Monday, January 31, 2011

Other Hugo Bloggers...again

I just discovered author Jo Walton's great series on past Hugo awards. She doesn't always review the winner, but she is incredibly knowledgeable, and she brings in a lot of the context that I only wish I could bring to my posts:



And her 1957 post where she wisely hands it to The Naked Sun, just like yours truly (well, she does divide her vote with Clarke's The City and the Stars, which I have not read yet).

Sunday, January 30, 2011

1993 Hugo (tie) and Locus, 1992 Nebula – DOOMSDAY BOOK by Connie Willis


Boy, Medieval England sure sounds fun!

Here (following her previous Hugo-winning novella, Fire Watch), Willis portrays a history department at Oxford in the later 21st century in which historians can work “in the field” with the help of a time machine. As I’ve mentioned before, I am a practicing academic historian, and this was one of the Hugo-winning novels that got me really excited and prompted me to start this project. I love the idea. I didn’t love the execution quite as much.

There are really two parallel stories going on here. The central plot involves an undergraduate girl named Kirvin and her “fieldwork” in a 14th century English town. The other remains in the 21st century and follows her mentor, Professor Dunworthy, who worried that 14th century England was far too dangerous a place for Kirvin to work in. After Kirvin departs, both have to deal with serious outbreaks of disease (through a bit of a contrivance…) Dunworthy tries to monitor and protect the lifeline to Kirvin in the past, despite the pressures of an epidemic and quarantine. Kirvin tries to blend in and forges some connections with an aristocratic family and a town priest, but she soon faces her own germ-spawned disaster.

These are interesting storylines, but I wasn’t always happy with Willis’s presentation. She’s a fantastic writer, but, the future portions especially, are written as a comedy of manners. In other words, lots of obnoxious and ridiculously stuffy people wander around and obsess about keeping up appearances and maintaining social status in the face of horrible events. It starts out as droll satire, but soon turns incredibly dark. And by dark, I mean dark. Maybe this is a bit spoliery, but I feel I should say in the way of warning: this novel has a very high body count, and no one is really safe. So, lots of people die in horribly disgusting ways, and the darker it gets, the more frustrating and annoying the “comedy of manners” gets…which very well may be Willis’s point. Nonetheless, while it’s good for characters to have obstacles to overcome, I don’t think those obstacles should be too petty or obnoxious. “Annoyed” is just not an emotion that I look for in novels.

Her presentation of the past was pretty strong. Again, you have some rather annoying people obsessed with social minutae, but, to be fair, social minutae meant a great deal more in a society with severe class distinctions. When travelling to the past, I think authors should always be aware of two conflicting historical realities that I think are summed up nicely by clich├ęs: “the past is a foreign country” and “people are people.” The past (especially a fairly decent past) should be alien at the same time that we see universal themes. Willis does a pretty good job (better than most) of that here. On the other hand, Kirvin does not have much to do for most of the novel (and spends scores of pages in a delirium). By the two-thirds point, I shared Dunworthy’s indignation that they would send an undergraduate so far back.

The novel did a great job of annoying me, and an even better job of making me feel depressed. And that does take a good deal of skill. Willis's talent as a writer was always apparent, even as the book frustrated me. There’s also an ending here that I wouldn’t exactly call redemptive, but it was satisfying, and beautifully written. I liked a lot of this book quite a bit, even if it didn’t entirely live up to some high expectations.

Grade: B+

Thursday, January 27, 2011

1992 Saturn – STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY


It’s been a while since we’ve talked about Star Trek. Of course, the original series was revolutionary, but cut short. Then, it became hugely successful in syndication. There were plans to bring the series back, and the success of Star Wars finally led to a series of films and eventually a new tv show (which we’ll be discussing shortly).

So, why did it take until movie six for the series to get recognition? Four of the first five were nominated for Hugos, but failed to win. My views of those films, which are pretty much in line with most peoples are: first movie – dreadfully dull but pretty; second movie – excellent; third movie – short and sloppy but kind of fun; fourth movie – silly but very fun. The fifth movie was directed by Shatner and is so appalling bad that it should probably win some sort of award of evil. The second film was great, but had to go up against Blade Runner.

For the sixth film, the producers decided to remove the unpleasantness of Shatner’s movie by handing the reins back to the second film’s writer/director, Nicholas Meyer. The result is the second best Star Trek movie.
The Klingons (now with ridges!) have always been the Federation’s main enemy, and they managed to kill Captain Kirk’s son in the third film. At the beginning of this film, the moon of the Klingon homeworld explodes, and their entire Empire in endangered. Their need for Federation supplies creates a unique diplomatic opportunity and a real chance for peace. It could end the “cold war” between the two powers. Get it? Yep, the Cold War (which was a big topic when we were covering the ‘50s) has just ended, and this becomes an opportunity to do something topical.

A conspiracy among hardline elements within both the Federation and the Klingon Empire threatens the peace process, and there’s a great zero-g assassination scene. Meyer also adds the great touch of making the Enterprise crew into Cold Warriors themselves. They’re not sure they want peace with the Klingons, who killed Kirk’s son, after all. The cast fought this, and Roddenberry would’ve hated it, but I’m all for bringing a little moral complexity to the show’s central characters.

This is the last film with the original cast (though a few appear in the next film), and there were already a lot of jokes at the time about their general oldness and expanding waistlines, but Meyer makes great use of the fact in his scenario while still getting in some fun action scenes (there’s a nice escape from a Klingon prison planet and a tense space battle). This is a really great piece of space opera filmmaking. It might not be as thrilling as Abrams' recent take, but it’s about 10 times smarter.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

1992 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation and 1991 Saturn – TERMINATOR 2


The second (and FINAL!) Terminator film is another one of those sequels that’s better than it has any right to be. The scenario of the first film is pretty self-contained: woman runs from killer robot and survives. Sending another killer robot risks repeating the whole thing. Doing it with a huge budget and new special effects techniques threatens to bog the film down in mindless spectacle. Part of the charm of the first Terminator is that it’s a small budget, extended chase. It’s taut and intimate like a good horror flick. T2 threatens to be bloated and unnecessary, but, instead, Cameron manages to build on the mythology he created in the first movie.

John Connor is now a young, troubled teenager. In the future, Skynet decides to make a second attempt at destroying him with a more advanced Terminator – the liquid metal T1000 (Robert Patrick). This time, future Connor sends back a reprogrammed Terminator to protect him (Schwarzenegger). You could cynically see this as future politician Schwarzenegger redeeming his most villainous role, but the character’s conversion does make for some fun moments, especially in his interactions with Connor. The T1000 exists mainly to provide cgi shots; at the time they were so revolutionary, and thus so expensive, that this film infamously destroyed Orion Studios financially. In less than a decade, people could do the same thing on home pcs.

However, the film’s real genius comes through the journey that it takes Sarah Connor on (Linda Hamilton reprises her role). The directionless waitress of the first film has become dedicated to training her son for the apocalypse. She’s tough, well-trained, and ruthless, but she also spends most of her time contemplating fate. She knows that the world will explode in a few years, and she’ll do anything to prepare for it…or maybe stop it. I think Connor might be Cameron’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker. Sure, he’s made a few billion dollar films and revolutionized special effects filmmaking two or three times, but Connor is the kind of vivid and complicated, tough female character that I’d really like to see a lot more of.

If I had a complaint, it might be about the film’s casual violence. There are actually jokes made about assaulting and shooting innocent people (e.g., “He’ll live.”) It actually doesn’t bother me all that much, though I do have the nagging feeling that it should.

So, the effects were great, and they still look good, even if they should not have cost quite so much. There are several fantastic action set-pieces, interesting characters, and a further exploration of time travel/destiny. I’m solidly in the camp that this is a far better film than its predecessor, although I know a lot of people who are in the other camp.

And they never made anything else in the Terminator franchise….

Grade: A


Sunday, January 23, 2011

1992 Hugo and Locus – BARRAYAR by Lois McMaster Bujold


For only the second time in Hugo history, an author wins back-to-back in the novel category. And, as with last time (Ender’s), it’s for books in the same series. This is a prequel of sorts to The Vor Game, and it fills in some important gaps in the chronology (as I mentioned before, I’m reading the Vorkosigan books in internal chronological order, and I’m not sure they’d make as much sense in publication order).

The main focus this time is the birth of Miles, and his mother, Cordelia, is the central character. She’s recently moved to the semi-feudal planet of Barrayar from the more democratic and higher tech Beta Colony, and she’s married Count Aral Vorkosigan, who is serving as Regent for the 4-year-old emperor. Most of the novel centers around her interactions with the complicated and often bloody politics of the planet. There are duels, political rivalries, and the threat of civil war. A lot of time is also given over to relationships within the Vorkosigan household, especially three of the family bodyguards. It’s very character-centered. In fact, it would translate very easily to a fantasy setting (with its romance, court intrigues, and loyal retainers), except for some of the material dealing with Miles’ troubled birth.

Bujold’s prose is strong with some very nice moments, and Cordelia is a very likable character. The plot can go a little over-the-top – there’s a daring raid near the end that really should not have gone as well as it did, for instance – and the characters can be a tad too wonderful and loving, but it’s a fun experience. And, the crazy action and ultra-perfect characters are dialed down a bit from The Vor Game.

It also deals with slightly deeper themes than The Vor Game. Miles’ disability slid into the background in that action novel, but here, the question of whether the damaged fetus should even be brought into the world is foregrounded. The prejudices in Barrayaran society depicted here lead to very interesting conflicts that clearly overshadow Miles' life to come. And, Bujold’s portrayal of Cordelia as a dedicated mother felt real in some very unreal circumstances. Honestly, the character work was so strong that I didn’t even need the action sequences that dominate the novel’s third act.

Grade: B+

Friday, January 21, 2011

1991 Nebula – STATIONS OF THE TIDE by Michael Swanwick


This is one of those odd novels in which I really liked all of the component parts, but the way in which they all came together didn’t quite work for me. Swanwick has great ideas, but the way he tells this story left me cold.

The planet of Miranda (named, as many things here, after a character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) is a human colony where most advanced technology is forbidden. Sea levels will soon rise dramatically in the planet, and most human settlements will be inundated. The central character, known only as “the bureaucrat” arrives shortly before these floods are due to begin to investigate a strange Mirandan man named Gregorian who presents himself as a wizard but may be using stolen advanced technology. The bureaucrat ends up uncovering Gregorian’s past while trying to find him, though much remains obscure until the novel’s end. He encounters other “magical” people, he’s seduced, attempts are made on his life, and he begins to uncover a parallel mystery about the "haunts," the intelligent native species of Miranda that seems to have gone extinct early in the colonization process.

There are lots of literary allusions, and a pervading noir feeling with the investigator, the threatening off-screen nemesis, and a few femmes fatales, and all of this works well. I also like the way Swanwick blends science fiction and fantasy elements – the “magic” here blends future technology and psychology but still feels fantastic.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to say why I didn’t love this novel, but I’m quite sure I did not. Swanwick plays a shell game of sorts – revealing new aspects of his world and characters at certain moments to advance his story and themes. Nothing is quite as it seems, and, in the end, some characters are so much more than they seemed and others so much less. I often felt cheated by the gamesmanship, which reminded me of the new wave sf of the late 60s. As with those novels, I never connected to the characters and the world because of their shifting nature. And, while Swanwick's prose shows his talent, the writing left me cold as it leans on dialogue and simple description. I was fascinated by Miranda and its interstellar environs, and I wanted Swanwick to dive in and tell me more about this world and the characters populating it. Instead, he played coy. In a way, I disliked this novel because I liked its premise too much; Swanwick kept getting in the way of his own world and characters.

Grade: B-

Monday, January 17, 2011

1991 Locus and BSFA – THE FALL OF HYPERION by Dan Simmons


I had heard from a few sources that the sequel to Hyperion did not live up to the promise of its forebear. Based on the first book, I imagined that this novel failed by skewing off onto some sort of metaphysical tangent. Considering that Hyperion had foreshadowed a war between different versions of God, it was easy to imagine the resolution going off the rails in this manner. There is some of that here, but it’s not really where the book goes wrong. I was surprised to discover that The Fall of Hyperion is just kind of boring.

The first novel used an interesting structure to unveil its fascinating world – a series of different tales from varying points of view and in diverse styles. The Fall of Hyperion also attempts a new narrative structure. It is narrated in first person by a new character (though one very closely related to a character in the previous novel) who can dream faraway events on the planet Hyperion. So, we see war planning at the highest levels of the Hegemony government from our narrator, while also picking up the stories of the first novel’s pilgrims while he sleeps. It’s an interesting idea, but Simmons quickly abandons these rules by the novel’s second half in a move that illustrates the book’s overall sloppiness. There are no real rules here; it really feels like Simmons is making things up as he goes along, and you can see the dei ex machina coming from miles away (note to authors: discussing deus ex machina does not excuse it). There are no rules, so there are no stakes. We spend most of the novel watching the Hegemony fall apart, but it’s never all that clear why we should care. Simmons calls the Hegemony’s leader “Lincolnesque” at least five times, but she seems reckless, cruel, self-involved, and ignorant. Characters disappear and reappear, die and get resurrected, get tortured, send their consciousnesses into cyberspace, switch temporal directions, and so on. The narrator moves aimlessly, at one point going all the way to Hyperion and tantalizing us with the possibility that the dual plots will synch up and go somewhere interesting, only to leave again shortly thereafter. Watching an interstellar civilization collapse while gods battle should be dramatic, but here it’s just a mess.

Hyperion was a great book, but I’m not convinced that a) Simmons had a clear resolution planned, or b) had enough material for another full-length novel anyway. As a result, this feels simultaneously rushed and padded, staid and chaotic. This novel has its moments, and it’s still a fascinating world. I might check out Endymion duology down the line, but this one really got away from him.

Grade: C-

Thursday, January 13, 2011

1991 Hugo for Dramatic Presentation and Saturn Fantasy – EDWARD SCISSORHANDS


Tim Burton’s take on the Frankenstein story (well, one of his takes on it) is a metaphor for loneliness, a satire of the American suburbs, an oddball love story, and visually astonishing. Avon lady Peg Boggs (Dianne West) finds a pale man named Edward (Johnny Depp) in a strange black leather costume wandering around the grounds of an abandoned mansion during a sales call. He seems shell-shocked, and he has a grotesque set of scissors in place of hands. He does seem to be quite good at hedge-clipping though.

Peg takes him home. The neighbors begin to gossip, and their opinions of Edward turn dramatically throughout the movie as a suburban mob-mentality takes hold (which makes for some hilarious hedge-clipping and hair-dressing montages). When Peg’s angsty daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) shows up, she grows close to Edward, but must deal with his literal and metaphorical barriers to intimacy.

Depp’s performance is excellent, as are those over-the-top suburbanites. The real star is the art direction. Burton’s films always have a distinctive visual look, but I don’t think it ever works as well as in the clash of light and dark, suburban and gothic, that we see here. Danny Elfman's score ain't bad either, for that matter. This is a wonderful film, and I’m quite pleased that the Hugo voters chose it over the bombastic Governator-starring, ersatz Dick-adaptation Total Recall (even though I liked that movie too).

Grade: A-

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

1991 Clarke and 1990 BSFA – TAKE BACK PLENTY by Colin Greenland


Science Fiction, like rock and roll, seems to flow back and forth effortlessly across the Pond. There’s a strong transatlantic tradition that goes back to the golden age (and before) which has always seen Brits like Clarke on equal footing with Yanks like Heinlein in either nation. So, it’s a bit odd to see a book perform in the awards like Take Back Plenty, which won both of the British sf awards I’m covering, and got completely ignored by all the American awards, not even receiving so much as a nomination. Odder still, I’d never heard of this novel.

It’s a space opera, though largely confined to the solar system, that follows a space hauler named Tabitha Jute and her sentient ship the Alice Liddell (whom we haven’t seen referenced since Riverworld). In this future, humans received space technology from a mysterious group of aliens called the Capellans, who retain a monopoly of sorts over trade and tech in the solar system. They take humans to the canals of Mars and to the outer solar system (in this world, fantastic visions of the planets seem to have some truth to them). There are several other weird aliens running around though, from floating space babies to the annoying little Perks to the forbidden Frasques. Jute gets caught up in some inter-species maneuvering when she takes a job from a con-man named Marco and his sapient parrot. Along the way, there are space battles, spectacular crashes, and a visit to the titular Plenty, which is an anarchic space station.

So, it’s space adventure, almost swashbuckling. The tone is fairly light and the pacing breathless. Maybe a little too breathless. The world is the main attraction here, and it’s very dense. Between the rapidly-developing plot and the barrage of alien races, the reader doesn’t have much of an opportunity to find their bearings. The novel does pause at times to give us Tabitha’s back story through a series of tales she relates to her ship’s computer, though even these are dense with new characters, species, ships, and places. Greenland’s developed a very detailed world, and it’s not entirely necessary to know all of the details. You can admire the complexity without understanding every facet. Still, it’s not the most accessible sci-fi book I’ve ever read.

In the end, Take Back Plenty is a well-written, fun book, and I can see why the British science fiction community embraced it. I can also see why it’s reputation isn’t as good in the United States – I’m not even sure it’s a cultural difference so much as a the right book hitting at the right time. This is a novel that I can easily see some sf fans loving and others not so much, depending on how willing they are to go along for the ride. Apparently, in 1990, British readers were; American readers not so much. I have to admit that I had some trouble myself. There were characters, moments, and ideas that I loved, but I’m not all that crazy about the novel as a whole. I’d still suggest that science fiction fans give it a shot though.

Also worth noting, we really are in an era of well-portrayed female protagonists after that ugly '80s drought. Tabitha is very strong and likable, and there will be others to come in the next few weeks.

Grade: B

Monday, January 10, 2011

1991 Hugo – THE VOR GAME by Lois McMaster Bujold


We now get a string of Hugo novel wins for Bujold’s Vorkasigan saga. I’m reading the series in internal chronological order, in which case this is actually the fourth novel. It’s the seventh by publication order. If I had to sum up the series so far in one word, it would be: ridiculous. But, I’ll come back to that in a minute.

This is the same universe as Bujold’s Nebula-winning Falling Free. There are several human-colonized worlds connected by wormholes. The wormholes are subject to blockade or collapse, and the planets are isolated enough to develop their own cultures and governments. The novels mostly center on Barrayar, a cold planet with an aristocratic, military-oriented culture (there’s a bit of a Russian flavor that’s reflected in some of the place names as well). The “Vor” in question are the aristocrats, whose family names all begin with “Vor” and who spend most of their time in deadly political maneuvers against each other. Aral Vorkosigan is a war hero, former Regent for the young Emperor, and current Prime Minister. His son Miles was wounded in an assassination attempt while still a fetus; he has extremely brittle bones and a somewhat misshapen body. The warrior society of Barrayar is highly prejudiced against people with such physical deformities.

This entry in the series finds Miles graduating from military academy. Despite his physical limitations, Miles is a phenomenal strategist and leader, but his intelligence and strong will can be detriments in regimented military life. Miles is given a six month assignment in Arctic exile to prove he’s a team player; he fails miserably when it turns out that his commanding officer is a murderous brute. He’s then exiled to an off-planet intelligence mission, which also goes spectacularly wrong, this time with massive interplanetary implications.

So, it’s ridiculous. I had a very hard time with suspension of disbelief in this volume, as we get a series of *extremely* contrived chance meetings with old allies and enemies. Apparently, it’s a small galaxy, as Miles ends up thrown in a prison cell with someone very important and familiar to him, despite being light years from their mutual home. And, of course, Miles overcomes astounding obstacles, including multiple imprisonments and devious villains, to triumph fantastically in the end. It’s much in line with the previous volume, Warrior's Apprentice, in which Miles built a large and incredibly successful mercenary army with a few simple deceptions.

If you don’t take the plot contrivances too seriously, however, it is very fun space opera. It’s vintage action in much the same way that Star Wars is, and even the oddly-twisting plot manages to give it a sort of serialized feel. Light-hearted space opera action doesn’t win a lot of Hugos though (I think Ringworld was the last example, though Downbelow Station is close). Is there more to this series? Miles’ disabilities do add some depth, especially in a work like “The Mountains of Mourning” in which Miles must investigate the infanticide of a child with a less debilitating disability than his own (it won the 1990 best novella Hugo). There’s not as much of that depth here, other than some discussion of power and responsibility. But, Bujold’s writing is crisp, her characters are well-developed, and it’s a fun read. Maybe, sometimes, that’s enough.

I should also add that you really do need the context of the previous novels (at least Warrior’s Apprentice but preferably all three) to get into this one.

Grade: B+

Monday, January 3, 2011

1990 Saturn – TOTAL RECALL


Oh, Paul Verhoeven, why do you make such interesting films when you’re so clearly an awful director? Something about his style really grates on my nerves. I don’t mind sex and violence, but no other director, not even Michael Bay, manages to make it feel so darn gratuitous. People don’t just get shot in Verhoeven films, their thick, gooey blood bursts out in giant clumps. It’s Tarantino violence without the winking, good-natured irony. And yet, he did manage to make a couple of compelling sf movies. Hugo voters may be too classy for them, but Saturn took notice.

Total Recall is loosely based on the Philip K. Dick story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” and it plays Dick’s games with reality better than any mainstream film before it, except maybe Blade Runner. Arnold Schwarzeneggar gives a typically awful performance as Douglas Quaid, a working-class construction worker from late-twentieth century Earth. I’ve always thought Ahnold to be a terrible actor when he’s not playing a robot, and this is no exception. Quaid has wistful and disturbing dreams about Mars, and he decides to get a memory implant of a trip there, since he can’t afford a real vacation. He also pays for the “secret agent adventure story” upgrade. However, the memory implant triggers real memories of his life as a secret agent on Mars, and soon several people are trying to kill or capture him, including his wife (an early Sharon Stone performance).

Quaid escapes to Mars and links up with a group of mutant revolutionaries (Verhoeven and the make-up/effects team come up with some pretty odd-looking characters). However, there are also indications that the whole trip may be the memory implant process itself, which his mind is taking too seriously. The film manages to keep the ambiguity alive for the rest of the film by playing it straight but dropping subtle hints to the contrary.

Overall, the acting is weak and Verhoeven’s directing is typically over-the-top, but the effects are excellent – as good as anything non-Spielberg or Lucas that I’ve covered so far, and the story is surprisingly interesting. It’s not 2001 or Alien, but it’s worth a look.

Grade: B+

1990 Campbell – PACIFIC EDGE by Kim Stanley Robinson


I'm going to have a lot of chances to talk about Robinson as we go forward, but he is one of the reasons that I'm doing this project, and I want to mention his first award-winning novel, especially since it represents that rarest of sf genres: the utopia. Pacific Edge is the third in Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy, in which he presents three possible futures for the LA basin. The Wild Shore depicts a post-apocalyptic subsistence society, The Gold Coast shows us a highway-obsessed cyberpunk world, and Pacific Edge examines an ecologically-oriented society.

In 2065, America has splintered and ecological crisis has fostered new pro-environment attitudes and an emphasis on local control and democracy – basically the precepts of social ecology which guide the Green Party, an important force in the novel. The reason that utopias are fairly rare (and good utopia novels even rarer) is that it’s difficult to set up the conflict necessary to drive a narrative. Pacific Edge, for this reason, does feel a bit relaxed. The narrative turns on a love triangle between the protagonist Kevin Claiborne, his friend Alfredo Blair, and a woman named Ramona Sanchez. Kevin spends his days reshaping the very un-ecofriendly geography of Orange County to fit the values of the new bike-riding, wind-powered utopian society. He eventually gets into a political conflict with Alfredo over real estate development… okay, the stakes aren’t too high here, but it does work as a personal story, and it does add a tinge of drama to a novel that is mostly about describing a better way of living.

I love Robinson because he really focuses on the intersections of history, ecology, and geography – topics that are close to my own heart and at the center of my work. Those concerns do add something to the Three Californias, which would otherwise threaten to be a bit generic. Pacific Edge is the most laid-back and slowest of the three, but it’s also the most original concept. Don’t expect a roller-coaster ride, but it’s a well-written, character-oriented novel that does depict a really admirable world well. Robinson also plays some games with intertextuality in the novels, as they bleed over into each other through storytelling. It’s not Robinson’s best work, but they’re worth checking out if you do like his work and are interested in these genres.

Grade: B

1990 Nebula and 1991 Locus Fantasy – TEHANU by Ursula K Leguin


Between 1968 and 1972, Ursula K. LeGuin published her Earthsea trilogy. These novels (which I had not read before, so I read them in preparation for Tehanu) are among the great classics of the fantasy genre; I’d say Earthsea ranks just below Narnia and Middle-Earth in the fantasy pantheon, though it’s not as well known among the general public as those two series. The series follows a young boy named Ged on a world of islands and ancient magic as he learns the depths of his own power, becomes the arch-mage, and battles ancient evils. It’s influence has been dramatic – Riddlemaster feels very derivative of Earthsea, and Ged’s time in wizard school is very reminiscent of a more recent fantasy phenomenon.

The original trilogy suffers from a few of the fantasy tropes that I personally dislike, especially the stilted, myth-inspired prose that I’ve complained about in the past, but I think its reputation is well-deserved. Even when she’s using a voice that I don’t particularly care for, LeGuin is an amazing writer. She captures the wonder of dragons and ancient tombs, and she describes the workings of magic better than anyone before (and maybe since).
The trilogy feels fairly complete, as the final volume threatens the whole world of magic while exploring the relationship between life and death and effectively ends the arc of the main character. However, LeGuin decided to return to Earthsea in 1990 to explore the issue of gender in Tehanu. In the original trilogy she meant to subvert fantasy literature by making her central characters non-white. I’d say that this concern seems somewhat dated (I barely noticed), but, then again, the casting of the recent SyFy channel movie suggests that this is still an issue. So, race subverted, but the fact that the world of wizards is completely male went by without much notice. The second book of the trilogy does focus on a girl named Tenar, who becomes a priestess and has to overcome the restrictions of her religion and sex to help Ged, but LeGuin clearly felt there was more to be said.

So, in this book, we return to Tenar, decades after her previous appearance in The Tombs of Atuan. We check in on Ged’s old mentor, the now-dying Ogion, and we learn that there are actual restrictions on women’s use of magic. Eventually, Ged shows up, exhausted and powerless from his confrontation in the third book, and Ged and Tenar must work together to help an abused young girl named Therru and to avoid conflict with the sexist wizard Aspen.

The tone and language is completely different from the previous Earthsea novels, and reading all four books together really highlighted the clash. The first three books are epic quests, narrated as legendary tales. This novel is far more grounded, quiet, even pastoral, and it moves slowly, without much plot development. It’s interesting to step into this world and get a more intimate look at it, but it turned out there wasn’t much to see.

The book continually returns to the question of how women’s power differs from men, and comes up with the answer that women are more...earthy...and stuff. I found this trite and unsatisfying. With an entire world at her fingertips, I just expected LeGuin to do more than rehash old arguments and give us examples of victimization and repression that could have come from almost any era of real history.

I like the idea behind this novel: let’s look at why this great world she created seems to be implicitly sexist and use that to explore gender roles in a fantasy setting. I think the problem here is that LeGuin has set out to write a dogmatic novel rather than letting the questions arise organically. She forces the issue at every turn, and plot, character, and world-building all suffer as a result.

Grade: C-