Someone on Tumblr asked me if I'd listened to the recent radio dramatisation of Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness
. I have – the first episode at least – and if you wish to do so you'd better hurry up because it expires tomorrow evening (UK time): Episode 1
/ Episode 2
Le Guin's own story is intriguing, what little I know if it, and the trails for the drama sounded interesting; the promotional image was of two people manhauling across a frozen waste, so with that and it being a drama on Radio 4 I was as a moth to the flame.
I think I might have tried reading A Wizard of Earthsea
(which has also had a BBC dramatisation
) when I was a teenager – I definitely remember trying a few highly recommended fantasy novels at one time and not being able to get into any of them. The memory which stands out most was dropping out after five pages of Dragonriders of Pern
when the internal screaming got louder than the words. It's your world's analogue to a year, just call it a year! Why are you capitalising so many random nouns?
Most fantasy to me felt like drowning in worldbuilding, a lot to keep track of with nothing to hold onto, no emotional life ring or a foothold on something I knew.
I'm more than twice the age now, have done a lot of reading in the meantime, and have made an effort to try to understand and appreciate the unfamiliar and initially distasteful, so I thought I'd give it another try. Unfortunately the old familiar drowning feeling came right back. I tried to soldier through, appreciating the production and ideas at least, and I think
I got all the way to the end, but couldn't make myself go for Episode 2. I'm really sorry.
Of course I had to keep picking at it; I had to figure out why this turned me off so much when it ostensibly has a lot in common with other things I like. An idea I had in college came back to me, that speculative fiction really ought not to be divided into Sci-Fi and Fantasy (the boundary between which is famously subjective) but rather Fantasy With One Foot In Reality (Bipedal Fantasy, for short) and Wholecloth Fantasy, which is an entirely distinct universe with at most a passing nod at our own. Whether it's set in a quasi-medieval Arcadia or a hyperfuturistic space station, a story tends to be either tethered to our own reality or completely free-floating.
All the fantasy I like is Bipedal:Watership Down
is a book about another society, with its own rules, mythology, and vocabulary, but it happens to be made up of ordinary rabbits in ordinary Hampshire (which, admittedly, is a fantasy world to a five-year-old in San Diego) and the familiar pokes through often enough it never feels very foreign.Redwall
is set in another world, but with familiar furniture – it could be the same world as Wind in the Willows
, Beatrix Potter, or Disney's Robin Hood
– and in the early books at least it is not magical.Harry Potter
is magical, but has one foot planted in our everyday reality; most of the books start at the Dursleys', and Harry comes to the magical world with a relatable Muggle frame of reference. We only start losing the lifeline to our reality when the wizarding world has become a second home, and even that alternate reality plays off what we find ordinary.The Dark Is Rising
is very similar, and while its magical world is less of a riff on the nonmagical one, it keeps one foot in each world much more consistently than Harry Potter does.Discworld
is set in another world, and is magical, but it is plainly our world reflected in a funhouse mirror. Its thematic and satirical aspects are the foot it has in reality, and the characters it uses to illustrate its high-concept side are fully relatable human beings (for a given value of human).Ray Bradbury
's writing also uses its satirical side to ground us in a familiar reality, often the quintessential 1950s suburban ideal or stereotypical mid-century image of The Future.Fatherland
, being Alternate History, depends upon on our knowledge of WWII, but being twenty years down another leg of the Trousers of Time, maintains a certain distance. The power of its ending comes in part from its swinging back around to connect with our reality.The Left Hand of Darkness'
idea of gender-shifting humanoids is fascinating and opens all sort of narrative and philosophic opportunities, but I felt like I got more juice out of the Dwarf Feminism subplot in Discworld, and especially Monstrous Regiment
's illustration of 'People are people' – the characters in Left Hand of Darkness
seemed to spend more time explaining the implications of gender fluidity and how their society and relationships were structured around it than they did being people.
Wouldn't it have been more effective to make us know and love the characters and then
find out their species' quirk?
It's personal taste, of course. I know there are lots of people who are over the moon about Le Guin and her ilk, and I can see why if I step far enough back from myself. I wish I had that capacity for falling headlong into Wholecloth Fantasy, but my imagination is, as Professor Trelawney would say, 'hopelessly mundane.' I don't wish to tell them they're wrong, only explain where I'm coming from in a way that makes some systemic sense. Does it?