A rare detour into science fiction

dispossesedAbout 30% of the time, the members of Athenaeum gather on that much-anticipated 2nd Saturday night murmuring as they come to the table that they do not expect the book to sustain two and a half hours of discussion.

Sometimes the grumbling is worse: are we going to end up spending the entire time trashing the book? Surely the others did not enjoy the book either. What a shame. This meeting is going to send us away without that usual magic and thrill that comes when like-minded souls rejoice at each other’s brilliant observations,¬†experience the undergirding power of hearty fellowship, savor the golden apples of well-placed words.

The meeting for The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin had just such a prelude.

This was odd considering that this book won the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Awards, and “has achieved a degree of literary recognition unusual for science fiction”1 for its engagement with serious and complex themes. However, Noah’s opening essay, which all of us would have done well to have read going into the book, whet our appetites for a good discussion and like the rising sun cleared away much of the fog.

And indeed, discussion was lively, though it did still center on the many criticisms leveled against the book: that there were few characters with whom the reader could sympathize (perhaps only the train conductor or Shevek’s servant Efor), that it contained several appalling misrepresentations of human nature, that the aspects of human parental/marital relationships on the planet Annares were fatuous, that the purpose of UKLGthe pivotal sex scene seemed obscure (it was suggested that it showed the culture clash between Urrasti and Annarasti mores of sexuality), and finally that all the universe of characters were cardboard, one-dimensional.

Nevertheless, (and this is what makes Athenaeum such a delight to all), rousing conversation was easily sustained throughout the night. We debated the feasibility of her worlds, governments, and economies. We learned something about the Taoism that provides her own framework for writing. We discussed whether the forceful “out of the gate” criticisms were (in my own terms) a failure of the imagination to allow suspension of disbelief in the face of a foreign way of life which has none of the history and assumptions of our world.

Conclusion: while Le Guin deserves credit for creating worlds that were not over-simplified and idealized, while we appreciated her not offering a simple utopian vision of a personal agenda, the book received a generally luke warm reception due to its long passages of tiresome description, lack of pace, relational interactions that were hard to swallow, seeming contradictions, and other things.

John’s final contribution is worth recording: part of the weakness of science fiction stems from its complete removal from our own time and place. What makes great books great is the real world history and culture that a reader brings to a novel set in a real historical period. Novels set in the real world create infinite cognitive connections with our own knowledge and experience of the world, making a well-written novel deeply satisfying for striking many resonant chords already in our souls. Science fiction must create all the terrain, all the history and backstory, sometimes even the language, dress, morals, music etc. from scratch. And thus what it gains in the freedom to speculate and dream is matched by what is lost by the foreignness to the reader.

The next book is Willa Cather’s Death Comes For The Archbishop.

The book for April, after a runoff against Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, is Christopher Marlow’s 16th century play The Jew of Malta, proposed by Tony.

1. Wikipedia contributors, “The Dispossessed,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Dispossessed&oldid=636214650 (accessed February 15, 2015).

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