Tag Archives: 2014

10. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

2 Mar

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Writing about a breakout masterpiece from one of the greatest writers of our time is a challenge, especially when the writer has spoken eloquently about the work in interviews and in the book’s own introduction.

For those who don’t already know, The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969 was LeGuin’s thought-experiment, investigating what a genderless world could teach us about equality, otherhood and love.

“The future, in fiction, is a metaphor,” she writes. “A metaphor for what? If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.”

In this future-metaphor, LeGuin uses an amazing conceit, still surprisingly rare among the ranks of science fiction writers, of a planet where gender and sexuality work differently, where everyone is androgynous most of the time, and only become male or female in a monthly version of being in heat, with the gender outcome being at random and up to various factors. Thus anyone can become pregnant, and most people are male sometimes and female other times for sexual purposes, without it becoming an identity.

If that’s not fascinating enough, along comes Genly Ai, a male (human standard) envoy from a vastly more advanced culture, soliciting the inhabitants of the planet (Winter) into membership in the advanced culture’s loose interstellar organization. The resulting adventures for Mr. Ai, dilemmas for the people of Winter, and gender-theory strangeness, make for riveting reading.

Moreover, few writers have LeGuin’s mastery of the conventions of fantasy. The writer effortlessly establishes the just-industrializing city of Ehernrang, capital of Karhide, and its people, with a kind of alien majesty that’s just disorienting enough.

“I was in a parade. I walked just behind the gossiwors and just before the king. It was raining.”

“Rainclouds over dark towers, rain falling in deep streets, a dark storm-beaten city of stone, through which one vein of gold winds slowly.”

“I made my way to and through the Palace in the quiet and pale darkness of snowfall, losing my way only once. The Palace of Erhenrang is an inner city, a walled wilderness of palaces, towers, gardens, courtyards, cloistrs, roofed bridgeways, roofless tunnel-walks, small forests and dungeon-keeps, the product of centuries of paranoia on a grand scale.”

The planet is as far submerged as it could be into winter and still support human life. The love story is profoundly unusual, and the book, one I’m tempted to start again from page one, will be on my “100 Alternative Classics” list for sure.

2. Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker

6 Jan

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I happened to find this gorgeous thing in a bookstore just before departing for New Orleans, and bought it as my guidebook for the trip. It’s much more than a guidebook, more like a collection of essays about New Orleans, but there are beautifully executed infographic maps, and a list of 25 points of interest–including the statue of Ignatius P. Reilly, a Banksy mural and an Louise Bourgeois spider—and it was a surprisingly complete companion. The experience made me hopeful that perhaps now that the nuts-and-bolts of restaurant-and-hotel recommendations are being taken care of online,  there will become a market for eccentric, meaningful compilations of information about cities, that will be used by travelers as the guidebook used to be.

Solnit is a San Francisco native who has written a memoir and a previous creative atlas for SF. Snedeker is a filmmaker from New Orleans. Together, and with collaborators and contributors, they cover pretty much everything I’d want to know about the city: how it came into being, who lives there, what the fate of the native people in the region has been, some ills (the oil industry, prisons), civil rights history,  culture maps (music, carnival), and of course, a map of the flooding.

The book is fairly liberal-ideological, which might bother some people, and I was aware in some sections of getting only one side of a story—particularly with regards to the unchecked anti-corporatism (a trait I have been known to share, but I try to be self-aware about it), and selective visibility when it came to the poor. But considering that every guidebook has an ideology, I didn’t begrudge the authors theirs, and I greatly enjoyed their company while in New Orleans.

1. Kill the Dead, by Richard Kadrey

3 Jan

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This review will be about my love Richard Kadrey’s Kill the Dead, the second book in his hilarious, vengefully hardboiled Sandman Slim series, but first there will be a detour through the French Quarter, New Orleans, to provide context….

I’ve just returned from New Orleans, where I saw some of the work of Edward Burtynsky  and, through reading the creative atlas Unfathomable City by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, was re-educated about the some of the environmental issues affecting the gulf coast. I knew, but had semi-forgotten that the government-corporate-industrial complex has cut convenient channels through the fragile bayou ecosystems, allowing salt water to flood in and kill everything it touches, including the mangrove swamps that used to protect the cities from hurricanes. I think I’d heard the startling figure that Louisiana loses an acre of wetlands an hour. And though I’d never seen a map of the Gulf of Mexico that renders, instead of unbroken blue water, a network of oil wells and pipelines as dense as an ariel view of New York City, we all know you can’t swim down there.

Here’s the map, the thin grey lines are pipelines and the dots are wells:

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What I’d never done was viewed those facts, Katrina, the mismanagement of Katrina, and the BP spill (vanished from the news up north, still very much a reality on the gulf coast) as a seamless loop of immorality, incompetence and indifference with New Orleans as a bellweather for the country as a whole. But you can’t be in New Orleans for a week, and drive past the Mercedez-Benz superdome every day, without seeing a great, fat, featureless totem to immorality, incompetence, corruption and catstrophe.

(I had a wonderful trip, and the city is amazing, the people its salvation, but) when I absorb too much information on the things our supposed leaders do to our planet and to other people, I start thinking that the only sane response would be self-immolation on the steps of Google, like a 60s monk.

My husband claims that while I’m not wrong about the issues, the violence of my despair betrays a depressive temperament, and isn’t a balanced human response to the news cycle.

True, I’m sure.

So, onward to Kill the Dead, by Richard Kadrey, a joyful book for an unbalanced human being. Join me.

In this series, suicidal and homicidal is the right baseline for a hero. Sandman Slim says at one point, ”The universe is a meat grinder, and we’re just pork in designer shoes, keeping busy so we can pretend we’re not all headed for the sausage factory.” This is a hero who kills three zombies, fucks a porn star in a bathroom, and then goes home with a takeout burrito. His best friend is a severed head. After running into a nice girl at a donut shop just before a zombie apocalypse, Slim says, “It would suck to be killed and reanimated while wearing corporate antennae.” The intransigent-rebel-outsider in me rejoices. At least, it’s more fun that self-immolation.

I’ve said before that I think realistic fiction is inadequate to convey the scale and complexity of evil in our time. I don’t  really even believe “reality” exists. I don’t believe in anything that everyone tells me to. And I have a huge crush on Kadrey for agreeing with me, I think, and picking up a different brush to talk about an essentially modern and realistic despair.

The Sandman Slim series premise is a slight-of-hand where god, the devil, demons, zombies, vampires, etc., exist in Los Angeles, the capital of hardboiled noir fiction. The author is saying look around at the fucking monsters all around us, and guess what, you, the hero, are one too. And look at the so-called good guys. Angels are assholes in mirrored sunglasses, straight out of homeland security. Who doesn’t want to be bad in a world where that is good? Who doesn’t want to be a failure in a world where that’s success?

Slim, like most of us, has no choice about being alive, except he, literally can’t be killed, a trick which allows him an endless capacity for self-destruction, and, probably ultimately, no choice but redemption. In Kill the Dead, he’s serving as hired muscle for various competing factions, using his brute force skill of being unkillable. He’s a monster of some type, he doesn’t know what he is, who can be shot, stabbed, blown up, impaled with a flaming sword, and not die. Shit hurts, and he fucks up his clothes, but he survives. And, in a world where it all feels pretty involuntary and meaningless, he at least enjoys inflicting as much violence as he suffers, on the plentiful deserving candidates.

Think about the people who created these lovely sights (all photos Burtynsky’s):

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I’d kill them, twice, if I could Sandman Slim style. (Well, not really, but it’s fun to joke about.)

That’s my Happy New Year take on the book. There is another story where we, the devoted fans, say that the plotting is poor, the books are slow, the prose, despite the brilliant stylization, is in desperate need of an editor, and the whole thing is hokey and confusing. I was more on-the-fence about this with the first book, but the second one seals it. But still, come for the rage, stay for the one-liners. And for this fun pic of a young Kadrey…

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