The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe (1972)

This is a phenomenally careful, elaborately structured and disorientatingly weird work of art.

It’s made up of three novellas of about 70, 50 and 100 pages each. They are wildly dissimilar in style and approach, and each of them is, in its own way, extremely dense and elliptical.

By elliptical I mean that Wolfe very deliberately leaves out loads of backstory. In most popular, pulp or genre fiction, either the narrator sets the scene right at the start or one or other of the characters sooner rather than later gives an explanation of what’s going on and what is at stake.

Instead, Wolfe adopts a deliberately puzzling and bewildering strategy of postponing any kind of explanation of what’s going on, indefinitely. To be honest, I never really, fully grasped exactly what was going on in any of these three stories – for example I’m not sure if the second one is intended as a fiction or a true account.

The sense of bewilderment is exacerbated by:

  1. Wolfe’s unusually baroque prose style
  2. the extremely weird science fantasy settings and details of the stories

The Fifth Head of Cerberus (70 pages)

A first-person account by a narrator who early on drops that he’s been in prison and is looking back at events from a distance.

It is an account of his childhood, brought up in an elaborate, Gormenghast-like establishment, La Maison, with barred windows which looked out over a front garden, and a roof garden above where parties are held, sharing a room with his brother, David, both of them being pedantically tutored by ‘Mr Million’ who, it emerges, is a kind of robot which runs on wide wheels and has some kind of hologram embedded in its metal casing, in which a human head talks to them, setting them subjects to debate, correcting and reproving them. There’s a vivid attempt to capture Mr Million on the cover of one of the SF Masterworks editions.

The boy’s life changes around his seventh birthday when his father starts calling for him every evening to be brought to his study, where the boy is held down on a chaise longue and injected with drugs while his father asks him penetrating psychological questions, IQ tests, free association sessions and so on.

We never learn the narrator’s name, and his father decides to call him Number 5. Occasionally the boy gets sight of his aunt, an upright stark figure who, in a striking scene, he realises doesn’t walk but glides, eventually realising that she doesn’t have any legs but her body sits on a kind of saddle-like device which suspends her at leg height.

From scattered remarks we are also able to piece together that the establishment he’s being brought up in is a high-class brothel, with plenty of eminent male customers in top hats and formal wear (later we learn that a visitor, Marsch, wears a top hat and a cape like a Victorian gent, p.154). Customers are greeted by girls who seem to have been surgically enhanced to have super-pert breasts, bulging eyes, and be abnormally big.

Oh, and it’s all taking place on another planet, Sainte Croix, a planet which was settled a century or more earlier by humans travellers across space. Sainte Croix circles closely around a sister planet named Sainte Anne and they are both some 20 lightyears from earth.

Piecing together casual asides, the reader deduces that the planets were originally settled by the French – hence the French names of the planets and settlements (‘the original French-speaking colonists’ -p.40) – but at some later time was violently seized from them in a war (‘the destruction of the records of the first French landing parties by the war’, p.131 – and that most of the French lost arms or legs in the war, p.132, ‘the log of that first ship was lost in the fusing of Saint-Dizier’, p.171 ‘Both were originally found and settled by the French’ ‘Who lost the war’ p.183).

And so Number 5 and his brother David go on for years, being tutored and taken for polite walks in a nearby park by Mr Million, and in the evening taken off for a regular session of drugs and intensive questioning. Slowly Number 5’s health deteriorates, he experiences extended blackouts.

On a couple of occasions he meets his unsympathetic aunt, who at one point asks if he is familiar with Veil’s Hypothesis – the theory that the Sainte Anne aboriginals could mimic the human settlers so perfectly that they killed them and took their places; in other words, that all the human characters are in fact descendants of chameleon-like aborigenes.

Number 5 is thrilled when he meets a visitor, John Marsch, an anthropologist, who has come, in fact, from earth, a place he has heard so much about. Number 5 desperately tries to keep Marsch busy and question him in the parlour but Marsch is impatient to meet Aubrey Veil, inventor of the hypothesis (p.30). You and I assume this to be Number 5’s father, so it is a big shock to all of us when Aubrey turns out to be Number 5’s aunt!

In the park one day he encounters a pretty girl, Phaedria, despite the efforts of her governess to keep them apart. Incongruously, she, he and David help set up an amateur dramatic society and put on productions all through the summer. When money runs short they decide to break into a slave trader’s warehouse – a gripping and grotesque scene, as they first go down through a floor of huge chained barking mastiffs, before getting to the floor of chained slaves.

They get past these alright but, in the small cash room, come across a grotesquely engineered human, a human creatures with four arms who attacks and nearly kills them before they can spear him and escape.

But Number 5 realises that the creature’s face bears a resemblance to him, and his father. And now he realises that this fact explains the fondness Mr Million has shown all the way through his boyhood for often stopping off at the slave market en route to or from their outings to the park. (Slaves! the slave market?) Now Number 5 really pays attention, he realises that a regular number of the slaves look like his father and him.

At some point during these events the reader realises that Number 5 is a clone and, presumably, so are the slaves he sees – hence their similar appearance. Marsch pays another visit and casually lets drop that so is his father – they’re all clones of the man whose hologram is inside Mr Million, namely his grandfather. (Sometime during the process it dawns on some readers that the narrator’s name may reflect his genetic origin: what better name for a clone than Eugene, or Gene?)

The story reaches a climax as Number 5 decides he is going to murder his father, a decision he reaches quite coolly and dispassionately. When he arrives at his father’s study for the evening drug-induced interrogation, he thinks his father sees it in him, as if this is a ritual which must be gone through.

The narration speeds up and the narrator briskly describes how he kills his father but is then discovered, arrested and sentenced to nine years of harsh imprisonment. When he is finally released he makes his way back to the big family home where, we are told, he takes his father’s place as head of the family estate.

Wow. My head is spinning and so much has been left unexplained. The slaves? The clones? Mr Million? How does it all… fit together?

‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch

This is a really out-there text. Forget it being a ‘story’ by Marsch the anthropologist in any conventional sense of story – it is a third-party account of a few weeks in the life of an aborigine dating from – presumably – before the Terrans arrived, and describing the completely alien, primitive society of the time.

We are on Sainte Anne, the sister planet to Sainte Croix. We are told of the birth of John Sandwalker, twin to another boy, John Eastwind (all boys are named John – or whatever native word ‘John’ is translated from), to their mother Cedar Branches Waving, at a holy birthing place among the rocks and barren desert.

Some indeterminate time later Sandwalker is on a quest in the fierce, barren outback to find a priest who lives in a cave under a waterfall. He is starving. All the humans are hungry. Most of them die if they don’t hunt something after three days. Many are born but most die. There is no agriculture and the beings he describes are cannibals, although hedged round with bizarre taboos.

Sandwalker, like the other ‘humans’ described, powerfully confuses or intermingles sleep and waking, sleeping dreams being full of all kinds of omens and meanings.

Sandwalker goes out to hunt and meets the Shadow Children, a strange nocturnal race who seem to be a) half the height of people b) only come out at dark c) are hard to see clearly d) appear to contribute to each other’s existence, in the sense that it takes a number of them to bring their spokesman, the Old Wise One into being.

Sandwalker appears to make some kind of peace with them, in exchange for which they share a tick-deer they have killed. Singing is a big part of both cultures and Sandwalker shares in the Shadow Children’s singing.

Walking on, he meets a girl named Seven Girls Waiting and her baby, Pink Butterflies, at a rare oasis. She has been abandoned by her people for reasons I didn’t understand. He hunts food for her and her baby. They have sex. There is an odd exchange about trees. Sandwalker points out that all people come from trees out of women. Later his tree is hard. So ‘tree’, on one appearance, seems to mean penis – but there are many more occasions when it actually seems to mean tree. And trees are holy. When he first approaches the oasis he keeps his eyes on the one and only tree as a mark of respect, and asks its permission to come closer.

Sandwalker goes hunting for more game to take to the cave under the falls. He then decides to travel down the river which flows through the story downstream towards the marshmeres and, ultimately, the sea.

Here Sandwalker, walking, trekking, singing through the outback on his own, comes across some Shadow children who he rescues from enemy marshmen who he kills. But then he learns that his mother, Cedar Branches Waving, and tribe members Leaves-You-Can-Eat and Bloodyfinger, have been captured by other marshmen and taken away. So he sets off to rescue them.

Instead he is captured and thrown into a deep sandy pit, along with the Shadow children who have followed him. Here there is a series of confusing conversations – first with a couple of his own people who have been captured and are in the sandpit – but mostly with the Shadow Children who reveal all kinds of secrets.

Confusingly, they make references to earth, or to earth culture, in a roundabout and elliptical way which seems to imply that they are the degraded descendants of colonists who might have come from earth a very long time ago.

(But if all this is happening before the planets are colonised, does this mean there was some earlier wave of space travel and colonisation? How? When?) At one point the Old Wise One mentions a string of places which mostly seem nonsense but in the middle of which are mentioned ‘Atlantis’ or ‘Africa’ as possible origins for the Shadow children. What? After such a long time, during which they seem to have mutated into another form of life completely, how would he remember those names? It’s mind-twisting.

The three men, Sandwalker’s mother and the girl are brought up out of the sandpit and forced out into the ocean where a crowd of the other tribe chant excitedly and two of Sandwalker’s group are ritually drowned. Someone explains that the ritual killing is so the dead men’s souls will enter the river and carry messages from the other tribe to the stars.

Supervising all of this and clearly a man of status in his tribe is Sandwalker’s long-lost twin brother, John Eastwind. There is absolutely no human love or affection between them, just the conflict of two beings from a culture immeasurably distant from our own.

Sandwalker and the others are taken back to the pit and thrown back down into it, although a couple of the Shadow children are killed on the way back. The cruder members of the other tribe gloat to Sandwalker how the marshmen will feast on their bodies tonight. Hunger, in fact starvation, is an ever-present fact of these people’s lives.

The next day Sandwalker, his mother, Seven Girls Waiting, and the surviving Shadow children are brought up out of the pit again, and marched the same route to the estuary of the river into the ocean to be ritually drowned except that… one of the Shadow children refuses to go quietly.

The whole text is written through the eyes of its pre-literate protagonists and so takes seriously cult and taboos and dreams and spells, to such an extent that it is often difficult to figure out what is going on. Wolfe doesn’t make it obvious or easy. He expects his reader to pay attention and put in a lot of work.

Here at the end, the story reaches an apotheosis of obscurity as two things happen.

1. One of the Shadow children refuses to go quietly and, disobeying the instructions of the by-now very wispy Wise Old One, reveals that for many years the Shadow children have projected some kind of force field out into space and so protected their world from discovery by alien races (which – we think – they were once themselves).

This Shadow child now, abruptly, decides to turn off the force, and we feel from Sandwalker’s perspective, what it feels like for a great shudder to pass over the world and it suddenly to feel much bigger.

Within moments one of the many ‘starcrossers’ which have been periodically referred to, falls from the skies, with a flare of… of what? of engines? Does this mean there’s been a busy traffic of spaceships to and fro past the planets which have been somehow been rendered invisible – and now, at the flick of one of the Shadow children’s minds, they have become somehow visible and inviting to passing astronauts? Is this event the arrival of the first (or current wave) of colonists, whose descendants feature in the first story?

Confusing? Yes, very.

2. Meanwhile, back with the crowd of marshpeople who have assembled to watch the ritual drowning, Sandwalker takes advantage of the confusion and the sense that the other tribe have lost the initiative, to seize control of the situation.

In a puzzling development he and his twin brother break the loopy roots of something like a mangrove tree which is lined with razorsharp shells, and proceed to whip to death the priest who had been supervising the ritual drownings, Lastvoice.

Then, Eastwind and his brother are debating what to do next when Sandwalker grabs his brother’s hair and is bending him backwards into the sea to drown him… when the surviving Shadow children intervene, telling him part of him will die with his twin if he kills him.

While he hesitates, a Shadow child darts forward and sinks his teeth into Eastwind’s arm and the latter’s eyes go blank. Is this because the Shadow children (we learn, latterly) are addicted to chewing a leaf which, rather like coca, appears to have powerful druggy effects? Or is it because, as he bit him, the Shadow child told Eastwind that he made him Sandwalker and Sandwalker Eastwind? Does Eastwind believe he has changed places with his brother because the Shadow child said it? Or can the child work magic?

Impatient of all this, Sandwalker abruptly drowns his passive, glazen-eyed twin. But then doesn’t know whether he is Eastwind or Sandwalker any more… Neither does the Shadow child. Neither does the reader.

The exchange of identities between the brothers is extremely confusing even to them, if it indeed happens – but it is definitely a big and deliberate theme.

In the last paragraph, as his dead brother floats in the surf, the Shadow child points out a disturbance further along the ocean shore. A green object is bobbing in the sea. Three men stand nearby swathed in leaves (does this mean, wearing clothes?) and speaking a tongue none of them understand (does this mean they are astronauts? they got her pretty quickly).

As Sandwalker walks towards them, they stretch out their hands, palms out, empty, to gesture that they have no weapons. But nobody on this planet has ever known weapons. So are we to take it these are the first arrivals from space, the first colonists? And is that the meaning of the last sentence?

That night Sandwalker dreamed that he was dead, but the long dreaming days were over. (p.122)

So were Eastwind and Sandwalker the aboriginal shapeshifters who were referred to throughout the first novella? In which case, what relation do they have to the Shadow children, who seem to come from different stock but can hardly be called human, since they are small, transparent, and barely exist as individuals? Did the Shadow children really come from earth aeons and aeons earlier? From Africa or Atlantis? Or long long before that?

How?

V.R.T.

The third of the tales is clearly linked to the first two, and is full of subtle allusions, picking up many of the threads of the first one, clearing up some questions, but creating more ones.

It is told from the point of view of a brutal security officer connected to a Sainte Croix jail who, one bored day, is presented with a big box containing all the materials relating to the interrogation of a prisoner for treason. Bored and only half paying attention, he leafs through diaries, notes, letters, transcripts of interrogations including tape recordings – at random, skipping bits, throwing sheafs of paper away, dipping in and out of various narratives.

So it’s in this manner that the reader is presented with a very jumbled assortment of texts, snippets and cuttings, none of which ‘finish’, but through which we slowly gather that the prisoner under arrest and interrogation is none other than John Marsch, the anthropologist we met in the first section and who – supposedly – ‘wrote’ the second story (though I, for one, took the story as a true account of events rather than an experiment in anthropological fiction). (Unless I’m completely missing the point somewhere.)

We learn that Marsch has been kept in prison, in solitary confinement for over a year, and the brutal security officer (we see him casually slapping and beating his ‘slave’ – then we see him brutally ‘using’ the tired woman courtesan or prostitute who services him) is now reviewing his case.

One of the texts describes in some detail an expedition Marsh undertakes, with the son of a local man, into the outback. The father jokes that the boy is part-aborigine (but then, everyone in all the stories is haunted by this idea that the aborigines never died out, but are such adept shapeshifters that they simply assumed the shape of the colonists, the most extreme theory being Veil’s Hypothesis that, in fact, there are no remaining abos for the simple reason that they murdered and replaced the colonists and then forgot the fact. The colonists who worry about and go searching for the abos are in fact… themselves the abos!)

In fact the text strongly hints that the boy is the abo he literally believes himself to be, since he a) believes he is (which may be half the trick) b) is useless with tools or anything practical, which the father says is a sign of the abos – which can appear like a man but can’t use tools, being animals.

In eerie scenes, the boy guides Marsch through the territory which we realise we’ve seen so vividly described in the previous story – namely from the brackish marshes of the big river delta (the river the colonists call the Tempus), steadily upstream to where the river is narrower and very fast, even resting at a place the boy considers holy which was almost certainly a resting place for Sandwalker, and they are, supposedly, in search of the priest’s cave under the waterfall which featured in that story.

So is the overlap because they are eerily, spookily retracing the steps of Sandwalker? Or is Sandwalker a fictonal invention, and the previous story genuinely is a conscious fiction, written by Marsch, as a kind of fictional way of theorising about the abos?

There is similar linkage with the first story, because in some of the documents, specifically a long account of his arrest, Marsch says it took place late on a night when he had attended the Cave Canem – and we know this is a nickname for the brothel run by Number 5’s father – in fact Marsch specifically mentions that the father had been asking his advice on what to do with his ‘son’. In fact, he might have been arrested on the same night that Number 5 murdered his father!

Intercut with the account of the night of his arrest (which is a parody of the arrest of Joseph K in Kafka’s novel, The Trial, right down to the scuffiness and unnerving humour of the arresting ‘officers’) is an account of Marsch being taken out by boat by an old fisherman from Frenchman’s Landing who claims to be an ancestor of one of the abos, and proceeds to confirm many of the details from the previous section.

The old fisherman is a famous drunk in the small fishing community, and scrapes a living telling tall tales about the abos and their traditions (by the way, I use the word ‘abos’ because that is the word used throughout the book; in fact in this section in particular, the anthropologist prefers to refer to them as the ‘Assenes’). So is he a useless drunk and liar? Hardly seems like it since he knows a lot about the supposed customs and appearance of the Assenes.

For example, at various points, he mentions that when they’re not shape-shifting, in rare glimpses, they look like wood, like fenceposts.

Anyway, in the fishing boat the old man and the boy take Marsch out to the very location where the first ‘starcrosser’ spaceship landed, and tell the story that this is where the first French astronauts came across the body of an abo which had been whipped to death, and then had their first encounter with Eastwind, who the fisherman claims as an ancestor.

So did those events really happen? Or is the text we read really only a fiction, a short story made up by Marsch on the basis of the old fisherman’s yarns?

Many other details of the other two stories are confirmed. For example, one of the records of Marsch’s interrogations confirms that he saw several plays put on over the summer by a company of young or child actors – which presumably refers to the company set up by Number 5 and Phaedria.

In the interrogations, we get a feel for the polite, insistent and sceptical character of the interrogator. And in the last twenty or so pages two narratives converge – the account of Marsch’s interrogation intercutting with Marsch’s diary account of the expedition into the outback he undertook with the uncanny boy – and a third element – Marsch’s diary from prison which, we learn, is pretty hellish, consisting of a concrete space wide enough to spread his arms and legs but only a little over a metre high.

To cut a confusing story short, what seems to happen is that the trip in-country with the boy becomes more and more uncanny. They find themselves trailed by animals, an enormous flesh-eating ‘ghoul’ which Marsh shoots, but also a friendly cat. The reader gets the strong impression these are uncanny, that they’re shapeshifters, or something.

Then in the climactic scenes, as they penetrate deep into the dreamtime, spooked outback, the boy seems to have an accident but… was it the boy…? Marsch’s diary records him learning lessons about anthropology quicker and quicker, copying Marsch’s handwriting… was it the boy who had an accident or…

Was it Marsch? Did the boy take over Marsch? Is it like the obscure exchange of personas between Sandwalker and Eastwind?

Flesh is put on the story by the account of the interrogator, who points out to Marsch that after years (apparently) wandering the outback, he suddenly appeared in a completely different coastal settlement, without the boy, wearing new clothes. He took up his anthropological position at a colonial university but the authorities weren’t interested in him and so he caught a shuttle to the sister planet, Sainte Croix.

The interrogator explains the difference between the planets, namely that Sainte Croix has slavery, while Sainte Anne doesn’t, and gives a twisted defence of slavery (how does a man know that he’s free, unless he’s got slaves?)

The actual charge of conspiracy is based on some figures found in the back leaves of some of the books he brought from Sainte Anne – along with the accusation – we learn on almost the last page – that he was somehow involved in the murder of Number 5’s father.

Anyway, in the last ten or so pages, two things happen:

1. It seems from the way Marsch’s diary is written that he IS the boy abo, that the boy abo did completely take over his body and mind – because Marsch’s later diary entries merge seamlessly with memories of the boy and his mother, and of the boy growing up in the household with a shapeshifter mother and terrestrial father.

2. Right at the very end of the book, we get to read the official letter from officer’s superior, who lists the charges against Marsch, and says he believes he is a spy sent by the military junta on the ‘sisterworld’ i.e. Sainte Anne. The unnamed officer through whose eyes and mind we have read all these disparate letters, diaries, journals, interrogation notes and so on, writes a brisk professional reply saying that, having weighed the evidence, he recommends that Marsch continue to be held in solitary and interrogated until the authorities ‘secure complete cooperation’ (whatever that means).

And he packs all the documents back into their crate, along with his recommendation, and gets his slave to promise to take it post-haste to ‘the commandant’ along with the message that he, the officer, stayed up all night to review the case.

In one of the many weird details about this section, we get to see the slave’s glee at being able to perform a genuinely useful service for his master, and the officer’s pleasure in giving him that glee.

Right up to the very end this book is full of unnerving and genuinely other perceptions, states and ideas.

It demands to be read at least twice, so you can notice all the intricate threads and themes and links which have been sewn through it. But even then, nothing would change the heartbreaking final pages when the prisoner – whether he is Marsh himself or the abo boy, whatever his identity – is heartlessly condemned to an indefinite further period of imprisonment in his hellish box.

After the slave has left with the crate, the officer finds a leftover spool of interview tape which had rolled behind the lamp on his table, and thoughtlessly chucks it out the window, into the neglected flowerbed outside. Because the account of his arrest is so redolent of Kafka’s Trial, I couldn’t throw off the feeling that the entire third story is suffused by the spirit of Kafka’s other, appallingly horrifying and heartless story, In the Penal Colony.

It is difficult not to be profoundly depressed by the final, complete indifference of the universe to the incredible story of John Marsch and the shapeshifting alien.


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Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undergo a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away which revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ original shapeshifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin (1966)

This was Le Guin’s second published novel and her modus operandi was well established:

  1. Imagine a planet with a set of really unique or distinctive circumstances
  2. Work out in great detail the implications for the kind of intelligent life forms which would inhabit said planet
  3. Then, almost as an afterthought, devise a ‘plot’ or series of events, often fairly stereotyped or clichéd, whose real function is to help us explore – and allow Le Guin to explain – the ramifications and consequences of the strange world she has conceived

The premise

Thus – Planet of Exile is set on the planet Werel and the key facts about it are astronomical:

  1. Werel has a moon, and Werel and its moon orbit around each other, taking four hundred days to complete each ‘moonphase’.
  2. Together this orbiting couple circle their sun – known as Eltanin to the locals but Gamma Draconis to outsiders – in sixty moonphases – in other words, 24,000 days! (p.132)

Thus a ‘year’ – and one cycle through the traditional seasons – for the inhabitants of Werel, takes 65.75 earth years – in effect, one human lifetime.

So most inhabitants of Werel expect to experience just one spring, one summer, one autumn and one winter during their lives, and the seasonal changes we take for granted happening relatively quickly on earth (leaves turning brown and falling, it getting colder and starting to snow) last for years and years on Werel. With the result that it has flora and fauna, but they all behave in eerily different ways, ways which crop up as disconcerting details throughout the story. And the entire experience of life for the humans which inhabit Werel are utterly different from ours.

Background to the story

The farborn Over ten generations ago, colonists came from earth by spaceship to settle on Werel. To be precise, we are told on page 134 that it is the 391st day, of the 45th moonphase of the Tenth Local Year of the colony. I calculate this to be nine local years (216,000 days) + 44 complete moonphases (17,600 days) + 391 days = 233,991 days / 365 = 641 years since the colonists arrived on the planet (p.134).

They built a city they named Landin and a few others along the coast (one named Atlantika is mentioned a few times). Soon after the original settlement, however, the spaceships and some of the colonists were called away to deal with the threat of conflict with the Enemy – presumably the same extra-galactic Enemy referred to in Rocannon’s World – and since that date there has been no contact whatsoever with the mother planet.

Over this long epoch, the colonist population has been steadily declining in number due to miscarriages and infertility, and the colonists have slowly lost interest in much of the knowledge their books contain. They are very slowly reverting to barbarity. They can still read but no longer understand many of the references in the books they have carefully treasured since the Founding. As a small example, they have a good and effective doctor (Wattock) but in a scene late in the book it is made clear that, although he has read about bacteria and bacterial infections, he doesn’t actually believe in them (p.205).

The Arkatevarans The colonists live among a native population which is much more primitive, who they call ‘hilfs’ (which we learn stands for Highly Intelligent Lift Forms, p.148). The natives refer to themselves as Arkatevarans and live in what sound like mud huts, paint themselves with tribal markings, smoke a kind of marijuana, carry out primitive tribal dances and so on. Later on we learn that, much to some farborns’ contempt, the Arkatevarans have still failed to invent the wheel.

The story concerns a particular group of natives who live in a settlement they call Tevar, and so are referred to as the Tevarans. They are led by a wise, old, wilful, obstinate survivor named Wold. The Tevarans call the colonists the ‘farborn’, distrust and dislike them. They differ in a host of small ways, the oddest being that the farborn are unafraid to look directly at someone they’re talking to, while the Tevarans have a taboo about this, and always avert their gaze.

Another difference is that the colonists appear all to be black. Half a dozen passages refer explicitly to their black skin – not dark skin – black (pp.147, 156, 203, 205, 206).

Lead protagonists in later novels are also of African descent. Without some biographical reference or explicit statement, it’s difficult to know whether this represents an explicitly political move on Le Guin’s part – as a liberal academic, no doubt the was brought up to support the Civil Rights movement etc – or is part of the general science fiction strategy of ‘othering’ or making strange, comparable to the way all of her characters in all her books have made up and exotic-sounding names.

The story

What about the plot, I hear you ask. Well, the story opens as news comes to both Tevar and Landin that the Gaal are coming.

The Gaal? Yes, the Gaal are native tribes who live in the remote North but migrate south during the harsh Werel winter. Once a Werel year i.e. once in the average lifetime of our characters, the southerners have to confront this annual migration, which they call The Southing.

But whereas Wold is confident that the Tevarans have prepared and are ready for the Gaal incursion, the leader of the farborn colonists, Jakob Agat Alterra, thinks otherwise. He has heard from farborn messengers they sent out, that this year the Gaal have organised their various tribes into one massive horde and are not skirting the inhabited cities as they did in previous years, but are systematically besieging, defeating and occupying them.

So at the core of the story is going to be: Can the Tevarans and the farborn bury their differences and work together in order to prepare for the onslaught of the approaching barbarians?

As garnish to the tale, there is a burgeoning romance between Rolery, a young Tevaran woman, and Jakob Agat Alterra, leader of the farborn. They first meet when she has whimsically ventured out onto the huge mudflats by the coast, marvelling at the extraordinary causeway build on arches in the Former Times, which runs out to the black island which hosts some kind of bizarre architectural or artistic structure.

Ace paperback edition of Planet of Exile, showing one of the Tevarans admiring the long, strange causeway across the dry sand out to the weird island

As she approaches the cliffs of the island she suddenly hears someone shouting in her head to run towards the cliffs. Confused, she does so and she is scooped up into Alterra’s strong arms just as the 30-foot tidal surge comes rushing in over the mudflats. He has saved her life. The cynical reader suspects this will lead to kissing and maybe worse and, ten or so page later, it does just that. After going their ways back to their respective peoples, they bump into each other again in the forest as night is falling and go to one of the remote hunting hides where… they consummate their love.

Alliance – love – ambush

Next day Agat is back at the Tevaran ‘city’ where he agrees with canny old Wold that the two peoples should form an alliance. They agree a plan: next day a Tevaran war party led by the biggest and strongest of Wold’s sons, Umaksuman, will head north and rendezvous with as many men as the farborn can spare – about 300 young and fit enough to fight – and form a common front to be ready to confront the supposed Gaal horde.

But the plan goes belly up within hours because that evening, against his better judgement, as Agat is making his way through the dense forest to meet Rolery for another night of passion in their secret hideaway, he is ambushed by a posse of Tevarans. These young braves are led by one of Wold’s many grandsons, Ukwet, who is furious that Agat is consorting with a woman from their Kin group without their permission. They beat him to the ground and are heartily kicking him in the ribs and – we learn later – Ukwet had a knife and was ready to castrate Agat, when Umaksuman bursts in on the scene and stops them.

Le Guin describes the incident from Agat’s point of view, giving his subjective feelings, as the blows rain down on him, wanting to curl up deep into the warm mud and hide. Hours later he recovers consciousness, sort of, and it is a beguiling thread in the plot that Agat is capable of mind-speech i.e. telepathy. We are shown a number of his colleagues back in Landin suddenly overcome with unease, because he is ‘sending’ even though too damaged to make the effort to put his messages into words. But Rolery demonstrates the deep bond they have, by receiving the telepathic message, and going out into the forest, discovering him badly beaten and – she initially thinks he’s dead – before she rigs up a travois and drags him back to Landin.

Here, safe in bed and tended by the womenfolk, the badly battered Agat is told that the alliance broke down before it got started. The Tevarans refuse to rendezvous; all his own people, the farborn, would prefer to attack the Tevarans rather than fight the common foe.

The attack on Tevar

Back in Tevar we are shown the scene where headstrong Ukwet calls a tribal assembly and stands up for the tribe’s honour re. Rolery, and accuses Umaksuman of being a coward for stopping them gelding Agat. The confrontation quickly spirals out of control into a duel, while old Wold realises his time is over, he is no longer leader, and shuffles back to the big wooden communal hut where he huddles into the fire among the old women and babbling children.

I found the character of Wold very persuasive and a lot more appealing than the two heterosexual leads, Agat and Rolery who have the same kind of heterosexual love affair that I’ve read in thousands of novels or watched in millions of movies. By contrast, going inside the mind of an ancient, battered and increasingly senile leader of a primitive tribe was a genuinely novel experience, and Le Guin does it very very well, because she makes him wry and funny as well as old and wise.

When the women being him the decapitated body of Ukwet he isn’t surprised. Umaksuman – who killed him in the duel we didn’t see – is send into exile. Wold realises the city is doomed.

Next day the Gaal horde comes into sight and, sure enough, it is nothing like Wold’s experience of one long Werel Year (i.e. 65 earth years) ago. It is a vast mass of humanity, 30, 40, 50,000 men women and children swarming over the north hills and pouring into the valley. Soon enough the warriors come and there’s a vivid and exciting description of the tribal settlement being besieged then broken into, with fighting through the narrow alleys between thatched huts, mostly – again – seen from the eyes of ancient Wold, who manages to spear one of the attacking Gaal, but then retreats to his leader’s hut, ready to die.

However, we cut to Agat, patched up with bandages, and still a few aching wounds and bruises, but nonetheless up in the hills overlooking the vast tide of humanity and the siege and invasion of Tevar, with a small band of farborn fighters. Agat is surprised when out of the foliage emerges huge strong Umaksuman, looking the worse for having to live and forage in the hills. Quickly they establish a warrior-rapport and Umaksuman lustily agrees to join Agat’s men. They’re planning to swoop down into Tevar, take the Gaan by surprise and sweep through the settlement rescuing what women and children they can.

And this they do in another thrillingly described battle-cum-raid scene, in which they rescue women and children and old Wold finds himself picked up and carried out the burning village.

Later, safely in Landin, Agat and the others of the Council discuss next steps and they decide to dispatch all the Tevarans, along with Wold and their own women and children, along the mysterious Causeway to the looming Stack island. The drawbridge can be withdrawn, there’s a spring/fresh water, and provisions to sit out a siege.

Winter is coming

Now the whole reason the Gaal are heading south is because winter is coming. That phrase ring a bell? It is, of course, a central theme George R.R. Martin’s epic series of novels, Game of Thrones, set in a world which also experiences the seasons as extremely long, where ‘winter’ can last several years or even an entire generation, and where the coming of winter threatens the invasion of the north by the White Wanderers. I imagine tens of thousands of fantasy fans have pointed out the similarity between Game and this book. And Le Guin clearly has an affinity for winter, for snow and ice and cold – the award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness is set on a planet its discoverers nickname Winter, and the core of the narrative is a gruelling description of an eighty-day trek over snowy mountains up onto storm-swept glaciers.

Anyway, the point is that, as the Gaal arrive and the siege of Landin commences, so falls the first snow of winter which quickly turns into snowstorms and blizzards.

Siege of Landin

Sure enough, Gaan warriors invest Landin and the siege begins amid the first heavy falls of snow. Like everything else in the book, I found the description of the five-day siege gripping and plausible. On successive days the attackers try various weak points, manage to scale an undefended part of all and open a gate triggering a fierce fight to repel them, forcing the defenders to retreat to the central square whose four entrances can themselves be closed and barred.

As the fighters defend, the women and boys drag provisions or heavy stones or planks to the fronts to create barricades or to arm the catapults used in the early stages of the battle. Beaten back into the square, Rolery joins the nurses in the converted Records Room of the Old Hall, tending the never-ending stream of wounded who are brought back from the front, working alongside irritable but effective Doctor Wattock.

Throughout very heavy snowstorms blanket the city, blinding attackers and defenders alike giving rise to thrilling scenes where figures loom out of the snowfog, nobody is sure whether friends or foe. Rolery finds her senses sharpened and the inner mindspeech which Agat used on her alert to cries or messages from him, separated as they are for long stretches. The desperate situation also prompts various characters, from the doctor to the senior women on the city council (wise old Alla Pasfalto; Seiko Esmit, the last member of one of the founding families who is in barely concealed love with Agat) to discourse about various issues, from their long abandonment and exile from their home planet, to the possibility of their ever living in peace with the primitive natives.

We hear more about the Cultural Embargo under which all the space-travelling peoples of the League of All Worlds operate, namely not to prejudice the development of the peoples they land among by showing them advanced technology. Hence they had to hide their guns and whatnot, only allowed to retain dart guns which, in line with native culture, they are allowed to tip with poison (and which saves Agat’s life right at the end of the story).

(This Cultural Embargo is, of course, identical to the so-called Prime Directive of the Starfleet referred to throughout Star Trek, the original TV series of which launched in the same year this novel was published, 1966. Someone copied someone or it was just a piece of sci-fi commonplace.) Anyway, this explains why the colonists never flexed their full technical muscle, hid a lot of their devices and have now themselves forgotten how to use most of them.

Saved by the snowghouls

At the moment of direst extremity, our heroes are saved by a deus ex machina, namely the arrival of the snowghouls. Yes, snowghouls, white humanoid monsters with long waving necks which scare the Bejasus out of everyone, especially the besieging Gaals. The majority of the host had already left, leaving a small besieging force behind to either capture or lob in flaming brands to destroy Landin – but even those now head for the hills and our heroes and heroines go up onto the battlements, glimpse a few of the ghouls in action, and realise they are saved.

In the last few pages, there is time for a last few adventures: Agat unwisely leaves the barricaded part of the city to wander through the wrecked areas the Gaal have abandoned under the light of Werel’s dimly twinkling winter stars… and is attacked by a lone snowghoul, having just enough time to fire off his dartgun, before being thrown to the ground. The thing is just about to bite through his neck when the venom from Agat’s dart takes effect and the snowghoul falls off, shivering and dying beside him.

Chastened, he makes his way warily back to the heavily defended central square and to his beloved Rolery. The last act takes place the next morning, when the survivors of the siege march in triumph along the huge causeway out to the island with the strange building on it, and the Taveran defenders let down the drawbridge. At first Agan is full of joy until he realises that the women emerging from the Stack’s fastnesses are daubed in ashes and tear-stained. Their leader Wold died in the night. A new era has begun.

In one of the many intense conversations which took place in the Record Room during the siege, doctor Wattock had explained to Rolery that slight differences in their DNA explained why the farborn rarely get ill from Werel infections, heal quickly, but by the same token, have difficulty digesting Werel meat or crops without artificial enzyme additives.

He goes on to speculate that maybe, maybe this is why the conception rate has been so low among the farborn, and why there are so many abortions. Maybe… maybe it has been natural selection weeding out those who are really allergic to the subtle differences of the planet… maybe the survivors are steadily more acculturated to living on Werel… maybe they’ll be able to interbreed with the natives…

And with this thought planted in our minds, we watch Agat return from Wold’s Viking-style funeral pyre, back to the arms of his Tevaran wife. Maybe they will be the first to successfully interbreed. Maybe a new race will arise from the blend of Tevarans and Terran colonists, born into the generation-long wastes of winter.

Five thousand nights of Winter, five thousand days of it: the rest of their youth and maybe the rest of their lives. (p.212)

Credit

Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin was published by Ace Books in 1966. In 1996 it was republished along with Rocannon’s World and City of Illusions in an omnibus volume titled Worlds of Exile and Illusion. All page references are to the 2015 paperback edition of the combined Worlds volume.


Related links

Reviews of Ursula Le Guin novels

1966 Rocannon’s World
1966 Planet of Exile
1967 City of Illusions
1968 A Wizard of Earthsea
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness
1971 The Lathe of Heaven
1972 The Word for World Is Forest
1974 The Dispossessed

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – planetary romance or sci fantasy set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who attacked his spaceship
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – the story concerns an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – who has been sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the real focus is on exploring the condition of hermaphroditism which is the state of the planet’s inhabitants, as Genly goes on the run with a disgraced lord, Estraven, and during a long, gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north, the develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the spare, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)

Lord Berosty rem ir Ipe came to Thangering Fastness and offered forty beryls and half the year’s yield from his orchards as the price of a Foretelling, and the price was acceptable.

Le Guin’s anthropological approach

This is the second Ursula Le Guin novel I’ve read and I’m beginning to realise why all the author blurbs, articles and essays about her tend to start with the fact that she was the daughter of an eminent anthropologist.

It’s because her books are interested in creating whole fictional societies – with languages, customs, social systems and networks and values different from ours – and then sending an outsider into them to explore them on our behalf.

These worlds are often, at root, so schematic that they are indeed like essays in sociology or politics or philosophy. This was very true of The Dispossessed, which amounted to a kind of thought experiment – what would happen if dissidents from an authoritarian capitalist system didn’t just leave their country, but left the entire planet to go and colonise another one, nearby, and set up a cash-free, government-free anarcho-syndicalist society?

To find out, let’s send an inhabitant of the poor but honest utopia back to the corrupt capitalist mother culture so that he (and the reader) can compare and contrast the two of them.

The Left Hand of Darkness dates from five years earlier, but the recipe is similar: imagine a planet with one dominating feature and two fully imagined and distinctive societies, then send in an outsider to explore it for us, report back to us, describe the climate and culture and customs and so on.

And that’s exactly what happens here. In this case it is the planet ‘Gethen’, which the first visitors from the Hainish Federation named Winter because it is, er, always winter – a deep freeze world, a world of snow and cold, ice and pine forests in the mist (and hence, we are informed, the sixty-two Karhidish words for different types and conditions of snow, p.169).

And so it is that the narrative of The Left Hand of Darkness consists of the reports of the envoy Genly Ai back to the Federation – or, to give it its proper name, the Ekumenical Scope.

Genly’s neat, chapter-sized reports are interspersed with folk tales and legends from Gethen which pad out our understanding of their people and folklore – and also the point of view of a completely different narrator, a high-born inhabitant of Gethen, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who gives his (or its – see below about hermaphroditism) own first-hand account of its adventures, which join up and then become utterly entwined with Genly’s.

Fantasy nomenclature

So I can see the fictional intention very clearly… but… but… I have real trouble buying into these fantasy novels.

The most obvious reason is the names. The names Le Guin gives planets, people and places and their customs are often so preposterous that I wonder if she’s daring people not to have a fit of the giggles.

Thus the envoy from the Ekumenical Scope is named Genly Ai, her initial contact at the court of King Argaven XV is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, and the text sounds like this:

[My story] starts on the 44th diurnal of the Year 1491, which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide was Odhar-hahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of the third month of spring in the Year One. It is always the Year One here. Only the dating of every past and future year changes each New Year’s Day, as one counts backwards or forwards from the unitary Now. So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide…

Ehrenrang. The book is absolutely crammed full of silly sci-fi fantasy names and people, and whether you take to it depends largely on whether you enjoy reading about made-up histories of made-up people with fake-exotic made-up names.

Estraven’s house, sign of the king’s high favor, was the Corner Red Dwelling, built 440 years ago for Harmes, beloved kemmering of Emran III, whose beauty is still celebrated, and who was abducted, mutilated, and rendered imbecile by hirelings of the Inner-land Faction.

As well as sounding plain silly, a more important issue I have with the names is their lack of depth. They all have an eerie sense of familiarity which, I think, is created by mashing up vague bastardised memories of medieval history, with exotic names which seem to have come out of the Central Asia of Genghiz Khan’s time. They all tremble on the edge of pastiche or parody.

‘You know that Karhide and Orgoreyn have a dispute concerning a stretch of our border in the high North Fall near Sassinoth. Argaven’s grandfather claimed the Sinoth Valley for Karhide, and the Commensals have never recognized the claim. A lot of snow out of one cloud, and it grows thicker. I’ve been helping some Karhidish farmers who live in the Valley to move back east across the old border, thinking the argument might settle itself if the Valley were simply left to the Orgota, who have lived there for several thousand years.’

The entire novel is written in this style, with this kind of clutter of faux-exotic names, all the way through, on every page. It’s not an original style. The names sound like they could come from Star Trek, the TV series of which came to an end the same year Left Hand of Darkness was published, 1969. (Top Star Trek enemies included the Klingons, the Cardassians, the Lore, the Romulans, the Holodeck, any of whom could step easily into this book.)

So the degree of your enjoyment will depend on how much imaginative energy you want to invest in characters with names like Ong Tot Oppong, Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and Lang Heo Hew. When I read about the summer palace at Warrever, I thought ‘whaddever’, indeed.

Hermaphroditism

Anyway, the regrettable thing is that – as in the Left Hand of Darkness – inextricably mixed up with the silly names are genuinely interesting ‘ideas’. The winter theme is developed up to a point, but far more dominant is the fact that all the inhabitants of Gethen are hermaphrodites. 

In her interest in sex and sex equality, Le Guin sometimes seems like a prophet of our own times, obsessed as we are with ‘gender’ and gender equality and gender issues and transgender rights and so on, and in this book she approaches it with characteristic thoroughness and imaginative depth.

Chapter Seven of the book is a report from another investigator from the Ekumen who, if I understand the dating system correctly, visited Gethen with the first landing party some 50 years before Genly, and wrote a thorough report on all aspects of the inhabitants’ hermaphroditism. Her name is Ong Tot Oppong (stop tittering at the back) but Le Guin’s working through of what a hermaphrodite society would really look and feel and think like makes for fascinating reading.

On the one hand there’s the biology – each Gethenite enters estrus for a week once every month, enters into a bond with another Gethenite, and then subtle hormonal changes decide which one will develop their latent male or female genitalia: everyone has them, it is in the subtle pair-bonding period that hormones decide which one will develop their genitals enough to be used. With the result that a Gethenite can both bear children and father children; may have borne children to one partner, but be father to the children of another partner. It matters not (her fake medieval style is catching) since the children (like the children in The Dispossessed) are taken away and raised communally.

Here, amid all the silly names and fantasy clutter, are some really thought-provoking ideas:

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological
effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be (as Nim put it) ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be – psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

The most striking speculation in this anthropologist’s report is that the absence of a fixed male or female gender may explain the absence of war, which can be seen as a vainglorious exaggeration of all the worst male characteristics (a theory attributed to the famous sociologist, Tumass Song Angot, p.96)

As in her treatment of an anarchist, egalitarian, propertyless society in The Dispossessed, Le Guin is excellent at thinking through her ideas to great depth and considering all their ramifications.

Thus her envoy gets caught up in the palace politics of Karhide (one of Gethen’s two major cultures) but the novel really binds and engrosses as we are drawn into his honest depiction of his confusion and difficulty in understanding such an alien condition – here, as in numerous other places, the anthropologist’s daughter is doing something really interesting.

Amazingly, by the end of the book, she has you seeing gendered human beings as the weird ones, with several of the intelligent Gethenites pointing out how tiresome, wearing and confusing it must be to be in heat all the time as humans, alone of all mammals, in fact are. In Gethenite society people in heat all the time are referred to as ‘perverts’ and the intelligent people Genly talks to find it hard to overcome their repulsion at the notion of humanoids living in such an icky, sticky condition.

Although, here again, with the best will in the world, I found myself stumbling over the way interesting ideas are inextricably tied up with ludicrous fantasy elements.

Take just the word Le Guin invents for the period during which Gethenite couples pair off – kemmering – it’s just one example of the many places where the high-minded thought experiments are undermined by the dubious or downright laughable words she coins.

At some moments, the narrative grips you as if they really were reports from a strange new world; but the next minute she gives out such an over-ripe burst of pseudo-medieval diction, or preposterous names, or silly made-up words, that I couldn’t help thinking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

About two hundred years ago in the Hearth of Shath in the Pering Storm-border there were two brothers who vowed kemmering to each other. In those days, as now, full brothers were permitted to keep kemmer until one of them should bear a child, but after that they must separate; so it was never permitted them to vow kemmering for life. Yet this they had done. When a child was conceived the Lord of Shath commanded them to break their vow and never meet in kemmer again.

‘And the Lord of Shath commandeth that thou shalt never kemmer again!” – Imagine John Cleese saying it

When Ai’s contact, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, is banished for conspiring with the envoy – Genly Ai – to undermine the Kingdom of Karhide, Ai decides it’s also time to make himself scarce and so journeys into the mountains, faring through the passes of Wehoth, in the shadow of the Fastness of Ariskostor, in order to reach the Fastness of Otherhord, where dwell the nine legendary Foretellers of the Handdarra.

Is that anywhere near the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’, I wanted to ask.

That’s what the Yomeshta believe of Meshe: that he saw past and future clear, not for a moment, but all during his life after the Question of Shorth…

Ah, the Question of Shorth. Of course, the world-changing Question of Shorth.

I think that Tolkien is the lord and master of fantasy fiction because he was well aware that he was channelling the myths and legends of North Europe into fictional form and, crucially,

  1. He knew those myths and legends inside out (he translated many of them)
  2. He knew their languages

The names in The Lord of The Rings have a just-so, just-right quality because Tolkien took many of them from existing Old English or Old German or Old Norse sources, and his intimate familiarity with the sources underpins every sentence.

Tolkien was a philologist by profession, and so his first study was words, words across the full range of Dark Age ad medieval Germanic languages, and so his use of words – and his invention of entire other languages, such as Elvish or Dwarvish – have a phenomenal amount of historical knowledge, authority and depth behind them.

With Le Guin and the hundreds of other authors who have written space fantasy, you have the opposite feeling: you get the sense that they’ve had this or that good idea for a planet (an egalitarian utopia, or a world of hermaphrodites, say) and have then mapped out a narrative which lets the protagonist explore the planet and its culture and customs in some depth – i.e. the ideas and the stories are often deeply worked out – and sometimes so thought-provoking as to be actually gripping…

But by lacking a profound rootedness in genuine myth and legend and, above all, by lacking a sure grasp of medieval languages, both the stories themselves and, above all, the names and the made-up words which play such a central role in sustaining belief in the made-up societies with their made-up customs, the words and names have a shallow, willed, at times laughable quality.

Long ago, before the days of King Argaven I who made Karhide one kingdom, there was blood feud between the Domain of Stok and the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land.

The Domain of Stok.

Eastern religion

In the first sentence of Le Guin’s encyclopedia entry it tells you not only about her 1. being the child of a leading anthropologist, 2. about her interest in ‘gender’ but that 3. she was interested in Eastern philosophy, specifically Taoism.

This is not exactly buried in her fiction – it’s upfront and obvious in both the books I’ve read. In The Dispossessed it is cleverly integrated into the story because the main character is a physicist thinking about the nature of time in a way which overlaps the hard equations of physics with mystical speculations about the nature of time and being.

Here, the Eastern interest felt less integrated, more of a bolt-on tourist feature. Genly Ai tells us that in the kingdom of Karhide are those who practice Handdara and that:

The Handdara is a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a God or not. It is elusive. It is always somewhere else. Its only fixed manifestation is in the Fastnesses, retreats to which people may retire and spend the night or a lifetime…

I imagine the incorporation of pseudo-Eastern mysticism was one of the many elements which helped make The Left Hand of Darkness a cult classic in the late-1960s, and helped make Le Guin’s name as a kind of fantasy novelist for the Woodstock generation.

The book came out only a year after the Beatles went to stay with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, and the mystical chapters don’t hold back.

A hundred yards beyond him stood another statue, in blue and white; this one never moved or glanced our way all the time we talked with the first one. They were practicing the Handdara discipline of Presence, which is a kind of trance – the Handdarata, given to negatives, call it an untrance – involving self-loss through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness. Though the technique is the exact opposite of most techniques of mysticism it probably is a mystical discipline, tending towards the experience of Immanence;

Or as George Harrison once said: ‘What is here is elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.’

Or as Jeff Beck put it: ‘You’re everywhere and nowhere, baby – that’s where you’re at.’

I suppose that – as with the exploration of the anarcho-syndicalism in The Dispossessed – if this was the first place that you ever came across these Eastern and mystical ideas, then the book would make a deep impact on you, might become a kind of bible of new ideas for the impressionable schoolchild or student.

And at some moments the book does, in fact, express these and related ideas in powerful imaginative settings (amid fantasy mountain fastnesses, full of weird asexual monks), and gives some of the characters interesting and serious things to say:

‘The unknown, the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action.’

But… but… When she describes the frenzied conclave of the filthy, possessed Foretellers of Otherhord, and the way the one in kemmer paws the other one, while those around screech their prophesy… My imaginative bond with the narrative snaps. The Domain of Stok, I think: Is that anywhere near the Fastness of Oxo?

Bible diction

One of the most irritating aspects of this kind of fantasy fiction is the way it shamelessly pastiches the diction of the King James translation of the Bible, on the assumption that readers will find it ‘profound’ and archaic and deep.

Being more familiar with the original King James text than with fantasy fiction, I can’t help finding all these efforts cheap and tacky, a quick-fix way of trying to win respect for the ‘depth’ of your fake folk tales or imaginary myths. Here’s a ripe slice of fake Bible from one of the ‘Gethenite legends’ which are interpolated throughout the text:

When Ennoch was an old man dwelling in the plains of Rer he met a man from his own country, and asked him, ‘How fares Shath Domain?’ The other told him that Shath fared ill. Nothing prospered there in hearth or tilth, all being blighted with illness, the spring seed frozen in the ground or the ripe grain rotten, and so it had been for many years. Then Ennoch told him, ‘I am Getheren of Shath’, and told him how he had gone up on the Ice and what he had met with there. At the end of his tale he said, ‘Tell them at Shath that I take back my name and my shadow.’ Not many days after this Getheren took sick and died. The traveler carried his words back to Shath, and they say that from that time on the domain prospered again, and all went as it should go in field and house and hearth. (p.25)

This is just a ridiculous pastiche of the Old Testament. Ennoch indeed. Any relation to the Biblical Enoch, by any chance? And yet, there is, as a glance at the jam-packed fantasy shelves in any bookshop will show, an enduring audience for this kind of would-be profound, pastiche Bible, fake medieval diction.

‘Seven years we were kemmerings, and had two sons. Being of his flesh born they had his name Foreth rem ir Osboth, and were reared in that Clanhearth. Three years ago he had gone to Orgny Fastness and he wore now the gold chain of a Celibate of the Foretellers.’

‘Being of his flesh born.’

Another example of the way this kind of fiction piggy-backs on the genuine otherness of Christianity, particularly Dark Age and medieval Christianity, is the way the clock is divided into First Hour, Second Hour, Third Hour etc, all announced with great seriousness, as if they weren’t a blatant rip-off of the liturgical hours of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and so on. As if the ideas of mountain fastnesses where monks and holy men practice strange rites wasn’t entirely ripped off from more serious and worthy religions, ripped out of context and sellotaped into narratives about spaceships and alien envoys.

The book has a three-page appendix explaining in detail the period of Gethen’s orbit around its sun (8406 Standard Terran Hours), its daily orbit, the period of rotation of Gethen’s moon (26 days, in case you need to know), the Day and then the meaning of the Hours. Onnetherhad, the 18th of the month (p.61) (The Gethenites often think in terms of 13s, 26s and so on, a function of the lunar calendar, p.170)

I couldn’t help thinking, again and again, that this kind of fantasy fiction wants the praise and profundity of real myth and real religion – it borrows the clothes of the Bible and of pagan myth – without asking the reader to engage with any of the difficulty and the actual strangeness of genuine pagan myth – the difficulty of reading the strange and obscure Prose Edda, for example – or of the difficult doctrines of Christianity.

At its worst, it is a Big Mac version of religion and mysticism – cheap and garish and thin and insubstantial.

A universe of human

Unrelated to its rip-off of religious diction, there is another deeper problem with reading all sci fi stories of this ilk – which is the notion that humans, more or less like us, could be inhabiting numerous other planets around the universe.

The odds against there being loads of other planets inhabited by humanoid creatures are immense, and the odds against them being exactly the same shape and size and talking, and talking languages which we can learn pretty easily, are ridiculous.

Apparently, elsewhere in the ‘Hainish Cycle’ of novels and stories she is explicit that the Hain are the oldest of all the inhabited peoples and they populated the other planets with humans like themselves. We really are all descended from one mother race. I like science fiction, so I like that as a sci fi idea, but it doesn’t quite totally get her off the hook. Having set out to be a ‘serious’ author and put forward ‘serious’ ideas, invites the fairly obvious thought humanoids ‘seeded’ across a wide variety of planets, millions of years ago, would in fact have evolved in all kinds of directions, into different shapes and abilities, and over one million years would have lost anything they’d originally had in common. Compare aborigenes and Indonesians whose lineages diverged only tens of thousands of years ago. A million years divergence would result in wild differences.

And yet, in the novels, the only difference between these races from different planets is some are a bit taller, some a bit shorter, some a bit hairier, some a bit smoother, than the others. they all basically think and speak and act alike, in fact they’ve got more in common than the inhabitants of the diverse London borough I live in (with its population of Asians, Tamils, Sikhs, Muslims, Chinese, Somalis and Eritreans, Nigerians and West Indians).

The plot

Terran envoy Genly Ai has been sent by the Ekumenical Scope to explain to the king of Karhide, one of the several kingdoms on Gethen, that there is a universe of inhabited planets out there, organised into the Ekumen, and they wish to introduce the inhabitants of Gethen to it.

But King Argaven XV is mad. Genly has been working through the King’s Minister (known as the King’s Ear) Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. But the king doesn’t believe there is intelligent life in outer space and so thinks Ai is a spy and Estraven is conspiring with him to overthrow him, the king. So the king banished Estraven who packs his bags and heads east to the rival country of and Ai, after an edgy interview with the mad king, also realises it’s time to leave and himself travels to Orgoreyn.

He travels over the high snowy mountains where he makes a detour to witness the famous Foretellers in action – a chaotic shaman performance involving half madmen, but which does climax with an answer he set them: will Gethen be in the Ekumen within five years? The answer is Yes.

Estraven is replaced by the king’s cousin Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and when it is announced that King Argaven XV is pregnant it begins to look like a coup by Tibe.

Meanwhile, Ai is received by the Orgata authorities and impressed by the quickness and efficiency of its bureaucracy and the orderliness of its countryside and capital city. Ai gives a dry factual anthropological report on their habits, especially their child-rearing, and how, since everything is owned and run by the state, there is full employment. The Orgata are very different from the Karhiders –

Orgota, people trained from birth in a discipline of cooperation, obedience, submission to a group purpose ordered from above. The qualities of independence and decision were weakened in them. They had not much capacity for anger. (p.173)

He is placed in the enthusiastic hands of Commissioner Shusgis. To his surprise, at a banquet, he finds himself sitting next to Esraven. Estraven had quite a torrid time of it after he left the court, working his way along the coast as a lowly fish-worker, until spotted and picked up by the Orgata authorities.

There are complicated manoeuvres between characters, but basically none of the Orgatas believe Ai and she is abruptly arrested one night, after having been a guest a a government feast, taken to a big prison, injected with truth drugs and interrogated for days.

When she comes to she is one among 26 or so prisoners, stripped naked, covered in vomit and faces, trapped in the sealed metal back of some horse-drawn cart which spends days and days climbing higher into the mountains, with no food, and only a jar of water once a day between them, as one by one they die off or huddle together for filthy body warmth.

Genly arrives at a labour camp up in the frozen snowy north – the so-called Pulefen Farm – and describes the brutal regime, lack of food, sleeping facilities etc. It is clearly a pastiche of a Soviet labour camp, but without the dignity or authority of being real. For real descriptions of labour camps, read:

Estraven, back in the Orgata capital of Mishnory, having noticed Ai’s disappearance and realised the sceptics on the Grand Commensal didn’t believe his story and so probably also think Estraven must be some kind of traitor in league with him – decides to sneak out of Mishnory.

This he does, fabricating a pass as the fishermen he spent some time with showed him. He buys a sledge and food and joins a trapping party heading north, but then ducks out and off to the labour camp where he has discovered Ai is being held.

And he rescues him. He changes his papers to those of a prison guard, is accepted at the camp and learns the chores and routine, then one night stuns Ai’s (already sleeping unconscious) body, claims he’s dead so as to get past several sets of guards, then invokes the mystical strength, the dothe which adepts at Handdara can call on, to carry Ai’s body to the sledge he’s hidden in the forest, complete with tent and provisions.

Over the next few days both of them recover in the tent, eating the food, lighting small fires, sleeping, and then… the rescue turns into the largest single section of the book, the last third or so, occupying pages 190 to 290 of the 300-page SF Masterworks paperback.

Genly having handed over his ansible, the only way he has of contacting the Ekumenical spaceship which is out in space waiting a message from him – over to Orgata officials, and having been stripped absolutely naked before being shipped off to the labour camp; and Estraven having rescued him but himself now at risk of arrest for disappearing from official view in Mishnore, let alone helping Geny escape…

The only thing for this unlikely and reluctant pair to do is to embark on a massive, heroic, epic seventy-five day hike across the ice caps of Gethen, experiencing blizzards, snowstorms, slippery glaciers and treacherous crevices, by day strapped up to the sledge bearing all their kit, by night huddled in a small (but conveniently hi-tech and efficient) tent, round the (conveniently small, light and durable heater-cum-stove) warming up the (conveniently freeze-dried and light, nutritious) food blocks in a pan of warmed ice.

his is the core of the book, its narrative but especially its emotional core because, mirabile dictu, what happens is Genly finds himself falling in love with Estraven; while Estraven undergoes kemmering during the epic journey and delicately tells Genly he must avoid contact with him.

Both characters, therefore, undergo feelings and emotions quite outside the limit of human experience. Suddenly – as in the final sections of The Dispossessed – finally, you feel you’ve arrived at the core of a far more serious and searching and mysterious and wonderful work of fiction than the opening sections suggested.

Le Guin’s hand-drawn map of Gethen showing the two main states of Orgoreyn and Karhide, and the (top left) route of Genly and Estraven’s trek across the ice

The long journey and the shared privations, risks, fears and experiences of extreme cold, frostbite, snowstorms and so on which the pair experience together are the heart of the book.

The silly names fade away, for the pair could be sledging across Antarctica or Canada or Siberia. What is weird and wonderful is that Le Guin draws you into the eerie possibility of a previously unknown, unnamed emotion felt between a male human and a hermaphrodite alien. The book takes you to an entirely new place never before explored in literature. This is why it won prizes and made her name, not for the tiresome fol-de-rol about Ennoch of Rer and the Indwellers of Otherhord.

So deep does the pair’s suffering and endurance go, that Genly offers to teach Estraven the off-world skill of telepathy and after many failed attempts, finally manages to speak directly into the latter’s head – although, in a moment which is clearly meant to be deeply moving – he speaks in the voice of Estraven’s long-lost, estranged and dead younger brother – causing the Gethenite to shout with terror.

Eventually the pair survive their immense ordeal and come down into the villages of northern Karhide where they are made welcome in the way of all travellers in folk stories. good honest yeomen who don’t have much but share what they have with an open heart. Ooo-ar.

Except that the kindly old man who gives them shelter in fact betrays them to the Karhide authorities and Estraven, unwisely, tries to make a run for it on his skis across the snowy landscape.

He is shot down at the border by Karhidish gaurds who have been tipped off. As in a thousand buddy, adventure and war movies, his friend and – at least in emotional terms – his lover, the bewildered Genly, skis up just in time to hold Estraven’s gashed body as the Gethenite breathes his last.

Shocked and stunned, Genly is taken off by the guards to Ehrenrang, where he is treated kindly, given a personal doctor, lots of food and then meets the king again. This time they believe him, and he signals his spaceship to land.

Like so many voyagers to distant lands he now finds the appearance of his gendered colleagues – half tall and deep-voiced, half shorter and light-voiced – repulsive. This notion, of the traveller who has stayed so long with another race that he now finds his own people repulsive, dates back at least as far as Gulliver’s Travels, at the end of which, after living among the peaceful horse-like creatures for so long Gulliver finds he can’t stand the sight of his own hairy, savage brethren. And that was back in 1726. Two hundred and fifty three years before the Left Hand of Darkness was published.

As so often with genre fiction, with sci fi or fantasy, they sell themselves as being somehow bold new innovations and exciting new ideas – but they are, in fact, old old old fictional ideas, deliberately told in an old old old fake-Bible, faux-medieval diction.

Glossary

I compiled a glossary, for my own reference, and to give a sense of the made-up vocabulary.

Places

  • Ekumenical Scope – name of the federation of 83 inhabited planets (p.34)
  • Ehrenrang – capital of Karhide
  • Gethen – planet the book is set on
  • Hain –  the Prime World of the Ekumenical Scope (p.37)
  • Karhide – one of the nations of Gethen
  • Kerm Land
  • Kuseben on the Gulf, 85 miles from Ehrenrang (p.72)
  • Mishnory – capital of Orgereyn
  • Orgny Fastness – there are lots of fastnesses, remote communities up in the mountains
  • Orgoreyn – Karhide’s rival and neighbour: Orgota, adjective meaning of Orgoreyn
  • Otherhord – where the Indwellers of Otherhord live
  • the Pering Stormborder
  • Sassinoth – disputed location between Karhide and Orgoreyn
  • Terra – earth

Names

  • the Foretellers – go into a kind of trance and can tell the future
  • Genly Ai – Ekumen envoy to Gethen and main narrator of the story
  • halfdeads – Karhidish slang for the infertile
  • Handdara – mystical religion – Handdarata – followers of Handdara
  • the Indwellers or Otherhord
  • King Argaven XV of Karhide
  • Lord Meshe – figurehead of the Yomeshta, born 2,202 years ago (p.47) founder of the Yomesh cult (p.60)
  • the Lord of Shorth – come on, everyone knows who the Lord of Shorth is
  • Commensal Obsle –
  • Ong Tot Oppong – undercover Ekumenical visitor to Gethen, who compiles a detailed report on the natives’ hermaphroditism
  • Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe – King Argaven’s cousin, takes over running Karhide
  • Stabile – the Stabiles are the senior officials of the Ekumen who Ai reports back to (p.16)
  • Therem Harth rem ir Estraven – formerly chief minister to King Argaven, goes into exile and narrates a number of the chapters
  • Yegey –

Things

  • amha – parent in the flesh (p.92)
  • ansible – instant communicator owned by Hainish envoys, explained on page 37
  • Commensals – the Great Commensality of Orgoreyn is divided into 33 commensals or districts
  • dothe-strength cf thangen-sleep – deep sleep, ‘the dark sleep’, after you’ve willed a period of dothe-strength (p.196)
  • farfetching – Hainish word for training given to envoys in forming a holistic picture of the society they’re investigating (p.146)
  • foray – Getheian word for attack, violence
  • gossiwor – musical instrument played in royal processions
  • kemmer – process of sexualisation and emotional attachment which allows Gethenians to mate;
    • secher – first phase of kemmer
    • thorharmen – second phase of kemmer
    • thokemmer – culminant phase of kemmer
    • oskyommer – vowing kemmering to another Gethenian
  • the kyorremy , the upper chamber or parliament in Karhide which Estraven heads
  • lifewater – a drink (p.84), ‘a fierce licquor’ (p.134)
  • mind-speech – telepathy, brought to Terra by Rokkanians, according to Genly
  • nusuth – no matter, the wilful wish for ignorance among the Handdara
  • orsh – ‘a brown, sweetsour drink, strong in vitamins A and C, sugar, and a pleasant stimulant related to lobeline’
  • sarf – gutter Orgata meaning ‘trash’
  • shifgrethor – prestige, place, pride (p.13)
  • thore-forest – deep snowy pine forest

‘I’m a Yomeshta, praise to the nine hundred Throne-Upholders and blest be the Milk of Meshe, and one can be a Yomeshta anywhere. We’re a lot of newcomers, see, for my Lord Meshe was born 2,202 years-ago, but the Old Way of the Handdara goes back ten thousand years before that.’

Credit

The Left Hand of Darkness by Usrula Le Guin was published by Ace Books in 1969. All references are to the 2017 SF Masterworks paperback edition.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

1970s
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the spare, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Primitivism and Modern Art by Colin Rhodes (1994)

This is another in Thames and Hudson’s extensive ‘World of Art’ series, which means it has a serious and thorough text but that, of the 207 illustrations, only 28 are in colour, and all of them are small.

In Primitivism and Modern Art Rhodes aims ‘to give an overview of, and to highlight and clarify the often confused major issues and values at stake in the Primitivist world view through a discussion that focuses on the modern artists most closely associated with it’ – which straightaway explains the central theme and also gives you an example of the book’s rather clotted prose style.

Primitivism and political correctness

I was expecting there to be a fair amount of political correctness and I wasn’t disappointed, both in terms of sweeping generalisations and characteristic sociological jargon:

In [the late 19th century] the female body was deemed to be less specialised and women were generally typed as being essentially instinctive as opposed to rational thinkers. This conveniently situated them in a position closer to nature and so in this way the generic woman was defined, silenced and contained in male discourses of culture in precisely the same way as the savage.

‘Precisely’?

It is no coincidence that Pechstein’s image of female fecundity should be titled Early Morning (1911). The curving form of the apparently pregnant, exoticised woman is echoed in the arching sweep of the primordial landscape, suggesting that here creation can be understood simultaneously as a literal dawn, the dawn of time and as the promise of new life. (p.62)

For Rhodes, paintings are Evidence for the Prosecution, indictments of painters who are charged with being complicit in the racist, sexist, homophobic, imperialist value systems of their day (the book lingers longest on the imperial heyday at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries).

The artists’ work needs to be paraded before us so we can ridicule their absurdly antediluvian attitudes. After all, are not we in our own time, completely and perfectly enlightened? Are our times not the acme of human moral achievement? Do these old white guys from over a hundred years ago not merit our scorn and criticism?

For me it smacks too much of Hitler’s exhibitions of ‘Degenerate Art’ or Stalin’s persecution of any artist, musician, performer who failed to carry out the wishes of the Party. After all, was not the Soviet Union the Workers’ Paradise and the most morally advanced society in human history?

The art illustrated here and much of the detailed commentary is interesting, but there is too much of the intolerant commissar, permanently straining at the leash to find some aspect of every single painting and sculpture to criticise and judge to make it a very enjoyable experience.

Some of the criminals and their crimes

Here are some of the indictments on the charge sheet against white Western male art.

  • Paintings of women can only exploit their sexuality and offer the male viewer (apparently, no woman ever looked at a painting) ‘an eroticised vision of women’ resulting in ‘a sort of culturally endorsed voyeurism’ (p.82)
  • The artist (any artist) is guilty of using ‘the artist’s controlling gaze’ (p.81).
  • Gauguin, in finding Tahitian men and women rather androgynous, is guilty of ‘crude evolutionary reasoning’ (p.72).
  • Matisse’s odalisques are guilty of connotations of ‘white slavery and socially unacceptable indulgences’ (p.83).
  • Oskar Kokoschka is guilty of an ‘uncritical acceptance of a need to distinguish between different types of humanity and to classify them accordingly’ (p.83) and of ‘voyeurism’ (p.84).
  • Klee and Kokoschka are guilty of ‘conventional ideas about the Orient’ (p.84).
  • Orientalist paintings of the 19th century are, it goes without saying, guilty of voyeurism and racism (p.90).
  • The West was guilty of using ‘notions of the primitive’ as ‘mechanisms of domination and control over “outsiders”‘ (p.133)

Guilty guilty guilty. Rhodes fearlessly names and shames the guilty men, and indicts whole eras of history for their pitiful ignorance.

Cultural appropriation

The politically correct view of ‘primitivism in modern art’ is that white, Western male artists had run out of steam and inspiration by the turn of the twentieth century, and so invented modern art by ‘appropriating’ (i.e. stealing) images, motifs, ideas, designs and so on from the supposedly ‘primitive’ societies of Africa and Oceania (the Pacific).

They were able to do so because in the last years of the 19th century the European empires reached their zeniths i.e. ruthlessly exploitative imperialism was imposed over a huge part of the globe and countless artifacts were looted from the powerless inhabitants and sent back to European museums, art boutiques or junk shops.

Thus white male artists can be accused of a kind of double whammy, stealing ideas from already-stolen goods. And, being men, they are of course guilty of all kinds of sexism, conscious and unconscious.

Guilty three times over.

This idea of the criminal ‘cultural appropriation’ of non-European art was well-established in Rhodes’s day (1994), and has only grown more clamorous and strident as ‘identity politics’ have replaced effective class-based politics, especially in university humanities courses. (Thus the recent exhibition about Matisse in the studio was awash with the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ and earnest discussions of its wickedness.)

I don’t really understand the idea of cultural appropriation, in the sense that it seems to me to have been the basis of human culture since records began. Cro-Magnon man appears to have adopted aspects of Neanderthal culture. Japanese language and court ritual is based on the much older Chinese characters and etiquette. Christianity is a wholesale appropriation of the books, teachings and beliefs of Judaism. Islam incorporates elements of Jewish and Christian traditions. Notions of hellfire and damnation apparently derive from Persian Zoroastrianism. The Greeks took much of their astrological and numerical knowledge from the Egyptians. The Romans ripped off the Greeks wholesale. The Germanic tribes which overran the Roman Empire copied the laws, language, architecture and ceremonies of the Romans. And so on. Every culture we know of can be shown to have incorporated aspects of other cultures they came into contact with or defeated.

The suspicion is that white western-educated intellectuals only really apply the notion of cultural appropriation to themselves in a spasm of liberal guilt at the wickedness of western empires. In a tiresome example of reverse snobbery, is cultural appropriation something all cultures in all of recorded history have done, but is only bad when done by white people?

Problems with ‘primitivism’

What surprised me is how difficult it proves for Rhodes to sustain this idea, for a number of reasons. In fact the fundamental problem the book struggles with is that Rhodes’s definition of ‘the primitive’ is set far too wide to be effective:

1. Western history is full of the quest for the ‘primitive’

For a start Western civilisation is itself drenched in a huge number of intellectual movements which have sought to rejuvenate the present (generally seen as decadent and over-refined) by invoking some long-lost, more simple, utopia of ‘primitive’ belief or culture.

Jesus thought he was trying to restore Judaism away from the complex rules and regulations devised by the Sadducees and Pharisees back to its pure belief in the one God. 1,500 years later Martin Luther tried to throw out the vast intellectual edifice of the Roman Catholic church in order to restore Christianity to its pure founding beliefs.

On the pagan side, the ancient Greek and the Romans developed the idea that there had once been an early Golden Age, simpler, more peaceful and rural, before men fell into the corruption of the cosmopolitan cities. This fundamental dichotomy – rural innocence, urban corruption – has been a central thread of literature ever since. Part of the huge cultural movement known as the Renaissance wasn’t trying to be ‘modern’, but saw itself (as the word explicitly says) as a rebirth, a return to the ancient knowledge of the ancients, restoring their lost skills in sculpture, painting and perspective.

Politics and religion aside, just in the narrow field of art, there was a constant series of movement which all claimed to be returning to and restoring earlier, purer values and practices.

  • Rococo artists thought they were returning to a simpler, rural idyll after the extremely heavy, over-wrought emotion of the Baroque Counter-Reformation.
  • Jacques-Louis David and his neo-classical followers at the time of the French Revolution thought they were overthrowing the courtly decadence of the Rococo in order to revive the sterner, purer idealism of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
  • The pre-Raphaelites did what their name suggests and tried to return to an idealised idea of medieval and early Renaissance art, before it was ‘corrupted’ by the perfectionism of Michelangelo and Raphael.

And so on.

In other words, western politics, religion and culture have repeatedly sought to restore, refresh and renovate themselves by seeking out more basic, simpler, more ‘primitive’ antecedents. The discovery and taste for African and Pacific art should surely be seen as the latest in a long line of quests for rejuvenation from idealised ‘simple’ and ‘pure’ sources.

2. Discussion of ‘primitive’ societies and artifacts belongs to anthropology not art criticism

Who exactly is Rhodes accusing and blaming? The opening pages make it clear that the main accusation is against late-Victorian biologists, anthropologists and ethnographers, figures like Ernst Haeckel the biologist, Herbert Spencer the social theorist or the French ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. Rhodes quotes them writing dismissively about ‘primitive’ cultures, ‘savage’ races, ‘inferior societies and so on, and it is not very difficult to indict them of racism, sexism, orientalism and so on.

These are the figures who took Darwin’s theory of evolution and remodelled it into Social Darwinism, the theory which applied the notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to human societies (justifying the poverty of the poor by saying they just weren’t up to the struggle for life), and then applying it to the colonies of the huge European empires, whose populations, it was claimed, were savages, primitives, children who needed to be guided and nurtured until they evolved up to the level of our wonderful Western societies.

1. It’s easy to get whip up outrage against these kind of writers but:

  • It was quite a long time ago
  • Pointing out that the writings of some German sociologist of the 1880s was ‘racist’ is not exactly news. It’s the opposite, really. It is quite tediously well known.

2. Same with Imperialism. Rhodes thinks it was bad. Really? Golly. May I suggest that this is no longer news.

3. Overall, this is an argument to take up with modern anthropologists and social theorists. An art critic wading into the writings of pioneer anthropologists and ethnographers is bound to be able to find all kinds of quotes which offend modern sensibilities. His conclusion is ‘they were all sexist and racist’. This is so boring and predictable as to turn me off the whole book: is it all going to be written at this kindergarten level?

There’s something about art and literature critics who make a foray into completely different disciplines in order to froth and rage against the appalling racism and sexism of people writing 150 years ago. It’s so easy. It’s like Edward Said getting cross about the ‘orientalist’ writings of supposed ‘experts’ on the Middle East or Africa, who were writing in the 1850s.

And of course Rhodes and Said’s readers, their audiences (art students, literature students), are not experts in these fields – they are completely unqualified to comment on how the attitudes of 1880s ethnographers or orientalists have been superseded and transformed over the past 140 years – and so are liable to hoover up this sense of undifferentiated anger untroubled by detailed knowledge of how the disciplines of anthropology and ethnography have changed in the 140 years since then.

3. The assumption of influence

A second objection is that Rhodes makes the dubious assumption about these racist writings, namely that they are representative of everyone’s views at the time.

Were they? Has he carried out extensive historical researches into the attitudes of the entire colonial-administrative-government-ruling class attitudes? Or of ‘ordinary’ non-university-educated people? Because in Britain there was a broad range of Liberal and Socialist opinion which was passionately opposed to Empire and imperial discourse. The Indian National Congress party was established in 1885 on the initiative of a British official and had many British Liberal supporters.

Instead Rhodes cherry picks only the most outrageous bits of text he can find. It’s as if some art critic in 100 years’ time gives his students selected quotes from Donald Trump and then says, all Americans at this time agreed with everything Donald Trump said and wrote. We can all see that that’s a ludicrous simplification, right? Well, why apply the same kind of gross simplification to people 100 years ago?

The second dubious assumption is that the artists of the day (1880s, 1890s, 1900s) were in some way unquestioningly influenced by these imperialist, racist writings. Was Picasso a keen reader of the biology professor Haeckel? Was Matisse a devotee of Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer? I doubt it. And to claim that they somehow picked up these attitudes because they were ‘widespread’ or ‘in the air’ or ‘the spirit of the times’ is lazy and insulting.

Do you, the person reading this, share the widespread anti-democratic, right-wing populism which is without doubt ‘the mood of our times’, in the States, in Britain, and across Europe? Rhodes’s assumption is that everyone in a bygone era shares one unified set of values, the values he personally wants to assign them in order to then criticise and flay them.

This is an insultingly simplistic view of history or of society.

4. ‘Primitivism’ is just too vague a term for such an enormous cultural movement

Rhodes shows how the idea of the ‘primitive’ was much much bigger than just African masks and fetishes. The leading post-Impressionists in the 1880s (Gauguin and van Gogh, in his own way Cézanne) were already moving away from the Impressionist aim of giving a more accurate account of what the artist saw, towards emphasising what the artist saw made him feel.

And then the decade of 1900 to 1910 saw the decisive breaks with figuration of Matisse and the Fauves, of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism. Meanwhile, in Germany, in Scandinavia, in Russia, other artists were experimenting with rejecting traditional academic painting in favour of styles which emphasised feeling, seeking out more basic, simpler, starker effects.

In other words a whole generation of artists was rejecting the 450-year-old tradition which began with the Renaissance, the tradition of striving for a super-realistic depiction of reality, complete with realistic perspective, naturalistic colours and so on – the window on the world idea – and which had been brought to a peak of perfection in the academic Salon painters of the mid- and late-19th century.

In their different ways the post-Impressionists, the Fauves, the Cubists, the Expressionists, Munch, Kandinsky, all across Europe leading artists sought ways to escape from this tradition, to free painting up so it could express a more modern variety of feeling and sensibility.

Rhodes shows that this is what spurred the Turn to the Primitive, in the broadest sense and that most of  this art had nothing whatever to do with African or Oceanic artefacts.

4. ‘Primitive’ is a crude umbrella term for all kinds of art

Because, in this broadest sense, ‘the primitive’ could refer to almost any type of art – any source of styles and images and metaphors and traditions and ways of seeing – which was simply not the sophisticated Western academic one. Thus Rhodes admits that the term can include:

  • medieval and very early – or ‘primitive’ – Renaissance art
  • children’s art – the artists of the German Blue Rider group were particularly interested in children’s art and published it untouched in their magazines around 1911-13
  • peasant art – simple motifs in textiles, cloth, curtains, ceramics and glass
  • folk art – just as the classical composers of the period went out into the field to collect folk songs and melodies
  • the art of the insane – a key work is Artistry of the Mentally Ill by psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn, published in 1922 which influenced Paul Klee’s exercises in mad drawing
  • the art of the self-taught, like Henri Rousseau
  • outsider art, such as the backdrops, masks, costumes, sets and designs for circuses, cabaret, vaudeville, puppet theatres and so on

The interest in African and Pacific art which came in around 1905 has to take its place in a far, far wider cultural movement, and among a whole range of ‘primitive’ sources, which the book goes on to describe.

To give just one example, Neo-primitivism was a specific Russian art movement which took its name from the 31-page pamphlet Neo-primitivizm by Aleksandr Shevchenko (1913). Shevchenko proposed a new style of modern painting which fused elements of Cézanne, Cubism and Futurism with traditional Russian ‘folk art’ conventions and motifs, notably the Russian icon and the lubok. ‘Primitive’ is in the very name but it has nothing to do with the art of Africa or the Pacific.

The best definition of this very broad ‘cultural primitivism’ Rhodes can find comes from a book written as long ago as 1935, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, whose authors Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas define it as:

The discontent of the civilised with civilisation, or with some conspicuous and characteristic feature of it. It is the belief of men living in a highly evolved and complex cultural condition that a life far simpler and less sophisticated in some or all respects is a more desirable life. (quoted on page 20)

Reading this I think, ‘but when was this impulse not present in Western culture (or indeed others, such as Chinese and Japanese culture)?’ I think of Spenser’s Fairie Queene which ends with the desire to escape the corruption of courtly life. Or back to the Roman poets of the early Empire, all fondly imagining a life among pie-tooting peasants.

Maybe the period at the end of the 19th century was distinguished by the fact that a lot of artists and writers really did leave the big cities to seek out a simpler life, among peasants or abroad? But not really – Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists and, later, the Surrealists stayed resolutely in the city.

Primitivism and modern art

So, I had all kinds of questions about the relatively short introduction to the book. I think Rhodes is trying to cover a subject which is too vast and stretches over a bewildering range of modern disciplines. The book is much more confident and interesting once it starts looking at specific artists in detail.

Gauguin is routinely criticised for ‘appropriating’ the style, motifs, myths and stories of the South Sea Islanders he went to live among in the 1890s. In fact Gauguin emerges as possibly the number one criminal cultural appropriator for ‘stealing’ South Sea motifs, styles, people (depicted ‘patronisingly’ in his paintings) and their language (which he used liberally written across his works).

But as Rhodes points out, Gauguin had already spent some time living among Breton peasants in the village of Pont-Aven, which is where he really developed his ‘primitive’ style, with its strong black outlines defining garish expressive areas of colour, the figures drawn in a deliberately naive, angular way.

In other words, Gauguin had established a powerfully ‘primitive’ art way before he went looking for ‘tribal’ art.

And he wasn’t the only one: Wassily Kandinsky went to stay in the Bavarian town of Murnau where he decorated the house he stayed in with folk crafts done in naive styles, as well as actually dressing like the local peasantry. Die Brücke painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner went to live among the peasants of Frauenkirch in Switzerland. Nothing African involved anywhere.

Rhodes mentions the Omega Workshop set up by English critic Roger Fry in 1915, including Duncan Grant and continued an Arts and Crafts vision of working with ‘primitive or peasant’ motifs and patterns in the making to textiles and furniture. They withdrew to a country house Sussex in 1916 and formed a kind of posh commune. Maybe they used tribal art as inspiration for some of their angular designs, but any account of their lives demonstrates their wish to rediscover simpler, rural patterns.

A similar ‘back to nature’ impulse lay behind the founding of the schools of art in Newlyn as early as 1882 (and would lead to the St Ives school of painting being set up in the 1940s). In fact Rhodes says it was a sign of the times, with ‘artistic colonies’ being set up all across the Western world, from America to Russia. Some 30 artists’ colonies existed in Germany alone.

All this coincided with the advent of nudism or naturism as a popular movement. The first serious book advocating naturism’s social and psychological advantages was published in 1902 (Nacktkultur by Dr. Heinrich Pudor).

Though Rhodes doesn’t mention him, the grand-daddy of this ‘back to the country’ spiritual cleansing was Count Leo Tolstoy who rejected his urban youth and successful middle age, to go live among the peasants on his country estate, progressively renouncing his earthly goods (such as the copyrights in all his books), and writing scores of essays promoting the simple good life.

Tolstoy’s powerfully-phrased arguments affected – among millions of others – young Mohandas Gandhi, who entered into correspondence with Tolstoy in 1909 and went on to preach a) non-violent revolt and b) a return to the ‘primitive’ culture and trade of rural India (in opposition to its sophisticated cities).

Graffiti Another way of rejecting the academic was to incorporate writing into pictures. Artists as varied as Mikhail Larionov, Picasso, George Grosz did just that. Jean Dubuffet’s work from after the Second World War is particularly brutal and primitive. I can see how it anticipates the interest of someone like Basquiat in graffiti.

To put it another way, it’s interesting to learn that graffiti as a ‘strategy’ for primitive art existed long before Basquiat reignited it in the 1980s.

Conclusions

The book goes on, pushing familiar buttons, repeating Edward Said’s criticisms of ‘orientalist’ artists of the 19th century and sniffing out ‘orientalist’ tendencies in early modern artists (stay behind for detention, Matisse), using key post-modern terms like ‘the other’, ‘difference’, ‘discourse’, ‘situate’, negotiate’, ‘subvert’ and so on, in the approved style, and making frequent mention of the ‘bourgeoisie’ (the people all these radical artists were endlessly trying to shock).

This limited vocabulary and stereotyped litany of ‘isshoos’ is mind-numbingly boring.

Some conclusions:

The primitive is too big As mentioned above, the idea of ‘the primitive’ is much, much more complex than it first appears, and its impingement on modern art is so complex, manifests itself so differently in every one of the major and minor artists from the 1880s until, say, the 1940s, that an overview like this may, in the end, be impossible to write. Just telling the story of the impact of ‘primitive’ art on Gauguin or Picasso or Matisse would take an entire book.

Tribal art Thus, the way Rhodes defines ‘the primitive’ and ‘Primitivism’ makes the African and Pacific art which I thought the book would be all about, only a part, only a sub-set of this much larger and in the end, very unwieldy idea of back to nature, outsider art, the art of children, the art of the mad and so on.

No definition of tribal art When we do get to the part of the book devoted to African and Pacific art, Rhodes appears to distinguish it from the very broad category of ‘the primitive’ by calling it ‘tribal art’. I was very disappointed that he nowhere gives a working definition of ‘tribal art’ which I thought itself sounded a bit simple-minded. Do all African and pacific peoples live in ‘tribes’? I doubt it. Is there no more nuanced and refined term for this kind of art?

Along with no working definition of ‘tribal art’, Rhodes nowhere gives any sense of its history and development in Africa, or the Pacific (or in north-western America, which also gets referenced).

He nowhere attempts an overview of its main features or aspects. It’s a shame and also surprising.

Among my most favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes in the British Museum, which I find riveting, dazzling, awesome, and I was hoping to read something which put into words their impact and power. But there is no mention of them.

Benin Bronze from 13th or 15th century Benin, west Africa

Benin Bronze from 13th or 15th century Benin, west Africa

Contemporary writers on tribal art In fact by far the best writing about ‘tribal art’ comes from the artists and critics of the time. The people Rhodes accuses of patronisingly racist views, ironically, have much more sophisticated and interesting responses to this art than he does.

Take the German writer on modern and primitive art, Carl Einstein, who wrote an essay African Sculpture (1915) written after a stay in Paris where he’d met Picasso’s circle. His key insight is that African sculptures are self-contained. They are:

‘oriented not toward the viewer, but in terms of themselves’. They function, he continues, not so much as representations, but as things in themselves: ‘the art object is real because it is a closed form. Since it is self-contained and extremely powerful, the sense of distance between it and the viewer will necessarily produce an art of enormous intensity.’ (Quoted page 117)

When I myself have tried to put into words the impact of the African art I like, I’ve always ended up saying that these works feel somehow complete, utterly finished. They totally achieve what they set out to do. They have complete mastery of form and technique, so I was delighted to come across Einstein’s similar formulation of their self-containment.

Picasso on tribal art Probably the single most famous statement about the impact of ‘tribal art’ on a Western painter is Picasso’s own, a description he gave of his first visit to the Museum of Ethnography in Paris in 1905.

Picasso was no intellectual; he was one of the most instinctual artists who ever lived. He doesn’t even react to them as ‘works of art’, but far more profoundly reacts to their imaginative, spiritual force.

Men had made these masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image. At that moment I realised that this was what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as mediation between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desire. When I came to that realisation, I knew I had found my way. (p.116)

A passage of prose as vivid and expressive as his art. Many artists did directly copy motifs and patterns from ‘tribal art’ into their own works. But in this passage you can see that, for many others, it wasn’t a one-for-one transcription of individual pieces, it was the realisation that there was a whole other way of conceiving of the visual and of crafted objects, completely outside the Western academic tradition.

The general thrust of the book is that artists of this generation were looking for ways to escape the dead hand of the academic tradition and that they tried all kinds of routes – going off to the country, living among peasants, stripping naked, copying the art of children, peasants, the insane, anything.

And that ‘tribal art’ was just one among many means of escape, but one which opened a particularly powerful and massive door.

Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso (1907-08)

Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso (1907-08)

A narrowly politically correct reading claims that Western artists ‘stole’ the worldview, designs and motifs of tribal peoples. A more relaxed view suggests that the art of tribal peoples helped to crystallise alternative visions and ideas which artists and sculptures right across Europe were already looking for.

The artists who are blamed for exploiting tribal art are the ones who popularised it The avant-garde artists who Rhodes so casually criticises for ‘appropriating’ tribal and ‘primitive’ art, are in fact the means by which tribal and ‘primitive’ art itself became visually acceptable, stylish, fashionable and, in time, valued and judged in its own right.

The politically correct can (and do) slate off all those dead white men for stealing non-European ideas, motifs and designs, but there is a mirror image way of thinking about this: that all those dead white men placed tribal and ‘primitive’ art smack bang in the centre of modern art and so forced their viewers, buyers, collectors and curators, to take tribal and ‘primitive’ art seriously.

Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, the German Expressionists, the Surrealists – they made us see tribal and ‘primitive’ art as more than the relics of ‘savage’ or ‘degenerate’ or ‘backward’ cultures, but as the sophisticated products of cultures every bit as worthy of respect and serious study as any aspect of Western culture.

They created the attitude of taking tribal and ‘primitive’ art seriously from which the very critics like Rhodes, who criticise them so fiercely, have personally and morally benefited – and then use this late-coming sense of moral superiority to lambast the very people who helped to develop it.

Gauguin Writing about art – writing about what you actually see, how it is made and how you respond to it – is difficult. It is far easier to give in to the easy temptation of criticising everything you see for not living up to your own impeccable moral standards. Being politically correct. The easy choice.

The forty or so illustrations of tribal artifacts which the book includes are infinitely more powerful than anything Rhodes can write about them. In fact nowhere does he attempt any kind of description of individual pieces of tribal or ‘primitive’ art; by and large they are used as evidence for the prosecution against the wicked, white, male artists who appropriated them.

One of the few really insightful bits of writing about art is a quote from (that wicked cultural appropriator) Gauguin, who wrote in 1888:

I love Brittany; here I find the savage, primitive quality. When my clogs echo on this granite ground, I hear the dull muted, powerful sound I am looking for in painting. (quoted on page 26)

‘The dull muted, powerful sound…’ Wow. That’s a really brilliant description of the hard outlines and slabs of colour you get in Gauguin’s works.

So by the end of this ambitious but unsatisfactory book I came to the conclusion that the African and Pacific art itself, the art of the Western painters who copied or were inspired by it, and the writings of those artists and their contemporary critics – are all more illuminating, exciting and inspiring than the clunky prose and lame politics of modern art critics and scholars.


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