227–232: The Lathe of Heaven; I, Robot; The Left Hand of Darkness; and the Black Magician Trilogy

Who has humanitarian dreams?

I will say confidently that The Lathe of Heaven is one of the most imaginative pieces of dystopian-stroke-utopian fiction ever written. The protagonist is George Orr, an almost impossibly ordinary man – “the man in the middle of the graph” – but he is terrified of sleep because, from time to time, his dreams rewrite reality itself, and only he remembers the way things used to be. He goes to see a psychiatrist, William Haber, who uses hypnosis to impose a measure of control onto George’s dreams, and then to use them, both for his own purposes and to attempt to refine and improve the unpleasant world they live in. It’s a bewildering and beautiful novel about the limits of utopianism, and when we should or shouldn’t act – even from the best of motives – if we don’t know all the consequences of our actions. It’s about what we need and how we cope. The title is drawn from a nineteenth-century translation of the Taoist text Zhuangzhi: “To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.” (The translation is, strictly speaking, poor; the lathe did not exist in China at the time of the composition of Zhuangzhi.)

Are there really people without resentment, without hate, she wondered. People who never go cross-grained to the universe? Who recognize evil, and resist evil, and yet are utterly unaffected by it?

Of course there are. Countless, the living and the dead. Those who have returned in pure compassion to the wheel, those who follow the way that cannot be followed without knowing they follow it, the sharecropper’s wife in Alabama and the lama in Tibet and the entomologist in London and the goatherd in Nigeria and the old, old man sharpening a stick by a dry streambed somewhere in Australia, and all the others. There is not one of us who has not known them. There are enough of them, enough to keep us going. Perhaps.

Le Guin has a beautiful knack for telling thought-provoking stories which address big questions, while at the same time populating them with compellingly drawn characters. The characters in Big Idea novels can easily become mere ciphers, uninteresting in and of themselves; Le Guin manages to avoid this, and it’s why the stories stand up to scrutiny and rereading.

But you see, you just can’t differentiate between a robot and the very best of humans.

I, Robot is perhaps the classic of the science fiction genre, with Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics and the stories of the times the laws were pushed or tweaked or inadequate. The consistent character in this collection is Susan Calvin, the pre-eminent robot psychologist; others are Greg Powell and Mike Donovan, who are rather more on the sharp expeditionary end. They’re fascinating stories, and worth the time investment.

Apollo, the god of light, of reason, of proportion, harmony, number – Apollo blinds those who press too close in worship. Don’t look straight at the sun. Go into a dark bar for a bit and have a beer with Dionysios, every now and then.

The Left Hand of Darkness is possibly Le Guin’s most famous novel, set on Gethen, a land of perpetual winter where there are no men or women; its inhabitants periodically go into a kind of oestrus known as kemmer, becoming anatomically male or female and mating. The rest of the time they are androgynous and sexless; they are also described as ambisexual. We see them through the eyes of Genly Ai, who as an ordinary human male is both ethological observer and first-contact ambassador from other worlds. Genly navigates a society he still struggles to understand – “I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own.” He speaks of how men and women who come after him will find their pride suffering as the Gethenians ignore their virility or femininity. “One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.” Genly and those who have secretly studied the planet before him discuss the effect of Gethenian ambisexuality on society – “Room is made for sex, plenty of room; but a room, as it were, apart” – and Genly himself is also tied up in the struggles and changes of the world, and the disturbances that his own arrival has caused.

The best science fiction is not just a romp through space with a lot of setting phasers to stun. It challenges our preconceptions about the world we currently live in. And that is what The Left Hand of Darkness masterfully does. (The quotation about is actually from the introduction, in which Le Guin disclaims any pretensions to prediction or revelation of truth, preferring to insist that her science fiction, like all fiction, is essentially metaphor, indirectly revealing something true about things now.)

Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician Trilogy (The Magician’s Guild, The Novice, The High Lord) is a reasonably good fun fantasy trilogy, with some nice characters and an enjoyable plot. The only warning I would offer is that the main character, Sonea, can sometimes be a little Mary Sue-ish – she’s just so talented and so strong and so many people are in love with her. But it’s not too hard to get past that, and once you do it’s a pleasant read. (They’re also damn long, but not hard.)

The Magician’s Guild
Author Trudi Canavan
Published 2001
Pages 463
Best character Lord Rothen.

The Lathe of Heaven
Author Ursula Le Guin
Published 1971
Pages 184
Best character Heather Lelache.

I, Robot
Author Isaac Asimov
Published 1950
Pages 245
Best character Stephen Byerley

The Left Hand of Darkness
Author Ursula Le Guin
Published 1969
Pages 300
Best character Estraven.

The Novice
Author Trudi Canavan
Published 2002
Pages 575
Best character Lord Dannyl.

The High Lord
Author Trudi Canavan
Published 2003
Pages 640
Best character Cery.


4 thoughts on “227–232: The Lathe of Heaven; I, Robot; The Left Hand of Darkness; and the Black Magician Trilogy

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