Why Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is perfect Science Fiction

She hits the big three of SF: detailed world-building, great characters, and compelling plot

Octavia Butler needs no further praise, but she definitely deserves it, so here we go. Parable of the Sower is just one present under a very well-stocked Christmas tree of literary achievement. Her oeuvre is filled throughout with characters who struggle with believable problems in relatable ways, and with powerful new ideas that are not only appealing in an oh-that’s-cool way, but because they go right to the core of how people do live, and how they should live. Butler delivers all of these gifts in a direct, conversational prose that makes opening and enjoying them a deep and simple pleasure. The only person that competes with her for simplicity and clarity of writing is Ursula K. Le Guin.

Pick up the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Parable-Sower-Earthseed-Octavia-Butler/dp/0446675504

Where are we when we enter Octavia Butler’s world?

Octavia Butler's fallen California
Pretty much everywhere is this. It’s not great. Credit: TheschmallfellaCC BY-SA 3.0

The most striking accomplishment of Parable of the Sower is how believable its world is. Butler makes such small, but ultimately such significant changes to our world. The book opens in 2024, centering around a walled community 20 miles outside of Los Angeles.

The opening has all the shapes of normal life. Children doing chores. A sermon. A minister’s daughter getting baptized. Except the chores include picking fruit and vegetables from the family’s extensive home garden because store-bought food is prohibitively expensive, the sermon happens in the minister’s front room because his church, outside the neighborhood walls, was burned down, and the baptism, which takes place in a friend’s church across town, is preceded by a harrowing bike ride accompanied by armed adults through burned-out streets strewn with the starving and desperate. These details are ubiquitous — the forms of normal life linked with the changes that have already taken place, and those that are coming. Another couple of details: five kids are getting baptized together because all of their families went in together to share the debilitating expense of the gallons of potable water necessary for the ritual, and almost everyone works from home with weekly or monthly in-person check-ins because a daily commute is just too dangerous.

I could keep listing these for another ten pages, but I’m not Octavia Butler, so it would be extremely boring. Butler weaves all of these in so inseparably from the narrative impulsion of the story that each individual one passes notice, but their collective impact builds a world that seems kind of normal but is in constant flux and danger. Any of the trappings of normalcy are willfully imposed by the older generation. The protagonist lives in a gated community, completely normal! The tops of its walls are covered in crushed glass, and the keys to the front gate are jealously guarded by the heads of household. Oh…

Characters are at the center of any good fiction

The key to Octavia Butler’s work is her understanding of how people actually function, how they are. All writers, when they construct characters, are building facsimiles that readers are willing to accept if they’re done well enough. There’s no way to actually capture everything people are in a handful of words, but Butler comes close.

Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist, is a young black girl, old enough to have some responsibility in the world, but young enough not to view responsibility as clinging to the structures of a dying past. Her father is a powerful presence, the neighborhood minister, a sensibly-acting and deep-thinking man who is the main personality actually holding the community together. The central conflict of the early book, aside from survival, is the clash between this strong-willed daughter and her stubborn father. They love each other deeply, but see the world in fundamentally different ways:

“Do you think our world is coming to an end?” Dad asked, and with no warning at all, I almost started crying. I had all I could do to hold it back. What I thought was, “No, I think your world is coming to an end, and maybe you with it.” That was terrible. I hadn’t thought about it in such a personal way before. I turned and looked out the window until I felt calmer.

Butler is so good at people. They can fight and yell and disagree and love each other deeply. Lauren is in the midst of a big fight with her dad, and almost loses control and cries because she contemplates the death of the person being so antagonistic to her.

The most rewarding part of the early book is this relationship: strong, intelligent Lauren Olamina clashing with the man who raised her to be strong and intelligent. She recognizes her debt to him even as she hopes for an escape from his strictures:

I love him. He’s the best person I know, and I care what he thinks. I wish I didn’t, but I do.

Earthseed: the world’s going to hell, why not start a new religion?

Olamina's religion journal
This is all Lauren Oya Olamina needed to begin her own religion. What have you done lately?

As Lauren navigates this conflict, she logs everything in her journal. In fact, that’s the book. The Parable of the Sower is a series of Lauren’s journal entries, sometimes with a day between them, sometimes a month. The confessional style matches well with Butler’s vivid and conversational prose — the accessibility of the writing mixes with the emotional immediacy of the journal to cook a completely satisfying, easy-to-consume meal. As easy and fun to eat as McDonald’s, as nutritious as a kale salad. Another key function of the journal is it’s where Lauren starts building her new religion — Earthseed. Again, the entire world of the book is built on the linking of the completely normal (teenage girl journaling) with the new and strange (she’s journaling about her homegrown religion). Here’s verses 1 and 3 of Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Olamina’s religious text:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

———————-

We do not worship God.
We perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
We shape God.
In the end, we yield to God.
We adapt and endure,
For we are Earthseed
And God is Change.

This is what drives Lauren through the story. God is change, and it’s humanity’s job to shape God, to accept, anticipate and influence change. It weaves over and around all that happens in the story: Lauren’s acceptance of and attempted control of change, from growing up in a civilized island in a sea of lawlessness, to surviving the fall of her neighborhood (sorry for the spoiler, but it’s pretty clear from the get-go that this has to happen), to traveling coastal California attempting to find a better life. God is Change.

The Big Three of Science Fiction

The Parable of the Sower is everything that’s great in SF. All the science fiction I love shares three traits: well-built characters, a detailed world, and narrative impulsion. Without believable, relatable characters, what is there to care about (ahem, Asimov)? Without a detailed exploration of the world, how the world came about, the anthropology of the society, then the otherworldiness of the SF is just a gimmick. And without narrative impulsion, where each page gives you a reason to turn to the next one, what you have is a boring book. The characters and world of Butler are built with a loving attentiveness to detail, and once you care about the characters and how they move through the world, that’s half the narrative impulsion right there. What provides the rest is the suspense Butler creates in describing Lauren moving through increasing danger towards her goal: is she going to get there? Oh no that was close! I have to find out! Octavia Butler is a champion, and reading her is a privilege.

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N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy is the Best Epic Fantasy of the Decade

Jemisin brings it to a close with The Stone Sky and demonstrates exactly why the previous two books needed Hugo Awards

N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky is a masterful finish to the most groundbreaking (ha) series of the past decade. Seriously — you can argue about all-time greats, but this is hands-down the most impressive post-millennial series I’ve completed. The world she builds, the characters she creates and how she makes them interact, and the falling-free man-the-ground-sure-is-coming-up-fast gravity of her plotting all combine and balance each other to make this book a place you want to be, filled with people you care about, moving through a plot that satisfies and builds anticipation in alternating cycles until the final payoff. After turning the last page, I felt like I’d been evicted. It was a physical place, with such weight that it left an emptiness behind. The last time I experienced that was 19 years ago in 7th grade, having finished reading about Frodo going off to the Grey Havens. I’d spent a month somewhere, and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to be there anymore. Jemisin’s world-building alone is Tolkien-level, but she isn’t heavily indebted to him, as a lot of contemporary fantasy is. This is a can’t-miss series for the vivid and original worldbuilding alone, but there’s so much more to recommend it.

If you want to get a small taste before you commit, Jemisin wrote a short story set in the same world a while ago (available in text and audio for free, because Clarkesworld is awesome):

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/jemisin_07_14/

great book fantasy epic conclusion omg yes!
This book, y’all. It’s where I spent my Sunday.

You can’t have epic fantasy without a map, so where are we?

The Stillness is a single supercontinent that is supernormally tectonically active, criss-crossed with rift lines and volcanoes, all floating precariously atop the anger of the Earth. The extreme inhospitability of this world leads to something called Fifth Seasons, where seismic events create winter conditions for at least six months due to ash blocking the Sun, but they can last for years and have much more interesting effects, such as during the Fungus Season, where extended darkness occurring during monsoon season created a crop-destroying fungal bloom over 20% of the continent, or the Season of Yellow Seas, in which an unknown bacterial agent toxified the seas, causing decades of famine in communities which relied on fishing for sustenance.

The most essential people, without whom humanity would have succumbed to ash and darkness generations ago, are the orogenes, too despised to belong to any caste, but too useful to exterminate. They can perform orogeny, the etymology of which makes me twitch in pleasure. Oros is Greek for mountain, so orogeny is mountain-making, and sweet sassy molassey, that’s exactly what they can do! Magic in this fantasy epic is the manipulation of the heat and kinetic energy of the overactive Earth in a way that allows orogenes to explode volcanoes, raise islands, and create city-slaying earthquakes. It’s this last feature that makes the “orogenically-afflicted” into feared pariahs.

Being feared might kill you, but being feared and useful will lead to the subjugation of your people and an endless cycle of generational misery. Government-trained orogenes who pit their will and power against the fury of the Earth are the only reason humanity is still alive. Untrained orogenes are slaughtered. Trained orogenes who are disobedient are disciplined. If they don’t improve, they are slaughtered. A caste called Guardians does all the disciplining and slaughtering — one example is that, without exception, Guardians break the hands of young orogenes. If they have enough control to keep from causing an earthquake in their fear and pain, their reward is the setting of the bones in their hand. If they don’t have that control, the Guardian kills them. This dichotomy continues throughout their lives — stay useful and be allowed to serve; cease being useful and die.

The solidity and originality of Jemisin’s magic system, the immediacy of danger in the Stillness, and the intricacies of the society that lives there all contribute to making this world feel real. The last bit that does it is a trick used to great effect by Tolkien (and Jemisin): have your story take place on the surface of a depthless past. Most stories evaporate when you shut the book because their thread of narrative is all they have — in LOTR and The Broken Earth, so much happens off-screen that what’s on screen feels much more textured and deep. Stuff has been happening in the Stillness for millennia, and you can feel it. Each chapter ends with a sample from a historical text. Sometimes it’s simple survival stonelore:

Set a flexible central beam at the heart of all structures.
Trust wood, trust stone, but metal rusts.

–Tablet Three, “Structures,” verse one

Other times, it’s heftier:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the physical integrity of the Stillness–for the obvious interest of long-term survival. Maintenance of this land is peculiarly dependent upon seismic equilibrium and by an imperious law of nature, none but the orogenic can establish such. A blow at their bondage is a blow at the very planet. We rule, therefore, that though they bear some resemblance to we of good and wholesome lineage, and through they must be managed with kind hand to the benefit of both bond and free, any degree of orogenic ability must be assumed to negate its corresponding personhood. They are rightfully to be held and regarded as an inferior and dependent species.

–The Second Yumenescene Lore Council’s Declaration on the Rights of the Orogenically Afflicted

Each time, it helps build a larger world for the single narrative to live in. The second example is especially effective because it mirrors reality so well. With a few changes here and there, it could pass for what was written not so long ago in the United States: the specious stuff used to justify slavery in the antebellum South — why, this is for their own good! Why, the good of Society must be our primary concern!

OK, so the world is great, but what’s actually happening in it? (Spoilers Follow)

In The Broken Earth series, the main plot is that a massive, continent-spanning rift has opened, setting off the Season to end all Seasons. Ash starts falling from the sky, raiders start riding across the landscape, and people buckle down and hope. By the time The Stone Sky opens, Essun, a mother searching for her daughter, is helping the community of Castrima migrate to a better location in the hopes of surviving. She’s also committed to appeasing the Earth (who is sentient — I don’t have time to explain, just read the books) by bringing back the moon, whereas her nihilist daughter is planning to use her powers to slam the Moon into the Earth, ending the old bastard once and for all.

great author picture oh my god she wrote the Broken Earth
This is N.K. Jemisin. She made this! All hail the author! Credit: Laura Hanifin | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

This untenable situation — a mother desperately trying to find her daughter and redemption for the awful decisions of her past, a daughter currently making awful decisions in reaction to her mother’s, the overwhelming knowledge that if they could just get together and talk it would all be okay OH MY GOD WHY AREN’T THEY TOGETHER YET IF ONLY THEY’D TALK IT WOULD ALL BE BETTER.

The twin motivators — Essun and Nassun have to meet again! and How the hell will they pull this off? Are they going to be able to catch the moon? — keep the pages turning fast and without fatigue. It’s easy to get lost in a world that’s so big when you are deeply invested in what happens to the characters and how the fuck-up of this civilization will be put right.

The amount of information Jemisin gives us about the world in the finale is another reason to keep turning pages. The stone eaters are what? Orogeny was designed? By whom? In addition to creating the forward impulsion of Nassun/Essun // Apocalypse/Peace, Jemisin uses the third installment of her series to answer every single question we have about it, mostly through the flashback chapters about Syl Anagist, an ancient solarpunk city that spanned the world. It gives complete explanations for why the Earth is so angry, why some inhabitants of the stillness have superpowers, and what the hell stone eaters are. Nevermind the explanation of mysteries that have been following us the entire series: it’s a joy to explore the ancient city with Jemisin at the helm. Full of arrogance, far too satisfied with their own power, true, but look at all the cool stuff they had. Another benefit is that it takes this already fully-fleshed-out world, a world you’ve lived in for days (or weeks or years, depending on when you read the books), and makes it just the remnant of a 40,000-year-old far-future society, further increasing the depth and breadth of the world Jemisin built. The resolution in the novel is not just the resolution of two humans, mother and daughter, but of a 40,000-year-long war between humanity and the Earth. Epic doesn’t begin to describe it. The story itself is super cool, but another really interesting thing Jemisin does is make all her main characters awful people. No, seriously.

Oh man these people make bad choices, but who are we to judge?

Jemisin doesn’t shy away from making her characters awful people, and it makes them much more believable. Awful people is maybe too harsh, but they do make awful decisions. Essun, the main character who has been searching for her daughter since Book 1, raised her daughter Nassun in such desperation and fear that she only ever trained her, only ever showed disappointment in weakness, because weakness meant death. Her love was the desperate love of the hunted — never free from the harsh drumbeat survive survive survive. Both mother and daughter are powerful orogenes, in grave danger if they ever reveal what they are. Essun even breaks her daughter’s hand in a horrifying parallel to what her Guardian did to her. It is a cruel torture, but it does ensure the victim has control. Without control, Nassun would be found out and killed. Essun does what is necessary to make sure her daughter lives, to the exclusion of everything that Nassun might see as love. She’s not a bad person. She’s a great mother in one very specific way, and a terrible one in another.

Nassun, ten years old, ripped from her home by a horror she can barely understand, stumbles through a destroyed world until she meets Schaffa, an ex-Guardian seeking redemption. She’s either physically or emotionally estranged from her entire family, and Schaffa (more on him later) gives her the unconditional love she’s craving so desperately. She falls deep into this dependent love, and it leads her to make some problematic decisions. When Schaffa brings her to a Fulcrum (a branch of the organization that sanctions orogenes) she literally kills every single one because, having figured out her mother is a trained orogene, she blames them for making her mother so cold and unfeeling. She goes on to ever-increasing acts of genocide, infected by the absolute nihilism of a ten-year-old who has lost everything she ever cared about. By the end of the book, she is willing to end the world to end its pain, an ambition beyond all but the most accomplished supervillains, but the magic of Jemisin’s writing is you understand exactly how she got there and are reluctant to pass judgment.

The dominant relationship in The Stone Sky is a bizarre cross-time triangle between Essun, Nassun, and Schaffa. Schaffa is the Guardian who broke Essun’s hand, who tortured her for her own good, who hunted her when she ran away. It is horrifying to watch Nassun fall deeply in daughterly love with her mother’s tormentor. The years (ahem, spoiler centuries) he spent instilling dependent love in others as a Guardian makes it a hard habit to break. Here’s the thing though: as toxic as his love is, and as dangerous as he is, he truly does love his charges, at least by his own lights. That makes it so much creepier.

You understand each and every character, from the most saintly to the most despicable, what their motivations are, and what they’ve done. My favorite quote about literature is George Saunders’ about fiction being an empathy-generating machine, and Jemisin’s machine is ticking over nicely. I might be horrified by some characters’ actions, but I understand why they did them, and that’s a luxury most readers don’t enjoy.

Go get The Stone Sky, and get it now (or the whole series, if you’re behind)

Here, I’ll help: https://www.amazon.com/gp/bookseries/B01947LZ8A

There is so much I couldn’t say here. I try to keep these under 1500 words, and I’m over 2,000 right now, but there’s so much greatness in these books that, if I tried to explore it all the result would be unreadable. The balanced, clear writing? How Jemisin pays attention to racial differences in a way that most fantasy doesn’t (most fantasy just assumes everyone’s white)? How badass the fight scenes are? Exactly what Guardians are and where they get their power? How orogeny is actually just magic and much more than rock-throwing? How freaking cool stone eaters are? This work is too big, too expansive, to discuss everything that’s in it in a single blog post, and my inability to discuss it comprehensively is the single greatest indicator of it being literally epic, as in “heroic or grand in scale or character” dictionary-level epic. It’s too big to talk about. I can’t share it with you here. You only have one option. Go read it!

How Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage Helped me Mourn my Mom’s Death

My mother loved the Queen of Crime Fiction, and for good reason, it turns out

Agatha Christie has been outsold by two people: Shakespeare and God. The only books to outsell hers are Shakespeare’s plays and the Bible. Despite that popularity, I was not impressed by my first foray into her works, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and I was even less impressed by The A.B.C. Murders. While the first was enjoyable, and played with the conventions of mystery novels in one very particular and striking way, it didn’t grab me. The second I found gimmicky and empty. I rather agreed with Raymond Chandler, who characterized what happens in English detective stories as “the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.” As happens so often, actual knowledge of something is all that’s necessary to kill disdain for it. I crossed that barrier with The Murder at the Vicarage, the book I buried with my mother.

Agatha Christie's book
Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, with shelf

Get a copy of the book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B000FC12XW

My mother loved reading. It was her defining hobby, and she loved Agatha Christie especially, having read every book she wrote. So, in the surreal logic of grief, I decided to put one copy of Christie’s work in the ground with her, so she’d have something to do. The copy was The Murder at the Vicarage, for the simple reason that it was one of the first to come to hand when I reached into her massive Agatha Christie cupboard. Once I was home after the back and forth and tumult of the funeral, I turned all my energy to consuming that book as fast as possible. If it was worth burying with my mom, surely it was worth reading, right? I read it on my phone while waiting in line, listened to it in my car while commuting, and spent a lot of time reading it normally at night. It was my last goodbye, and I wanted to give it the attention it deserved. The result was going at breakneck speed through the work of a master craftswoman. She’s pretty amazing, y’all.

So, what is The Murder at the Vicarage actually about?

The Murder at the Vicarage is narrated by a village vicar, Leonard Clement. He’s married to a much younger wife, Griselda Clement. After a few introductory pages, a man that everyone in the village despises to varying levels, Colonel Protheroe, is found shot through the head in the vicar’s study. The book after that point introduces many characters, all who had a reason to dislike the insufferable Colonel, and explores various scenarios under which they could have killed the victim. The only person who can see through all the chaff of misdirection is Miss Marple, in her first outing as one of Christie’s best-loved sleuths. Maybe she’s the reason why this ended up being the book I chose from among the handful I pulled off my mother’s bookshelf — the detective is an old lady of hidden depths and impressive intelligence (hi my mom was like, smart as hell).

Why Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries are so good

Crime writer Agatha Christie
Dame Agatha Christie. She sees right through you.

Agatha Christie is escapist literature, definitely, so long as the people using that term aren’t dull enough to think it’s shorthand for less-than or non-literary. She’s one of the most impressive craftsmen I’ve ever read. She builds plots like the Swiss build clocks — everything is tiny, seemingly insignificant, but it all fits together in clear and important ways once the work is done. Through and around all the logic puzzles and plot twists, there is strong, clear writing and an impressively deep understanding of human nature.

For people who are addicted to Agatha Christie, a good portion of the fun is figuring out whodunnit. I’m abysmal at this — I had not the least suspicion of the actual evildoers at any point throughout any of the three Christie books I’ve read. Dad tells me that mom got to where she could get it right about half the time. The thing that seems almost unfair, paradoxically, is that Dame Christie gives you everything you need to know exactly who murdered whom. The mystery is built perfectly — the answer is hidden, but each detail on each page of the story fits seamlessly with all others to point to only one conclusion — if you’ve got the skill to slot them together in the right order. I do not. In this particular book, the narrator runs across the killer carrying a rock. This is damning evidence, but neither the narrator nor I has any idea. Generally, you’re not smart enough to figure it out, but there’s a lot of pleasure in the examination of every little occurrence and the formation of your (in my case) inevitably wrong theory. This exercise completely occupies the mind, and pulls your brain more fully into the book than with other escapist literature. It’s half small-town dialogue and half LSAT logic puzzle.

The sheer strength and clarity of writing is a joy to read. It’s the style of writing that many of the best use, where you don’t even realize how powerfully that style is building a world around you, putting you exactly where it wants you. The powerful can make you do or feel what they want, but the truly powerful make you do it without even realizing it. It’s so strong it doesn’t need to be showy. Just an example, without further commentary:

“You see,” she began at last, “living alone, as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby. There is, of course, woolwork, and Guides, and Welfare, and sketching, but my hobby is–and always has been–Human Nature. So varied–and so very fascinating. And, of course, in a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one’s study.”

This is the source of Miss Marple’s power. Sure, her template is just that of the nosy old neighbor, but add to that her keen intelligence and singular understanding of human nature, and she’s a dangerous adversary. There’s something so delicious in an unassuming old lady, ignored by most and feared by none, having the perspicacity to pierce through to the truth and undo all the careful plotting of the murderer.

Another of Miss Marple’s quotes, savage to the extreme, was on the subject of her modern novelist nephew:

“His poems have no capital letters in them, which is, I believe, the essence of modernity. His books are about unpleasant people leading lives of surpassing dullness.”

Unassuming old lady, able to tear the heart out of anyone who doesn’t impress her. I also particularly love this quote because it’s so true. I love modern fiction on the level of Midnight’s Children or Infinite Jest, but so much gets a pass as serious literature simply because it’s boring and miserable, which must mean it is Important. The 100 pages of Franzen’s The Corrections to which I had the fortitude to subject myself is some of the worst “literature” I’ve ever read. Unpleasant people and lives of surpassing dullness, indeed.

Agatha Christie, my mother, and me

Me, mom, dad, sister on a bridge in nature
My favorite family photo, featuring my dad, who is a big reason I love nature and didn’t end up an indoor kid. I’ll never have to write anything about that, because he’s going to live forever.

Agatha Christie gives you plenty to chew on in this novel. The frantic fitting together of every little detail as you read, hoping to prove to yourself that you’re smart enough to figure it out before the big reveal. The satisfaction of the big reveal itself, as the intricate structure of everything she’s built up to that point becomes apparent. The deep understanding of people, what they want, and how they act. Christie pulling all this out of a small village in the middle of a quiet old English county is perhaps the most impressive thing she does. It reflects actual life so well — no matter how little is happening, no matter how boring something appears to be, there is always depth to it, like a drop of water under a microscope shows an entire unimagined world, teeming with microbes.

It helped me grieve for my mother because while I was reading it, she was right there with me. I’m so much like her that she won’t be gone until I stop breathing, and it’s comforting to be reminded of that. After I type these last words, I’ll stumble off to the kitchen, make myself salmon with shishito peppers, and watch The Defenders, continuing to lead a motherless life. While I’m writing this, and while reading The Murder at the Vicarage, I’m not motherless. Reading and writing are so much of my inheritance from her that doing those things brings her back. She’s with me, not in a mystical sense, but because she built who I am. 

Anyway, The Murder at the Vicarage is a good book, and you should probably read it.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word of Unbinding is a perfect short story

 

Le Guin’s first Earthsea tale is one of her best

I just read one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s first short stories, and it was so perfect it completely derailed my original plans for this post. I have to write this love letter to my favorite author. No one alive comes close to her flawless creation of whole worlds from a handful of sentences, and no one has a deeper speculative-anthropological interest in what humanity is and should be.

You can get the story here for two bucks:
https://www.amazon.com/Word-Unbinding-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01N6G07B8/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1489863570&sr=8-2&keywords=the+word+of+unbinding

I don’t remember the first time I read one of her books — it happened in that post-high-school flurry of absolutely unbound devouring, where you’re no longer reading what you feel you “have to” to be taken seriously, but what you want to — the rubber-band snapping of freedom is disorienting, but it’s wonderful to no longer have to pretend you understand Gravity’s Rainbow at 17 years old.

In that frenzy of consumption, something of hers was tossed in, but where she really grabbed me and never let go was with The Dispossessed. A piece of Science Fiction so perfectly balanced, so perfectly human, serious without confusing being serious with being boring and grim, that I have never forgotten it. It fairly and clearly represents the benefits and flaws of a capitalist and anarchist society (two different planets locked in co-orbital positions, one desert-anarchist, the other lush-capitalist). Capitalism is not all subjugation of the poor (although that is an unavoidable side-effect, if not a planned feature), and anarchism is not all lighting fires and throwing stones — all anarchy means is the absence of hierarchical power structures. UKL shows there’s beauty and flaws in both systems because both systems are run by inherently fallible people.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin at the 2014 National Book Awards

She’s a bona fide hero. If you need proof, here’s her speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, where she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters:

In a room filled with book publishers, at an event sponsored by Amazon, she took the industry to task for “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant” and said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable, but so did the divine right of kings.”

That was UKL the doyenne of American SF. This story is from Ursula K. Le Guin, the barely-published writer, and she already had the magic.

 

The Word of Unbinding: a ten-minute story packed with everything Ursula K. Le Guin would become

In The Word of Unbinding, we already see all the elements that make UKL who she is as an author. Language as simple and clear as a forest stream. The ability to plant twenty words, step back, and watch them grow into an entire vivid world. A focus on the importance of balance, acceptance, and doing the right, the human thing. Before going further, please read the story. It’s two dollars and will take you ten minutes. It is without a doubt the most worthwhile thing you will do today — doubtless more worthwhile than reading this blog.

The Word of Unbinding is an exceedingly simple story. A wizard is trapped in a dark well, guarded by strange creatures and magics, and he tries and fails to escape until there is only one way out. Like all of UKL’s writing, it is simple and straightforward, but so incredibly dense. Not in the James Joyce/Thomas Pynchon sense, but in the sense that each word is so carefully chosen and placed it’s like setting stone on stone. Here’s the first line:

Where was he? The floor was hard and slimy, the air black and stinking, and that was all there was.

She accomplishes everything she needs to in twenty words. The protagonist is lost and confused, something bad has happened to him, bad air, hard floor, and that’s it. Before there’s any chance of remotely understanding what’s going on, there’s a rock-solid sense of where the story is. Next step is explaining who the protagonist, Festin, is:

Lately, in these lone years in the middle of his life, he had been burdened with a sense of waste, of unspent strength; so, needing to learn patience, he had left the villages and gone to converse with trees, especially oaks, chestnuts, and the grey alders whose roots are in profound communication with running water. It had been six months since he had spoken to a human being. He had been busy with essentials, casting no spells and bothering no one.

UKL’s conception of how magic works and what its practitioners should be is the most compelling in all of literature. This isn’t clear from the excerpt, but her system is almost entirely based on naming. Everything in existence has a True Name, and innate power wedded to study and discovery of these names gives a wizard their abilities: just like a writer, they use language to call forth miracles, to change the reality around them. What is clear from the excerpt is what a wizard should be: Festin has not cast a spell in half a year. Magic is not about fireballs and parlor tricks, but about balance. Each and every wizard has a responsibility to maintain and protect that balance — that is what makes them a wizard. The upsetting of that balance is the source of evil, in this story as elsewhere in Earthsea (UKL’s fantasy territory).

 

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Le Guin describes herself as “the most arboreal science fiction writer.” She’s not wrong. Credit: Nikanos | CC BY-SA 2.5

A wizard reaver named Voll goes from island to island, destroying towns and enslaving people, disrupting the natural order. He seals the protagonist in a dark well-tomb. Festin, confident in his power, attempts to escape repeatedly. First as a creeping mist, then as simple air, then as a falcon, then as a trout. He is successively foiled with a blast of hot air, a storm wind, an arrow, and a fisherman’s net. Broken, cold, and kept on the edge of death, he begins wondering why his enemy will not kill him. After due consideration, he takes the last path out of his situation — the word of unbinding:

So Festin made his choice. His last thought was, If I am wrong, men will think I was a coward. But he did not linger on this thought. Turning his head a little to the side, he closed his eyes, took a last deep breath, and whispered the word of unbinding, which is only spoken once.

Festin, seeing his situation and a possible way to restore balance, makes the human (in its least cynical definition) decision and accepts the change required to set things right. Once in the land of the dead, a land of hard obsidian lava flows, black grass, and unmoving stars, he discovers Voll is long dead but has somehow returned to the world. He chases his enemy back to his corpse, forces him to re-enter it, and then sits vigil at the point of origin for the imbalance, guarding against further upset.

Festin saves the world through acceptance of the most human fact there is: all will die and turn to dust. If he had attempted to avoid what must be, he would have remained trapped and ineffective, unable to bring battle to Voll on any plane that mattered.

Cultivating imbalance for personal gain unerringly leads to evil and is set right through courageous acceptance of what must be.

This story floored me not simply because it was so perfect, so small yet so powerful, but because this is one of the first things UKL ever published, and she was already a master. She further developed her talent over a decades-long career, but everything she needed was already there: the power and clarity of her language, the strength of her perception of the world she’s creating, and the strong philosophical attachment to balance. Not to mention it’s a super fun wizard adventure story, written 53 years ago and still wonderful and fresh today.

Lincoln in the Bardo Redux: Still Weird, Still Great

Most weeks, this blog is about a different book. Lincoln in the Bardo is so important that it gets two posts. It’s seriously good. It’s hard to call this stuff, but it might be the next big thing people look back at in a century and think “Whoa, there was a forking path in the history of art.” One of the areas in which Saunders was most inventive was how he constructed 166 completely distinct characters in a single book, so I asked him about that.

I was lucky enough to go see Saunders speak about his book. The event took place in a church, because the demand was so heavy that the nearby bookstore couldn’t accommodate it. High ceilings, arches, stained glass, and a guy from Chicago standing at the pulpit talking about art. It was a really great night, and I got to ask him a question about what his process was for making all those different voices sound so very different. What follows is an inexpertly copied transcript, with changes made for the various uncertainties of human speech (ums, ahs, you knows). My question was about how different each character sounded, but the answer I got was about his entire philosophy of writing. It was extremely gratifying. Thanks, George!

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He drew me a ghost and a Lincoln inside his signature. I mean, he drew that for everyone, but he also drew it for me.

Anyway, here it is:

Q: When I was reading, what I was most impressed with was how sharply distinct each voice was, and doing that with 160-odd characters, even the ones that are just there for like, half a page, hello-goodbye, I was just wondering what went into making those voices so clear and distinct.

A: Oh thank you, yeah. You know, in my short fiction, it’s always in a contemporary voice; I’ll often have two or three characters, and I really try hard to distinguish them in voice, and that means going really overboard on two or three voices. In this book as soon as I realized how many people there were going to be, there’s a hundred-sixty-six, I thought, I have to maybe scale it down just a bit so I can sort of make that many versions. And the approach really was, I mean, my whole thing on writing is, it’s based on a three-part mantra. Donald Barthelme said, ‘The writer is a person who, embarking on her task, does not know what to do.’ Gerald Stern, in a slightly different register, and I’ll clean this up because we’re in church, ‘If you set out to write a poem about two dogs making love, and you write a poem about two dogs making love, then you wrote a poem about two dogs making love.’ And then Einstein, taking it up another level, as he always did, said, ‘No worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its original conception,’ which for artists is a real deep thing. If the thing only is what you thought it was gonna be, then you’ve disappointed. So, in my process, I’m always just kind of proceeding at speed, trying to have as few notions about it as I can, almost imagining like there’s a meter in my head with ‘P’ over here for positive, ‘N’ over here for negative, and the job is just to read, and revise, and watch that needle, without any sort of attachment to where you wanted to be. So, it’s up in the positive, if it goes in the negative, you don’t do that thing where you say, ‘Oh no it didn’t,’ and you also don’t do the thing that says, ‘I suck. I have to go back to law school.’ You just say, what you kinda do is, and my thing is you sorta turn to the story and you say, ‘Hey, I notice you’re down in the negative here,’ and the story will go, ‘No I’m not,’ and you say, ‘Well, I kinda think you are, it’s okay, I still love you,’ and it says, ‘Ah yeah, well,’ and you say, ‘Well, what’s the problem, what’s the problem with the story?’ And it goes, ‘I’m boring.’

‘You are boring, you poor thing. Can you tell me, where are you boring?’

‘Page six.’

‘Ok, I agree. Where exactly?’

‘Third line.’

And you go to the third line, and it says like, ‘Bill sat at the empty table, the black planar expanse, the dark flatness,’ and you go ‘Oh yeah, I get it.’

So it’s a very intuitive approach, and it’s kinda based on the idea that when we’re reading, something crazy’s going on in the mind; it’s so intelligent, and it’s picking up so many signals off the text that are kinda subverbal, you couldn’t articulate them. So in that heightened beautiful state, reader and writer together kind of reach this communion, basically. So, when I’m writing I’m trying to make the voices (to come back, finally, to your question), I think what I do is I try to be as deep in the text as I can, and then I turn over and say OK I need a ghost over here, and then, this is the scary part, I just trust the verbal overflow. You know at that point, a voice will appear, as you’re typing, bom bom bom. So, the trick is to not say, ‘I don’t want that ghost,’ or ‘What does that ghost mean?’ but just like, ‘Go ahead, tell me,’ you know. And so it’s sort of a sustained improvisation, and even with that number of characters you kinda remember what you’ve done before, and your subconscious is moving you away from those, so it’s kind of a crazy process of believing there’s a part of your mind that’s smarter than the surface part, and then sort of allowing that to come through.

So there’s a small piece of George Saunders’ writing process, which I was super excited to hear. Whether he’s the greatest living American writer is a matter of opinion, but he’s doubtlessly in the running. Part of why he’s where he is, and part of what his answer makes clear, is he takes his writing as seriously as a heart surgeon takes his work. He’s not just, you know, telling some story or whatever. He’s telling the perfect story, the only story that could grow in the space in which he’s working. If you haven’t checked out his entire opus, you really should.

Here, I’ll help: https://www.amazon.com/George-Saunders/e/B000APEZ74/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1488608095&sr=8-2-ent

George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is just as weird as you’d expect

George Saunders’ recent Lincoln in the Bardo is the most interesting thing I’ll read all year. Saunders’ career is built on finding the small, the unlovable people of the world and constructing a story around them purpose-built to carve a them-sized cavity in your heart,  to demonstrate forcefully why they, yes, even they, are deserving of love, or at least pity. His writing is very Sermon-on-the-Mount, and encourages us to have empathy for the unfortunate and understanding for the contemptible. Saunders’ career is also built on short stories, and it’s exciting to get a novel out of him. As you might expect from someone who started his career as a geophysical engineer, it strays far from novelistic conventions. So what exactly is it?

In my outline for this part, the first bullet point was “Hoo boy.” Where even to start? I guess with an explanation of what “Lincoln,” “in” and “the Bardo” mean. The bardo is a state of spiritual transition in Tibetan Buddhism. After death, those freshly severed from their bodies linger in a liminal state, awaiting the start of their next life. The one and only setting of the book is Oak Hill Cemetery, where young Willie Lincoln lingers, awaiting his father. He died young from a fever just as the Civil War was really ramping up. The book also features the leader of the sundered Union, Abraham himself, who repeatedly visits his boy’s corpse, unable to move on, just like his recently deceased son.

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Willie Lincoln, the center of the book.

Willie is not alone in the bardo. Oak Hill Cemetery is filled with the archetypes of all the feckless people Saunders tends to write about. In fact, the book is mostly about them. There’s the old man who married a young bride, but died just before consummation. There’s the gay man who slit his wrists and, just as the percussion of blood on porcelain hit his ears, changed his mind. There’s the drunken misfit couple, who passed out in the road and were run over by the same carriage. In the finest traditions of human cognitive dissonance, they are constitutionally incapable of realizing they are dead. They believe they’re simply resting, like the Norwegian Blue (beautiful plumage, innit?). One ghost, obliviously describing his death, says:

There I lay, in my sick-box, feeling foolish, in the parlor…[t]hen the physician returned, and his assistants carried my sick-box to his sick-cart, and I saw that — I saw that our plan must be indefinitely delayed.

Beautiful piece of dramatic irony, as it’s entirely clear what that sick-box is, what that physician is doing, and where that sick-cart is going. The bardo/cemetery plane is semi-sentient, and takes a dim view of lingerers. It’s not outright malevolent, but it is definitely the extreme opposite of amenable to these people. Its job is to attack, to weaken, and to entice. Its methods of enticement are varied, bizarre, and vivid, and I’ll leave it entirely to you to find out what they are by reading the book.

Saunders’ background and his expertise are short stories — perfect capsules of narrative that achieve quickly and efficiently what they’re built to do. Saunders doesn’t so much write a novel here as use his absolute mastery of the short story form to compose fragmentary, ultra-short narratives then fit them back together in a way that works. Saunders is like a self-taught glassblower who never learned how to build a vase in the standard way, in a single piece. He instead starts with 160 colorful shards of glass and fits them together in a way that not only holds water, but is strikingly beautiful and original. That’s how many separate voices are in this book, by the way. Saunders writes 160 different people in a 367 page book. Some are only there for a page or paragraph, some recur, but they are all there and all distinct.

The distinctness of each voice is a triumph. Saunders’ authorial voice disappears completely into each character. He peeks out here and there, certainly, but for the most part, these impressively distinct characters arise from their impressively distinct language. Some examples:

A Union army captain, first coming to the bardo:

Wife of my heart laura laura

I take up my pen in a state of such great exhaustion that only my deep love for all of you could so compel me after a day of such Unholy slaughter and fear. And must tel you frankly that Tom Gilman did not make it through that terrible fite. Our position being located in a copse. Much firing during which I heard a cry. Tom is hit & fallen. Our Brave & Noble frend laying upon his Face upon the Ground. I directed the Boys that we would avenge even if it meant stepping through the very gates of Hell.

captain william prince

One of the more permanent inhabitants, judging the preceding captain for realizing where he is and leaving:

My goodness, I thought, poor fellow! You did not give this place a proper chance, but fled it recklessly, leaving behind forever the beautiful things of this world.

And for what?

You do not know.

A most unintelligent wager.

roger bevins iii

A ghost regretting his choices:

I give her dimonds and perls and broke the harts of wife and children and sell the house from under us to buy more dimonds and perls but she thows me over for mr hollyfen with his big yellow laughing horseteeth and huge preceding paunch?

robert g. twistings

Someone who doesn’t know how to talk without inflating each and every word:

I did always try, in all my aspects, to hew to elevation; to dispense therewith, into myself, those higher virtues of which, rendered without, one verily may sag, and, dwelling there in one’s misfortune, what avails.

elson farwell

A good reverend, trying to convince Willie Lincoln to leave:

What do you think? I said to the boy. Is this a good place? A healthy place? Do these people seem sane to you, and worthy of emulation?

the reverend everly thomas

Five different mini-narratives present five completely different voices, and Saunders does this 160 times. The constantly swirling perspectives, shifting not just in subject, and not just superficially in style, but presenting a new world with every speaker, is the center of what makes this book work.

Saunders expertly places each shard of narrative, expanding here, shortening there, revisiting, interweaving, and building a miraculous whole.  Out of the chaos of each ghost’s small, painful grievance he constructs a cohesive picture of the shared experience of humanity.

Saunders also pulls off this maneuver with quotations from history. There are alternate chapters composed entirely of historical quotations, with Saunders mixing and matching dozens of sources and making them serve the narrative. One of the bardo chapters ends with the ghosts seeing Abraham Lincoln’s face, and the next chapter consists entirely of historical sources describing Lincoln:

The pictures we see of him only half represent him.
— Shenk, op. cit., account of Orlando B. Ficklin.

In repose, it was the saddest face I ever knew. There were days when I could scarcely look at it without crying.
— Carpenter, op. cit.

But when he smiled or laughed…
— Ostendorf, op. cit., account of James Miner.

It brightened, like a lit lantern, when animated.
— In “Lincoln the Man,” by Donn Piatt, account of a journalist.

The impressive thing here isn’t so much Saunders’ ability to quote extensively and fluently from historical sources, but how he can join them together seamlessly to serve his purpose. Without the citations breaking them up, these four disparate quotations flow almost exactly as a fictional paragraph, and Saunders pulls this trick repeatedly. There’s a caveat though: some of these historical citations (not anywhere near the majority, just here and there) are made from whole cloth. In some cases they read with the cadence of fiction because they are. Also, this guy is so good at style that it took me half the book to notice the counterfeit.

The story arc is the movement from anxiety and fixation to enlightenment and acceptance for both the living and the dead. Lincoln needs to come to terms with his grief, leave his boy in his “sick-box,” and go lead a nation at war. Each ghost needs to come to terms with its own death and go on to its next life. For Lincoln, the fixation is the overwhelming, intolerable depth of loss. For each of the other 159 characters in the book, the fixations vary, but what is common is that it forces out all other aspects of their personality. The boneyard is filled with anxiety-ridden neurotics whose fixations influence their physical appearance. The man who committed suicide and deeply regrets removing himself from the sensory feast of life walks around with multiple hands, noses, eyes, etc., sprouting more and more whenever he gets excited; the man who was denied connubial bliss walks around naked with a member swollen to the size of, well, I gather it’s impressive, but you can never really tell as the only people who talk about it are rather repressed 19th century Americans. Let’s just say it appears to impede locomotion.

Oak Hill Cemetery gatehouse, where Lincoln entered the cemetery to mourn his son.
Oak Hill Cemetery, the only setting in the main narrative of the novel.

They are trapped physically (ectoplasmically?) and spiritually by these fixations, and only by making peace with them and opening themselves up to the wider experience of the universe can they move on. When they accept their own death, they pop out of existence with “the familiar, yet always bone-chilling, firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon,” a phenomenon which terrifies those left behind. Simultaneously, Lincoln can only move on to become one of the greatest leaders of history by dealing with his loss. The living and the dead in this book must learn acceptance.

George Saunders has described literature as a “compassion-generating machine,” and he’s built a compassion-generating nuclear reactor here. As each character progresses from misery to acceptance, as their major failings are detailed, the author understands them so deeply that, at the end of their journey, admirable or asshole, enlightened or still trapped, you can’t help but love them, and by extension, love the entire human race. Saunders taps into the powerful national narrative of Lincoln-the-leader, explores his deep struggle with his son’s death, and uses that strong current to help turn the emotional millwheels for an extensive cast of screw-ups, each mini-narrative joined perfectly to the others, mutually supporting and building upon themselves and upon historical snippets, in the clear, inventive style of a master. Lincoln in the Bardo‘s clarity, weirdness, and emotional depth combine flawlessly to make it the best book of the year. Calling it now.