A really short novel that nonetheless manages to tell a story that is epic in scope and spans multiple generations of characters.
Part of the way it doA really short novel that nonetheless manages to tell a story that is epic in scope and spans multiple generations of characters.
Part of the way it does this is by using a really impersonal narrative technique, having no single viewpoint character and following each character for only a short time, as long as their part in the central narrative lasts.
It begins with a civil servant named Henry Limpkin going to visit a retired general named Toriman, who is famous for his heroics in some long-ago war and who now lives a luxurious life in a castle where he apparently spends his time pondering the future of humanity. This Toriman proposes an unfathomably ambitious idea to Limpkin: that Limpkin's government devote as much manpower and resources as they can to building a vast spaceship big enough to carry all the people away to some fresh world where their pioneering spirit can be invigorated and they can build a civilization the likes of which now only exist in memory. At first this should be done in secret, but once enough headway has been made the project should be made public, with every citizen invited to help build The Ship, which Toriman intends to be a symbol of the national pride and ambition he hopes to reawaken through this unimaginably large-scale public works project.
At first Limpkin is skeptical, but he does not dismiss the idea outright because he has also observed the thing Toriman hopes to overcome through the Ship-building project: a sort of deeply ingrained fatalism that Toriman blames on the World itself. He describes a sense that the World is too old, that the memory of all the civilizations that have ever existed, and the knowledge that all of them have ultimately fallen, that works against any present-day efforts to build anything that lasts.
This is his real objective: not to escape the World, really, but to show the people that they can build something that will endure. The Ship, he explains, will never actually blast off (he is not sure it will even be spaceworthy), but will serve solely as a morale-building exercise, and as soon as it looks like the people are beginning to take heart, he intends to divert their labor and materiel towards rebuilding the country's terrestrial infrastructure, which is in a long-standing state of decrepitude.
The rest of the book follows a rotating cast of characters through the various stages of the Ship's construction, which takes place at a suitably inspiring, though hard-to-reach, locale: a derelict staging area and launch site called the Yards that was last used by one of the ancient spacefaring civilizations, some of whose abandoned watchtowers (equipped with automated laser cannons) still stand along its perimeter.
Getting to the Yards is difficult and dangerous, requiring the workers and their military escort to cross a large expanse of territory that belongs to no nation because it's full of wild and aggressive mutants, who attack any stranger they see. The mutants are a fantastical array of human-animal hybrids and other posthuman monsters; they include fliers with big bat wings, lizard-men with scales and claws, people with compound eyes and chitinous body plating, people with more than two arms, and hooded and cloaked warlocks who can conjure fireballs out of thin air and shoot them like projectiles at the intruding riverboats.
A great battle is fought between the would-be Ship builders and these mutants, the Battle of the Bloody Ford, which we witness through the eyes of a young civil engineer named Philip Rome. Rome is terrified out of his wits by the horrible appearance of the mutants, and by the devastation they wreak with their fireballs, and he's certain his expedition is going to be overwhelmed and that he, and his entire escort, is going to die when a mysterious figure appears to rescue them and lead them to victory. He disappears as soon as the battle is over, and later when stories are told of this battle people decide the mysterious person must have been the ghost of Miolnor IV, the commander responsible for the last human victory over the mutants, which left the mutants' homeland in its desolate state (it had been a lush jungle).
Anyway, people take this fortuitous apparition as an auspicious omen of the Ship project's success, and they begin to take heart, just like Toriman predicted. More and more people flock to the Yards, and a big, bustling, prosperous city is built to house them. And year after year, generation after generation, the Ship takes shape.
All is not exactly well with the project, though; instead of unifying everyone, the Ship project has given rise to a hierarchy: a laboring caste (to which most of the people belong) and a managerial, technocrat caste (who make all the decisions about labor and resource allocation). What's more, not all of the Technos are on the same page with each other about what the real purpose of the Ship is! There is tension between the Technos who want to keep their resources and efforts focused on their own city-state at the Yards (if not on the Ship itself) and the Admiralty bureaucrats back home who want some return on their investment in the form of some repair and rebuilding of their own aging infrastructure (which was what they understood the ultimate purpose of the Ship to be -- a catalyst to reanimate the people's will to build, which once awakened would be turned back homeward). A cold war arises between these factions, complete with espionage, sabotage and the occasional assassination.
At the same time, a demagogue is arising among the People, urging them not to trust the Technos and to seize the Ship for themselves. I'm going to stop summarizing the plot now to avoid spoilers, but this conflict is very important and the ultimate fate of the Ship is wrapped up in it.
I was a child the first time I read this book, so I was excited to revisit it again after all these years.
I found I had quite a few questions that didn't occur to me the first time I read it -- mostly worldbuilding questions, like how to reconcile the opulence of Toriman's castle with what we are later told about general conditions of scarcity, and about the shoddy construction and poor maintenance of the built environment, or where the mutants come from and why their numbers keep growing, or why, in a world with such a long history that spacefaring civilizations existed in what the characters think of as the ancient past, there are still nation-states at all, much less nation-states governed by aristocracy or monarchy!
I was also hunting furiously for any indication that The World might be a future Earth: looking for clues in place names, geography, or any potentially identifying details about the ancient civilization that built the Yards. I didn't find any, but that doesn't mean it's not Earth -- with the kind of timescales Geston is working with, and the cataclysmic nature of some of the past events he alludes to, it's entirely believable that none of the geography, place names or national borders would be recognizable. (Unfortunately, this also makes it all the more jarring when some aspect of 19th- or 20th-century Western culture -- like the nation-state, or the military and civil-service bureaucracies, or horse-drawn carriages driven by servants wearing livery, or ... you get the idea -- does surface in this ostensibly alien far-future setting.)
That discrepancy between how alien this setting should be and how familiar it is never stopped troubling me. I won't go so far as to say it ruined the book for me, but it did mean I wasn't transported in wonder by it this time, as I remember being when I read it the first time, long ago.
I also kept wanting to know more about the mutants. Not just logistical questions like how are they supporting such a huge population in what's described as a blasted waste of an environment, or where they come from, but also things like what they want, what the source of their animus towards the rest of the World's people is, and whether and how they all communicate with one another. I also wanted to know who the Dark Powers were, beyond that name -- who were they, what did they do that was so bad, what were the reasons for their war against their neighboring countries -- and I kept finding it odd that a book whose main plot focuses so much on ordinary human foibles would also include this kind of ultimate Big Bad, declared by authorial fiat to be evil incarnate, lurking in the background. I don't want to talk more about the Dark Powers because of spoilers, but in general it felt like they belonged in a different book and shouldn't be in this one.
There is one aspect of it I do like, that had stayed with me from my first reading of it and that likely will stay with me well into the future: it's this theme of the World itself being malevolent, and draining the imagination and resolve of the people who live in it. I find it compelling on both the literal and metaphorical levels; literally because I live in a sort of buffer zone between the semi-arid prairie biome of the Great Plains and the wetter, greener Eastern deciduous forest biome and I feel like I'm watching the border between those biomes move eastward, and the area around my house growing drier, so during the summer it really does feel like the land wants everything you plant to die; and metaphorically because I have depression and this is a good way to describe what the hopelessness characteristic of depression feels like to someone who has never felt it for themselves. ...more
This is a story that's been told over and over in American literature since the 1950s: white, middle-class couple with quasi-bohemian values and vagueThis is a story that's been told over and over in American literature since the 1950s: white, middle-class couple with quasi-bohemian values and vague dreams of being artists get married, have kids and move to the suburbs, where they eventually wonder how their lives got to be so boring. Existential crises ensue, which may or may not lead to either of them doing something radical to try and bust out of the rut.
I think that story is best told by Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road. His writing is lovely and lyrical, sometimes darkly funny and sometimes heartbreaking, and he keeps the book short and fast-moving.
What's more, he doesn't fall into the pattern of so many other male tellers of this tale, who always seem to blame the wife for keeping the husband mired in comfortable mediocrity. In this version, they both decide to move there so that their kids can have a backyard to play in, but they also agree that the move will be temporary, and that they will move back to the city and resume the creative, semi-bohemian life they had been living once the kids were older. As you might guess, "temporary" becomes more or less permanent; the husband, Frank, gets a good-paying job that he initially despises but slowly comes to like (once he figures out he can be good at it), and for a time the wife, April, tries to organize an amateur theater company. (She fails: the first scene of the novel is of their awkward first performance of The Petrified Forest, in which she stars). But she also takes steps toward changing their life together: she devises, and starts to carry out, a plan for them to live abroad for a while.
Over the course of the novel, a huge gulf opens up between husband and wife. They start out fairly close, like two people sharing a joke no one else is in on (mostly at the expense of the other people in their suburb, whom they see as less educated, less hip and, above all, not cultivating the proper ironic distance between themselves and their bourgeois surroundings), but life in the separate, minimally-overlapping spheres of home and office leaves them with less in common than they had when they were living together in the city.
I also think part of the reason they drift apart is because Frank changes and April doesn't, really. She clings to the idea of returning to city life like a lifeline, while Frank comes to feel at home in his new job. He starts to feel like he's needed there, and he finds it intensely difficult to get used to the idea of quitting.
Both characters are amazingly well-drawn, and even if they were the only characters in this book, it would be enough to be interesting. But there are other characters, too, who are equally complex and interesting. There's another couple who are the closest thing Frank and April have to friends in their new neighborhood, and there's their landlady and her son, who is mentally ill and who, in the few scenes when he appears, gets some of the best lines in the book. ...more
**spoiler alert** The edition of this book that I have is by "Hannah Green," which I later discovered is Joanne Greenberg's pseudonym. Apparently some**spoiler alert** The edition of this book that I have is by "Hannah Green," which I later discovered is Joanne Greenberg's pseudonym. Apparently some parts of the story are autobiographical, and she was unwilling to reveal her mental illness at the time.
This book, written in the early sixties, details sixteen-year-old Deborah Blau's psychotic break with reality, and the efforts of psychoanalyst Dr. Fried to bring her back. Deborah slips back and forth between reality, which she experiences as colorless and not-quite-real, and the vivid imaginary Kingdom of Yr, with gods who speak to her in riddles, a howling chorus of accusatory voices called the Collect, and a gatekeeper between worlds, known as the Censor. Over the course of treatment, Dr. Fried reveals to Deborah how she has in fact created Yr to mask her conflicted feelings toward her own family, particularly her younger sister.
Yr is easily the best thing about this novel. The scenes with Deborah's family, especially when I reread it now, paint a stereotypical picture of the family dynamics that were once believed to bring on schizophrenia in children: the mother is a tightly-wound, emotionally unavailable worrywart who clings to the appearance of normalcy like a security blanket, while the father is as quiet and hands-off as she is controlling and talkative. The family really isn't developed much beyond showing its role as an incubator for Deborah's madness.
Also, though I don't remember for sure, it's quite likely that the book contains outdated information about the causes and treatment of schizophrenia. ...more
**spoiler alert** Ursula Le Guin has said that this book grew out of a thought-experiment she did regarding the role of sex and gender in the developm**spoiler alert** Ursula Le Guin has said that this book grew out of a thought-experiment she did regarding the role of sex and gender in the development of civilization. The story takes place on the planet Gethen, where the people are neuter except during "kemmer," a sort of estrus state that happens about once a month, during which a given person may be male or female.
Into this genderless society comes Genly Ai, ambassador from a federation of allied planetary systems. Ai is a Terran human, and very strongly identified with masculinity. The Gethenians' neutrality unnerves him, and he finds it very hard to trust these beings he can't understand. The Gethenians also do not trust him, either in the backward, feudal kingdom he starts in --- there his only ally was the paranoid king's chief minister, Lord Estraven, whose support of Ai gets him kicked out of the king's service --- or in the bureaucratic, totalitarian state of Orgoreyn, where he is imprisoned for espionage, and from which he must escape back to Karhide with Estraven, crossing a vast plain of ice on a sledge.
The book is very complex structurally, taking the form of Ai's report to the interplanetary government concerning Gethen. Half of the story is told by Ai himself, while the rest is excerpted from Estraven's diary (presumably translated from the Karhidish by Ai). Throughout, the story is periodically interrupted by brief interludes of cryptic Gethenian folktales. It's from one of these that the title comes.
This is a book that it's more fun to think about later than it actually is to read it. The plot is so slow-paced, and the characters so reserved, that there is little in the foreground of the story to absorb you, but the background (i.e., the setting) more than makes up for it. Gethen is easily a match for the Dune universe in its complexity and elegance. ...more