Revisiting The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) – Hainish Cycle re-read #4

My battered copy of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin.

‘Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling’

The left hand of darkness, p.1

Eleven years ago, I published a post about one of my favourite books, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), by Ursula K Le Guin. I don’t disagree with anything I said back then, but it does strike me that in mainly focusing, as most people do, on its famous treatment of gender and sexuality, I failed to write about what it is that I personally love about this book. So that’s what I want to try and capture now, as I revisit Le Guin’s first masterpiece for my Hainish Cycle re-read.

The Left Hand of Darkness is presented to the reader as a package of documents made up of reports, diaries, myths, and legends. The narrative begins with a report from a young ‘Mobile’ named Genli A. about his experiences on the icy planet that his people call Winter, or Gethen. As a representative of the Ekumen, a peaceful federation of worlds, his job is to introduce the Gethenians to the Ekumen and encourage them to become members. Young, inexperienced, and despite his claims to objectivity, clearly unsettled by the Gethenian’s unusual biology – if you don’t already know, the Gethenians only take on sexed roles when they are in the kemmer phase of their reproductive cycle, remaining sexually neuter the rest of the time (read the previous post for more). In any case, it is apparent to the reader that Genli’s understanding of Gethen and its people is partial at best.  

He is hoping to get a meeting with the King of Karhide, which is being arranged by a Gethenian called Estraven, someone he considers an ally, but doesn’t entirely trust. Estraven is a powerful and rather mysterious individual who occupies a position something like a Prime Minister, so Genli is dismayed when he* invites him to dinner and tells him that he can no longer help him with his mission.

“I was alone, with a stranger, inside the walls of a dark palace, in a strange snow-changed city, in the heart of the ice-age of an alien world’ p. 14.

Feeling betrayed, Genli goes to the interview with the king, only to find that Estraven has been declared a traitor and banished from the domain. His ambitions in ruins, Genli sets out to the neighbouring, and highly bureaucratic, domain of Orgoreyn, where he hopes to have better luck with his mission.

The narrative is then picked up by Estraven who is trying to escape from Karhide with his life. It quickly becomes clear that Genli has many things wrong about both Estraven and the Gethenians, and is probably walking into a dangerous trap in Orgoreyn.

From this point on, there are just so many wonderful things in The Left Hand of Darkness. The haunting myths and legends that punctuate the narrative. Genli’s strange encounter with Foretellers where he gets an answer to his question, ‘Will this world Gethen be a member of the Ekumen of known worlds, five years from now?’ Then there is the horrible but riveting journey over the mountains in a prison van after Genli is arrested in Orgoreyn, followed by his dramatic rescue from the prison camp by Estraven, with everything culminating in their terrifying, exhilarating journey across the Gobrin ice sheet.

‘We stowed the wheels, uncapped the sledge runners, put on our skis, and took off down north, onward, into that silent vastness of fire and ice that said in enormous letters of black and white DEATH, DEATH, written right across a continent. The sledge pulled like a feather, and we laughed with joy’’. p. 179.

As it progresses, Left Hand’s narrative journey is really about travelling inwards, about being stripped right back to the core of who you are. It is only at the point when everything else has been stripped away, that Genli can break through his own socially constructed defences and realise the truth:

“And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man’. p. 202.

He is finally able to open himself to their relationship, ‘A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt’ (p. 203).

I think this is why I return to The Left Hand of Darkness over and over again; it is a real love story, an intense and compelling relationship between two people from which truth emerges. Genli does ultimately achieve his goal, but there is no happy ending. The Left Hand of Darkness is ultimately a tragedy, if a hopeful one.

This novel was a huge leap forward for Le Guin. Her earlier Hainish books are certainly enjoyable, but Left Hand is in an entirely different league of writing. The world building is superb. Gethen is so detailed and fully realised; Le Guin has created a world that feels alien, but also familiar. The cold, the cities, the people, the food, even the vehicles, all feel real. And then the way she conveys information about this world is so skilful. Despite having to impart an entire planet’s history and culture in a short book, there is no sense of “info dumping”.  Le Guin cleverly uses myths and legends, reports, and dialogue to tell us what we need to know.

This brings me to the conclusion that The Left Hand of Darkness is really a story about the act of storytelling itself. It is full of people telling us stories and it ends with a child’s request for a story, “Will you tell us about the other worlds out among the stars?’’ It is as if, at this moment, Genli and le Guin have become one. After all, she would spend the rest of her life responding to our desire for stories of other people, other lives, other worlds.

A book that I’m sure I will continue to revisit regularly throughout my life.

*I use the pronoun ‘he’ in this post because that’s what Le Guin does in the book. But there’s plenty of discussion about this if you’re interested, including later attempts to address it by the author herself.

References are to my edition published by Orbit Books in 1992.

Poem of the Week, ‘Self-Compassion’ by James Crews

[...] How long
do any of us really have before the body
begins to break down and empty its mysteries
into the air? Oh honey, I said—for once
without a trace of irony or blush of shame—
the touch of my own hand on my chest
like that of a stranger, oddly comforting
in spite of the facts.

James Crews, ‘Self-Compassion‘ at Poets.org

Louise Erdrich, Jacklight: Poems (1996)

A copy of 'Jacklight' by Louise Erdrich. The cover shows a black and white photograph of a farrground.

Jacklight by Louise Erdrich is a collection of very fine poems divided into four sequences, ‘Runaways’, ‘Hunters’, ‘The Butcher’s Wife’, and ‘Myths’, each of which delves into different aspects of experience. As the blurb notes, the poems ‘bring to life what it is to be a woman, a Midwesterner, and a Native American’.

There were two things that struck me particularly about these poems. First, the sense of something intangible, numinous even, emerging from the ordinary realities of life. For instance, in ‘The Lady in the Pink Mustang’, a woman driving a pink mustang car becomes something like a goddess. The effect is often quite uncanny. Secondly, the characters who appear in these poems are just so incredibly vivid, such as Hilda in ‘The Slow Sting of her Company’ which perfectly captures the way some people just get under your skin.

The poems in this collection are elusive, unsettling and haunting. Some of my other favourites were, ‘Painting of a White Gate and Sky’ (see below), ‘The Woods’ and ‘I was sleeping where the black oaks move‘.

I haven’t read any of Louise Erdrich’s novels yet and possibly it would have been wise to have read at least Love Medicine before attempting the poetry. I suspect her fiction provides more context for the poems and I may return to them again after reading some of the novels.

Continue reading

Science Fiction reading round-up

The one that really got me excited

My ereader showing the cover of The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez. It shows a space ship and a planet.

Simon Jimenez’s debut novel, The Vanished Birds (2020), is the first new voice in science fiction to get me excited since Becky Chambers published The Long Way to the Small Angry Planet. I’m not even sure how to describe this book, but I found it quite astonishing, as well as very accomplished and ambitious for a first novel. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but is also entirely its own thing. A great story, but also an allegory about capitalism, colonialism and, most powerfully I thought, about healing childhood trauma. There is an exploration of the price, in human suffering, of new technologies which feels like a response to Le Guin’s famous story, ‘The ones who walk away from Olemas’. It’s not perfect. It feels a little unwieldy and a touch self-indulgent in places, but what an imagination and wonderfully vivid characters. His next book, The Spear Cuts Through Water (2022), is epic fantasy, which is not at all my thing, but based on The Vanished Birds, I’ll be giving it a go because I really want to see what Jimenez will do next.

The one that I finally got around to reading

My ereader showing the cover of The Martian by Andy Weir. It shows a picture of Matt Damon in the movie version wearing a space suit.

I’m always a bit wary of books that have been overhyped, but in the case of The Martian (2014), I was not at all disappointed. I found it a delight. Hilariously funny, emotionally engaging, exciting and interesting too. The narrative shifts between Mark Watney on Mars, Nasa and the perspective of his crewmates on the ship, do feel a little clunky, but who cares when you’re having this much fun. I can see The Martian becoming a comfort book to return to on rainy days when I’m feeling a little under the weather. And I enjoyed the film adaptation too.

The favourite series

My ereader showing the cover of Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells. It shows Murderbot in its armour walking beside a much taller 'bot'.

I re-read the entire Murderbot series three times during lockdown. The sixth instalment, Fugitive Telemetry (2021) is a prequel to the previous novel and a little murder mystery. It’s not one of the best in the series, but I enjoyed it.

The favourite author

Three books by Becky Chambers! The Galaxy and the Ground Within (2021) is the last (hmm we’ll see) in the beloved Wayfarers series. If you liked the others, you should enjoy this one too. If you don’t like Becky Chambers, it will not persuade you otherwise. It’s a lovely story about a group of strangers who are thrown together by circumstances. Her novella, To be Taught if Fortunate (2019), is something completely different. This is a much harder, darker story about space exploration. It’s the first book by Chambers to really upset me in places and the ending is ambiguous. It’s very good, though, and the themes reminded me a little of the movie, Interstellar, only it’s much better. A Psalm for the Wild Built (2020) is the absolute opposite of ‘To be Taught’, a gentle parable about a monk and a robot. This is the first book by Chambers that hasn’t chimed with me. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s thoughtful and comforting, but somehow didn’t engage me and I probably won’t read the rest of this particular series. But it’s good to see Chambers trying different things.

The one that pleasantly surprised me

My ereader showing the cover of Embers of War by Gareth Powell.  It shows a space ship flying towards a planet with a smaller moon.

I think I bought this because it was cheap on Kobo. I didn’t expect much, but ended up enjoying Gareth Powell’s Embers of War (2018) quite a lot. I do like a sentient warship and this is just an entertaining, fast-paced space opera.

What next?

So that’s my last six months in science fiction, apart from re-reads of The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin, which I’ll write about separately.

I’ve got some slightly older stuff on the go at the moment, Downbelow Station (1981) by CJ Cherryh (this one is serious business!) and two books from 2005, the second in Julie E Czerneda’s ‘Species Imperative‘ series and the first in Jody Lynn Nye’s ‘Wolfe pack‘ comedy military SF series.

Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey (2019)

A copy of Underland by Robert Macfarlane. The cover is a painting of a tunnel through bare trees with golden light at the end.

I read Underland by Robert Macfarlane last year. At the time, it certainly tested my poor lockdown-addled, zoom-fatigued brain. But it was well worth the effort and is definitely in the running for the best book I read in 2021, which is why I want to mention it here several months after I finished reading it.

Underland isn’t an easy read and I’m not even going to attempt to write about it at any length – there are numerous excellent reviews out there if you’re interested.

It’s a dense book that demands close attention. A guided tour of deep, underground places on Earth, it’s a book about the past, the present, and the journey we are on as we move further into the Anthropocene, the first period on Earth when human activity will be the dominant influence on the climate and environment.

Awesome, sublime and in places, quite frightening. This is a book to save for the autumn and winter, I think. Light some candles, curl up under a blanket and enter the dark places.

I’m looking forward to more journeys with Macfarlane. The Old Ways is next on my list.

Queer Short Stories from Wales

New from Parthian Books, Queer Square Mile: Queer Short Stories from Wales edited by Kirsti Bohata, Mihangel Morgan and Huw Osborne

This ground-breaking volume makes visible a long and diverse tradition of queer writing from Wales. Spanning genres from ghost stories and science fiction to industrial literature and surrealist modernism, these are stories of love, loss and transformation.

In these stories gender refuses to be fixed: a dashing travelling companion is not quite who he seems in the intimate darkness of a mail coach, a girl on the cusp of adulthood gamely takes her father’s place as head of the house, and an actor and patron are caught up in dangerous game-playing. In the more fantastical tales there are talking rats, flirtations with fascism, and escape from a post-virus ‘utopia’. These are stories of sexual awakening, coming out and redefining one’s place in the world.

Parthian books

Ursula K. Le Guin’s biography gets a publisher and a release date

Mark your calendar for 2026. That’s when the first and only authorized biography of the late Portland literary legend Ursula K. Le Guin is scheduled to be published by Virago, a British publisher that focuses on women writers.

The Oregonian, Ursula K. Le Guin’s biography gets a publisher and a release date

Good Listen: Backlisted, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

My favourite literary podcast, Backlisted, has a new episode about Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

I read this book last year and loved it. The bit at the beginning of the podcast, where they talk about their recent reading does go on a little too long I feel, but after that, there’s a really interesting conversation about the novel, so stick with it.

I was also really interested to hear about a book by one of the guests, Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five women, freedom and London between the wars. That’s definitely going on the list.

Agatha Christie, The Complete Short Stories of Hercule Poirot

This collection brings together all fifty one of the Poirot short stories in chronological order of publication, plus one story ‘not seen for over 70 years’.

My third January book is one that I’ve been reading for a long time. At least a year. Possibly more! I’ve been keeping it on the go as a bedtime book for ages, often just reading a few pages on my e-reader before nodding off. There always seemed to be ‘four hours left’, until suddenly, there was only 30 minutes left, so I made a big effort and finally finished it.

There isn’t much to say. If you like Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot, you will enjoy this collection. The stories are a bit variable in quality. Some are forgettable and were clearly written quickly for magazines. Others are classics. A few of my favourites are ‘The Chocolate Box’, ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’, ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ and ‘Triangle at Rhodes’.

But the stories I enjoyed most were from The Labours of Hercules, originally published in 1947. These twelve interlinked cases, which show Poirot at the end of his career, are weirder, more grotesque and gothic, than the earlier stories. They feel more fully realised and complex somehow. These stories felt fresher because, aside from ‘The Erymanthian Boar’, they were not used in the TV series and were new to me. Rather a shame, I think, because some are excellent and could have made good adaptations.

‘The Nemean Lion’ is a delightful tale involving a pekingese dog. ‘The Arcadian Deer’ is a strange love story. ‘The Erymanthian Boar’ is an atmospheric mystery set in a remote swiss hotel. My two favourite stories, ‘The Stymphalean Birds’ and ‘The Cretan Bull’ contain elements of gothic and horror fiction: a civil servant finds himself embroiled in a sinister situation whilst on holiday, and a young woman recruits Poirot to help discover why her fiance believes that he is going mad. ‘The Capture of Cerberus’ features Poirot’s old friend/antagonist Countess Vera Rossakoff and doesn’t show Poirot in a very flattering light. Definitely one where Christie’s dislike of her own character peeps through.

Now I’ll have to find something else to read at bedtime.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art (2020)

I’m hoping to read more nonfiction this year and Kindred, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, feels like an excellent start towards that goal.

I’ve always been interested in Neanderthals, and palaeoanthropology more generally, so I was pretty much guaranteed to enjoy this book. Kindred aims to summarise and explain the current evidence and research about Neanderthals and make it accessible to the general reader. It’s a huge, complex field, so this is quite a feat and clearly also a labour of love for the author.

From the discovery of the first fossils one hundred and sixty years ago, Kindred delves into what we know about their bodies, the tools they created, the world they lived in, what they ate (a lot!), their homes and use of fire, to their aesthetics, love lives, death rituals and, of course, the question that most fascinates us now, their interbreeding with homo sapiens.

The book finishes with a discussion of how western ideology has shaped the way evidence of the Neanderthals has been interpreted and the journey from otherisation to accepting them, as different, but closely related, people.

A fascinating and tender book about the other humans that didn’t survive except in our DNA.

‘Read on and meet your kindred’.

Emma Stonex, The Lamplighters (2021)

My second January read is The Lamplighters (2021) by Emma Stonex.

In Cornwall in 1972, three keepers disappear from their lighthouse. When the relief boat arrives on New Year’s Eve, the door is found locked, the clocks are stopped and the table is laid for a meal. The Principle Keeper, Arthur Black, Assistant Keeper, Bill Walker, and their junior, Vincent Bourne, have all vanished. Arthur Black’s weather log describes a terrible storm which is not recorded anywhere else …

Twenty years later, a writer sets out to interview the women who were left behind: Arthur’s wife, Helen, Bill’s wife, Jenny, and Michelle, Vincent’s girlfriend. Three women whose lives are still constantly haunted by this unsolved mystery.

As the narrative moves back and forth between the experiences of the lighthouse keepers and the stories of the women who loved them, layers of truth slowly unravel. What drove Helen and Jenny apart? Who is the writer who wants to interview them and what is his agenda? What role was played by the rather sinister company, Trident House, that runs the lighthouse network? And, of course, what really happened to the men on the lighthouse during that last Christmas?

The Lamplighters crosses genres. It can be read as a mystery, a ghost story, and a psychological thriller. I did find the resolution slightly disappointing, but I’m not going to complain when the book is so compelling and beautifully written. In the end, it’s a story about love and grief and the difficulty in ever truly knowing another person.

With its ambiguities and genre blurring, I do think this is the kind of book that people will either love or hate, but give it a try if you enjoy the likes of Shirley Jackson, Hilary Mantel, Emily St John Mandel and Tana French.

The true story that inspired The Lamplighters is just as fascinating.

Daphne du Maurier, The House on the Strand (1969)

My e-reader showing the cover of The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier. It features the title surrounded by drawings of bottles in a laboratory.

My first completed read of 2022 is The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier (1969). I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It reminded me that I really should read more of Du Maurier’s work.

The narrator, Dick Young, finds himself between jobs and borrows his friend Magnus’s ancient house in Cornwall, Kilmarth, while he decides what to do next. In the meantime, Magnus, who is a scientist, persuades Dick to act as a test subject for a drug he is developing which, he claims, allows the user to experience the distant past. Dick takes the drug and does indeed find himself transported back to the fourteenth century where he is able to witness, but not interact with, people who lived in the area at the time. This ‘time travel’ only occurs in the mind of the subject, so while on a trip, Dick is actually wandering around his physical environment, unaware of what’s happening in the present. This is clearly dangerous, but he quickly becomes obsessed with the drama unfolding in the lives of the people he follows in the past and feels compelled to keep on taking the drug. His addiction soon starts to cause problems when his american wife, Vita, and his two stepsons arrive back from the States earlier than expected. The situation esclates, as you might expect; there is a shocking death, violence, and everything eventually culminates in a suitably ambiguous ending.

The House on the Strand has all the elements that I’ve enjoyed in the other stories by Du Maurier. There is the unreliable narrator. There are elements of the gothic and science fiction. There are strong queer undertones: Magnus is gay and Dick’s relationship with him is far closer than with his bewildered wife. There is a narrative that can be read in at least two completely different ways. Is Dick really time-travelling, or is it all a drug-induced hallucination, a ruse practised on the suggestible mind of a man in denial about his life? There is the unresolved ending, which leaves Dick’s fate up to the reader.

The story can be read as an allegory about addiction and/or repressed sexuality, but I finished The House on the Strand with a feeling that it’s also about being a writer of fiction. Dick’s predicament represents the sense of conflict that being a writer can create between reality and the world of the imagination, where the writer would perhaps prefer to dwell, without finding themselves constantly being pulled back to the demands of ordinary, daily life.

An enjoyable start to my reading year. I think The Scapegoat is next on my du Maurier list. It sounds right up my street.

Like this? Try Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

Food in Gothic Literature?

I very much enjoyed listening to this episode of The British Food History Podcast on Food in Gothic Literature.

The book that inspired the episode, A Gothic Cookbook by Ella Buchan and Alessandra Pino, is forthcoming from Unbound and looks gorgeous.

Unbound is a crowdfunding publisher so, if you’re interested, you can go and back the project. Since it’s on two of my favourite subjects (Gothic literature & cooking), this is something I’ll definitely be doing.

Comfort Reading

A copy of A Cook's Book by Nogel Slater lying on a brown background. It is a large hardcover book with a pink and yellow cover.

My current comfort read is A Cook’s Book by Nigel Slater. A present to myself, it’s just a big warm hug of a book. This is really a ‘best of’ Nigel Slater, featuring many favourite recipes from his life in the kitchen. I have started to put it to practical use and made the spicy red lentil soup, which was delicious.

And if you don’t feel like reading, there’s an accompanying podcast, A Cook’s Chronicles (Season 2)

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.

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.

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

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

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.