Magic Color

Terry Pratchett was known for his quirky, funny writing.  I’ve only ever read his collaboration with Neil Gaiman before, Good Omens.  I’d heard of Pratchett’s Discworld series and I decided to give his first novel in the series, The Color of Magic, a try.  There can be little doubt that Pratchett was a clever writer with great turns of phrase and imaginative plots.  Something I’m discovering about myself, however, is that fantasy as a genre isn’t working well.  I suppose a case could be made for calling Discworld science fiction, but the world-building seems definitively fantasy—warriors, dragons, supernatural beings—the whole lot.  The story is well told and the writing’s great.  It just didn’t grab me as I hoped it might.

Having said that, one thing I noticed was that Pratchett realized something I’ve written about many times before—if you’re going to do world-building incorporating religion makes it believable.  There are gods here, often distant and mainly unconcerned with human beings (and various other beings), but clearly part of the diegesis.  And, of course, magic.  Maybe that’s the part of fantasy that I find disconcerting.  I read through the Harry Potter series, and although it was funny in parts, it was mostly played straight.  Was it fantasy?  I’ve been writing quite a lot about genre lately, and I’m beginning to run up against its limitations.  Discworld is clearly a fantasy environment. Rincewind and Twoflower are great characters, and so is the luggage (if you haven’t read it yet, let that be an enticement).

I ran into the same sense of disbelief recently with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, and there’s little doubt that it’s science fiction.  Maybe as I’m aging I’m getting more and more mired in this familiar, if not tired, world in which I find myself. Horror, however, retains its fascination.  The Color of Magic follows the hapless wizard Rincewind and how his life changed forever after he met the tourist (a rarity on Discworld), Twoflower.  Together they face and overcome (with sometimes a little deus ex machina) obstacles of others with agendas that simply don’t accept misfits.  The literally cliff-hanging ending does encourage the reader on to book two and the characters won’t soon be leaving my mind.  It’s just with fantasy too much seems possible.  Anything can happen and it’s almost a matching of wits with the writer.  Not that that’s bad, but maybe it just isn’t the escapism I tend to think fantasy is intended to be.


Fragility

Who doesn’t like a play?  Since I’ve been reading many lengthy novels this year I like to intersperse them with some shorter pieces of literature.  Many of us are assigned plays in high school English class.  For those of us from non-literary families, these may be the only plays we’ll encounter in our youth.  Shakespeare and Arthur Miller ran the entire gambit for my high school career, but I’ve done some exploring on my own since then.  I’d heard quite a bit about Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie over the years, but I’d never read it.  I found a used copy at a book sale and so my excuse for not reading it was at an end.  Unlike when I read A Streetcar Named Desire, I really had no idea what to expect.  Dysfunction, it seems, spurs creativity.

I suspect the play is well enough known that my musings about its symbolism and impact wouldn’t add much to the discussion.  (Besides, I suspect few English teachers read this blog.)  My particular edition, however, comes with the essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” written by Williams after he found fame.  It reminded me a bit of a speech Ursula K. Le Guin gave late in her career, after receiving an award.  Both writers note that money drives far too much of what we consider creativity.  Williams notes in his essay that success leads to pampering and pampering is good for no one.  His description of staying in a hotel is a familiar one—poorly paid employees treat paying guests as if they were wealthy, cleaning up after them and tidying other people’s messes.

As many critics have noted, Williams grew up in a dysfunctional family and drew heavily on that for his fiction.  Another aspect, perhaps related to that, was the sense of pressure on his writing.  In his essay he mentions that writing grew more difficult when life was easy.  I often think about this myself.  My fiction suffered a bit when the pressure of the daily commute to New York ceased.  I had to catch an early bus and I was determined to get some writing done every day.  That was the origin of what now seems to be my permanent early wakefulness.  That pressure of knowing I had a very limited amount of time before I had to be showered, dressed, and at the bus stop, led to a tremendously creative output.  I see from my limited experience of reading Williams that I still have much to learn from those whose experience has become a lesson.


Dark and Light

I perhaps have nothing new to say about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  It was published before I was ten, and although I grew up reading science fiction I really didn’t read any of Le Guin’s work until this year.  It wasn’t intentional—in a small town you read what you can get your hands on, and cover art designed to attract young boys often worked on me.  Now having read it, I’m left in a reflective mood.  Everyone, of course, comments on the gender aspect of the novel.  I guess I’ll be forgiven for doing so as well.  After all, it is the most striking feature of the story.  As we know from our lives on earth, gender affects pretty much everything about our lives.  The biological imperative is strong.  It’s no less strong in Left Hand of Darkness, but it is different.

In case you’re like me and haven’t read it (until now), it’s not a spoiler to indicate that it is the story of a male envoy to a planet where the people (and only large mammals) are genderless until once a month they enter “kemmering” when one becomes temporarily male and another temporarily female.  The genders aren’t fixed, but fluid.  Since the kemmering stage comes only once a month, during that time it become an urgent need among those experiencing it.  The novel isn’t about only that, of course, but it is the noteworthy feature that relates to the religion and daily life of the inhabitants of the planet Winter.

It might seem that this idea of shifting genders is itself science fiction, but it is not.  There are species on earth that change change gender, bringing into question the statement taken for universal that “male and female he made them.”  While gender seems to be evolution’s solution of choice for reproduction, that’s not universal either.  In other words, nature provides us with multiple ways in which plants, animals, and things in-between, can continue their existence on this planet.  The writers of the Bible weren’t great observers of nature, nor were they scientifically minded.  At a glance it looks like animals all conform to the model presented by Genesis.  In reality, the world is much more complex than that.  Religions aren’t always as comfortable with complexity as writers of science fiction tend to be.  Left Hand of Darkness is fine world-building and provocative at that.  This may be nothing new, but it is worth pondering again.