Daily Archives: February 12th, 2012

A Fisherman of the Inland Sea

Quite a disparate set of stories in this collection from Le Guin, and actually not what I had vaguely anticipated, which was stories connected to the Earthsea set – and why I thought that I have no idea.

Anyway.

One of the interesting parts about this collection is that it opens with an introduction by Le Guin herself, discussing her attitudes towards some of the stories and I think responding to some criticism from people when they originally appeared in magazines and the like. It also includes a robust defence of science fiction in terms of character (SF has them), ideas, and not always being heavy on the science (Egan, she didn’t know about you). In talking about technology, she has one of my now-favourite put-downs, regarding someone who said that Native Americans had no technology: “As we know, kiln-fired pottery is a naturally occurring substance, baskets ripen in the summer, and Machu Picchu just grew there.” She also rather defiantly claims BEAUTY as an aspect of science fictional writing, to which I say HELL YES.

Anyway. Again. The stories are a mixed bunch. The first, “The First Contact with the Gorgonids” is a weird one set in outback NT, with an unhappily married woman as the central character and (deliberately, I think) wince-worthy descriptions of Aborigines. “Newton’s Sleep” is about people who have managed to get themselves into orbit in a habitat to get away from the world, which is going to hell in a handcart; they’re mostly quite ordinary, although by necessity all skilled. Ike – Isaac – is a fairly unlikeable character, although I sympathised, especially when things appear to be going wrong. The third story is just odd, and not in an engaging way – “The Ascent of the North Face” does not refer to a mountain (nor an actual face).

“The Rock that Changed Things” is a story that I more easily associate with Le Guin’s style of writing. Based in an entirely non-human society, where there is a very strict hierarchy to the point of almost being separate species, the nurobls spend their time making sure that the obls can live lives in serenity without messy things like tidying or cleaning. They also help fix the rock patterns that are part of the very reason for being of many obls… and then one nurobls notices the colour of a particular pebble. This is a really delightful story. “The Kerastion” is not delightful, because it is more on the heart-wrenching side; it’s also less of a story and more of a vignette into a world where profession is caste and determines every single interaction.

The final three stories are all Hainish stories, like The Left Hand of Darkness and Rocannon’s World and so many others. In “The Shobies’ Story,” a crew is setting out to test the effects of fast-as-light travel on sentient beings. As Le Guin herself notes in her introduction, as well as playing with such physical ideas it’s also playing with metaphysical ideas, and the notion of creating reality through storytelling. So, too, is “Dancing to Ganam,” also looking at testing the new fast-as-light ‘drive’ (the Cetians are constantly reproving people for describing it as a drive). In this case, Commander Dalzul has decided that a small crew who are closer together than the Shobies might have a better chance at not having their realities warped. As well as looking at how we tell stories about our lives, I think there’s also a post/colonial message here, about the stories and political ideas etc that people bring with them when observing foreign cultures. And finally, there’s the paradoxical, sweet-bittersweet “Another Story,” whence comes the title of the collection: Hideo’s mother used to tell him the story of the fisherman of the Inland Sea, who went with a sea-princess and returned after one night to discover generations have passed. Hideo goes on to become a great physicist, and tries out fast-as-light travel…. This is definitely my favourite of the stories in this collection, and I love it dearly. It’s also set on O, a planet I’m sure I’ve read another short story about, perhaps in The Birthday of the World; here people have marriages involving four people, two men and two women, based around when they are born. It’s a fascinating view of society.

This has been part of my desire to read All The Le Guin, and it was overall a very satisfying one.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

By Edwin A. Abbott (originally pseudonymously as “A. Square”)

This is not what I expected! I don’t honestly know WHAT I expected, but it wasn’t this. For a start, it is way older than I had thought – 1884! And for another, there is almost no plot. It’s sort of a memoir, sort of a philosophical treatise, about Flatland: a land that exists in only two dimensions. Our interlocutor is a Square – in Flatland’s hierarchy, solidly middle class (Isosceles Triangles are working class, the most-sided Polygons the highest class. Women are Straight Lines). The first chunk is Square explaining how life and society can function in just two dimensions, with a great discussion about how you can tell the difference between triangles and polygons either thanks to their voices (a method only for the lower classes), feeling (slightly more respectable) or sigh (only for the upper classes because it takes years to perfect). After all of that he comes to the point (heh), which is experience of meeting a Solid – a Sphere – who informs him that there is <i>another dimension</i>, and proceeds to prove it. Sadly, this is heresy in Flatland…

 

This little book – 82 pages! – operates on many levels. On one, it’s an amusing intellectual conceit, to consider how life would be different in two dimensions (there’s also brief discussion of Lineland and Points). Thanks to this, it’s also an intellectual challenge, because as Square himself says to Sphere: if you’re telling me there’s another dimension that I can’t perceive but need to accept basically on faith, is there then a fourth…? Quite apart from the mathematical side, this is a biting satire of Victorian society and manner, in the way that undesirable elements amongst the lower (Isosceles) triangles are described and in how manners and attitudes of exalted Polygons are portrayed.

 

The question of the women is one I haven’t quite worked out for myself. If I can accept that Abbott is being satirical about the lower classes then I am hoping that he is being satirical about the women, too, because they really don’t come off very well. They are Straight Lines, therefore no angles, therefore… no brains? They’re certainly treated as emotional not rational, to the point of there being basically two languages – how men speak to themselves and how they speak to their wives. I suspect he may indeed be ironic, because in the introduction to the 1884 edition (reprinted here) “Square” responds to some alleged criticism from Spaceland, about being a woman-hater, in which he admits that he is similar to our Historians, to whom until recently “the destinies of Women and of the masses of mankind have seldom been deemed worthy of mention and never of careful consideration.”

 

An amusing book, and a quick read.