Monday, May 26, 2008

Notes on Four Novels by Women 

Ursula K. Le Guin's Lavinia is very nice, a wise narrative by a young girl witnessing a war going on in part over her ownership. The time and setting are that of Vergil's Aeneid, and the book is fantasy only to the extent that Vergil himself appears to young Lavinia in dreams, and Lavinia and other family members experience visions or prophecies, though there are no explicit appearances by any Greek (or Roman) gods or goddesses. The narrative is informed by rueful meditations on the ways of men and of women, as the conflicts that erupt seem the result of the male tendency to look for reasons to fight -- to prove their worth, to validate their virtue. A paragraph that struck me as key is "Without war there are no heroes. What harm would that be? Oh, Lavinia, what a woman's question that is."

Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army is an interesting counterpoint to Le Guin's novel; the book won the Tiptree Award presumably for its consideration of potential for violence, when necessary, by women. The book is strongly-written both in the psychological portraits of its characters, especially the narrator, a woman who flees her husband and an oppressive post-global warming authoritarian British government (which forces women to be fitted with countraceptive devices) for a rumored Carhullan farm run by women, and the charismatic leader of that farm, Jackie Nixon; and for the vivid descriptions of rural Lake District countryside -- I started keeping a list of terms I only vaguely recognized or had no idea what they meant: bield, brant, swale, withers, spelk, foss. I'll look them up. There's no strong speculative element to the book; the most striking aspect of the novel is the way it doesn't fulfill the implications and payoff of its title until virtually the last page.

I was unimpressed by Jeannette Winterson's The Stone Gods, even without being familiar with the author's apparently contentious regard for genre SF. The opening of the book depicts a near future in which the planet's ecology is about the collapse and people are preoccupied with various kinds of genetic enhancements. There are intelligent robots, automated dress shops, and pollution alarms -- a whole compendium of scifi cliches. And people react to the discovery of Planet Blue -- which, the first line of the book informs us, weighs a 'yatto-gram' -- a promising new world except for its occupation by dinosaurs. Perhaps I was put off when I Googled 'yatto-gram' and the first result was a discussion of how Winterson apparently misspells the word yottagram (and it happens more than once); similarly, the book strikes me as that of a mainstream writer employing the gimmickry of SF without taking it the least bit seriously -- except as allegory, in the manner of those old Twilight Zone scripts that didn't bother to justify how asteroids had atmospheres or astronauts could be back on Earth without realizing it. More to the point.... The Stone Gods does move on, with a section set on Easter Island as the island's last tree is cut down, and the book's overly obvious moral is that humankind is doomed to destroy its environment. Oh, and Planet Blue is actually Orbus is actually Planet White, or something, though whether there's a time loop involved, or cyclic history, or mere allegory, I didn't pay close enough attention to figure out.

Finally Karen Joy Fowler's Wit's End is very pleasant, though I wasn't as tickled, by the promised metafictional mix of authors and characters and how fans take the latter over from the former, as I'd expected to be. Two-thirds of the way through the book, the narrator wonder if there isn't a mystery here that she should solve-- but, er, which one? Several unanswered questions have arisen, about a strange woman on the beach, about the relationship of the narrator's godmother, the mystery writer Addison Early, to the narrator's father, and so on; none is compelling, though all are mildly interesting. The book is fascinating and comfy, in a low-key way.

Next time -- I had a chance to view a DVD screener of the upcoming documentary about Harlan Ellison, and was prompted to read the limited edition of his The City on the Edge of Forever, with the complete script and a couple outlines and Harlan's lengthy defense of the historical record. I'll comment on that, though Gary Westfahl will be doing the formal review of the Ellison documentary. And beyond that: I'll be reviewing, in more ways than one, the DVD release of '60s TV series The Invaders.
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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