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Wednesday 19 February 2020

Words on Wednesday: Ways of seeing science fiction, Aldiss and Le Guin

I read Brian Aldiss' Greybeard (1964) and Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven (1971) soon after each other towards the beginning of last year (2019) and their similarities and differences have been something that has continued to play on my mind long after I finished the two novels.

Ostensibly both novels have very little in common apart from both being part of the excellent SF Masterworks series, however, although plot, characters and style may differ there is a background theme as setting that places and inhabits both novels, it is the formation of their world's as 'gone astray'. I won't say dystopian quite yet, although one certainly could start as strong as this, but in both novels the world that the characters inhabit have fallen apart in some way and it is how the author's have their characters relate to this world and how the character's actions effect (or not) the world that is of interest to me. It's interest is in how the author's own perspective and belief's about human nature and social order soak into their fictional worlds. As always, I suppose, art is merely a reflection of the artist and a good artist tries their best to hide this, if they are even aware of this bleeding of their 'real world' opinions into the fictional creations.

You might think you're telling a story, but really you are telling us how you see the world.

Thus, what we have here are two different attempts at an abstraction from present concerns aka a speculative fiction, to call them sci-fi is to try and lessen or 'genre-place' the work into insignificance. To side-step into personal complaint again, I find that the comment "I like fiction, I just don't like fantasy/sci-fi, I like my stories real," is actually a case of mistaken identity. People are welcome to have certain likes and dislikes of 'style' in writing, but to call one fiction realer than the other is simply foolish. It is a category error, both fictions are fictional after all, but one is clothed in the veneer of realism and the other demands a certain use of imagination. Perhaps it is this demand that people dislike.

Anyway, returning to the point. It seems to me that the two different story-worlds (of Aldiss and Le Guin) are defined by their personal politics (as we all often are). These perspectives shape their reaction to their worlds and their intuitive understanding of how (they believe) human beings function and act (and why). To categorise Aldiss as 'right-wing' and Le Guin as 'left-wing' is simplistic, but still manages to shine a light of these differing approaches even if, personally, this distinction would be more difficult. Indeed, individual statements (or artistic endeavours) can be called left or right (politically) in that they can be isolated from context to give a definite answer, but taken within an individual's own personal history and belief system this basic categorising is dangerously simplistic and typically only used to label and distance.

Aldiss: In Greybeard the world and the character's are all literally in decline. No children have been born for years and the world's inhabitants are all creeping towards senility and decrepitude. The focus is on the violent and insular world that has risen up now that the world is 'without purpose'. The exacting reasons for society collapsing (worldwide one assumes, although the focus is purely on England) is not really detailed, it is instead taken as a given that these very male power structures would immediately come to pass. That culture is forever walking along this tightrope of potential aggression and that it's only the distraction of raising children and having a 'purpose' that keeps most men (except the level-headed protagonist) from starting militias and trying to take over small towns in the Midlands to rule as a tin-pot Caesar.

The protaganist represents (in some respect) the reader, he is an intelligent assured man whose plans have nonetheless always seemingly failed due to the idiocy of the masses. Whether meant or not, there is a significant description of people along the lines of class, with our lead characters (Greybeard and wife) being middle-class and having had relatively cosmopolitan lives, whereas their counterparts in the story are working-class and therefore seemingly more likely to give in to their aminalistic impulses. Despite that there is also a negative portrayal of academia as weak and easily overthrown by the aggression of thugs.

Throughout the story all the efforts of Greybeard are shown to essentially come to nothing, the characters end up simply floating along and when the story seems to be just petering out they happen to meet the reality behind the 'folk myth' and discover that there are indeed children in the world and that they've been living wild in the woods.

Le Guin: The setting of The Lathe of Heaven starts in a dehumanised future. However, although this novel is also about the self-destructive capacities of humanity it's focus is more internal and psychological. Our main character, George Orr, has the power to alter reality based upon his dreams. His court-assigned psychiatrist Dr Haber, discovers this and attempts to harness George by way of his 'Augmentor'. The road to hell is clearly paved with good intentions.

Rather than wallow in the misery of our failings, as it could, Le Guin's novel instead sets us many difficult and ultimately unanswered (and potentially unanswerable) questions about agency and control. Although I apparently have less to say directly about this novel it think that this is because the story's message is more ambiguous.

Although ultimately there is also a sudden reversal at the end, albeit one that is optimistic is a true sense rather than the straightforward reversal at play in Greybeard.

To conclude, I probably shouldn't have left this so long before writing as I might have managed something more detailed and nuanced this time last year, but as both stories have still stayed with me it seemed worthwhile. Science Fiction really is just another fiction, it is a style, one wherein the author can engage in thought experiments more freely. A story of ideas rather than just about (imagined) human interactions and how that particular writer believes people will act (although it's that too).