Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Source of book: Audiobook from my brother’s collection

“In a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…”

And thus begins the first book in the Discworld series, which comprises the bulk of Terry Pratchett’s large and delightful output. 



In the introduction to the paperback edition of this book, Pratchett explains that his inspiration for Discworld was pretty simple. He just took the ancient Indo-European cosmological myth, of the disc-shaped world supported by four elephants standing on the back of a turtle, added his characteristic sense of humor, and there it was. No maps, no logical plan for the world, no worries about continuity errors. Just a world that is both familiar and full of surprises, that entertains while telling us truth about ourselves and our own world. Pratchett admits with his typical self-deprecation, that a reader who has read some of his later books already knows more about what Discworld would become than he did when he started it.  

Back in the day, there was a video game called Gauntlet that my brother and I used to play. Really one of the first multiplayer dungeon games - it was a lot of fun if you had it on your own computer. At the arcade, it was a legendary money eater.

Anyway, it was hard not to think of that game with the sendup of stock fantasy characters in The Colour of Magic. There is a barbarian warrior, Hrun. Except he is dumber than rocks and all brawn - he makes Conan the Barbarian seem like a great orator. There is the wizard. Except the wizard is Rincewind, the least competent wizard ever. Not just that, but bad things keep happening to him. Except that, in another sense, he is impossibly lucky. Add to this a dragon riding young woman bent on solidifying her power over her kingdom at the expense of her brothers, a guild of wizards intent on determining the most pressing cosmological question: the sex of the Great Turtle on which the world rests, and a living wooden chest made of sapient pearwood, which is immune to magic, and intent on protecting the worst tourist ever, and you have, well, The Colour of Magic.

This book introduces a number of the places, people, and ideas which will recur throughout the Discworld series. We meet, for the first time, The Watch, who have a talent for showing up at brawls just as soon as the real fighting is over. The Thieves’ Guild and the Assassins Guild - crime is thoroughly unionized and regulated in this world. The Unseen University, where wizards are trained. (As it becomes clear eventually, wizards are far less competent than witches in the Discworld, mostly because their sense of self-importance gets in the way of actually doing anything useful.) The mystical significance of the number eight, which must never be spoken by wizards.

And, of course, the colour of magic itself. (Pratchett, being British, uses that spelling - as well as British pronunciations.) In case you wondered, the colour is the eight color in the rainbow - “octarine.” If you can’t see it, you probably are not magical.

After the introduction of the basic cosmology of the Discworld, the story opens in the middle, with the great city of Angk-Morpork in flames, and three figures fleeing the flame. One is Rincewind, who tells of what happened before.

Rincewind was innocently sitting in a thoroughly disreputable tavern, when a round foreigner with four eyes shows up - along with a mysterious wooden chest which walks on its own, and has a nasty tendency to eat anyone who messes with its owner. This chest, made of “sapient pearwood,” is given the name of “The Luggage,” and plays a key role in the story. The foreigner is Twoflower, who hails from another place on the disk, the Agatean Empire on the mysterious Counterweight Continent. Twoflower is an insurance actuary, and has put together a sum of money to go on the vacation of a lifetime, to see all the attractions of Angk-Morpork for himself - particularly all the “quaint” ones, which turn out to be all the sordid, dangerous, and barbaric parts.

Rincewind gets involved because he is fluent in many languages - about his only skill, considering he flunked Unseen University. He is able to find common ground with Twoflower, whose only prior means of communication was a “phrases” book. (This is pretty hilarious - particularly to someone who is pathetically monolingual like me.) Twoflower offers to pay Rincewind handsomely to play tour guide - a proposition Rincewind finds insulting yet lucrative. Rincewind pockets his advance fee and attempts to flee, but he is captured by the Patrician of Angk-Morpork, who threatens to prosecute him if he doesn’t agree to keep Twoflower safe. After all, can’t have an international incident leading perhaps to war…

Twoflower is the Ugly Tourist in all his glory, taking endless pictures (using a camera which is an artistic and sarcastic imp in the box…), carelessly flashing his cash, and generally getting into trouble. And yes, it is definitely his fault the city burns down.

The adventures eventually lead them to an enchanted upside down mountain that houses semi-imaginary dragons, and a young woman intent on coopting a strong man to serve as figurehead while she roles her domains. Later, Rincewind and Twoflower end up on a jet airplane in an alternate world, on a slaver ship, and on the edge of the rim of the Discworld itself.

And in the end, it all turns out to have been due in large part to a wager between two of the gods: Fate, and “The Lady.” Fate, like Death, is supposedly never cheated. But The Lady appears to be doing it, in the service of Rincewind, of all people.

The gods are, in Pratchett’s world, a great deal like the Greco-Roman gods, mostly more powerful - and capricious - than humans, but otherwise much like them. As Pratchett puts in in an aside on the Discworld cosmology:

Precisely why all of the above should be so is not clear, but goes some way to explain why, on the disc, the Gods are not so much worshipped as blamed.

This line gets used in other books, I believe, and it is one of Pratchett’s lines that I was most familiar with before reading this book.

I should also mention another great line. Hrun the Barbarian is generally pretty good comic relief, as is his talking sword that everyone hates because it won’t shut up and stop giving unsolicited advice. We first meet Hrun as he inadvertently stumbles upon the temple of Bel-Shamharoth (kind of the Discworld Cthulhu) the “Soul Eater.”

On the whole, the unpleasant carvings and occasional disjointed skeletons he passed held no fears for Hrun. This was partly because he was not exceptionally bright while being at the same time exceptionally unimaginative, but it was also because odd carvings and perilous tunnels were all in a day’s work. He spent a great deal of time in similar situations, seeking gold or demons or distressed virgins and relieving them respectively of their owners, their lives, and at least one cause of their distress.

This book was the first, and it doesn’t show quite the polish or the depth of subsequent installments. But it is still a lot of fun. My boys particularly loved The Luggage. They had already read the book before we listened to it, so they knew all the funny parts in advance. My older girls are getting a bit of the jaded teenager thing about Pratchett, so they weren’t quite as enthusiastic. To each their own…

I look forward to future installments in the Discworld universe - they make great travelling books because of the pacing and humor. 

***
Other Terry Pratchett books I have reviewed:

Guards! Guards! (unfortunately, an abridged edition…)



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

When Oliver Sacks died a couple of years back, after a long and distinguished career as a neurologist, teacher, and writer, I realized that I had somehow missed ever reading his books, although I had run across his name from time to time as a source. Of his numerous books on the human brain and nervous system, I picked Musicophilia because, well, it had a music connection. 


In addition to his actual career, Sacks was a classically trained pianist of some skill. Not world class, but good enough to enjoy himself and learn the repertoire. His love for classical music comes out in this book. He may mention pop songs as they related to particular patients or case studies, but his references to classical works are detailed and knowledgeable. One might say he was a kindred spirit to those of us who love the great masters.

Musicophilia is written around a central theme: music and the brain. However, it is not intended to be a treatise, but a series of stories. You can tell Sacks has a personal connection with his patients, and even with those cases he reads about. He is thoroughly compassionate and genuinely cares about the details of their lives.

The book is divided into four sections. The first is entitled “Haunted by Music,” and tells of some genuinely spooky cases. The man who was struck by lightning and then developed a sudden passion for music - in middle age no less. The musical triggers for seizures - and the bizarre auras with musical components. Earworms. And musical hallucinations. These are all pretty fascinating. I found particularly amusing the woman who suffered from musical hallucinations, and mostly enjoyed them, but feared that she would develop more than one simultaneous tune. As she was an Ives fan, this was not a specious fear…

The second part, entitled “A Range of Musicality,” explores the topic of musicality. As a semi-professional musician, this was of somewhat personal interest. While I don’t think I have true perfect pitch, I have pretty solid pitch within the range of the violin, my main instrument. (Not as good in the bass range.) It is interesting the interplay between natural talent and acquired skill in this area. Indeed, I think one of the most fascinating ideas in this book is that, with very few exceptions, all of us have some musical deficiency, whether it is in coordination, pitch, memory, musicality, or some mental or physical component of music making. Those with few deficits - and proper training - become the great players and composers. Mozart probably was such a prodigy. Sacks contrasts Beethoven and Tchaikovsky for their very different musical gifts, which is an apt comparison. I myself am all too aware of my weaknesses as a musician - and Sacks is right that some of these are just the cards I was dealt. Obviously, we practice and work toward improvement, but it isn’t just effort that determines the highest level of musicality.

And then there are those who have more grave deficits, such as tone deafness. I have known people like this - and in some cases, the lack of skill was definitely not for lack of trying. Sacks, who is Jewish, though Agnostic, mentions a particularly excruciating experience he had with an acutely horrible cantor. When he mentioned this to the rabbi, the rabbi responded that the man was very pious and tried very hard. Sacks responded: “I said I had no doubt of this, but that one could not have a tone-deaf cantor; this was, to anyone musical, akin to having a clumsy surgeon.” I could not agree more!

I found this whole section to be delightful. Sacks gets it, because he is a musician. He too finds music to be magical, but knows that the performance of music conceals a lot of blood, sweat, and tears behind that magic.

I should also mention the chapter on Synesthesia. I have a couple of friends who have this particular, well, I’m not sure what to call it. It isn’t a deficit or a disease - rather, it is more of a hyperconnection of the senses, so that words, letters, and music have colors, tastes, smells, and whatever. It is different for each, of course, but the connection between seemingly unconnected things is fascinating. Almost like (or at least I have been told…) the effect of hallucinogens on the brain. I myself believe I have a mild form of it, as I do experience it occasionally. This book clarified that that I really do associate keys with colors and emotions. I remember the first time I realized this - the pianist at the church we were attending played the same piece in C major, then, after some other stuff to clear the brain, in B major. Holy cow, what a difference! And on a tempered piano, it wasn’t the intervals, but the key itself. This is more common in those of us with at least semi-perfect pitch - which she had as well. I never forgot that epiphany, and ever since have felt keenly the “color” of every key. (I’m not alone: Berlioz mentions it in his treatise on orchestration - and most composers have wielded keys to great effect.) Three of my favorite examples: Vivaldi’s Spring is in E Major. I have played a dumbed down arrangement in D Major. It seems so flat in that key. The sparkle is in the sharps - you can almost see the rich green of new growth. Then, there is my favorite Mozart piano concerto, the Bb, composed near the end of his life. The tune itself would be merely pretty in C, optimistic in D, romantic in E. But in Bb, good lord, it turns into the most poignant and melancholy melody - so delicious. And finally, the third movement of Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony, one of my favorites. After the skittering first section of the scherzo, the slow trio, meant to represent the soul of the oppressed Finnish people is played on oboe. In Gb Major. Dang. It would not be the same in any other key. But those flats. I’m thinking maybe crimson, faded crimson. Well, enough about that. See the clips at the end if you want to hear these.

The third section is entitled “Memory, Movement, and Music,” and delves into the brain itself, particularly into how music triggers many different areas of the brain, and thus can get around various deficits. Mentioned in this section is the way that dance can often bypass the ravages of Parkinsons, and how Tourettes can be alleviated using the right type of music. (Which varies by patient.) How aphasia can give an exemption to singing. And, for those of us familiar with the tragedy of Schumann’s hand, the many instances of Musician’s Dystonia. (Heaven preserve me from that one…)

The final section is “Emotion, Identity, and Music.” This section is pretty broad, ranging from Williams Syndrome and Dementia to musical dreams and depression. The emotional impact of music is very real to me. While I am not particularly prone to depression, I have had my moments of struggle. And music has been there for me. Overpowering emotion can really only be expressed or understood in those words that cannot be uttered. Sacks talks of his own experiences here, both physical (he had a serious injury to his leg) and emotional (several periods of deep depression), and how music affected him in those times. Sacks shows a lot of vulnerability telling of his struggles.

The section on dreams was interesting. It was not at all surprising that musicians tend to dream of music. And so have I. Particularly apropos was the fact that during stress, musicians dream of music gone wrong. I am not prone to the “speech in underwear” sort of dream - I dream of playing in rests, or totally botching an exposed section. Noooooo!

I really enjoyed this book, and intend to put several other books by Sacks on my list. He is a good writer, tells his stories well, and shows such a compassionate and human approach to the experiences of his patients - and that makes his writing compelling.

***

Ah, the music. I needed an excuse for these.

First, the Vivaldi. This clip cannot be embedded, so click the link. I have long been partial to Perlman’s version of this - he doesn’t take it too fast. I had the chance to play this with the Bakersfield College orchestra back in the day - I did the first two movements, while my brother did the third. 

Next up: Mozart. I had the chance to hear this live at the Getty Villa as a teen. My then violin teacher played with the LA Baroque Orchestra, and he smuggled me in. It was on period instruments, including a clavier. I have never forgotten that night.



Finally, Sibelius. I am citing the 3rd movement for the key, but you really should listen to the whole thing for the complete picture. Sibelius builds the entire symphony off of three ascending notes in the scale, finally resolving it at the very end by adding the fourth note. The second movement, which Sibelius hinted was inspired by Faust in his study, gives me such shivers. And that ending. Total genius. The endless ostinato in scales and that final resolution to the fourth note. I should mention that Leonard Bernstein, in his fabulous series of Young People’s Concerts, devotes an entire concert to Sibelius, and features this symphony. It is pricy, but the whole set is phenomenal, if you get a chance to buy it. Anyway, here is Lenny with the last two movements.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Zion National Park

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.

I have a particularly special relationship with Zion National Park. I believe I was age 11 or 12 when I first visited - very briefly. We were on our way home from the Grand Canyon, having seen first the south rim then the north rim, and we decided to drive through the park on the way to St. George. I don’t think we even had time to drive the canyon itself, so we saw the east part of the park and the tunnels and not a whole lot more. But it was enough that we determined to come back and soon. It must have been later that year or maybe the next spring that we planned a trip solely to see Zion, and hiked a few of the shorter trails.

That was the beginning of a love affair that brought us back to Zion at least twice a year. Living first in Los Angeles, then near Frazier Park, and finally in Bakersfield, St. George was all of six and a half hours away, and the park less than an hour from there. Often, we would leave at midnight, drive straight to the park for an early start, hike until mid afternoon, then soak in the hot tub at the hotel, hike the next day, and drive back the day after, for a long weekend of at least ten miles of hiking and exploring. Each time, we would try to take someone who had never seen Zion with us.

I remember that first time at age 12 ascending Angel’s Landing. We were fairly inexperienced at strenuous hiking, and we were so sore afterward that getting to the second floor at the hotel was painful. But the views were so spectacular, we purposed to hike that route as often as we could. Angel’s Landing remains one of my favorite hikes - and it has been both thrilling and terrifying to introduce the kids one by one to it.

(The last half mile is on a knife edge with sheer dropoffs literally 1500 feet straight down on each side. You have chains to hang on to - it isn’t for the faint of heart. The heights didn’t bother me as a kid. Watching my kids now, it is a whole different ballgame.)

I also remember the time when I was a teenager when we hiked the Kolob Arch trail in a day. The 15 miles wasn’t the problem - it was fairly flat. It’s that the whole trail was this deep soft sand. We were so dead by the end, then we had to hike up about 400 feet of elevation to the trailhead - and a summer thunderstorm blew through. Soaked, hoping not to get hit by lightning, and dead exhausted. Good times.

After I moved out in my early 20s, we had a bit of a gap in our visits. Life got busy, I wasn’t flush with cash, and I had a girlfriend who I couldn’t exactly take along, as much as I wanted to. (Both of our parents would have strongly disapproved of such a scandalous thing…)

After we got married, things were obviously different. We visited together during our first year of marriage. Of all the odd things to remember about that trip, I recall watching the Lakers and Kings battle it out. (The end of the 2000-2002 dynasty.) But also, it was Amanda’s first trip up - where else? - Angel’s Landing. (Her dad is a legendary hiker, but he cannot do heights at all.)

Our next trip was when our eldest child was a year old - and Amanda was six months pregnant with our second. (Yeah, our first three kids are ridiculously close in age. Crazy times.) I had Ella on my back in a backpack and Amanda was rather gravid. So naturally, we tackled a trail 10 miles round trip with 2000 feet of climb. Because we could. We both remember her blowing by some college aged guys who gave her dirty looks because they couldn’t keep up. I just about died hanging with her myself. (In fact, my knees hurt so much on the downhill that I worried I was going to have to give up hiking. Instead, I made a lifestyle change toward regular exercise, taking up first soccer then running and making sure I did it 3-4 times each and every week. It made all the difference in the world, and the kids and I hike 120-150 miles together each year these days.)

Since then, we have gone back more or less every other year. My oldest two daughters have been up Angel’s Landing with me, and all the kids have gone to the overlook just before the chains on their own two feet. Last year, in our most recent visit, the two of them went partway up the Narrows with me, which was a fun adventure.

So what is Zion? To put it one way, it is a gigantic fossil. The sandstone cliffs are 3000 feet tall - they are petrified sand dunes from the ancient past. Actually, the entire area is a remarkably intact section of the geologic column. You can go from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the formations on the mountains above Bryce Canyon National Park and traverse nearly a billion years in history.

The layers at Zion are particularly thick, and they are revealed by the action of the Virgin River, which has carved a slot through the sandstone, making a dramatic and unforgettable canyon. Even taking the shuttle through the canyon drive is a spectacular experience, but you really must get out and hike to get the full experience. Don’t expect solitude, but the spectacular views are worth it. Also, just like anywhere, the further you get away from the road, the fewer people. A short hike like the Emerald Pools (which you should do) will be crowded. The top of the overlook on the East Rim is less popular because of the long and strenuous hike to get there. Likewise, if you take the road toward the Kolob reservoir, most of those trails are empty during the week. The Kolob section of the park is also a great place to hike, with fewer people. The cliffs aren’t as high, but you get some excellent slot canyons.

Zion has always been a popular park, but the last decade or so, crowds have increased a lot. It is worth it to visit during the week, if you can - and definitely NOT during Spring Break. (They had record crowds, and despite an excellent shuttle system, parking was full by 8 AM many days.) The best times to visit are in Spring and Fall, but the park has its charms other times of the year. If you go in summer, hike early, and bring a lot of water. The sandstone concentrates the heat, and there isn’t much shade. I haven’t been there in the winter, but I think it could be interesting then as well.

If you have the time, there are also other places to see in the surrounding area. If you are there in the summer or fall, Kanarraville Falls is an amazing slot canyon we discovered last year. No technical skills are required. If you want solitude, get an early start. Snow Canyon State Park is also a delightful spot, with several short hikes with good scenery. It too is rarely crowded. Bryce Canyon National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Pipe Spring National Monument are all relatively close destinations. There is also a museum in St. George with dinosaur tracks that were discovered there. It’s a worthwhile place to visit.

Hotels in St. George are ludicrously inexpensive, which is why we don’t generally camp there. Good food can sometimes be difficult to find in smaller Utah towns - St. George is heavy on burger chains, for example. But there are some good exceptions here. We are particularly fond of the Mongolian BBQ place - a little hole in the wall that knows our family well. The Bear Paw Cafe is a good place for breakfast and coffee. Recently, a brewpub opened right by the entrance. Due to quirky Utah liquor laws, you have to have food if you want booze. But the food is solid, and the beer quite good, particularly after a hot hike. I’m happy to see places like these pop up. (One observation from our travels in small towns in flyover territory: brewpubs often have higher quality food - more imaginative and less 1950s - than other places. Yelp is your friend too. The 21st Century is looking to be a golden age for us foodies.)



 From 2004: The very small Ella and a younger, thinner me. The backpack finally died after the fifth kid, but I am still hiking with that hat and stick - both of which I have had since my teens. The hat was from a tourist trap near Zion. The stick is diamond willow from Alaska, which a friend brought back for me. I sanded it and give it a new coat of tung oil finish every few years.

 Amanda in 2004. She was 6 months pregnant with Cora here. This is at the entrance to Echo Canyon, on the East Rim trail.


Ella, Cordelia, and Amanda in 2006. Ted would have been an infant that year. 
This is the Virgin River on the Gateway to the Narrows trail. 

Cordelia, Ella, and Ted on the Emerald Pools Trail in 2009. 

Ted, Ella, Cordelia, and Fritz on the Angel's Landing Trail, 2011.
  Ella, Fritz, Amanda, Lillian, Ted, and Cordelia on the "Walter's Wiggles" section of the Angel's Landing Trail, 2013. 

Real trails have curves. These are the lower switchbacks on the Angel's Landing Trail, viewed from the bottom of Refrigerator Canyon.  
 Ella on the edge of the world. This is the sheer north face of Angel's Landing, 
literally 1500 feet straight down in front of her. (2013)

 Cordelia, Ella, and me in the Narrows, 2016. 

 A better view of Walter's Wiggles, 2016.

 Ella and Cordelia on the top of Angel's Landing, 2016.


 Trying to capture the scope of Zion with a camera is difficult. 
This is one of my favorite pictures, from 2016.





Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I have been aware of Le Guin, but hadn’t read her before. I don’t read a lot of Science Fiction - although I am a huge fan of Asimov’s short stories. (“Good Taste” is a favorite - and, for completely different reasons, “The Last Answer.”) I also love the classic Jules Verne novels, campy and dated as they are. I have read a few books in that genre since I started this blog, from A Princess of Mars to the recent Mort(e) by Robert Repino. And of course, the very first Science Fiction story, Frankenstein.

The Left Hand of Darkness was recommended by a friend, particularly for its creative treatment of gender. Written in 1969, it shows signs of the times it was written in - but in other ways seems quite familiar. 



Here is the basic setup. Genly Ai (who narrates most but not all of the story) is the “First Mobile” from an organization, the Ekumen, which is similar to the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek. However, it is less centralized, and doesn’t govern so much as it facilitates trade and exchange of ideas. Persuasion and agreement, not force, if you will. Unlike in the Star Trek universe, the hominoids in this one did not evolve separately, but instead are the survivors of a great age of planetary exploration followed by a devastating war that separated the various groups. After a few hundred thousand years, the link is being reforged. Warp Drive does not appear to exist, so interstellar travel is slow, and the travelers are put in stasis during the trip.

The plan for the Ekumen is to send a single envoy to live among the natives of each planet. The envoy will learn the cultures, establish relationships, and tell his or her story. Eventually, usually after a number of years, the planet will voluntarily choose to join the Ekumen. This inevitably unifies the planet, because the Ekumen does not make separate treaties with different nations on any world - they have to join as a unit.

Genly Ai is sent to a planet aptly named Winter, which is on the raw edge of habitability - much colder than Earth (or Terran, as it is named in the book.) This difficult survival is believed to be one factor in why Winter doesn’t have all-out warfare between nations. Sure, they have skirmishes and raiding parties and such, but there really isn’t the leisure time or resources for full out war.

But that isn’t the main difference. Rather, as the result (probably - nobody remembers for sure) of genetic engineering, there are no males or females on Winter. Rather the “Genthans” are ambisexual. Specifically, they are androgynous and assexual, having characteristics of both male and female during most of the month, but go through a monthly “kemmer,” where they develop into either male or female. It is during kemmer - and only then - that a Genthan experiences sexual desire. It’s kind of like being in heat, basically. The kicker is this: in any given kemmer, an individual has an equal chance of becoming male or female. If female, the person could become pregnant, and thus stay female for an extended period, until the child is weaned. The author notes that many Genthans have fathered several children and given birth to several more. In isolation, the female and male roles develop randomly. However, if two Genthans are in kemmer at the same time, if one goes one way, the other tends to go the other way in response, thus making mating more likely.

Because all Genthans are alike, and Ai is, well, very different, he is considered to be a “pervert.” Actually, there are other “perverts” too. Any Genthan who does not develop full ambisexuality, but is stuck in one gender, he or she is also considered a pervert. Because they, unlike “normal” people, are in rut all the time, and thus have perverted sexuality. Le Guin notes that “perverts” are treated like LGBTQ people in our society - distrusted and slandered, but not generally murdered - pretty bold for 1969, perhaps.

In addition, Genthans possess the personality traits associated with both male and female. The result of this biological fact of ambisexuality is that society is set up rather differently than our own. All Genthans are given a week off of work each month when they are in kemmer. Because anyone can end up pregnant, society does not insist on tying down anyone quite as much as we are used to. Anyone can hold any profession. And everyone is expected to pitch in with childcare. Hey, it could be you next, so bear the burdens equally. As the guide Ai is given says, “Therefore nobody here is quite as free as a free male elsewhere.”

The guide also notes:

There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact, the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

This becomes one of the themes of the book. Dualism in the “this versus that” sense is indeed not part of the Winter cultures. Rather, internal dualism is the central belief. The contrast is within, between the parts of one’s nature. As the Genthan poem has it:

Light is the left hand of darkness,
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

There is a lot more about marriage and sex in general in the book - much of which is a fascinating thought experiment. But there is one more line that I really found fascinating:

The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect or subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter, they will not exist. One is respected and judge only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.

In my job doing divorce cases, I have seen enough of this to know it is true. And also true about family and friends in some cases. People, both male and female - in about equal proportions - often lean on their gender identity for their sense of worth - and would be appalled if they were judged, not on their ability to fit gender stereotypes and values, but on their goodness as human beings.

To give an example, I run across far too many males who draw their identity from the masculine signifiers. Sports prowess. Income. Virility. And, often, violence. Likewise, there are many women who rely on their beauty, their feminine charm, their devotion to being a full-time mom, their social signalling through style of dress. And in our society this works. A man who is rich can get away with anything. A woman who is conventionally beautiful can leverage that into acceptance regardless of her lack of substance. Tall, strong males tend to develop into entitled brats like King Saul - not always, but often. And likewise, a woman who fits her society’s preferred gender roles can get away with being a jerk to others.

All of these people, who rely on their gender conformity for identity and acceptance would indeed find being judged as human beings to be a thoroughly appalling experience.

My wife, on the other hand, has spent much of her life expecting to be evaluated as a human, not as a female. This has (as I have previously described) resulted in a lot of heartache for her. She does not fit the preferred “female” traits well. She is assertive, competent, confident. She relies on her intellect more than her emotion. She doesn’t take crap from anyone, particularly not entitled males. She works outside the home, and probably draws her identity from that more than motherhood (which is the opposite from me - I draw more from my fatherhood than my job). Amanda would thus function better in Genthan society than in the Patriarchy morass that she grew up in.

Okay, one more observation on this. I am genetically and physically male. I identify strongly as a male. That said, I do not fit the male signifiers all that well. I am more nurturing and emotional, not competitive and stoic. (In other words, I am the girl in our marriage - if you believe in gender essentialism.) So, while I do not consider myself female or wish to be in general, the idea of splitting genders as the Genthans do is fascinating. Amanda and I have often joked that it would have been better if I could have gestated half the children. And really, if it weren’t for biology, I would be totally on board with it! There is something special about that, and were it reasonably possible, I would have done it. Taking turns would have been a relief for her, and a special experience for me. Again, this isn’t a sign I identify as female or “other.” It is just something that is fun to contemplate.

Ai’s main ally on Winter is Estraven (who also goes by Harth and Therem depending on who is addressing him - these are equivalent to first and last names and titles), who is the prime minister of Karhide - monarchy and one of the main nations of Winter. (The other country, Orgoreyn, is closer to a Soviet style system, with a veneer of bureaucracy over the iron fist of the secret police.) Estraven is the only Genthan to truly trust Ai, but cultural differences mean that Ai struggles to understand and trust Estraven. Only after (spoiler alert!) Estraven rescues Ai are they able to become true friends. This is another significant theme in the book: friendship, betrayal, and loyalty. Ai is deeply lonely as he is the only person of his race on the planet for years. Estraven is lonely for other reasons: his family history, a lost love, and political betrayal. The story of how they bridge a vast cultural - and biological - divide is a key part of the book, and quite enjoyable.

Perhaps even more fascinating than either the gender theme or the friendship theme is the discussion of politics and “patriotism.” Le Guin draws a contrast between two essential types, and I thought it brilliant:

“Let me ask you this, Mr. Ai: do you know, by your own experience, what patriotism is?”
“No,” I said, shaken by the force of that intense personality suddenly turning itself wholly on me. “I don’t think I do. If by patriotism you don’t mean the love of one’s homeland, for that I do know.”
“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year.”

This conversation, early on, between Ai and Estraven sets the stage for what comes later, as the king of Karhide and the Sarf (secret police) of Orgoreyn escalate a conflict to gain their own political ends. Later in the book, Ai reflects on the machinations of Tibe, the new prime minister, who talks on the radio a lot about patriotism of the more sinister kind.

He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate.

Sound familiar at all?

Ai also considers the difference between a nation which builds an unified culture and state on the basis of mutual accomplishment, and those who do so by shorter - and more evil - methods.

Now Karhide was to pull herself together and do the same; and the way to make her do it was not by sparking her pride, or building up her trade, or by improving her roads, farms, colleges, and so on; none of that; that’s all civilization, veneer, and Tibe dismissed it with scorn. He was after something surer, the sure, quick, and lasting way to make a people into a nation: war. His ideas concerning it could not have been too precise, but they were quite sound. The only other means of mobilizing people rapidly and entirely is with a new religion; none was handy; he would make do with war.

We are seeing this played out yet again in our own times. Rather than build patriotic pride by investing in our mutual benefit - making college affordable for all, providing healthcare to the most vulnerable in our society, fixing our roads, building relationships with other nations, or anything else productive - we want to build it by inciting hatred of others, the perceived enemies within and without.  

On a related note, I think Le Guin has a fascinating observation about civilization. Too often, in our colonialist mindset, we draw a dualistic contrast between “civilization” on the one hand, and “primitivism.” This fallacy is present in both the colonialist viewpoint and also in the myth of the “noble savage.” Ai notes that Tibe is always talking about the “veneer of civilization” as if the underlying reality is somehow nobler.

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the noble reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness...Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other, not both.

A few other lines stood out. The first comes from an extended scene in what is essentially a concentration camp in Orgoreyn. While Genthans can and do suppress kemmer for various personal and religious reasons, in the camps, it is repressed by force. That way, laborers can work continuously, without taking the customary week off. Also, by repressing sexual desire, Genthans are more easily controlled. As Le Guin notes, the ability to eliminate sexual desire altogether is really a key component of the ideal totalitarianism. She mentions ants (which do not exist on Winter) - most individuals are for practical purposes asexual - and thus are expendable workers who loyally serve the hive. I can’t help but feel that this has always been a part of the desire to exploit others. From the days of slavery, when slaves were expected to be celibate - unless they were bred by the masters - and fear of black sexuality became part of our national consciousness; to the rhetoric now about how the poor should just stop having sex if they can’t afford the babies. (With, of course, no plan to make parenthood affordable with a living wage - or any plan whatsoever…) Basically, there are the breeders, and there are the workers. And the workers should just shut up and stop having sex. I suspect if a drug became available that could repress all sexual desire, there would be a great many more than willing to use it on others.

There was also a terrifyingly beautiful line about the way that the Orgoreyn concentration camps worked. Indeed, it is probably how most concentration camps work - not the Nazi gas chambers, but the rest.

They do not kill people on their Farms: they let hunger and winter and despair do their murders for them.

Actually, this is how many genocides happen. Not through overt slaughter, but by the deaths that occur in the shadows. Death from disease, hunger, and cold. Death from the creeping despair that you will never be helped, never loved, never really noticed. And this is the kind of murder that the Ayn Rand philosophy (which has taken over the GOP lately) leads to - and may even intend. The slow death by deprivation, not the more obvious murder by force. But it is violence nonetheless.

And this really is where the “patriotism” meets real life. As Ai puts it regarding Orgoreyn’s socialistic economy - and specifically a non-explanation of a stupid situation: “This, at least, is the accepted explanation, though like most economic explanations it seems, under certain lights, to omit the main point.”

This is exactly the frustration I feel in discussing economic issues with those who believe some grant, incomprehensible, and esoteric theory is behind what sure looks - under certain lights - to be simple exploitation.

One more note: this edition of the book has an introduction by the author, which is fantastic. I would love to quote it all, but I recommend just getting the book. In this introduction, she philosophises about the nature and purpose of Science Fiction - indeed of fiction in general. The art of lying, as she puts it, to tell the truth. Everything in a novel - particularly like this one - is fictional. (Or, a “lie,” as the fundies my wife grew up with would say - just like Le Guin, except without the intelligence to understand the point.) There are so many lines, from the one, “Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic,” to “Science Fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive,” to “Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?” Just so good. Read it.

I guess I may mention the layout of the book. While the narration is primarily by Ai, there are portions from the journal of Estraven, notes from scholarly Ekumen sources, and from official documents and legends  of Karhide and Orgoreyn. This book is apparently from the middle of a cycle of related books about the extended universe.I think this book can stand alone, but it might be interesting to read the others and see if they help make sense of the universe. I should note that if you struggle with the names in Russian novels, you might do as I did and keep a list of names for each character.   

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Quick note on the author: Le Guin was one of the pioneering female Science Fiction writers, and influenced many writers in a variety of genres who came after. I will particularly note Neil Gaiman. She was the daughter of an anthropologist and an writer, which does explain some of her themes. She married an historian, which may well have added another layer to the mix. 

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This book has inspired some intriguing art on deviantart - particularly the contrast of the dark skinned Ai and the androgynous Estraven. Here is one: