27 August 2012

The 1970's Gravity Well

Well, this weekend we were supposed to see a massive hurricane roll into SW Florida this weekend.  For a time it seemed dangerous enough to close schools, government activities and my workday on Monday has been cancelled.  As the storm got closer, it also projected to move further away so although the palm trees outside the window aren’t doing much more than swaying, I’ll still get some extended reading time this weekend.  And since I am taking an extra week (or so) to finish Cyteen, I figured I should take some time to hand out a couple well deserved awards.

I started this post thinking I was writing The Gravity Well but soon realized, I was probably also determining the Master of the Precious for Ursula K. Le Guin.  Still, I’ll begin with The Gravity Well:

Clearly both of Le Guin’s masterpieces, The Left Hand of Darkness (1970) and The Dispossessed (1975) are in the running and if there is any other worthy of nomination, I’d have to it should be Where the Sweet Birds Sang (1977).  So there are your contenders for the 1970’s Gravity Well.

I’ll start with Kate Wilhelm’s, Where the Sweet Birds Sang.  For me, this was great.  Cloning, the Environment, The Bomb.  This book seems so beautifully tapped into its time and both the most scientifically optimistic and culturally pessimistic aspects of its cultural milieu.  What made the book so fascinating and beautiful to me were the entwined themes of scientific and ecological and social apprehension and also the beautifully confident individuality.

Cloning was still a number of years off, but Wilhelm’s treatment of the science made it seem so plausible and also pretty damn scary and sometimes inhumane and yet, it may have been the only thing that saved humanity for a time.  Not only was the concept downright cool, it was a subtle and nuanced treatment that will probably be my standard upon which all other treatments of cloning will be compared for a great long time.

The other side of the coin here was the role of the creative individual as savior of humanity.  This was a little too shallow and almost painfully transparent.  It’s not that I wanted it to be a mystery, but it was a little too blunt-edged and undeveloped for my taste.  All-in-all I loved this book, but I think it was this second theme that does it in as a Gravity Well contender, no?

So that leaves us with Le Guin.  In my mind, this splits one way.  One of her works secured and defined the gravitas of SF and went a long way to establishing the genre as genuine, serious and philosophical literature suitable to the halls of academia.  The other, though less popular, was maybe less emotionally captivating, but such punch in the mental gut, I’m not sure how it doesn’t take the prize.  In fact, I think it does.

Of course my description of the former and second place title is The Left Hand of Darkness.  Probably a more enchanting read, but when it comes to the imperfect utopia(s) of The Dispossessed, as I said last time, the escape velocity is insurmountable.  The Dispossessed asks hard questions, explores an answer, and asks them again.  It was mentally exhausting in the most entertaining way possible and damn it if it doesn’t throw a wrench into every idea you’ve ever had about the organization of society.  Come on, it doesn’t get any more unbeatable than that.  And so:

The 1970’s Gravity Well is The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

But don’t forget I mentioned that this was practically a dual competition and I don’t think The Dispossessed gets the double win.  The Left Hand of Darkness tells an amazing love story that while it completely redefined the genre, was also just plain exciting.  I mean, when they are up on the ice for days on end, that’s about as bleak and intense and exciting as it gets.  So, for being the title with the decisively stronger emotional stamp,

The Left Hand of Darkness is officially the Master of the Precious and at least in terms of the MOP, The Dispossessed is just a stupid fat Hobbit.

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