Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

Having read quite a few books by Ursula K. LeGuin, I thought I knew what to expect from a new LeGuin novel, but I did not. No. It seems odd to speak of a breakthrough book for an author who has recently turned 80 and has a long and accomplished career. If there were such a thing as a canon of science fiction and fantasy literature LeGuin already would have three books on the list, possibly four. This book, Lavinia (Harcourt, 2008), is among her best, if not the best, and it achieves success in interesting ways.

LeGuin has embraced, like never before, a story entwined with important and prickly topics: leadership, family, war, marriage, religion, poetry and prophecy. Parts of story may be familiar to some readers, based as it is on a minor character in Vergil’s Aeneid.

“Why must there be war?”
(Vergil replies:) “Oh, Lavinia, what a woman’s question that is! Because men are men.”
(p. 87)

The war between the Latins and Aeneas’s Trojans is unnecessary, springing from hubris. Turnus undercuts King Latinus’s leadership by finding a narrative for war that has popular appeal. If this sounds like an Iraq War reading of the story, with Turnus as a combination of Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Blair, so be it. (Witness the spectacle of Tony Blair, only a few days ago, saying with a straight face that he doesn’t regret the decision to go to war and that he would do it again. Turnus is alive among us.) All unnecessary wars have similarities, among them the disingenuousness of the leaders who promote such wars.

Turnus is motivated by his wounded pride, his suit for Lavinia’s hand having been rejected by Latinus and Lavinia, and by his selfishness and lust for power. By expelling the Trojan foreigners, Turnus seeks to win Lavinia and secure the title of King of the Latins. By making Aeneas his enemy, Turnus wages a war that he will lose. It has, after all, already been written, as Lavinia learns.

Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, is trained as a leader of the pagan religion of her people and more than this, both she and her father receive visions and are skilled in interpreting those visions.
“We who are called royal are those who speak for our people to the powers of the earth and sky, as those powers transmit their will through us to the people. We are go-betweens. The chief duty of a king is to perform the rites of praise and placation as they should be performed, to observe care and ceremony and so understand and make known the will of the powers that are greater than we are. It is the kings who tells the farmer when to plow, when to plant, when to harvest, when the cattle should go up to the hills and when they should return to the valleys, as he learns these things from his experience and his service at the altars of earth and sky. In the same way it is the mother of the family who tells her household when to rise, what work to do, what food to prepare and cook, and when to sit and eat it, having learned these things from her experience and her service at the altars of Lares and Penates. So peace is maintained and things go well, in the kingdom and in the house.” (pages 205-206)
When she is 12 years old, Latinus introduces Lavinia to the sacred forest and sulfur springs of Albunea and the visions to be had there. Her eyes are opened, metaphorically, on her first visit and on subsequent visits she meets the poet, Vergil, the creator of her world. The poet asks her if she has any suitors. She lists them and says that she favors none of them, which leads to this exchange (p. 42):

(Vergil, thinking of Aeneas:) “If a man came—if a man came to marry you who was a man in a thousand—a warrior, a hero, a handsome man—”
“Turnus is all that.”
“Has he piety?”

Lavinia has already defined piety: “responsible, faithful to duty, open to awe” (p. 22), an interweaving of family, community, and religion, all in one not-so-simple word. Turnus’s hubris is in opposition to piety.

Over several vision-meetings the poet tells Lavinia some of what her future holds and some of the centuries-distant future of Rome as well.

Some of Turnus’s sense of entitlement comes from Lavinia’s unstable mother, Amata, who has encouraged his ambitions and his pursuit of Lavinia. Amata would like to have her daughter under her thumb, which Lavinia resists as best as she is able. As the story develops it becomes clear that Amata is mentally ill and she becomes more demanding and erratic in her behavior, kidnapping Lavinia in an effort to prevent her marriage to the foreigner, Aeneas, and plotting instead to unite her with Turnus.

Vergil, himself near death, enumerates the names of those who will be slaughtered, some of whom Lavinia knows well. “How do you like my poem now, Lavinia?” (p. 89).

The situation accelerates toward war, as foretold by Latinus, and resolves with the deaths of some important characters (who will remain unnamed on the chance that readers would prefer to discover for themselves) and Aeneas victorious. Vergil’s Aeneid stops there, LeGuin’s Lavinia continues. Vergil’s intent, in part, is to codify a heroic legend of the founding of Rome. LeGuin has a tighter focus: the life of Lavinia, and a large topic: womanhood and its interplay with family, war, marriage, and religion.

Lavinia’s difficult family life, living in the women’s side of the royal family home with a mentally unbalanced mother, is later echoed in her uneasy relationship with a willful stepson, Ascanius, who becomes her king. In his insecure competitiveness, fighting skirmishes with neighboring kingdoms and needlessly antagonizing them, Ascanius recalls the selfish Turnus.

The marriage of Aeneas and Lavinia is central, as it brings lasting peace between the Latins and the Trojans. Together these people, or their descendents, will found the Roman Empire, according to Vergil. Leading to “the great age ... maybe ... or so I once thought,” muses the poet. Aeneas proves to be a model husband and a wise peacetime ruler. He honors and performs the religious rites. His one fault as a father, if it is a fault, is his lack of success in helping Ascanius find the way to the measured exercise of power.

The narrative, while told in uncomplicated language, skips around in time, especially in the first half. It ranges from Lavinia’s girlhood, to her married life with Aeneas, forward to Vergil’s subjective time, and back again. It flows smoothly, but I wonder how readers unfamiliar with writers who take similar liberties would react. Then, there are the meta-realities of the story. It is LeGuin’s story overlayed on Vergil’s story, which is overlayed on legend. LeGuin gives credit to Vergil as the creator of this reality, honoring the creative force of his poetry.

I will stop here, though I feel that I have only scratched the surface of the many things this novel brings to mind.

Related post: Lavinia Revisited

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Locus’ Year in Review

Locus has published its 2009 Recommended Reading List, which it has to be said, is unmanageably large, especially the novelettes and short stories. It took a team of people to compile; it would take a team of people to read. Niall Harrison provides some interesting push back against the Locus reading list.

In addition to the list, Locus’ regular panel of reviewers and editors contribute year in review essays. Some list their top books of the year, some don’t. A few name what for them is the single standout book of the year.

Jonathan Strahan says of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi: “Easily the most important first novel of the year and the best science fiction novel of the year.”

Paul Witcover: “If I had to pick a single standout to top the list, under duress I would point to China Mieville’s extraordinary The City & The City.”

Graham Sleight: “Near the top of anyone’s list would have to be Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl ... it was certainly the most challengingly radical book I read last year.”

Gary K. Wolfe calls China Mieville’s The City & The City, “One of the best and most important novels of last year.”

Jonathan Strahan’s Top Five Books of the Year:

  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Lifelode by Jo Walton
  • Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The City & The City by China Mieville
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Russel Letson’s Particularly Recommended:

  • Conspirator by C.J. Cherryh
  • Crystal Nights and Other Stories by Greg Egan
  • Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
  • The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun by Paul McAuley
  • House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds
  • The Sunless Countries by Karl Schroeder
  • Wireless by Charles Stross
  • Wild Thyme, Green Magic: Stories by Jack Vance, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Terry Dowling

Graham Sleight’s Best Books List:

  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman
  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier
  • Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Gardens of the Sun by Paul McAuley
  • The City & The City by China Mieville
  • Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts
  • Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente
  • In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
  • The Best of Gene Wolfe selected by Gene Wolfe

There is a lot to like in each of these lists and reason to get back to the “to be read” stack.

SF Strangelove’s review of The Windup Girl and The Windup Girl on the Rewind

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Year’s Best SF 14: Summation

Those who’ve followed this blog know that I’ve been discussing the anthology Year’s Best SF 14, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, posting about every story as I read it. Now, it’s time to look back:

The cream of the crop were:
“Pump Six” by Paolo Bacigalupi (SF Strangelove’s mini-review).
“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang (SF Strangelove’s mini-review).
“The Scarecrow’s Boy” by Michael Swanwick (SF Strangelove’s mini-review).

The next-best tier of stories were:
“Memory Dog” by Kathleen Ann Goonan (SF Strangelove’s mini-review).
“Oblivion: A Journey” by Vandana Singh (SF Strangelove’s mini-review).
“Fixing Hanover” by Jeff VanderMeer (SF Strangelove’s mini-review).

The remaining stories had their impact reduced due to flaws or overly familiar treatments. See links to the discussion of each story below.

As the editors made clear in their introduction, Year’s Best SF 14 is not just a compilation of the best stories of the year (2008) in the genre, it is also a survey of different kinds of science fiction. To give some sense of the range of stories, here are a few general categories:

Near future: “Orange,” “The House Left Empty,” “Glass,” “Cheats,” “Mitigation.”
Far future: “Oblivion: A Journey,” “Fury.”

On Earth: “The Egg Man,” “Mitigation,” “Pump Six”
Off Earth: “Arkfall,” “Boojum,” “Spiders”

Utopian: “Fury”
Dystopian: “The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away”

There are a variety of modes -- humor: “Message Found in a Gravity Wave,” planetary romance: “Arkfall,” thriller: “Mitigation,” revenge: “Oblivion: A Journey,” feverishly emotional: “Memory Dog,” and coolly intellectual: “Exhalation.”

Several scientific fields are invoked -- neuroscience: “Glass” and “Memory Dog,” astrophysics: “Message Found in a Gravity Wave,” biology and botany: “Spiders” and “Arkfall,” and computer science: “The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away” and “Cheats.”

Eight of the 21 stories are by women authors. There are nine women authors, since two share the byline for “Boojum.”

Two stories reference cultures outside of the usual Western Culture -- Hindu: “Oblivion: A Journey,” and Japanese: “Arkfall.”

One weakness I feel it is important to point out: There is little here to represent fiction from international sources. I would like to see more.

Here again is the Year’s Best SF 14 table of contents with links to each SF Strangelove mini-review: