238–244: The Incredible Crime; Before the War; Rocannon’s World; Planet of Exile; City of Illusions; Mortal Engines; and The Postmistress

Lois Austen-Leigh’s Cambridge-based mystery The Incredible Crime comes complete with an image of my own college on the front cover, so can you blame me for buying it? It’s really rather fun as well, with a particularly enjoyable flirting scene, a compelling plot, and some wry and witty writing. Worth a read.

What was a novel at the best of times but a bit of a yarn with a social conscience?

Fay Weldon’s Before the War is most notable, I think, for the wonderfully enjoyable authorial voice – discursive, frank about the fictionality of the book and the possible avenues for the plot. “I haven’t quite determined whose fault Vivvie’s death is going to be, but it is certainly someone’s. I will let you know.” With some intriguing tense-shifts (although the narrative is roughly linear), and an occasional refrain of “Anyway”, the prose is clear and pleasant, and the characters engrossing. It’s the first in a series, it appears, so at some point I might have to chase down the rest. Also, I’d like to note that two of the characters swear an oath on the Collected Works of Tennyson on the basis that they contain “more wisdom than the Bible”.

Back to Ursula Le Guin now, and the three novels – Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions – which preceded The Left Hand of Darkness. They have three vastly different settings, albeit a slight thread connects them; there is no overarching plot. Each is self-contained, a time-and-place limited slice of a much broader universe. The defining characteristics of Le Guin’s Hainish novels are probably to do with how she bridges the vastness of space. Instantaneous communication via “ansible” is possible; but nothing living can travel faster than light. Although travel at-or-near lightspeed is possible, therefore, and although those travelling in this way do not experience time flow (or experience only a very small amount), the journeys still take a long time from the “outside” perspective. Interstellar travel is therefore a lonely existence, and uncommon. The stories themselves are therefore mostly self-contained, each one a new experience with a new angle and all worth reading. Rocannon’s World is stately, archaic, reminiscent in places of the language Le Guin uses in Earthsea. Planet of Exile is simpler, a ruder existence, more brutal in some ways. And City of Illusions is bewildering and moving and intensely personal.

Stanislaw Lem’s Mortal Engines resembles nothing so much as a collection of science fiction fairy tales. The stories are brief and ridiculous and highly, highly enjoyable. They are surreal and satirical and bizarre, and occasionally macabre.

Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress is a very moving tale of love and loss and dedication during the Second World War. I’m not really sure what else I can helpfully say about it.

The Incredible Crime
Author Lois Austen-Leigh
Published 1931
Pages 225
Best character Skipwith. “About the last thing in the world that Skipwith looked like was what he was, an eminent scientific professor. He was not only washed, he was even shaved.”

Before the War
Author Fay Weldon
Published 2016
Pages 296
Best character Sherwyn Sexton.

Rocannon’s World
Author Ursula Le Guin
Published 1966
Pages 110
Best line “May your enemy die without sons.”
Best character Haldre.

Planet of Exile
Author Ursula Le Guin
Published 1966
Pages 98
Best character Wold.

City of Illusions
Author Ursula Le Guin
Published 1967
Pages 156
Best character Estrel.

Mortal Engines
Author Stanislaw Lem
Published 1977
Pages 226
Best character Erg the Self-Inducing.

The Postmistress
Author Sarah Blake
Published 2010
Pages 312
Best character Harry Vale.


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