The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 12: The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin, 1974)

Books remaining: 14. Weeks left to read them: 23 (I blame Christmas).

Even from the brother there is no comfort in the bad hour, in the dark at the foot of the wall.

Stack of Ursula Le Guin books

Got to keep it real if these are allowed to stay.

I have loved Le Guin since I read her A Wizard of Earthsea, which got made into typically beautiful Studio Ghibli film Tales of Earthsea

I know I have been doing a lot of sci-fi in this project, but I have numerous Le Guin books, so I thought I had better get stuck into them to see if I still wanted her taking up valuable shelf real estate.

The Dispossessed - Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed tells of two planets, Urras and its moon Anarres, first populated when a group of anarchists decided they wanted a socialist society without government, law, property or profit. On Anarres, they dreamed, humans would contribute voluntarily to achieve common goals for the good of all, and they voluntarily broke away from Urras.

There is now little contact between the two – eight spaceships a year exchange limited goods, news and publications – until Shevek, Anarres’ most brilliant physicist and a man renowned on both planets, accepts an invitation to be the first Anarresti to visit Urras. There, he will work among his peers and teach for a period at an Urrasti university.

Shevek, though he loves Anarres and his family, is frustrated by not having other brilliant physicists to talk to (I know just how he feels, obviously) and decides to make the journey, both in a desire to develop a scientific theorem that could revolutionise both worlds, and in a belief he can unite the two societies and bury their mutual distrust.

Shevek, however, soon realises that just as he never quite fit in on Anarres, neither does he fit among Urrasti, and his difference begins to weigh heavily upon him.

He had worked hard on his speech, a plea for free communication and mutual recognition between the New World and the Old. It was received with a ten-minute standing ovation. The respectable weeklies commented on it with approval, calling it ‘a disinterested moral gesture of human brotherhood by a distinguished scientist’; but they did not quote from it, nor did the popular papers. In fact, despite the ovation, Shevek had the curious feeling that nobody had heard it.

Shevek slowly begins to see beneath Urras’ beautiful surface and realises he is not an honoured guest, but a prisoner ill-equipped to deal with an all-powerful government that has him entirely at its mercy. His mission is not only impossible but dangerous, and he has made a terrible mistake in coming to Urras.

The loneliness, the certainty of isolation, that he had felt in his first hour aboard the Mindful, rose up in him and asserted itself as his true condition, ignored, suppressed, but absolute.
He was alone, here, because he came from a self-exiled society. He had always been alone on his own world because he had exiled himself from his society. The Settlers had taken one step away. He had taken two. He stood by himself, because he had taken the metaphysical risk.
And he had been fool enough to think that he might serve to bring together two worlds to which he did not belong.

Reading this book was like slipping into a warmed pool of water. There was no discomfort, no reluctance, no resistance, just delicious ease and forward motion. And yet it is not bland, but suffused with droll humour in its depiction of people, worlds apart, but trying to understand each other.

“The one thing everybody knows … is that you don’t drink alcohol. Is it true, by the way?”
“Some people distil alcohol from fermented holum root, for drinking – they say it gives the unconscious free play, like brain-wave training. Most people prefer that, it’s very easy and doesn’t cause a disease. Is that common here?”
“Drinking is. I don’t know about this disease. What’s it called?”
“Alcoholism, I think.”

Scorn and anger running through many of the scenes on Urras, where woman serve purely as decorations, is also illuminated with humour.

184The prose is soaked in political and philosophical ideas, but its simplicity and humanity mean it does not lecture. It is no morality tale, but a story of infinite subtlety and a piercing contemplation of loneliness.

The world had fallen out from under him … he had always feared this would happen, more than he had ever feared death. To die is to lose one’s self and join the rest. He had kept himself, and lost the rest.

I was thoroughly overstimulated, as you can see from my rabid note-taking, and overcome by relief at reading a truly compulsive book again.

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Keep or kill? Look, I’m keeping it, but I got rid of this pile of L books and surrounds to assuage my guilt (kept all the Le Guin ones though).

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Note: This is one of several excellent titles I have read from Gollancz’s Sci-Fi Masterworks series, for example, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Dune by Frank Herbert, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells and I am Legend by Richard Matheson.

For more titles in this series, click here and particularly, if you have not read I am Legend, banish the movie from your mind and fill the space you made with the original, readable and infinitely more meaningful novel.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac here.

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The War of the Worlds (2005)

This poster says it all, really, but I’ll elaborate.

My reviews so far have been pretty positive, as I don’t usually consume media I won’t like. But I regretfully admit that I have made the odd mistake, so it’s time to remove the gloves and sharpen my claws on H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, as butchered (sorry, retold in contemporary fashion) by Steven Spielberg. Aliens land. Aliens destroy, conquer and are then themselves destroyed by a twist of fate.

This is surely a story hard to ruin, especially with modern technical movie wizardry. Yet the movie has been shorn of its context. The British Empire at the time of writing (the late 1800s) was entirely different to modern-day America. The idea of the British Empire itself being colonised and its indigenous life all-but-obliterated by mighty invaders was deliciously ironic, but Spielberg’s version happily disregards this subtext in its relentless quest for Tom-Cruise-ification.

To  those who think I’m a hopeless purist and that Spielberg could add value to and even strengthen the story with a modern context, I say all right. For argument’s sake, ditch the historical setting. But my teeth aren’t all the way in yet, so bear with me.

Wells’ unnamed protagonist had no daughter as Tom Cruise does in the film. He was a scientific journalist separated from his wife. This separation provided its own narrative drive; his observations were sharpened by a sense of isolation. By ditching this dynamic and making him a father, Spielberg lost an opportunity to comment on isolation, and the gathering and processing of information in contemporary life. He relied on the much more predictable effect of the Independence Day-type format – imminent destruction of the main (usually male) character’s wife, kid, dog and so forth – to provide emotional texture.

As I’ve shown in a previous post, I’m the last person to cast aspersions on the lovably simple Independence Day. It’s just that I have this nagging feeling H. G. Wells never intended to be lovably simple. His understated, journalistic style was what made The War of the Worlds terrify audiences in Orson Welles’ radio-play version. People thought it was real. This sense of reality, his British restraint, if you like, was what made Wells famous.

Usually I love Spielberg for his action, family values, cute kids and alternately weepy and triumphant scores. But in this case he should have shown some Wellsian restraint. Arguably, a lot of viewers were going to be H. G. Wells fans and he owed that demographic as much as any other. If he was going to use the words “H. G. Wells” and “legacy” in the opening credits at all, he should have at least attempted to give that legacy what it deserves.

Gone was the chilling portrait of society’s typical hubris, its slowness to recognise the seriousness of the threat in time to save itself. Unused was the potential for electrifying cinematic use of the Red Weed. As a plot and visual device, the alien takeover of gardens, earth, buildings familiar to us all by an unknown red plant could have been both menacing and beautiful – uncanny, as Freud would have said. Instead it is used in a token, decidedly unspectacular way. Underdeveloped were the complex theories about the aliens, their landing methods, capabilities and the structure and function of their Heat Ray. Subtlety and detail was replaced by corpses floating down a river.

Normally I like corpses, but these were beside the point. In fact, the part where a few corpses might have been well-placed is cut. The road scene early on in the novel in which a mass exodus of panicked people trample each other in the effort to get out of town, showed the human race as a frightening and dangerous force in itself. It was poignant and scary, and not using it wasted another opportunity to nuance the story.

Little time seems to elapse in this movie, particularly before and after the violent bits, when the narrator is observing the cylinder and later hiding out in the abandoned house watching the aliens and going a bit mad. The novel used this sense of passing time to built tension and show how the aftermath to disaster is even worse than the high-octane horror in a way, because it lacks the hope of adrenaline.

Instead you are rushed through a simplistic, atmosphere-free tale in which everything’s fine, then f*cked, then finished… and I am monumentally disappointed.