Ursula K. Le Guin 1929-2018

Book News Roundup: Ursula K. Le Guin inducted into the ...

Photo: culturefly.co.uk

 

Light is the left hand of darkness

And darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

Together like lovers in kemmer,

Like hands joined together,

Like the end and the way.

(from “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula Le Guin)

On Wednesday morning I woke up to discover that one of my favourite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin, a woman who has influenced not just my writing but how I think, had died. She had passed away on the Monday, and the news had filtered through over the following 24 hours.

Her death was not unexpected, I suppose, as she had reached a great age, but still it seemed shocking, as it always is when a great artist or a great writer – indeed, a great person – leaves us, a bafflement that so important and beloved a figure could be gone.

She was 88, and had had a long and fulfilling life and career, for which we should be grateful, and she could be proud of her lasting influence on literature, especially science fiction and fantasy. And she was a robust defender of her chosen genre(s) – here she is giving the acceptance speech when she won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014:

I first discovered her work about fifteen years ago, when I bought an omnibus edition of her first four Earthsea novels from my local bookshop in North London. I knew next to nothing about her, except that I was intrigued by her name – which I thought was a memorable one, especially for a fantasy writer – and by the little I had heard about her writing. I opened the book, and started to read:

“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards…”

Here was an imaginative landscape both familiar – wizards, dragons, strange lands and a simple but well-drawn map tucked between the title page and the first chapter to tell you where you were – and yet strange, as Le Guin took some of the tropes of epic fantasy that had been invented or reinvented by writers like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and proceeded to shape them to her own ends. Her interest in Taoism, in the balance of light and dark, and in cultures different to her own (her parents were anthropologists) led her to explore the ultimate questions of what makes us human, and what we are capable of being, by placing her characters in fantastic or extraordinary situations and then showing how they – and, by implication, we – might react, might grow and change.

In both the Earthsea books and stories, and in her Hainish Cycle of science fiction (Hain being the fictional planet where in Le Guin’s universe humanoid civilization first develops before spreading out across the galaxy), her tone is thoughtful, compassionate, non-judgemental, and she does the reader the great courtesy of treating them as an equal, even (perhaps especially) in her work for children. There are no literary pyrotechnics, no “look what I can do” showing off, and she is never pretentious or condescending. All this might sound overly worthy, but as well as being beautifully written her stories are also exciting and gripping to read, her invented worlds so well crafted that one can become completely absorbed in them.

She can be angry, too, and her polemical novel “The Word for World Is Forest” (which I have discussed in an earlier post) seethes with barely suppressed rage against the Vietnam War (it was written in 1968), and some of her short fiction, notably “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, upend the reader’s expectations and leave us with more questions than answers, which is as it should be. Though clearly she believed that there were better and fairer ways of organising society than those currently on offer, she was too alive to the contradictions and idiosyncrasies of human nature to assert unambiguous fidelity to a particular political creed. Her novel “The Dispossessed” is subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia”, and neither Anarres nor Urras, the two contrasting worlds of the story, are presented as perfect or necessarily worthy of emulation.

The more enlightened societies of her stories are often small, village-like, living in harmony with nature rather than against it, effectively autonomous from central authority, gently anarchist, valuing technology only in terms of its practical utility and not as an end in itself. They are places you believe she has visited, which of course she has, in her mind, with a keen anthropologist’s determination to study and record, and report back. To build a better world you first have to imagine it, and what an imagination Ursula Le Guin had, an imagination that could change minds, and will continue to do so, long after she is gone. She has died, but she leaves us a wealth of fiction and non-fiction (her best essays, like her stories, are laced with a dry wit and the sharp observations of this most pragmatic of enlightened thinkers) to read and re-read, and to cherish and pass on. It’s somewhat of a cliché, I know, to describe someone as casting “a long shadow”, but for a great lover of the natural world like Ursula Le Guin I think it is entirely apposite to say that many people will find hope and refreshment in that cool shade, and that her words will continue to nourish those of us who love them, and those yet to discover them, as long as they are read.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

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Drooj

“She is drooj – a magus of the ancient world.”

Hi there.

Here’s the first of a projected series of posts on some of the terminology used in the Glenaster Chronicles, and – hopefully – I’ll be writing about some of the main characters and places, etc. too.

I thought I’d start with the term “drooj”, which crops up quite a bit in both The Witch of Glenaster and The Widow’s Thorn.

Like most of the unusual words that appear in my work, it is real and not made up, and is my (no doubt clumsy) attempt to render phonetically the word “druj”, which comes from Zoroastrianism, the ancient Iranian religion based on the principle of order and truth (“asha”) as opposed to disorder and falsehood (“druj”).

Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia for over a thousand years, until the rise of Islam in the 7th Century, but there are still several thousand Zoroastrians worldwide. Fire and water are sacred elements in their belief, and their places of worship are called fire temples, with a source of natural water such as a well somewhere in the grounds, and an inner chamber containing a fire that is tended day and night by magi or priests.

The word “druj” in Zoroastrianism appears to be an abstract noun, but apparently it can also be feminine, and from my limited reading on the subject “Druj” with a capital “D” seems to refer to a female demon.

My own version of the word, “drooj”, is used as the collective term for many if not all followers of the Witch of Glenaster, specifically those with magical or supernatural powers.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

“An English Wood” – A Story

The week in pictures: 6 November 2015 - Telegraph

Photo: telegraph.co.uk

Martins was lost, and he knew it, though he couldn’t decide if knowing it made it better or worse.

Of course, he couldn’t be truly lost. This was southern England, in the 21st Century, not some endless African savannah, or colossal American mountain range. He was in a wood. An English wood. A bit spooky, perhaps, as the evening came on. But hardly dangerous.

No need to be alarmed, then, no need to send up a flare (even if he had one, which he didn’t), no need to worry about the dead battery on his phone. Except that, he had been looking for the path back to the car park for three hours now, and he couldn’t seem to find it, and the wood, he knew, wasn’t that big. He should be out of it by now, back at the road, or at least in some field or other, trying not to trip over the sheep.

At one point he thought he had reached some kind of boundary fence, and through it he had seen, a few yards away, two horses, one white, one black. They had looked at him for a long time, and then wandered over, no doubt expecting him to give them food. He didn’t have any, and stupidly found himself explaining this to them, and apologising. But the horses just went on gazing at him, neither pleased nor annoyed, and when he realised that the field in which they stood was completely enclosed by the wood, and therefore did not provide a way out of it, he walked away, and was somewhat unnerved to discover, when he turned back a few minutes later, that the horses were still there, watching him.

He thought that locating the track leading away from the main gate to the field might bring him inevitably back to the road, but after about half a mile it disappeared into a maze of other tracks, and he was lost once again. He began to wonder if he was going in circles.

When he left the car park earlier that afternoon he had climbed along a path clearly waymarked, with occasional signs indicating the wildlife one might expect to see, and a map of the valley, with “You Are Here” and a large arrow written prominently in red. Likewise, though it was a weekday in February and the sky was overcast, there had been other people about, mostly, like Martins, of a certain age, though they had all said hello to him with varying degrees of enthusiasm as he passed them on the footpath.

But now he could see no markings anywhere, and all the people seemed to have disappeared hours ago, as soon as the already feeble daylight had started to leach from the sky. Martins cursed. He was dressed sensibly, he had his waterproofs, good boots, a bottle of water, even half a Twix. He considered retracing his steps back to the field with the horses in it, and spending the night there, if necessary. He wasn’t in bad shape for a man of his age. A night out of doors probably wouldn’t kill him. Whoever owned the horses would no doubt visit some time tomorrow to feed them, and he could reveal himself, allay their alarm by apologising in a classically embarrassed English way, and they would both laugh, and the stranger would take him back to his car, make sure he was all right, was there anyone he could phone? Perhaps he might like some coffee, or a bite to eat? And Martins would say, No, that’s very kind, thank you. I’m just glad to be out of that wood.

But of course he couldn’t retrace his steps back to the field. He couldn’t retrace his steps anywhere. He was lost.

There was a soft creaking away to his left, that made him turn suddenly. He thought at first it was a lorry or coach changing gear as it came down the hill, and that the sound might somehow guide him back towards the car park, but there was something about the sound – some kind of agency to it, Martins thought – that he felt to be unnatural, and he realised he was really frightened now, in a way he could not remember being for many years, and as he realised this he realised also that it was now almost completely dark.

Of course, his eyes had been able to adjust gradually, so he was hardly blind, but he always forgot how quickly day turned to night in winter, and he had forgotten something else, too, because he had not expected to need it. His torch.

He stood there for a moment in the darkness, thinking. He felt like shouting, or crying, but did neither. The thought nagged at him that he must try and stay quiet, that he mustn’t attract attention, that he wasn’t alone – and that whoever else was in the valley with him was watching, and, in some way that he couldn’t fathom, wished him harm.

He shook his head, rubbed at his shoulder. He ate the rest of the Twix, and drank some water. And then he sat on the ground, and waited.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

A Christmas Story

Many thanks to all my readers over the last year. Thank you for stopping by this blog, and for taking the time to read my posts. May your days be merry and bright, and every blessing to you for 2018. Here is a short Christmas story for you – hope you enjoy it.Happy Saint Nicholas DayPhoto: playeatlove.com

The snowbank curved like a spine, each house a notch of vertebrae, sweeping west from Old Arthur Pa’s place, and then south through the homes of the Russell clan and Mother Paphides and Corkscrew Jones, then winding a little east and south-south-west to the manor of Big Charles, and the Jacksonvilles’, and Ma Laundry’s place, until finally it rested, with a point so neat a pâtissier might have done it, over the onion dome of the Blessed Martyrs, its cross peeking out like a golden bird above the clouds.
The snow was up to the roofs of the buildings, and swaddling doors, and blanketing the startled sheep. And Mad David cried that there would be no more fish for supper if the river did not unfreeze, which only God in His mercy could do, and the hinges weakened in the doorjambs, and the wind curled her fingers into the sockets of the flagstones.
This was the sight that greeted Saint Nicholas on Christmas morning, may my word never be a truer one.
The old man – and everyone knows that Saint Nicholas is very, very old, almost as old as Old Arthur Pa, and that is very old indeed, so old the stars have forgotten his birth – wiped his nose with a large spotted hankie, and took from his pocket with an elegant flourish a brass pocket-watch, which he shook for a solid minute, though it remained as stiff as a clam. Saint Nicholas’s eyes blinked slowly beneath a brow as smooth and white as sealskin, and he wet his lips, and pulled gently at his beard, that was softer than the eider down the women collect in the nesting season, and blew a long and low note, over the fields and the elderly stone walls, and the shining birds in their bright plumage, and the cracking of the clouds in the sorrowing sky. And the ground started to itch and ache, and then gasp like a rheumatic dowager, and the snow shook itself off the roofs with a sudden shrug, and the people came out of their houses to see it.
Some snow fell upon Old Arthur Pa’s head as he emerged from his front door.
“There are sheep in my hair!” he cried, mournfully. “My wife is a bitter woman, and the world is undone, and now there are sheep in my hair!”
And he wept uncontrollably, and Mother Paphides tried to console him with her story of the cackling pig, and Little Gerald did backflips to try and distract him, but all to no avail.
“There, there, man,” said Big Charles, in his bluff way. “Your wife isn’t bitter. Why, some days she even looks mildly pretty, and I can think of no handsomer compliment than that!”
But Old Arthur Pa only went on weeping, and wetting Mother Paphides’s kerchief with his tears.
Saint Nicholas studied the faces of the villagers, and he shivered, for, contrary to what you may hear, he is not from Lapland, but from the East, and he missed the dry winds and green hills of his home. Then he blessed the people, and spoke the solemn words, and Mad David was so overcome he ran naked three times over the frozen river, until Ma Laundry put a towel over his bony shoulders and the Russell clan carried him to his house and bolted the door and swore not to let him out till they heard the first cuckoo of spring – or possibly the second, or the third – and adjured God to look after him, and not to hold his sin against him. And the icy plates of the river came unglued, and it ran once more, first in a trickle, then in a stream, and finally as a great flood, nearly lapping the banks in its dash for the sea. And Mother Paphides cried would they not fetch the priest, but the priest had been in the ground nearly ten years and was not for coming out, even for mass, or breakfast, or sudden strange miracles such as these.
For all agreed that it was the most miraculous occurrence since Saint Decuman had had his head cut off by pagans and proceeded to wash it and put it back on his shoulders, saints being practical people in those days and not easily put off by a little beheading.
And Lame Maggie, and Little Gerald, and the Jacksonville twins, danced and sang for Saint Nicholas, and he clapped and laughed, until the tears ribboned his cheeks, and he was glad and sorrowful all at once.
And he gave each of the children a present – small soldiers with high coloured plumes on their heads and smart buttoned tunics, and dolls whose eyes moved from side to side, and horses with wheels fixed to their feet, all exquisitely detailed and made by ancient and magic hands – and then he turned to the villagers and said his goodbyes. And they watched as he walked back across the fields, to where the sky and the earth were all one blanket of white smoke, and the sun sulked in her gauzy shroud, until they could see him no more. Then they went home, and ate woodcock, and parsnips, and plum pudding, and wished each other a Happy Christmas, and a long and joyful New Year.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

Fine-tuning my insecurity

Starting on a new project always feels so hopelessly daunting that there is a big temptation, for me at any rate, to give up and walk away. It’s like walking towards a rock face, which from a distance looks impressively grand, but up close just gives you impossible feelings of inadequacy, and turns your guts to water.

I really have to gee myself up to do it, and to resist the (many) voices in my head telling me not to bother, it’s not worth it, it won’t be any good. And of course it might not be any good – but unless I take the first step, I won’t know either way.

“You don’t look at the summit when you’re climbing the mountain,” as a friend of mine once said, speaking metaphorically (I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a mountaineer).

So I squeeze my eyes shut, grab hold for dear life, and try and haul myself upward, knowing that when I eventually – hopefully – reach the summit, I will have (mostly) forgotten about all the pain and heartache of getting there, and can just sit back and enjoy the view.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

“Stranger Things 2” – Truth & Consequences

 

Warning: contains spoilers.

And so the Duffer Brothers’ phantasmagoria has returned for a second season on Netflix, and no doubt if you’re reading this you’ve already seen all nine episodes (they’ve been available to watch since the end of last month), and perhaps you’re one of those strange people with no social life and terrible sleeping habits who watched them all in one go. Shame on you.

I, alas, am not so brave as that, so have only just finished the final episode, but because no pop cultural event can ever be complete without my pronouncing judgement on it, and because, like you, dear reader, I really don’t have enough useful things to do, I thought I would post for posterity my thoughts on Season 2.

Season 1 appeared in July 2016, and quickly built up a dedicated following – I have to confess that, in common with many others, it was the reason for my taking out a subscription to Netflix in the first place. Now its young cast are big stars, and hype for the new season has been gathering momentum it seems for most of this year.

But is it, as they say, any good?

Perhaps inevitably, “Stranger Things 2” suffers somewhat in comparison to its predecessor – the novelty value of the first season has been lost, so the choices the producers make come under greater scrutiny as they seek to drive the narrative forward. Certainly, the plot is very similar – a year on from the events of Season 1, it is now Hallowe’en 1984, and young Will Byers is still haunted by his experiences in the Upside Down, and is being regularly monitored by Sam Owens, chief scientist at Hawkins Lab (why is the creepy lab still open? Don’t these people ever learn?). Will’s visions of the unpleasant parallel universe where he spent most of the last season incarcerated by all kinds of viscous nastiness seem to be getting worse, and the terrible blight affecting the local farmers’ pumpkin crop, and the bizarre goings on in a set of subterranean tunnels beneath the town, only serve to confirm our worst suspicions that something awful is about to happen.

Into the mix have been thrown some interesting new characters – Max, the tough young girl who joins Will’s class; her violent and aggressive stepbrother, Billy, who threatens Steve Harrington’s position as top of the high school food chain; and the kind and loveable Bob, Joyce Byers’ new boyfriend (too kind and loveable, as it turns out – you just know from the off that it’s not going to end well for poor old Bob).

In keeping with the show’s retro Eighties appeal, two of the new characters are played by actors familiar to fans of that era’s movies – Bob is played by Sean Astin, who of course starred in The Goonies back in 1985, and Owens by Paul Reiser, who was the villainous Burke in Aliens.

There are plenty of other nods to the world of Reagan, Thatcher and mullets (apart from the fact that several of the young male characters actually have mullets), from the posters for the November ’84 presidential election (Mike’s parents are Republicans, whereas Dustin’s mum is a Mondale supporter), to the lovingly recreated computer arcade where the young friends hang out, to the Ghostbusters costumes they wear to go trick-or-treating – and, as I wrote in my earlier post about the first season, for those of us who lived through those times, seeing your own past recycled in this way can be somewhat disconcerting.

But the introduction of conspiracy theorist Murray Bauman (a nicely judged performance from Brett Gelman, simultaneously ingratiating and sinister) is a reminder that the seeds of the “fake news” era were sown long ago, and that the familiar storyline of nefarious government agents plotting against innocent townsfolk, which has been a staple of Hollywood movies and TV shows for years beyond count, is perhaps not as benign as it seemed a few years ago. When encouraging your audience’s credulity helps to feed a willingness to believe virtually anything – so long as people we like are saying it – it begins to look somewhat irresponsible.

However, despite the broad horror of Stranger Things, its creators are too subtle to fall into all the obvious traps. Owens seems shifty at first, but turns out to be a decent man, and the other new main character, Kali / Eight, while not a villain as such, is nevertheless involved in a violent campaign of retribution against those she believes were responsible for the abuse she suffered as a young girl, a campaign that Eleven embraces but then ultimately rejects for its nihilism. Some viewers don’t seem to have enjoyed this episode, but I think it underlines a strong ethical current beneath all the fantasy and nostalgia – violence and revenge have consequences, after all, and they change people, and ruin lives, something also underscored by the touching scene where Nancy and Steve visit Barb’s parents: she may only have been a relatively minor character in Season 1, but her loss still reverberates, and I really appreciated that attention to emotional truth from the writers. Too often in these kind of dramas, the death of such characters seems to have been forgotten five minutes later.

The possession of Will by the amorphous, multi-tentacled being from the Upside Down – and the subsequent scenes where he is restrained as his family and friends try to exorcise the creature – I found genuinely disturbing, and though no doubt every care was taken to protect the young actors involved, nevertheless scenes of children in pain or distress are always upsetting to watch. But then Stranger Things is a horror serial with a predominantly young cast, so I suppose such scenes are all but inevitable. But maybe it could sometimes be handled a little better.

This no doubt makes me seem terribly middle-aged, to which I plead guilty – I am! But I’m still enjoying Stranger Things, though I think they need to keep new ideas coming if the show isn’t to run out of steam over the next two or three seasons. Ultimately, the key to its success is its cast, and its tight plotting. The way characters are allowed to develop – Steve Harrington was the school bully in Season 1, and has now become an unlikely hero, and Billy seems like a monster at the beginning of Season 2, but grows more sympathetic when we get to meet his appalling father – adds real depth, the kind of depth such fantasy horror requires if the audience is to successfully suspend their disbelief. As the writer M. John Harrison said in a recent interview – “You can’t really do the strange, unless you back it with the normal”.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.