The Word For World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Berkley Books, 1976


Little by little I’m trying to read everything Ursula K. Le Guin has ever written. This was number three. It was very different from The Left Hand of Darkness and The DispossessedIt’s much shorter, and feels more like Le Guin is using the form for the purpose of exploring a hypothetical culture of her own creation than using the form to develop a full-fledged plot. Not that there isn’t plot, or character development, or a story to be invested in. It’s just that in The Word for World is Forest, Le Guin the anthropologist takes precedence over Le Guin the novelist. The culture she creates is fascinating in its own right, but just like in the aforementioned novels, it is especially so because of the ways it acts as a foil to our own. Le Guin has the remarkable skill all great science fiction writers have of making the reader re-evaluate their own culture by forcing them look at it in new ways. The central opposition between the Athsheans of the Planet Athshe, and the humans of Earth is the ability to murder.

“You gave me a gift, the gift of killing one’s kind, murder. Now, as well as I can, I give you my people’s gift, which is not killing. I think we each find each other’s gift heavy to carry.”

The phrasing of this quote is odd, and to understand it fully you have to read the book. The theme of whats being said, however, can be understood well enough without context. The concept of two cultures meeting; one which is accustomed to war, and one which has never developed the capacity to murder, is what I feel to be the premise of the story – the idea that Le Guin may have started with – and from that premise an entirely unique culture emerges.

One of my favorite things about the story is the varying degree of humanity that is seen in the different human characters and in the few other aliens that stop by to check up on the colony. You see the worst of humanity, the best of humanity, and an optimistic future where lives are valued over monetary gain. For as many horrifying things happen in the story, the message is ultimately optimistic. In this hypothetical future, the universe as a whole is getting better. The humans of Earth are struggling to do the right thing, but there are enough good people that things manage to move in the right direction despite those who so desperately try and move in the wrong direction. It reminds me of the way in which I feel our culture is slowly but surely changing now despite those who would try and prevent it.

Links: Ursula K Le Guin .com | Goodreads |Buy it on Bookshop .org


The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ace Books, 1969


I read The Left Hand of Darkness quickly after finishing The Dispossessed because of how much I loved the latter. And while I think I slightly preferred The Dispossessed, it’s very possible this is the case simply because I read it first. There’s something about the first book you read by an author that gives it an extra special place in your heart. But if The Left Hand of Darkness does take second place, it’s an extremely close second.

Again, I found myself astounded by Le Guin’s genius. To write a book like The Left Hand of Darkness requires a multi-faceted genius: it requires the mind of an anthropologist, a scientist, and a philosopher all-in-one. If that isn’t enough, Le Guin’s writing is top-notch. It’s elegant, natural, well-paced, and scattered with beautiful sentences such as the following:

“We creep infinitesimally northward through the dirty chaos of a world in the process of making itself.”

Some beautiful writing tends to be, while still enjoyable, a bit pretentious. There is nothing pretentious in Le Guin’s words. Just beautiful writing and a beautifully told story working together to make the reader think about their world in a whole new way. And that is what science fiction, at its best, is meant to do.

Links: Ursula K. Le Guin .com| Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Harper & Row 1974


The Dispossessed has reminded me what science fiction is capable of. Published in 1974, I’m amazed by its timelessness. It could have been written yesterday. It could be written 50 years from now. And I think this is something that many of the best science fiction novels have in common. It tackles ideas that, no matter what technology is or isn’t present, are relevant to humanity as a whole. I’m clearly behind on Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m sure the whole literary world already knows she’s a genius, so there’s nothing more for me to do but reiterate that fact. She is a true genius and an astounding writer. In The Dispossessed, she made me think new things, and see old things in new ways. There were countless paragraphs I read two or three times over because one time wasn’t nearly enough time to process.

The story starts off a little slow, but that’s only because you’re thrust into the middle of the plot on the first page. It takes a little adjusting to, but once you get used to the structure, the alternating chapter POVs contribute to the powerfulness of the story. There are two separate timelines that Le Guin alternates between. The first chapter takes place in the protagonist’s current situation, and the next takes place in his past, and so on. This structure works really well to emphasize how the main character grows and changes because you’re learning about his life as a child and young adult alongside his present life. And when, at the end of the novel, you learn the extent of the sacrifices he made for the pursuit of knowledge and for his people, it hits you more powerfully because of this structure. If you like science fiction, if you don’t like science fiction, it doesn’t matter. The Dispossessed is a Must Read and will make you reevaluate how you see the world, government, capitalism, education, and your own personal priorities.

Links: Ursula K Le Guin .com| Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Brown Girl in the Ring, by Nalo Hopkinson

Warner Aspect Books, 1998

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I had some doubts about Brown Girl in the Ring for the first 150 pages or so of reading it. My main concern was that the entire novel would be predictable—tropes were introduced that had the potential to unfold in a boringly predictable way. But as the conflicts took shape and began to reach resolution, Hopkinson blew me away with her creativity and particularly with her powerful feminism. There’s a lot of reviews that complain about Brown Girl in The Ring having an identity crisis. Is it sci-fi? Fantasy? Neither? Is it Jamaican or is it Canadian? The other recurring complaint I saw was about the protagonist being annoyingly immature. My response to these complaints are, respectively, I don’t care! and you’re wrong. Allow me to explain further.

I’m not sure how I’d categorize Brown Girl in the Ring in terms of genre, but frankly, I don’t care. If pressed, I’d describe it as a blend of science fiction dystopia and magical realism. Whatever it is, it worked for me. I could maybe understand the complaint that Hopkinson’s exploration into the science fiction themes just barely scratch the surface, except that this isn’t what the book is primarily about. The setting is Toronto and the majority of characters are Jamaican immigrants or children of immigrants. This is drawn from Hopkinson’s own experience as a Jamaican immigrant who lived most of her adult life in Canada. I found the merging of cultures in Brown Girl in the Ring to be unique and interesting and not at all cluttered. As for the immaturity of the protagonist, I have a lot to say in response.

The protagonist, Ti-Jeanne, is immature in many ways at the start of the novel. She has a child that she isn’t prepared to care for and has very little interest in caring for. She blames her grandmother for all of her frustrations, and she can’t control her attraction to her good-looking, sweet-talking, ex-boyfriend: Tony. But even at Ti-Jeanne’s most immature, you can see her potential for growth. One of my favorite feminist moments in the novel happens early on when Ti-Jeanne still thinks she’s in love with Tony. Tony asks why Ti-Jeanne left him (it was because of the baby), and just as Ti-Jeanne is about to open up to him and tell him “all her worries about whether Tony would have been able to help her provide for the child,” he interrupts her and says, “I would have let you keep the baby, no matter whose it is. I love you Ti-Jeanne” (73). Moments earlier Ti-Jeanne was swooning over Tony, but as soon as he says this, her response is shock. She thinks, “He would have let her keep the baby? The moment had passed. She gave Tony the glare that always threw him off balance.” This scene introduces feminism as a central element to Brown Girl in the Ring, and I quickly saw the novel as, above anything else, a feminist one. The central characters to the plot are Ti-Jeanne, her mother, and her grandmother, and the way these three generations of women navigate conflicts with each other, surpass obstacles, grow together, and support themselves in an unforgiving place is remarkable. It’s a powerfully feminist novel, and that, above all else, is what Brown Girl in the Ring is about. So to those who critique it for not being science-y enough, or not exploring the nuances of the dystopian setting enough, or whatever else, I think are missing the point of the novel entirely.

Links: Nalo Hopkinson .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

Hodder & Stoughton 2015


The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is everything I could ever want a sci-fi space travel story to be. This will be a short review because that sentence about sums it up. It’s fun, features interesting and well-developed characters, is well written, and even manages to develop romantic inter-species relationships without ever being cheesy or cringe-y or uncomfortable to read. I absolutely loved everything about it!

I saw this in other reviews and then almost immediately noticed it myself when I started reading, but The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is driven almost entirely by character development while the plot is kind of a background device. There are events that motivate the characters and give the narrative direction, but for the most part, you’re reading to learn about the individuals on the ship: how they ended up there, what their home worlds are like, and how their relationships with each other grow and evolve. As the Wayfarer (the crew’s ship) stops at different planets and space stations on its travels, you get to meet all kinds of different species with fascinating histories. If you’re worried that a 400-page novel driven almost exclusively by character development sounds boring, don’t be. It’s insanely fun while still addressing serious topics, never drags, and reflects open-minded feminist thinking (it’s awesome reading a book where you can almost forget gender stereotyping even exists!).

Links: Becky Chambers .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

Dawn, by Octavia Butler

Grand Central 1987


As a lover of science-fiction, I’ve been looking forward to reading Octavia Butler for this blog and in general. I chose to start with Dawn for no particular reason, and with little idea of what to expect from it.

There’s more than one way to make a novel engaging and interesting to a reader. The intrigue found in Dawn is in the vastness of the imagination required to envision this future, and Butler’s ability to connect this strange, imagined future with the world as we know it today. I turn the page because the things Butler comes up with and the detail to which they’re thought through is fascinating. It’s fascinating and thought-provoking, but its not the type of novel I fall in love with.

With that said, Dawn is a powerful novel. It forces you to question what makes us human, what is central to our humanity. Is it what we look like, who we love, how we reproduce?  Is it in part our capacity for violence? Our ability to lie and deceive and therefore distrust? The intelligent alien species in Dawn, the Oankali, say that humans are defined by two incompatible traits that lead to our destruction: we are intelligent and we are hierarchical.

Butler’s writing style is straightforward and non-emotional. I would almost be inclined to compare it to science writing in how matter-of-fact it is, but it is much more than that. She has a way of explaining things both artfully and exceptionally clearly. Phrases like “strangely gentle chaos” capture a scene perfectly. While Dawn was a book that took me awhile to get through because I never became fully absorbed in it, it is also a book I doubt I’ll ever forget. It’s creative and imaginative and powerful, and I intend to pick up another Octavia Butler novel in the future.

Links: Octavia Butler .orgGoodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org