Saturday 27 February 2016

City of Illusions

(February 2016)

So then, Le Guin. The little corner of contemporary capital-C Culture I tend to most often inhabit might, for want of a better phrase, be designated as ‘Progressive Speculative Fiction’. A clumsy label, but you get the general idea. And within this niche the closest thing going to an unimpeachable godhead, a figure held in universal awe and reverence, is Ursula K. Le Guin.

I say this not, as you might now justifiably be expecting after that intro, as a way of presaging a few hundred words of self-consciously contrary iconoclasm. No. I’ve only read three of her books, all of which are older than I am, and given both their age and the fraction of her total output they represent I’d be on shaky ground if I used that as basis for an “Actually, She’s a Bit Overrated” diatribe. That being said, there is of course a “But” coming up, so let’s stop postponing the inevitable and cut to the chase.

But… It’s all a bit dull, isn’t it? I mean I can totally get behind the concepts and the politics and ethics (for want, once more, of a better phrase) in her work. I can absolutely see why she’s so highly regarded—strong characters and thoughtfully realised settings used to explore important ideas—but there’s a certain studied earnestness about the writing that doesn’t quite mesh with me as a reader. For all her laudable focus on the significant and the profound, it’s like she forgot to include the jokes. It’s not that the words have weight, but that they’re so clearly intended to have weight. It’s just so portentous. It portends. There’s a whole lotta portending going on.

Part of this is undoubtedly due to the passage of time. This book is half a century old, and it would be a frankly improbable achievement if it didn’t come across as a little stylistically dated. I’m coming to have less and less sympathy for the “of its time” argument, however: Yes, there is considerable value in appreciating the context in which a book was produced and first released, but then I’m not reading it when it was first released, I’m reading it now. As a general rule I think it preferable to attach more worth to real reactions I’ve actually had, rather than hypothetical ones I may have had, had I been reacting one and a half lifetimes ago.

Although while we’re talking about reactions, I realize I’ve just spent four hundred words basically apologising for the fact that I wasn’t such a fan of what even her most ardent fans would probably agree is one of her less significant works. I mean, I only read it because it had the word ‘City’ in the title, so what was I expecting?

I’m not sure, to be honest. Profundity? We’re on solid ground there, as in addition to prose that’s not bad so much as slightly wearying, there’s an interesting if ultimately simplistic consideration on the nature of memory and self, and a conscientious exploration of oppression, fragmentation, and the nature of human society. Here I’ll refer you to Ethan Robinson’s recent review of The Weave, not only because it’s excellent, but also because I think in many ways City of Illusions represents the exact opposite of what Ethan feels The Weave is doing. The concepts here are carried though to the end (even if the “It was Earth all along!” trope is something else we have to add to the Hasn’t Aged so Well pile). But while the existence of conceptual rigour is is certainly preferable to its absence, it’s also not guaranteed to make for an engaging read. If that was all I was after I have a stack of academic textbooks right here that I really should examine in more detail than “just enough to quote from convincingly”.

City of Illusions was OK, I guess, and the fact that I’ve got little more to say than “reasonable story but didn’t fancy the style much” probably says more about me than the book. As a clear antecedent to some of the better SF being written today it certainly deserves recognition, but then you’re probably better off reading some of that better SF instead. If you can stand on the shoulders of giants, why would you want to get caught under their feet?

1 comment:

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