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Monthly Archives: August 2017

“The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. LeGuin

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Although I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series and one or two of her science-fiction novels in high school, I haven’t revisited her work in years. I picked up a copy of The Dispossessed at a used bookstore and was quickly reminded why LeGuin is one of the giants of speculative fiction.

Shevek, a brilliant physicist, lives on Anarres, a moon of the planet Urras that got its start as something of a social experiment. Two hundred years previously, an anarchist movement on Urras became so large that the government granted its members permission to colonize Anarres so that they wouldn’t continue disrupting Urrasian society. LeGuin’s skill at worldbuilding is on full display here—she has clearly thought about how the details of such a society would function and grounds the lives of the characters in that milieu. Various small details, like the use of “profiteering” as an expletive, aid the reader’s immersion in the world she’s created.

The book begins with Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras, where he hopes to complete his work on a theory that will revolutionize physics. As she shows us both worlds through his eyes, LeGuin resists the temptation to paint either civilization as a complete utopia or dystopia. By showing both the virtues and flaws of the conflicting social systems—some immediately apparent, others gradually revealed as the story progresses—she presents strong critiques of both capitalism and socialism. (For all that Anarres’s society is described as being anarchist, it also has notable socialist elements, with the movement’s founder having been very concerned with the well-being of the “social” organism.) Perhaps influenced by real-world events at the time of its writing (1974), the book also makes mention of a proxy war between two superpowers on Urras that bears some resemblances to the Vietnam War.

The book also presents some interesting philosophical thoughts on the relationship between an individual and society, as well as on self-knowledge and self-actualization. While the society of Anarres doesn’t seem to have a religion, some of the ideas presented remind me of a Buddhist outlook, as when Shevek says: “It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self—ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality—the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness—that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.”

The Dispossessed is a very cerebral sci-fi novel. It’s a reminder of why LeGuin is one of the greats in the field, and its ideas will stay with the reader a long time after the book is over.

Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Edition by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (editors)

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Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have edited roughly a kajillion speculative fiction anthologies. Among these are nearly twenty years of Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. I picked up the thirteenth of these collections due to its inclusion of some of my favorite authors in those genres: Neil Gaiman, Charles deLint, Steven Millhauser, and Susanna Clarke. It also includes stories by some true giants of speculative fiction, such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Gene Wolfe. But alongside them were some authors I was previously unfamiliar with. One of the great things about multi-author collections like this is the introduction to new (to me) writers…even if the resultant expansion of my to-read list convinces me that the only way I will ever get to the end of that list is if I discover the Philosopher’s Stone.

As one might expect for a fantasy/horror anthology, a number of the stories draw their inspiration from folklore and legends. Susanna Clarke’s “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse” crosses over with the setting of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust in a tale of a historical personage meeting one of the Fair Folk, while Charles deLint’s “Pixel Pixies” updates the concept of sprites to the modern age. The mischievous tanuki of Japanese mythology make an appearance in Jan Hodgman’s heartwarming “Tanuki,” while North African lore is featured in Juan Goytisolo’s “The Stork-Men.” Like “Pixel Pixies,” Kent Meyers’s “The Smell of the Deer” is a modern take on an old archetype; in this case, the huntress Diana/Artemis. From what I can tell, Meyers’s body of work is mostly realistic fiction set in the Midwest. “The Smell of the Deer” seems to be a departure for him in its inclusion of clearly speculative elements, but he knocks it out of the park. This was one of my favorite stories in the book.

Reinterpretations of classic fairy tales are present here too. Patricia McKillip retells the story of the princess with the golden ball in “Toad,” and Wendy Wheeler’s “Skin So Green and Fine” puts a new spin on Beauty and the Beast. Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman’s “Harlequin Valentine” delves into one of the characters in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte.

Alongside these excellent stories that build upon pre-existing material are some wildly inventive ones that create new worlds and mythologies. Eleanor Arnason’s “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” tells a story about the power of language using the tropes and character archetypes common to fairy tales. In “Keepsakes and Treasures: A Love Story,” Neil Gaiman presents a legendary group that produces a living treasure once a generation. And despite being only three pages long, Thomas Wharton’s “The Paper-Thin Garden” is a complex tale about the power of stories, the beauty of nature, and the tension between order and change.

This anthology is definitely worth a read for fans of horror and fantasy. Readers may also appreciate the summaries of work released in the relevant genres during the year, as it gives at least brief mentions to many novels, single-author collections, and anthologies besides those featured in the main portion of the book.