuire tracked identical twins Jacqueline and Jill’s differential socialization despite being from the same family. McGuire is scathing about parents who view their children as mere things that are extensions of themselves. These different experiences, as well as having agency, or choice, lead Jack and Jill into making different choices when they get pulled into an horrific realm with vampires and mad scientists. Also, the story defies stereotypes in some ways like the character of the mad scientist but not in other ways. I particularly liked the idea that a little girl can grow up to be a worse monster than an actual monster.

The book left me thinking about how we force sisters (and brothers) into roles in the family as if they are opposites—like the dichotomy of girls being either a “princess” or “tomboy.”  Siblings can both be smart and bookish for example. One major take-away is that individuals responsible for children should be helping those children on their journey while giving them the tools for self-actualizing as they age. (I’m currently reading Motivation and Personality by Maslow.)

I’d highly recommend this fast-paced read and following it immediately with the third book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky.  If you want to be creeped out, I’d suggest reading it with a blanket and a flash light. I’ve never read Seanen McGuire’s October Daye series so I think I’m going to check it out soon.

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Socialization and Values for Fantasy Writing and Life: Neil Gaiman’s and Charles Vess’ book “Instructions”

[Spoilers the size of fairy tales]

“Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where you are going.”

“Trusts ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story.”

For my birthday this year, I wanted a copy of Instructions written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess. In the past, I’ve blogged about Gaiman and Vess’ book, The Blueberry Girl, which I adored, and has become my standard gift for baby showers for girls. The first one I gave away was my treasured hardback. It was a gift well given, although I still miss my original copy. (If you want to know more about The Blueberry Girl, you can follow this link to a blogpost by Neil Gaiman that includes a narrated version. It’s lovely.) As Neil Gaiman stated in his blog post, he wrote the poem for his friend Tori Amos at her request for her daughter, one month prior to her birth.

When I first read the book, I think wanted it to be The Blueberry Girl, again. Really, I wanted the same emotional experience that I had the first time I read it. I find this type of comparison is a way to ensure that I’ll never be satisfied with any artist’s next work. I did enjoy my first reading of Instructions, but it was actually the second reading that enchanted me. Now, for me as a writer, I think I prefer Instructions. Or they are both awesome in different ways.

The Blueberry Girl is a prayer, filled with hopes for a child; Instructions is a guidebook on how to actually live a good life, to go on a good journey. Normally, I don’t include dedications in my posts, but I loved these.  Both Vess and Gaiman dedicated this book to well-known writers. Based on this, I feel like the book is a “thank you” to all those who go on adventures into their fantasy worlds, risking danger and failure, to return with something amazing for the rest of us. It’s more than just returning with a lovely tale. Most folklore, fantasy stories, and fairy tales are instructive and have good life lessons: on what we should seek and what we should avoid.  (In fact, I’d argue this is true of most good stories including religious ones.) As I’ve discussed before, books are such an important agent of socialization. They teach us values and norms—and challenge them.

I think that you can read this book in a couple of different ways: as a writer preparing to create something to be shared and as a person trying to live a good life. Be cautious, but also, trust.  Back to the themes I’ve noticed in other works by Gaiman (see my posts here and here), the theme of avoiding greed is woven in. The character enters a house and is instructed: “[w]alk though the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing.” On the next page, “However, if any creature tells you that it hungers, feed it. If it tells you that it is dirty, clean it.  If it cries to you that it hurts, if you can, ease it’s pain.” In this scene, the cat adventurer picks up a small cat that then travels with it. Yet, later on “when you come back, return the way you came.  Favors will be returned, debts will be repaid.” You can give help and other times you accept help. Both are important to living a good life.

In terms of the art in this one, my favorite pages include an eagle soaring with the cat adventurer’s arms outstretched, with his cat companion sitting in front of him, looking as if he is enjoying the breeze. I loved the last page: “And then go home. Or make a home. Or rest.” In our efficiency-driven, constantly-streaming, multitasking society, I believe that we need it to be okay to live our lives how we choose. We might be producing something, including art, but sometimes, it’s okay to just be.

I highly recommend getting a cup of tea, or coffee, or whatever you prefer, sitting somewhere cozy with a blanket (mine pictured below), and giving this book a few reads. After that, you might want to check out the narrated version of Instructions that will open on YouTube.

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2016: My Favorite Books

[Minor spoilers]

This year, although I didn’t write many blog posts, I read more books than I have in recent years (28). I used to force myself to finish all the books I started. Now, probably as a product of aging, I’ve gotten more discerning in the books I begin, as well as the ones I’m willing to continue.

Philosophy:

If I had to pick my favorite book this year, I’d pick the book that transformed my thinking the most, Spinoza’s The Ethics, originally published in 1677. (It’s available on Project Gutenberg, if you’re interested, although we read it in A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works.) My husband suggested it, and we read it together. It was a challenging read that took me several months of study, but it was worth it. However, I can tell it’s a book that I need (and want) to return to again. It’s amazing how we can connect across time with a writer.

Fantasy and Science Fiction:

My favorites this year in terms of science fiction and fantasy were The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett, and The Jean le Flambeur series by Hannu Rajaniemi. The Shepherd’s Crown is one of the few novels that I actually reviewed on my blog. In light of his own impending death, I thought that Pratchett treated death in a thoughtful and reassuring way in the book. It also dealt with how to be a good person in a time of crisis and battle.

I loved the Escher-esque feel of The Jean le Flambeur series. It a heist story, but it’s also so much more than that. It begins with Jean in prison and tracks his story from there. The dream-like quality of these novels actually impacted my dreams recently. I loved the spaceship’s personality in the books.

Literary Fiction:

In terms of literary fiction, I loved the four Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante.  I loved the series as it traced the complicated relationship of two friends over decades. It was set in Naples, Italy, and its look at social class was fascinating. Once I started reading this series, I couldn’t put it down.

Art and Writing:

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, as well as her podcast, Magic Lessons, helped me get back to work on my creative writing. I stumbled across the podcast by accident: someone had posted a link to the one with Neil Gaiman as a guest, one of my favorite authors. The basic format of the podcast is that Gilbert interviews a person who has written to her with a problem relating to their artistic process.  Then, she makes recommendations, gives them homework, and sends them off to work.  Meanwhile she consults with an artist who she thinks can help with their particular problem, and then calls them again after time has passed to see if they have made progress. I found it very helpful, even when the artists’ fields were quite different than mine.

Finally, I really enjoyed A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan, written in 1920. I wrote about my thoughts on his active and passive adventurers and how it relates to living and writing in this blog post.

What were your favorite books this year?  I’d love recommendations.

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Pratchett’s “The Shepherd’s Crown” and A Pair of Sensible Boots

[Spoilers the size of Granny’s Boots.  Seriously, this post will spoil you on one of the most important moments in the book and in the series.]

Reading Sir Terry Pratchett’s last book in his Discworld Series, The Shepherd’s Crown, left me feeling emotionally raw in the best kind of way. While it may have been a bit less polished compared with earlier books in the series, it contained gorgeous emotional depth. It contained so much feeling, so much love. It contained warnings. It contained hope. Sometimes we, either individually or as a society, lose our way, but we can work together for the good of the community. Terry Pratchett believed in us. He believed that good people can prevail—not perfect people and not followers of a particular creed.  But rather good people who care about others and do the things that need doing. People able to both listen and truly see the world around them.

Although I have many books left to read in the Discworld series, I wanted to read this final book, as it was in his young adult series that I love. For those who haven’t read Terry Pratchett, he used different characters in his various sub-series in Discworld. One included witches like Granny Weatherwax. In his young adult series, he follows the childhood, adolescence, and, in this book, emerging adulthood of Tiffany Aching. (Incidentally, I loved Granny Weatherwax, as well as her principles, so much that I named my car after her. My next car will likely be named after Tiffany.)

Reading this book was highly emotional since Terry Pratchett had early onset Alzheimers and passed away in March of 2015.  Before I read the book, I experienced a sense of loss and sadness. I wondered what the tone of his last novel would be like. I was right to expect an emotional response to the book, but I didn’t expect the wealth and variety of feelings I had. Pratchett seemed to love all his characters; this love never seemed so profound to me as in “The Shepherd’s Crown.” It radiated. As far as I know, Tiffany is the only character that he “raised” from childhood and focused on so extensively. In his books, he shaped her to be the representative of what he thought a good person, and a good leader, should be like.

I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make a good society and a good person lately, as this year has seemed especially filled with international tension. Terry Pratchett’s entire series dealt with this, but, in his final book, his thoughts became even more clear. This book was about communities and relationships. Throughout the books, Granny’s role as Tiffany’s mentor was essential. Granny dies in this book in a very low key way.  Her interaction with one of the main character’s in Pratchett’s series, Death, was important to the theme that Pratchett developed on what a good person, and a good life, actually is. Knowing that Death was coming for her, some of Granny’s considerate last acts were deep cleaning her home, thanking her bees, feeding her goats and chickens, and bathing herself. Death comes to take Granny’s soul.

Her visitor was no stranger, and the land she knew she was going to was a land she had helped many others to step through to over the years. For a witch stands on the very edge of everything between the light and the dark, between life and death, making choices, making decisions so that others can pretend that no decisions have even been made.  Sometimes they need to help some poor soul through the final hours, help them find the door, not to get lost in the dark (28).

Death and Granny converse. He asks her why she was content to live in “‘this tiny little country’” when she “‘could have been anything and anybody in the world?’” (29). Granny replied that she “‘never wanted the world—just a part of it, a small part that I could keep safe, that I could keep away from the storms. Not the ones in the sky, you understand: there are other kinds’” (29).

Death states:

“WE ARE ALL FLOATING IN THE WINDS OF TIME.  BUT YOUR CANDLE, MISTRESS WEATHERWAX, WILL FLICKER FOR SOME TIME BEFORE IT GOES OUT—A LITTLE REWARD FOR A LIFE WELL LIVED, FOR I CAN SEE THE BALANCE AND YOU HAVE LEFT THE WORLD MUCH BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT. AND IF YOU ASK ME, NOBODY COULD DO ANY BETTER THAN THAT” (30).

For two pages, characters from the entire DiscWorld series become aware that Granny Weatherwax has died and mourn her loss in their unique ways. This illustrates how the effects of her life ripple outward.  However, this book is about Tiffany becoming an adult.

Shoes, generally, are a theme throughout Pratchett’s work. The book begins with a mention of Tiffany’s boots, an important symbol.

Today, for some reason, [Tiffany] had felt the need to come up to the stones. Like any sensible witch, she wore strong boots that could march through anything—good, sensible boots. But they did not stop her feeling her land, feeling what it told her. It had begun with a tickle, an itch that crept into her feet and demanded to be heard, urging her to tramp over the downs, to visit the circle. Even while she was sticking her hand up a sheep’s bottom to sort out a nasty case of colic.  Why she had to go to the stones, Tiffany did not know, but no witch ignored what could be a summons. And the circles stood as protection. Protection for her land. Protection for what could come through (4).

Tiffany gets outside confirmation that her feeling was correct. When Granny dies, the expectation is that Tiffany will lead the witches, although witches don’t officially have leaders. Granny leaves “all of it” to Tiffany, except her cat, who had a mind of her own. Tiffany thinks, “‘How can I possibly tread in the footsteps of Granny Weatherwax?  She is…was…unfollowable (43).

Pratchett’s thoughts on leadership are readily apparent, as Nanny Ogg, another witch in the series, says to Tiffany, “‘It’s you Tiff. Esme’s left you her cottage.  But more’n that.  You must step into the shoes of Granny Weatherwax or else’n someone less qualified with try an’ do it” (55). We have a responsibility to lead.

Although Tiffany has many doubts, Nanny expressed strongly (based on the previous books in the series) why Tiffany has earned the position by her own actions and merits. Tiffany tries to manage her own homestead in the Chalk, while trying both literally and figuratively to fill Granny’s boots and handle Granny’s Homestead. The book explores that being an individuated adult does not mean literally becoming the same as your elders.  It means finding your own path, your own loves, your own strengths, your own limits, and your own home. Tiffany wears her own boots, not Granny’s.

In the end, Pratchett’s major theme and symbol for the book, and the series, is the shepherd’s crown.  Tiffany’s ancestor, a shepherd, finds a shell. In the prologue, a sea creature developed a shell and survived. “…[T]here the creature lived on things even smaller than itself and grew until it became king” (1). It died when the water evaporated. Time passed until the day when “it was found by a shepherd minding his flock on the hills that had become known as the chalk” (2).  The shepherd was Tiffany’s ancestor, who saved the shell because it looked like a crown.  It passed down in the family until it was in Tiffany’s possession. Tiffany uses it to remind herself that she is of the chalk. Later in the book, a creature says to Tiffany:

“And I am the shepherd’s crown. Deep in my heart is the flint.  And I have many uses.  Some call me the sea urchin, others the thunderstone, but here, now, in this place, call me the shepherd’s crown.  I seek a true shepherd.  Where can a true shepherd be found?” (237).

At first, Tiffany thinks of her father. But then, she hears a voice, “‘Tiffany Aching is the first among shepherds, for she puts others before herself. . . .”(238).

The shepherd’s crown is in contrast to the usual idea of hereditary authority coming through a crown. (Other books in the series have discussed authority, power, and the crown.) However, the people that Pratchett argues do the most good in this final book for others are the people like Tiffany. They are quite powerful. However, they don’t thirst for power. But they do have power, and they use it when necessary. The witches fight for their communities and battle for them. Pratchett didn’t shy away from fighting when the community was threatened. But they also cut old men’s toenails. They do what is necessary for their flock.

Pratchett also explored differences between men and women’s experiences in the village communities. This might make some people uncomfortable, but I thought that he made a good point. A goat herder that joins them who has talents similar to the witches, including a goat familiar. Tiffany’s first big divergence as a leader was to welcome him as a witch. (This paralleled a previous Pratchett story where a woman became a wizard.) The older men in the community welcomed him and shared their invention with him. It is likely that they would not have felt as comfortable sharing the weapon with a woman, even a witch. The character was a vegetarian and looked at the world differently. In the end, he takes over Granny’s homestead. Tiffany returns to her own, and makes her own moving tiny home. She learns carpentry so that she can make her own home.  I think this is a major statement that Pratchett is making.  (It reminds me of the argument in “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” a book that a friend recommended to me years ago.  The book discussed the value and meaning of different types of work, especially that which people often devalue: making things.)

Ultimately, I think that Pratchett was arguing that we are connected intimately with our ancestors and our land.  It’s a relationship that we shouldn’t ignore. We can change, we can grow, but we should also acknowledge our roots. We build relationships over decades. We all like to feel useful. Even if we no longer live where our ancestors did, we should strive to understand and benefit our local community.  This includes people, wildlife, and the community itself.

I felt like Pratchett eased my grieving process over his death through showing the characters grieving the loss of Granny Weatherwax.  Although I didn’t know him, his creativity and values have shaped my life.

The whole forest sang now sang for Granny Weatherwax….

Where is Granny now? Tiffany wondered. Could a part of her still be…here? She jumped as something touched her on the shoulder, but it was just a leaf. Then, deep inside, she knew the answer to her question: Where is Granny Weatherwax?

It was: She is here—and everywhere (54).

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2016 Hugo Nominees

The 2016 Hugo Award nominees for best novel have been posted, and I’m excited that I’ve already read three of the five since last fall. In January, I reviewed The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher. I can’t wait to read more in the series, as I love swashbuckling, flying ships, and Butcher’s unique cast and world building.  I recently posted my thoughts on one of the nominees, Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson, as well as Aurora, which was not nominated, a shame. The other book that I’ve read is Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It’s a lovely, compelling story that pulls from different fairy tales than the ones I grew up on. I’m planning to write a longer review of it, possibly today.

I’d like to read the other two nominees soon, as I’ve enjoyed N.K. Jamison’s lush storytelling in the past.  I’ve read the first book in Ann Leckie’s amazing series, so I’d have to read another book before reading the nominee. This shouldn’t be hard to accomplish since the Hugo awards are presented in August. Luckily for me, I don’t actually have to choose between such disparate books.  I can just enjoy them all for what they are.

 

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A Quick Review of Jim Butcher’s “The Aeronaut’s Windlass”

[Ahoy spoilers]

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read one of Jim Butcher’s books, as I tend to cool out on long urban fantasy series. I’ve read many books in his Harry Dresden series, as well as his Codex Alera series. I decided to pick up The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first book in a new series, to read over the holidays. I was hoping for a fast-paced, swashbuckling adventure, and Butcher didn’t let me down.  The cast of characters was entertaining. He switches point of view often, which I found jarring at first, but eventually, I grew accustomed to the large cast. I also really enjoyed the world building and am looking forward to learning more about the how the magical crystals work, as well as the Etherialists’ magic. I liked the Horatio Hornblower-esque feel to some of the scenes with Captain Grimm. The book included flying ships, magic, monsters (of both human and nonhuman varieties), and fascinating technology.

My favorite part of the book was the characterization, as well as the characters’ interactions with one another. I’ve grown weary in the past few years with so many “troubled” anti-heroes in books, movies, and TV shows. I found it refreshing to read a book where the protagonists were actually well-meaning, “good” people (and cats). Also, I liked the fact that among the “good” characters, there were several women, all with different strengths, as well as weaknesses.  Although there were some gender roles in the society, like different styles of clothing, it seemed that women were either equal participants or nearly equal. However, it’s possible that the women protagonists may have all been exceptional. I particularly enjoyed the voice of the cat, Rowl.  I haven’t made my mind up yet about what I think of the the Etherialist villain from the book yet.

I did begin to get fatigued on the chases and fighting in the book.  However, around the time I began to feel fatigued, there was big pay off for each of the major characters.  It felt a bit like a crescendo. And I particularly loved the scene for Bridget, who was reluctant to leave her home at the beginning of the novel.  She winds up saving the day by staying calm, and using her both her wits and brawn. She rescues her love interest, which means something because he is also very competent.

All in all, I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series and would recommend it to others. I feel like this book would make a fantastic movie if you like swashbuckling and magic. It was a fun way to end my reading in 2015 and to begin my reading in 2016.

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