It’s been a while since I updated my readers (few and far between though you are!) on my reading list (or much else, for that matter). I have, of late, been tearing through Terry Pratchett novels (rest in peace, Sir Terry), which are as brilliant, witty, and insightful as always (though I must admit, Unseen Academicals disappointed me; it started so strong and went in a direction I was ambivalent about; I think there weren’t enough wizards in it, in the end). I also, a while ago, made it through two more science fiction “classics” written by authors at opposite ends of the political spectrum: Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, and Ursula K LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.
Heinlein’s novel is really a collection of short stories linked together in varying ways. Some of these short stories are told by one of Heinlein’s recurring characters, the inestimable Lazarus Long/Woodrow Wilson Smith, while others chart Long’s “present day” situation. The stories range from the charming (“The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail”) to the annoyingly technical (“The Tale of the Twins Who Weren’t”), to the somewhat… unsettling (“The Tale of the Adopted Daughter”) to the bizarre (“De Capo”) to the thought-provoking (“Boondock”). Scattered throughout these stories are collections of Lazarus Long’s ‘sayings,’ some of which were amusing, some sensible, and most were annoying to someone who did not share his particular political beliefs.
As was the case with Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein’s work here focuses on sex, and particularly what people today would consider somewhat transgressive sex. Heinlein was a vocal proponent of free love, and his treatment of open sexual/familial relationships was thought-provoking in “The Boondocks,” even if the early sexualization of his clones was slightly off-putting. However, in “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter” Lazarus (a thinly-veiled stand-in for the author) sleeps with his adopted daughter, and in “The Tale of the Twins Who Weren’t” there is brother/sister-like sex (it’s a bit more complex than that, though). In the series’ finale, Long also infamously falls in love with and sleeps with his mother. Somewhat taboo subjects, some of which I will admit made me squirm, but I am glad that Heinlein made me do that and question by own thoughts about human sexuality. Kudos to him for that.
Overall, the collection was uneven; some stories were slow-paced or boring, including most of the “current day” stories, while others were much more engaging and really drew me in. Throughout, however, the writing was brilliant; I read this book right after a lot of Asimov, so I appreciated the flowing writing.
LeGuin’s The Dispossessed was almost perfect. While Heinlein deals with free love, she deals with free people – sort of. In her short novel (a part of the larger Hainish cycle), there is a planet and a moon: the planet (Urras) is a reflection of contemporary Earthly society, and consists of various nations dominated by a capitalist logic, while the moon is inhabited by anarcho-communist rebels, given the moon (Anarres) to settle as part of a deal with the larger governments on the planet. The story follows a brilliant physicist named Shevek from the resource-poor moon Anarres who travels to Urras in the name of science, only to discover the good and the bad of this alien society, having grown up without the idea of property.
What makes this novel work is the comparison between the two planets. The work is structured in alternating chapters, one detailing Shevek’s coming of age on Anarres, and one detailing his adventures on Urras, with the two meeting up in time in the final chapter. The two different timelines complement each other beautifully, and thoughtfully portray the culture shock of this switch, as well as how political power functions in a capitalist society, and in an anarchist one. Neither planet and neither society is a utopia (though LeGuin clearly favors the anarchist society, and I am inclined to agree). Even the theoretically utopian anarchist society has its problems in the form of pseudo-states and social vagrants.
The most interesting thing about the novel to me, though, was the language. On Anarres, there is no property, and the language used reflects this. For example, individuals never say “my handkerchief,” but “the handkerchief I use.” The author also made a nice distinction between property and personal possessions in the vein of Communist theory, which was appreciated.
The only thing that prevented it from being perfect was the ending, which felt like a cop-out with the Terrans and Hainish keeping Shevek’s science from being used for political gain in a deus ex machina. That being said, the ending didn’t ruin the novel, but made it less than it could have been.
I am now making my way through LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, but am having trouble with it because it reads like an ethnography (not surprising given that LeGuin was raised by anthropologists), so it feels like homework to me!
But until next time, ta-ta!