A visit to The Queer Emporium

Last week we popped into the delightful Queer Emporium in Cardiff. They have a lovely selection of LGBTQ+ Books and I was pleased to find a lesbian vampire classic which I’ve had on my list to read for years, The Gilda Stories (1991) by Jewelle Gomez.

A copy of 'The Gilda Stories' by Jewelle Gomez. The cover shows a sepia-toned image of a black woman's face in prorile with drops of blood around the edges.

As a hoary old Section 28’er, these places always make me feel about a hundred years old, but I’m very glad they exist and do pay a visit and support them if you’re in the area, especially since it’s Pride weekend in Wales.

Sunday Post – a much needed break

It’s been a while since I posted anything substantial on this blog. I’ve continued to struggle with fatigue over the last few months. I just don’t have much mental energy left after work and this ILM course I’m doing. But now that we’re both double-vaccinated and restrictions are easing in Wales, we are (very carefully) returning to some activities.

This week we’ve been having a much-needed ‘staycation’ and did a few of our favourite things. We took a walk around Forest Farm, where we saw chaffinches, tree creepers, nut hatches, great tits and two buzzards soaring and calling.

We went into town and had tea at my favourite cafe, The Plan, which I’m glad to see has survived lockdown. We noodled around Waterstones and Oxfam and bought a few second hand CDs. In the evening we sat and had a beer outside at Coffi Co’s The Shipping Containers.

We visited the nearby town of Penarth for chips and ice-cream on the pier. I found a few fossils on the beach.

It’s been lovely to be able to do things again, but there’s a sense of lost time and uncertainty which makes it all feel a bit strange.

In other news, I’ve started re-learning Welsh via the Dualingo app. I’d like to take a proper course in the New Year, so I thought this would be a good way to warm up. I learned Welsh when I was child, but lost it after moving into English-medium education at the age of nine. Ever since then I’ve lost my confidence and have felt afraid of trying again, but I’m going to give it a go and I’m enjoying it so far.

I’ve been going back into the office one day a week. There’s no requirement from my employer, but for the sake of my mental health, I just need to see somewhere other than my flat. We are moving to a new office space soon and I’m looking forward to going back in at least two or three days a week, assuming we’ll be able to do that by the autumn.

We’ve had quite a few sightings of the Cardiff Bay seal which always cheers me up.

I’ve been listening to a lot of music recently. A new discovery I really like is a folk band called The Breath. Top track, ‘Chilli Salt’.

Poem of the Week, ‘Vanishing’ by Brittney Corrigan

Little hollow-boned dinosaurs,
you who survived the last extinction, 
whose variety has obsessed 
scientific minds, whose bodies 
in the air compel our own bodies
to spread and yearn—
how we have failed you.

From ‘The Vanishing‘ by Brittney Corrigan at Poets.Org

Julie E. Czerneda, ‘Survival’ Species Imperative #1(2004)

Set in the not-so-distant future, Survival is a SF bio-punk mystery and the first in Czerneda’s Species Imperative series.

Dr Mackenzie Connor (Mac) is a biologist who studies salmon at a research institute on the pacific coast of North America. Mac is surprised when she receives an honoured visitor, Brymn, the first Drhyn to come to Earth. She is even more surprised when he demands that she leave Earth and help him investigate a mystery.

Brymn is an archeologist who has been studying an area of space known as the ‘Chasm’ where all life has disappeared, although there is evidence that it once existed there. Brymn is concerned that whatever happened in the Chasm is starting to happen again. He also believes that his own species must have originated there and may hold the answer. However, the study of biology is forbidden to the Dhryn so he needs to get help from a biologist.

Mac, who has no interest in leaving Earth and her salmon, is unimpressed. But then the research institute comes under attack from mysterious invisible aliens known as the Ro who are enemies of the Dryhn and may be responsible for what happened in the Chasm. This persuades Mac to agree to Brymn’s request. They almost don’t get away as they are attacked again and Mac is horrified to discover that her best friend Emily is apparently in league with the Ro! She then begins what will be a very strange journey to the Dhryn homeworld and beyond.

The first third of this book is pretty slow. Honestly, I found it rather boring. I considered giving up, but the fun aliens and the interesting mystery kept me reading. Survival came to life once Mac left Earth and I’m glad I persevered with it. I loved the journey with Mac trying to survive on a ship with aliens who don’t even understand that humans need water.

The Drhyn home world is really well done. Mac discovers that Dhryn move through stages of life taking on different forms as they age. The transition can go wrong with horrific consequences and this seems to be the source of the Dhryn taboo on studying their own biology. Mac and Brymn find evidence that the Drhyn did indeed originate in the Chasm and after another devastating attack by the Ro, they make their way to a lifeless planet that must be the original Drhyn home world, where a horrific revelation awaits them.

Survival is well-written, has an interesting mystery and great aliens. The story and the worldbuilding are very good. The best character by far is the alien scientist, Brymn, who is just delightful. The biggest weakness is the human characters. Mac is alright, but rather one-dimensional. Nick, her love interest, is a cardboard cut out of a character and the book improves a lot once he’s removed from the narrative. Emily is probably the most interesting, but we don’t see much of her. A couple of the side characters are also good, but only make brief appearances.

Despite some weaknesses, overall I enjoyed Survival. It was refreshing to read something that’s quite slow and sedate. I’ll definitely read the next book in the trilogy and explore more of Czernada’s work.

The worldbuilding and style of storytelling reminded me of Babylon 5 so maybe give Czerneda a go if you enjoyed that show.

Sunday Post

Light pink English rose on a bush

Summer is here. The last few days have been blazing hot. I took some time off work to try and rest and recuperate from the fatigue that’s gripped me recently. I’ve been getting eight and a half hours of sleep at night, plus the odd afternoon nap and I’m feeling a lot better this weekend.

The soundtrack to the week has been the gorgeous ‘Anian’ by Welsh folk band 9Bach. Top track, ‘Cyfaddefa’

The Albums that Made me #7 – Simon & Garfunkel, ‘Greatest Hits’ (1972)

One of my colleagues shared a video from a Simon and Garfunkel concert the other day and it reminded me to pick up the ‘albums that made me’ series that I started a couple of years ago.

I must have been around six or seven years old when I began to notice the music of Simon and Garfunkel playing in the house. My Dad was a big fan. I have a very clear memory of asking my parents how they were doing the harmonies and feeling completely amazed that voices could do that. I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard. Even now, listening to them always gives me chills down my spine.

I’m not actually sure which album my parents owned. I think it was probably the Greatest Hits compilation from 1972.

But the song I’ve chosen to share is one from the Concert in Central Park in 1982 because something about this album brings back the sense of magic I felt as a child.

Poem of the week, ‘The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts’ by Jeffrey Harrison

‘I rest my case,

placing the booklet

back by its petite

companions Sweet Nothings

and Simple Wisdom

but not The Book of Sorrows,

a multivolume set

like the old Britannica

that each of us receives

in installments

of unpredictable

heft and frequency

over a lifetime.’


Extract from Jeffrey Harrison, ‘The Little Book of Cheerful Thoughts‘ at Poets.Org

Sunday Post

This week has been a lot. Some very difficult emotional stuff surfaced again, plus I had to deal with something that triggers my anxiety. But it hasn’t been all bad. The weather has been really warm and sunny and I saw my sister’s family for the time in over a year.

The weekend has been quite nice and restful. We’ve been bingeing the comedy series ‘Ghosts‘ which we absolutely love. I’ve started reading Company of Liars by Karen Maitland and I’m enjoying it so far. We went to the local farmer’s market and I cooked a delicious aubergine and goat’s cheese gratin.

I’ve rewarded myself for getting through last week with First Aid Kit’s superb new Leonard Cohen tribute album, Who By Fire. Song of the week, ‘You Want it Darker’:

Sapphic Link Love #13

Out and about, Ichthyosaurus: Mary Anning and queer palaeontology

Slate, How modernist lesbians made Paris the ‘Sapphic Centre of the Western World’

The Observer, Gay, communist and female: why M15 blacklisted the poet Valentine Ackland

Wellcome Collection, The shocking ‘treatment’ to make lesbians straight

Atlas Obscura, How lesbian luminaries put together a groundbreaking cookbook

The Advocate, Amy Ray, the Indigo Girls and the Soundtrack of our Gay Lives

Gretchen Rubin, Alison Bechdel (on her new book), “I’ve Always Known Physical Exertion and Movement Are Vital Somehow for My Creative Process.”

Autostraddle, An interview with Minnie Bruce Pratt on the ocasion of ‘Magnified’ her latest poetry collection

Bank Holiday Weekend Post

The weather is finally warming up after a very cold spring.

I’ve been struggling with fatigue again over the last couple of months. I know that I’ve been incredibly lucky and privileged during this crisis, but the long months of working from home and the constant low level stress and anxiety of living through a pandemic are definitely getting to me. Almost everyone I know is feeling exhausted, if not burned out.

Work has continued to be very busy. We’ve had a recruitment drive and I have two new members of my team. I’m also doing an ILM level 5 leadership course which is pretty intense. I’m just trying to rest as much as possible when I’m not working.

But we’ve both had our first doses of vaccine, so that’s a relief. Next week I’m going to see my sister and her family for the first time in over a year which is exciting. As I anticipated, I’m going to be the kind of person who feels reluctant and anxious about lockdown easing, so I’m just taking it one day at a time and doing small things like going to the farmer’s market. I think I’ll feel more confident once I’ve had my second jab.

I’d like to get back to posting weekly updates because I find it helpful for marking time and I’ll be trying to do that again from now on.

Lockdown Crime Fiction Round-up

I’ve read more crime fiction than I usually do over the last fourteen months, so here’s a lockdown round-up bringing it all together in one post.

Ruth Ware, The Turn of the Key (2019)

A heart-poundingly addictive page-turner about a young woman who takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy family who just happen to live in a sinister ‘smart’ house located in the middle of nowhere. All is not as it seems, including our protagonist! The Turn of the Key is a wild ride and quite terrifying in places. Ware updates classic gothic tropes in a book that plays expertly on our fears about a world that seems to be increasingly controlled by invisible technology. The smart house is a masterpeice of the uncanny. She also has some things to say about gender and class. I loved it!

Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair (1948)

I’ll call this one my ‘problematic fave’ because I had issues with its politics, which I wrote about at length here. But this story about two women accused of kidnapping a young girl is just so well written, compelling and perfectly constructed that it gave me one of the most enjoyable afternoons of reading that I’ve had in a long time. I’m now looking forward to exploring the rest of Tey’s work.

Tana French, The Wych Elm (2019)

Readers seem to be divided by The Wych Elm. I liked it but I can see why. It’s a very slow burn and quite different to French’s Dublin murder squad novels, being told from the perspective of a suspect, rather than a detective. Toby is a highly unreliable narrator, a once privileged and ‘lucky’ person, whose life begins to unravel when he is severely injured in a burgulary. He and his girlfriend go to stay with his terminally ill uncle while Toby recovers, but things only get worse when the skeleton of a school friend, who disappeared years ago, is found stuffed into a hole in the elm trree in the back garden. Toby finds himself under suspicion and begins to wonder if he might actually be guilty, while also suspecting his two cousins of hiding something. The Wych Elm isn’t really about a murder, it’s about memory and privilege, especially the privilege that creates completely different experiences of the world and allows some people not to ‘see’ what’s really going on.

Barbara Vine, A Dark Adapted Eye (1986)

I’ve seen this book on ‘best of’ crime fiction lists for years and thought I’d give it a go. My goodness, this is another page-turner. A Dark Adapted Eye is also a novel about seeing and not seeing. It’s an incrediblly compelling story about a murder which works backwards from the execution of the murderer, Vera Hillyard, as years later her neice, Faith, tries to piece together what really happened. It’s more of a ‘whydunnit’ than it whodunnut. The twist seems obvious about halfway through the book, but Vine (Ruth Rendell) is better than that and all your assumptions will be undermined by the end. An addictively unsettling read and hugely influential on the development of the twisted psychological thriller that’s so popular today.

Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lamb (1992)

Barbara Neely’s novel, Blanche on the Lamb (1992) turns the cosy mystery genre on its head by making the hired help into the detective. It’s a brilliant twist on a genre in which servants often see ‘too much’ and may well end up dead as a result. The book is overtly political and delves into social justice issues. Blanche is a brave, angry heroine who uses the skills she’s gained as a maid to solve the mystery. A series I will be reading more of and one that deserves to be better known.

Alafair Burke, All Day and a Night (2014) and Long Gone (2011)

I read two thrillers by Alafair Burke, the fifth Elle Hatcher novel, All Day and a Night (2014) and one of her standalones, Long Gone (2011). Burke is very reliable and both books are good reads with her usual feminist themes. All Day and a Night is an intelligent thriller in which a young lawyer starts looking into the murder of her half-sister many years before. In Long Gone the daughter of a famous film director finds herself a suspect in a murder she didn’t commit. Long Gone has an absolutely preposterous plot, but was so pacy and enjoyable to read, I happily overlooked it (CN: rape theme, but not graphic).

Louise Penny, Chief Inspector Gamache series, Still Life and A Fatal Grace (2007)

I read the first two books in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, Still Life and A Fatal Grace. Set in Quebec, these are basically cosy mysteries (picturesque village setting, quirky characters, lots of descriptions of food and nice things), but there’s definitely an unsettling undertone that makes them interesting. Despite all the cosiness, I think Penny has quite a bleak view of human nature. Gamache is a bit of a ‘Gary Stu’ (he’s perfect, everyone loves him, except for people who are obviously evil) but if you don’t mind that too much, it’s a satisfyingly detailed world to sink into. Perfect reading for a rainy afternoon.

Dorothy L Sayers, The Nine Taylors (1934)

My first Lord Peter Whimsy novel. I really enjoyed this book, which is often considered one of her best. After a car accident strands Lord Peter in the isolated East Anglian village of Fenchurch St Paul, he finds himself recruited by the local bell ringers club for an all-night New Year ringing session, only then to be invited back a few months later when a mutilated corpse is discovered in the grave of a local woman. As he delves into the matter, Lord Peter finds that the murder may be connected to the theft of an emerald necklace many years before. The Nine Taylors has a complex, multilayered plot, an atmospheric setting and well-drawn characters, including the bells that increasingly take on a life of their own. Some aspects of this book haven’t aged that well, but if you’re going to read Sayers I think you just have to go with it really.

Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None (1939) and Death on the Nile (1929)

I’ve been slowly working my way through Agatha Christie’s works. Over the last year I read And Then There Were None and Death on the Nile. I really liked And Then There Were None. I can see why it’s considered a classic. It’s so well constructed, it’s a pleasure to read and the idea of making everyone guilty is very clever. Death on the Nile is a tense read, but not as good as I expected. The characters are all so unpleasant and the reveal is silly.

Elly Griffiths, Ruth Galloway series

I read three more in Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway series, A Dying Fall, The Outcast Dead, and The Ghost Fields. This series provided my bedtime reading for the first part of last year, but I found myself losing interest as the books got more and more bogged down in silly relationships between not very interesting side-characters. Also, I’ve completely lost patience with Ruth and her mooning after Nelson. For goodness sake, get a grip woman! I think I’m done with this series.

Historical crime fiction

I read two historical crime novels, Heartstone by CJ Sansom (2010), fifth in the Matthew Shardlake series, and The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor, which is the first in the James Marwood and Car Lovett series. I usually enjoy Sansom’s Shardlake books, mainly because he’s created a whole world to sink into and the story always inolves a well-researched aspect of the period, in this case the Court of Wards and the war with France that led to the sinking of the Mary Rose. This is one of the less gruesome installments, but content note for a rape scene towards the end. I thought The Ashes of London was very well done and I liked the characters, but this one has a nasty rape scene at the beginning and ongoing references to rape and sexual threat which run throughout the book. This is not my kind of thing and it did put me off, so I might continue with the series, but I’m not sure.

Disapointments

Two books really disappointed me. There was The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz in which a bit of charming meta fiction could not make up for a boring detective and a lot of misogyny. Finally, my last read of 2020, was also one I found most disappointing and it’s Elly Griffiths again with The Postscript Murders. I enjoyed The Stranger Diaries so I was looking foward to this sequel. There were some clever ideas in there, but I thought the narrative was a mess; it leapt all over the place and there were far too many point of view characters. I thought the ending was a bit of a cheat too.

Ursula K Le Guin, City of Illusions (1967) – Hainish cycle re-read #3

‘I will tell you what I believe about you. I think you come from a lost world; I think you were not born on Earth. I think you came here, the first alien to return in a thousand years or more, bringing us a message or a sign’.

City of Illusions, p. 230.

And so I come to City of Illusions, the last book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s early Hainish trilogy. The end of the beginning, you might say. The last time I read this book, I remember it as the one I liked least. Did that change on re-reading? No and yes. It’s still my least favourite, but I was much more impressed the second time around and I would now say that it’s the most ambitious of the three.

City of Illusions begins on Earth. A family living in an isolated area discover a naked man in the woods who has no memory. His amber eyes suggest that he is not entirely human. They take him in and call him Falk. Over the next few years, he learns to speak and function like a human, but still can’t remember his past.

During this time, we find out that the ‘League of All Worlds’, referenced in Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, has been broken and Earth is said to be under the control of a mysterious alien race known as the Shing who rule from a city called Es Toch. Zove, the old man of the house, believes that Falk may have come to Earth from an alien world founded by the ancient Leage before the fall. Determined to find out who he is, Falk decides to leave his friends and travel alone to the city.

About half of the book is taken up with Falk’s journey. He meets an old man in the forest who helps him. He is robbed by others. For a while, he is imprisoned in the camp of a violent group called the Bainaisha where he meets a woman called Estrel with whom he escapes. Estrel claims to be a wanderer who has been to Es Toch and tells him there is nothing to fear from the Shing. They become lovers although Falk senses there is something not quite right about her. Everyone he meets on his journey seems to give him mysterious, coded advice that he doesn’t really understand!

When they eventually arrive at Es Toch, Falk finds (rather unsurprisingly) that he has been betrayed by Estrel who was working for the Shing all along. This is conveyed in a long, hallucinatory sequence, from which Falk awakes to find himself in the hands of the Shing. They claim that they are ‘men’, not aliens, and that they sent Estrel to rescue him after he lost his memory in the ‘accident’ that destroyed his ship. He is introduced to a boy called Orry, the only other survivor of the crash who has been raised by the Shing. They claim that they want to help him remember his past, but unfortunately the procedure will destroy the Falk personality when his previous self is restored.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, Falk is quickly convinced that his hosts are sinister alien creatures masquerading as humans. They are suppressing the human population through a combination of terror, drugs and manipulation. He guesses that they probably want to find out where his home planet is so that they can attack it. But he agrees to undergo the restoration procedure in the hope that he will be strong enough to hold onto his memories of being Falk.

His real name, it turns out, is Agad Ramarren, and he is a descendant of Jacob Agat and Rolery from Planet of Exile. Generations later, their people finally left the planet in search of Earth and the League who abandoned them. Somehow, the Falk personality survives the restoration and now the two personalities must work together to escape the Shing and return to warn their homeworld.

My problem with City of Illusions remains the same as the last time I read it. It is a book full of ideas, but unfortunately ideas trump the character development and storytelling that are Le Guin’s strengths as a writer. The characters are not very well developed or interesting and it feels more like a series of scenes strung together rather than a coherent story. It’s like Le Guin is showing off what she can do and it’s a little too much.

But, reading it again, I did feel more impressed by her ambition here. I can see now that City of Illusions is very influenced by the new wave of science fiction with its hallucinatory qualities, it’s focus on subjectivity and the self, what’s real and what isn’t, and its attempt to push the envelope. Le Guin will pick up some of these themes again, more or less successfully, in her most new wave novel, The Lathe of Heaven (1971).

Looking back on this early trilogy from the perspective of someone who has read all the Hainish stories, I say again that one of the most impressive things about this whole trilogy is what it reveals about Le Guin’s process as a writer. She had an ability to recognise and develop her own good ideas and drop the weaker ones. From these books, we get the ansible, mind speech and the beginnings of the Ekumen, all of which will become foundations of the world building in later masterpieces like The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.

Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions are still very much worth reading, both as entertaining science fiction stories in their own right and for what they show us of a great writer’s early development. If you’re new to Le Guin, though, I wouldn’t recommend starting here.

This post is the third in my Hainish cycle re-read.

Sapphic link love #12

Ms Magazine, The very queer history of the suffrage movement

Waltham Forest Echo, The East End women who fought for gay rights

The Guardian, How lesbian label Olivia shook up music

Believer, Art by women about women making art about women

pop matters, 90 years on ‘Olivia’ remains a classic of lesbian literature

Hyperallergenic, How Tessa Boffin, One of the Leading Lesbian Artists of the AIDS Crisis, Vanished From History (NSFW!)

Autostraddle, An interview with Minnie Bruce Pratt

The Lesbrary, 11 sapphic chefs for your cookbook collection

Country Queer, Amy Ray’s queer country story

Autostraddle, No Adam for Eve: the quiet history of lesbian pulp

Wild Women in Josephine Tey’s ‘The Franchise Affair’ (1948)

Josephine Tey’s 1948 mystery, The Franchise Affair, is so well-written, beautifully paced and gripping that I sat down and read it in one afternoon. The novel’s politics are problematic, to say the least, but it’s just so damn enjoyable to read.

Tey’s classic page-turner has stayed with me and, since I finished reading it, I’ve found myself pondering its more disturbing aspects. In her essay, The Lost Girl, the novelist Sarah Waters has written brilliantly about the troubling conservatism of The Franchise Affair, and the classist and misogynist allegiances within its narrative. The novel is packed full of simmering tensions about gender and class which are played out in the stories of two ‘wild’ women, both of whom are trying to live their lives outside the bounds of patriarchally-defined gender roles.

SPOILER ALERT: spoilers for the plot of The Franchise Affair below the cut

Continue reading

Sunday Post – Signs of Spring

Reeds and branches of budding pussy willow taken against a clear blue sky.

I’ve been feeling exhausted again these last few weeks, which is why I haven’t published any posts since January, despite having several in various stages of draft. I think the fatigue is really kicking in now for a lot of people.

The weather continues mostly cold and blustery here, but it’s the Equinox next weekend and at least there are some signs of spring being on the way.

I turned forty-four in February. It does feel unsettling to realise that I’m only six years away from the fifty mark. It’s not getting older that bothers me (I’m rather enjoying that overall), it’s the sense of time passing and this anxiety about whether I’m doing what I should be doing with my life. Am I wasting time??? But this is probably not the best year for those kinds of worries! Anyway, I had quite a nice ‘lockdown birthday’ in the end.

One of my friends bought me a window bird feeder and now we’re getting daily visits from little blue tits which is cheering. It’s a great idea if you don’t have a garden. I’m seeing more bird activity locally. Lots of greenfinches and goldfinches and a few stonechats.

I managed to have one long walk to a nearby beach and did a little bit of fossil hunting.

One of the highlights of the last couple of months has been ‘rediscovering’ music. I always used to listen to a lot of music, but it’s tailed off over the last couple of years. Working from home has given me the opportunity to have music on in the background while I work and it’s really improved my mood.

This weekend sees the one-year anniversary of the last time I left Cardiff! It’s been twelve months since I went more than three miles from the place where I live. That’s quite a strange thought.

Lockdown restrictions are starting to ease in Wales, but I can’t imagine I’m going to to do anything different, except go for some longer walks and perhaps meet up with a few people outside when that’s allowed again.

Sunday Post

A flowery patterned mug full of bright yellow turmeric tea sitting in a table next to a light blue stump tea pot.
Ginger, turmeric and black pepper tea

We had a dusting of snow this morning. Other parts of Wales got a lot more, but it didn’t last long here. I’ve been feeling sad this week and had a little meltdown last night. Nothing to do with the COVID situation, just the usual stuff. I had some helpful talks with my partner, though, and actually gained some useful insights.

Working from home feels harder at the moment. I’m extremely grateful and privileged to have a job that allows me to work at home, so I feel like I shouldn’t complain, but it is starting to grind me down a bit at this point. I’ve been listening to music in the background while I work which helps lift my mood.

I finished Still Life by Louise Penny which I really enjoyed – very cosy mystery and well-written. I’m working on City of Illusions, the next book in my Ursula Le Guin re-read and I’m enjoying Underland by Robert MacFarlane.

The soundtrack to the week has been Blackbirds and Thrushes by Niamh Parsons. It’s such a beautiful album.

Ursula K Le Guin, Planet of Exile (1966) – Hainish Cycle re-read #2

Planet of Exile, the second in Le Guin’s early Hainish trilogy, is a significant improvement on the first, Rocannon’s World. The story is much more coherent, the world wonderfully drawn, and the characters far better developed than in the first novel. Planet of Exile is actually one of my favourite books by Le Guin; it’s a beautiful, evocative and, at times, frightening story.

Set at the beginning of winter on a planet in which seasons last 5000 days (around fourteen earth years), Rolery, a young woman from an indiginous hunter-gatherer tribe, visits the city of Landin, a place inhabited by aliens who came to her world hundreds of years ago. They keep themselves apart and are known by her people as the Farborns. While walking on the beach below the city, Rolery is almost caught by a fast moving tide and only escapes because one of the Farborns, Jakob Agat, warns her telepathically using mindspeech, inadvertently creating a bond between them.

I just love the opening. It’s so atmospheric with its images of the giant causeway leading out to the tower rock and the roaring of the tide as it chases Rolery back towards the city and Jakob.

Planet of Exile further develops one of Le Guin’s Hainish tropes, ‘Mindspeech’, a form of telepathy which first appears in Rocannon’s World – it becomes apparent that the ‘Farborn’ are the descendents of Semley and Mogian’s people from that novel. Mindspeech seems to be something that most people can develop with practice, but some have a natural aptitude, including Rolery, much to the surprise of the people of Landin who believe only they have the skill.

Planet of Exile is about the relationship between Rolery and Jakob and the relationship between their two peoples, as they prepare for the long winter and face a common enemy, the aggressive Gaal from the South who are coming in vast numbers to invade their lands and take their resources.

The Farborn are a dwindling people, their colony abandoned centuries ago by the League of All Worlds. They don’t know why they have been left in this exile, ‘Their records say only that the ship left. A white spear of metal, longer than a whole city, standing on a feather of fire.’ Now fewer children are born every year, so they turn to the Askatevar for help.

Jakob Agat goes to the chief of Rolery’s people, her father, an old man named Wold, to propose an alliance against the Gaal. Wold listens, but he must convince his own people and the other tribes which will be difficult. Jakob, meanwhile, struggles with the attitudes of his own people who look down on the Askatevarans. Neither really regard the other as ‘human’. Cultural tensions are inflamed by a burgeoning romance between Rolery and Jakob. Before they can heal the divide, the Gaal attack and the surviving Askatevarans take refuge in the city of Landin where both peoples must get over their prejudices and preconceptions and work together as they prepare for siege. The representation of the people of Tevar is deeply imbibed by Le Guin’s interest in anthropology, perhaps so much as to feel a bit unsubtle now.

There is a theme in the book of old ways dying out so that something new can emerge. This is symbolised in the two old leaders, Alla Pasfal in Landin and the old chief Wold in Tevar. Both are stubborn and difficult people and Wold’s attitudes are misogynist, but there is something powerfully moving in his ‘last foray’ as he leads the women with young children across the causeway to the league hall, ‘across the vasty dizzy air-road to the black and terrible house’.

‘To die, then, he must return across the bleak, changeless landscape of his boyhood, he must reenter the white world of the storms.’

The middle section of the book is a long seige of the city which Le Guin manages to make tense and exciting, but perhaps most frightening is the introduction of the Snow Ghouls, terrifying creatues of the winter with their small heads swaying on their long, curving necks as they run across the snow towards their prey.

During this time, Rolery and Jakob establish their relationship as two people who have found freedom in their very differences. Separate, they were frustrated and unhappy with their roles in life, but together they have joy and possiblity. I really like the representation of their love story and, if I have a complaint, I wish Le Guin had given it more time. The novel ends with Jakob and Rolery hopeful that they will be able to have children together, even as they face the daunting prospect of winter: ‘Five thousand nights of winter, five thousand days of it, the rest of their youth and maybe the rest of their lives’.

In some ways, Planet of Exile feels like the precursor to The Left Hand of Darkness, which features an even longer winter, a deep relationship between two people from different worlds and has mindspeech as a central trope. But Planet of Exile is its own book too, one in which we see Le Guin really starting to play to her strengths as a writer of science fiction.

This post is the second in my Hainish Cycle re-read.

Sunday Post: Small Celebrations

The sun rising over a calm sea on a clear morning

This week we celebrated the tenth anniversary of our civil partnership. We’re not really into anniversaries, but any excuse to celebrate at the moment, right? So we got some beer, ordered takeout and watched Ocean’s 8.

I’ve been feeling depressed by the state of the UK. The COVID-19 situation continues to be very bad here with the NHS struggling to cope. Plus we’re barely two weeks into Brexit proper and already the UK government wants to reintroduce bee-killing pesticides and is launching an attack on worker’s rights. That didn’t take long.

But one piece of good news for me personally is that my mum got her first dose of vaccine. She lives on her own and has been so good at sticking to the rules, so it’s really cheered her up.

The weather has been rainy, but I managed a few nice early morning walks. In birdwatching news, I saw a redstart for the first time. Plenty of tufted ducks, goosanders, turnstones, little grebes and song thrushes around too.

We did two online yoga classes this week and that definitely helped. I also managed to get some medication to treat my winter patches of ezcema which improved my general mood.

I have a bunch of books on the go. A colleague recommended Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. I’m really enjoying the first one, Still Life, and I think this series might just hit the spot for my bedtime reading. I’m also enjoying Underland by Robert MacFarlane. I finished the second book in my Ursula Le Guin re-read, Planet of Exile, (post to follow soon) and have started the next one, City of Illusions.

A copy of Underland by Robert Macfarlane. The cover is a painting of a path through woodland.

The track of the week is ‘Beginning to Feel the Years’ by Brandi Carlile which feels appropriate for a few reasons!