In tribute to Ursula K Le Guin – my review of “The Wild Girls Plus…” 2012

That price for this slender tome must prompt pause for thought. Well, I consider this book excellent value for Le Guin fans and for anyone interested in writing, irrespective of genre.

The titular Nebula Award winning story, The Wild Girls, is followed by an article ‘Staying Awake While We Read’, some poems, another article ‘The Conversation of the Modest’, then an interview ‘A Lovely Art’, followed by a bibliography and short biography. It’s soon clear that this eclectic material has been carefully selected and ordered for maximum coherence and impact.

The Wild Girls story returns fantasy to its folklore roots through clarity of language and the omniscient third person viewpoint so little used in these days of ‘show, don’t tell’ and too often reduced to an unconvincingly remote series of events. Le Guin manages this challenging style with effortless grace, engaging the reader’s emotions with the undeserved sufferings of the innocent and still more impressively, with those who cause such suffering. The intensely personal motives which drive these people enable us to understand them even amid their incomprehensibly archaic world.

While this brief tale of two kidnapped girls enslaved by a patriarchal society is written with lucid simplicity, it is not a simple story. The complexity of all the characters’ lives becomes apparent through successive revelations about the different societies of the city and of the nomads. Slaves do not necessarily bemoan or rebel against their lot. The elites can be imprisoned by the strictures of their caste. Not that Le Guin explains the origins of customs and superstitions any more than she outlines their wider world. There’s no need for this story’s purposes and moreover, this absence of knowledge draws the reader towards the underlying theme of the perils of ignorance. The story also shows how knowledge isn’t a prerequisite for recognising injustice. One doesn’t have to propose a coherent alternative to be able to say ‘but this is unfair’.

As the slave girls grow and marry in an absence of romance though not of love, they discover how they might influence those who control their lives. Thus Le Guin’s story meditates on the role of luck and chance in life as well as unintended consequences and whether or not individuals are rewarded or punished according to what they deserve. Punished by whom? What are our expectations of narrative as opposed to our expectations of reality? How does our experience of story inform our daily lives for good or ill? In forty five pages, this is one of the most-thought provoking tales I’ve read in ages.

The articles and interviews thereafter suggest answers to some of those questions while prompting readers to ask more of themselves. In ‘Staying Awake While We Read’ Le Guin explores mankind’s relationship with story through changing ages of education and literacy, making a compelling case against the commercialisation and commoditisation of books. Capitalism demands unbridled growth. In nature that means obesity or cancer. The consequences for the literary world are equally unwelcome.

While we’re reflecting on that, a handful of poems offer another master class on how much complexity of modern life can be distilled to essentials through the correct, carefully chosen few words. Not necessarily offering answers; I’m still rereading ‘Variations on an Old Theme’ in search of full understanding, while accepting it may not be there to be found.

‘The Conversation of the Modest’ explores the differences between modesty, humility and pride in relation to gender hierarchy in the modern west and also artistic endeavour and merit. If that sounds daunting and dull, never fear. It’s as articulate and entertaining as the interview by Terry Bisson where yet again Le Guin shows how to say so much by saying so little. As well she might. The concluding bibliography and biography summarise the breadth and depth of her work and rightly extol her many achievements. But only after her writing has spoken first.

Ursula K Le Guin The Wild Girls plus… PM Press 2011 Paperback $12.00 102 pages

Reviewed for Interzone 2012

Brief memories of Brian Aldiss

I was sorry to hear of Brian Aldiss’s death at the weekend. Like almost everyone else I know in SF and Fantasy circles, his writing was an early discovery to draw me into the genre and an influence thereafter, from his short fiction to his Helliconia books and beyond. I also had the great good fortune to meet him and hear him talking about well, life, the universe and everything else on various occasions over more than thirty years.

The first occasion was as an undergraduate, when he was a guest at the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group annual dinner. He had been instrumental in founding the society, along with C.S. Lewis. He explained with withering sarcasm how the Powers That Were at the time refused to allow it to be called a Science Fiction club, in case the word ‘science’ misled anyone into thinking there would be serious, academic discussions and pursuits involved. It was very apparent he did not suffer fools gladly.

Hearing him give a talk or being interviewed, it was equally apparent he was wholly unsentimental about his early life, the ups and downs of writing and publishing and indeed, about old age. One of the last times I saw him was when we did an event in support of a local library six years or so ago, where we talked to a packed audience about our respective careers and approaches to writing SF and to writing Fantasy. Sharing a stage with Brian Aldiss on that basis? Imposter syndrome – I had it!

Anyway, given where we both lived, I was happy to help out the organisers, by going to pick him up, drive him to the venue, and take him home afterwards. So after he’d invited me into his home to show me a new piece of art he was very excited about, we chatted in the car all the way there and later, all the way back. Among any number of other topics, he told me with great animation about the display the Bodleian Library was planning about his life and work, so he couldn’t possibly die before that. Then there was the new book of articles and such coming out, An Exile on Planet Earth, so he couldn’t possibly die before that. That was the secret to living as long as possible, he reckoned sunnily; keeping the diary full!

Unsentimental and not suffering fools gladly? If that makes him sound unapproachable, nothing could be further from the truth, certainly in my experience. At that library event, he was genuinely and keenly interested in everything I had to say about my own approach to writing, comparing and contrasting his experiences and my own. There was no hint that he considered SF in any way superior to Fantasy. Good writing: that was the thing, regardless of genre.

Subsequently, he sent me an invitation to the launch party for An Exile on Planet Earth where I had the great pleasure of meeting many of his friends, family members and admirers. That was a busy evening, at the end of a very long day for him. When I went to get my copy signed, he greeted me with a charming smile and said, ‘now, my dear, you’ll have to forgive me, I am an old man. Remind me who we are to each other?’ I cannot think of a more straightforward and gracious way of handling that moment when you can’t quite place someone. He wasn’t going to bluff or dissemble, that simply wasn’t in his character. So I smiled back and mentioned the library event we’d done. ‘Oh, yes!’ he said with enthusiasm, going on to ask how I was getting on with various writing projects we’d discussed in the car.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to have spent such time with him.

A few recollections of PD James

New Year’s Eve seems like a good day to finally post these valedictory thoughts.

I don’t claim any level of personal acquaintance with PD James, but she was an Honorary Fellow of my old Oxford college, St Hilda’s, and also a regular at the annual Crime & Mystery Conference there, which I attend as often as I can. I think I’ve only missed three or maybe four of those since 1994. So I have had more opportunities than most fans to hear her speak and occasionally, to talk briefly with her.

She always took a personal interest in whoever she was speaking to, remarkable when you consider how many thousands of people she must have met in the briefest of encounters. One year at the St Hilda’s crime conference, I was substantially pregnant with my second child. The weather was hot and sultry and more than once, Baroness James of Holland Park appeared beside me, asking if I was alright, and did I want to sit down or perhaps she could get me some water? The next year? ‘Oh, my dear,’ she greeted me with a smile, ‘now, do tell me, was it a boy or a girl?’ I told her I’d had a second son and her congratulations were wholly sincere, no mere politeness.

I have pages of notes which I made while listening to her talk about aspects of the writing craft and the writing business, at St Hilda’s and elsewhere, notably during her tenure as President of The Society of Authors. She offered far too much good advice for me attempt to detail it here. I particularly remember her talking about the sense of place in her books, and how that was so often her personal starting point for a story. I especially remember her talking about the nature of malice and yes, evil, and how that isn’t something separate from everyday life and that’s what makes it all the more menacing. She was also, always, a passionate advocate for the literary value of genre fiction, upholding its merits when dealing with narrative, plot and character. And so much more besides.

Since I write SF and fantasy, I also remember a question from the floor at some event or other, when she was asked what she thought of the film adaptation of her novel, The Children of Men. She smiled and with a distinct twinkle in her eye, said she would much rather see a good film loosely based on a book than a bad film that was a completely faithful adaptation.

Or is ‘twinkle’ the right word? That seems a bit too cosy. ‘Glint’ seems rather too hard though and she definitely wasn’t hard. But as Val McDermid said ‘there was nothing cosy about Phyllis’. She’d lived far too demanding a life to indulge in sentimentality. Let’s not forget that Baroness James of Holland Park wasn’t born to rank, wealth or privilege. She was an honorary fellow of St Hilda’s but never went to university herself to study. Her father didn’t believe in such things for girls. She married young and then found herself supporting her family when her husband returned from the Second World War mentally ill. She would refer to such events in her talks, as and when some facet of her own life might be relevant to the topic at hand. Always matter of fact, never looking for sympathy, praise or such like. I think she would have found the idea of anything of the kind preposterous. But those experiences assuredly gave her a sound understanding of the unfortunate and the underdog which informed her professional and political life as well as her fiction.

Her literary interests went far beyond crime writing. She was an expert of the work of (another St Hilda’s alumna) Barbara Pym. As recently as last November, she gave a talk at the Bodleian Library to mark the Pym Centenary. I particularly remember her talk at The Oxford Literary Festival a few years ago, where she spoke without notes for 45 minutes, standing at the lectern, and then took questions for a further quarter of an hour, giving each one a considered and erudite answer. Since my mother is a tremendous fan of both Barbara Pym and PD James, she came up to Oxford for the day. Since I am on the college media network committee, and was thus involved in helping run the St Hilda’s day of programming, I was able to introduce Mum to her. Once again, even in that briefest of meetings they made a personal connection. (And seeing what that encounter meant to my mum meant everything to me.)

Then there was her interest in Jane Austen and ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’. I don’t mind saying, I approached the book with some reservations, having read a slew of truly dire Jane Austen continuations when I was a bookseller. Thankfully I liked it, and all the more so after hearing her talk about the process of devising the story and the thoughts that had prompted it, most particularly about the burdens of service and obligation on the likes of Mr Darcy and what that says about society, then and now.

That was at a St Hilda’s event for the English School, and the room was packed with students and alumnae and the occasional classicist like me . When PD James explained that she’d opted to write that book rather than a new crime novel because she so disliked the thought of leaving a Dalgliesh unfinished if she died half way through writing it, there was… not a murmur nor a whimper but a sudden and palpable stillness as everyone looked at her at once. The unspoken words on every tongue were ‘Oh no, don’t say that!’

She looked back at us all with the faintest of smiles, and observed dryly, ‘Anyone who has reached my advanced age without coming to terms with their own mortality must be a very strange and unhappy individual.’ As everyone looked at their shoes or their notes, just a little bit abashed, she continued briskly on with her shrewd analysis of (I think) George Wickham’s character.

So that’s something, I suppose. To know that she was at peace with her own mortality and with the consolations of her faith, at the end of a life so very well lived by any possible measure. It was still a shock to hear of her death though. She had always seemed so indestructible as well as indefatigable. It’s only in the past couple of years that she showed visible signs of aging, notably her deafness which she regarded as a confounded nuisance.

As the cliche goes, her work will live on. But there’s more to her legacy than that. I know I’m by no means the only writer over the years who’s seen her as a role model in countless ways. As we will continue to do.

Indeed, that’s largely the reason why I’m finally posting this more than a month after her death. I’ve been writing this piece in fits and starts ever since the end of November. That’s when the EU VAT catastrophe was just unfolding and was suddenly and unexpectedly taking up all my time. I did have more than a few moments’ indecision about what I should be doing and where my priorities should be. No word of a lie; thinking ‘What would PD James do?’ genuinely helped clarify my thoughts. She would have considered tackling such damaging and ill-thought-out legislation was the most pressing task at hand!