Monday’s literal fantasies

Sciences of “Dune”: An Introduction (LA Review of Books)

A symposium on Dune’s medicine, ethnography, eugenics and others.

Why Do We Love the Brutality of “Grimdark” Fantasy? (LitHub)

Have neither read ASoIaF nor watched GoT, but I will leave the root of word “grimdark” here: In the grim darkness of far future there is only war.

On Tolkien and Orwell (Darcy Moore)

More common points than just “being peculiarly English authors with evergreen book sales“.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s biography gets a publisher and a release date (Oregon Live)

Just finished The Dispossessed, the 1974 SF novel by Le Guin. A worthy, humane read, definitely. Apart from the beautiful prose, the setting is compelling. Two planets: Urras, complete with states, money and war, and Anarres, a former mining outpost turned to colony by settlers from Urras. Governments of Urras offered to people adhering to the teachings of a semi-legendary woman (“Laia Asieo Odo”) the colony, so that they could do their thing without disrupting “civil order”. Le Guin explains:

Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with; not the social-Darwinist economic “libertarianism” of the far right; but anarchism as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism’s principal target is the authoritarian State (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.

Source

The book follows a scientist from the anarchist planet who travels to the old world. The chapters alternate between his interactions there and flashbacks from his homeland. The writer paints the capitalist state, that hosts the traveler, as funky, but sinister (she does not spare a neighboring socialist one, either), while she treats the anarchist world more generously. It even gives it some, let’s say, additional leeway, contrasting its arid, hostile landscape with the lush environment of Urras. The dichotomy is furthered by guarantees of isolation: The two worlds only do some limited communications and trade, no traveling in-between.

The outline of life in Anarres was the most interesting aspect, to me. Trust, mutuality and personal freedom are the basic elements in this anarchist society, which prides itself against those competitive, “archists”, “propertarians” of Urras. They also fear and loathe them (acknowledging that Anarres is practically defenseless at the face of tactical armies), and also need to trade with them ores for necessary goods.

The constructed language of Anarres expresses the core beliefs, for example, it uses “central” instead of “higher”, to denote significance in the absence of hierarchies. The word for “work” is the same as “play” (or was it “joy”?), and the really unpleasant tasks are shared on a rotating basis. This means that specialized and unspecialized individuals alike spend some considerable time laboring for society’s wellbeing. Professions are conducted through syndicates, which form and dissolve voluntarily. Individuals move freely across the planet’s communities. There is a unit that coordinates production, work postings and resources allocation (a Gosplan-lite, if you take away the imposing building and that 5-year fetish). It also has powers like emergency work postings in times of need (the closest thing to quasi-official “compulsion” in a society without the notion of it). Serial slackers deserve food and shelter, like anyone else, but at some point will probably get their asses kicked by their peers and/ or pressed to fuck-off to another location.

Only the original Gosplan deserved a fancy garage like this – source

Each individual is responsible to the others. This simple standard of meeting social expectations, benevolent as it is at first, in the novel is seen as gradually taking the shape of an “orthodoxy” placed, and finally encroaching, upon individual freedom. The writer is also keen to pinpoint the effects of creeping hierarchies, even in organizations open to participation. For example, an anarchist argues that the coordination unit has assumed the bureaucratic attitude (“no to everything”). Other institutions, like research centers, are seen festering with dug-in cliques and “seniors”, that fend-off outsiders and boss around among supposedly equals. I think that anyone who has experienced office life can relate to this.

There is more, about self, relations, gender (not The Left Hand of Darkness – not read, or Tehanu – read, level), constraints and science (the last I cannot judge). A final note, the people of Anarres describe themselves as anarchists, Odonians and, of course, libertarians.

Fantasy and politics

I wish fantasy novels offered more political diversity. I adore fantasy, but I’ve begun to chafe at the ironic lack of creativity when it comes to political regimes. The genre may be missing a great opportunity. Or maybe I’m reading the wrong books.

While I don’t really mean this as a criticism so much as an observation, monarchy and feudalism abound in most other-world fantasies. Or the politics are indistinct. Despite my deep love for Tolkien, he falls into this category as well–either political control is unclear in regions like the Shire, or the region is ruled by an absolute ruler. His most well-known series culminates with the return of the benevolent dictator to the throne, Aragorn King of all the Dunedain (granted, there is intentional Christian symbolism here).

Modern fantasists follow a similar trend. Brandon Sanderson’s books, while wonderful, tend to involve worlds replete with absolute rulers. In fact, in the original Mistborn trilogy, a naive emperor tries to impose a more representative system of government, fails, and then decides that a firm hand is what’s called for. He and other authors like Robert Jordan dabble with some interesting political ideas and do provide a great deal of political detail, but they ultimately tend toward absolutism of some variety. Terry Pratchett’s main city-state on Discworld, Ankh-Morkpork, is ruled over by an absolute ruler, but Pratchett at least takes plenty of opportunity to poke fun at the masses’ constant yearning for a noble king to tell them what to do. Really, all these books are splendid, and politics are typically not their centerpiece–I just think some more variety may be valuable to the genre. (I’m not pointing fingers, as I’m guilty of the same problem–my forthcoming fantasy novel takes place in an empire with an absolute ruler and a largely meaningless parliament).

Fantasists could perhaps take a page from their science fiction comrades, where experiments with politics seem more common. Fantasy authors could do more than tinker with small tweaks to the monarchy and mercantilism of a pre-enlightenment age.  I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones gushing about how Daenaerys Targaryen is the only person who can swoop in and save the Seven Kingdoms from itself. That’s remedial polisci–surely we can do better. Who wouldn’t want to read about an anarcho-capitalist Iron Islands or a post-communist King’s Landing?

If you have any good recommendations for other-world fantasies that take up this challenge, I’d love to hear them!

Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Kwanzaa.

I’ve just been chillin’ with family the past week or so. My brother got home from Paris recently and my sisters arrive in town, from Utah, sometime this weekend.

I’ve been browsing through the Bismark section of Kissinger’s Diplomacy, as well as the Bismark sections of Ozment’s A Mighty Fortress and Tipton’s A History of Modern Germany Since 1815. I’m trying to get a feel not so much for the man himself but for how he created a federal state out of many and called it Germany. I would welcome recommendations on this topic.

I’ve also been reading the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. There is not enough gratuitous sex and violence for me to recommend the series (in fact there has been no sex at all in the series so far, and I’m about halfway through the second book), but the story line has hooked me enough that I’ll read through the entire trilogy. I think I’m done with fantasy though. I mentioned that I read the A Song of Ice and Fire series and really liked it, but apparently that series is considered an anomaly of sorts within the fantasy genre. A damn shame.

Fiction Reading

I’m not really a big fan of fiction. I’m a big non-fiction kind of guy. I like my economics from textbooks, my ethnographies under 200 pages, my political theory in thick books, my history riddled with theory, and my law in blog form. If I do read fiction I normally pick up something by a Nobel Laureate or a popular foreign work rather than whatever is in fashion at the moment here in the States. Over the past four months, though, I’ve found myself delving in to some stuff I never thought I’d be interested in. I recently read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and have just begun reading George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series.

Rand’s book was excellent. The speech at the end was weird, though, but it was not enough to keep me from putting Atlas Shrugged on my “to do” list. I know many of the Notewriters have issues with Rand’s non-fiction work, and many of them have clashed with Objectivists over the years (libertarians and Objectivists are old enemies, largely because the latter are a cultist bunch), but I found myself unable to put down The Fountainhead. I have a tendency to put a work of fiction into the context of the time period it was written in, so for me Rand’s work is all the more compelling (The Fountainhead came out when news traveled slowly and uneven reports of communist atrocities in the USSR and China were derided as ‘political’ by Western Leftists).

Martin’s book is equally excellent. I have never tackled a fantasy book before, but I have so far been pleasantly surprised. Fantasy books are looooong, but I am enjoying the plot line so far. I like the Night Watch guys the best (I am only in Chapter 17, of 72, so nobody spoil anything!), and I do not like the Lannisters.

Nobody leave any spoilers!