The Lathe Of Heaven ★★★

Before proceeding with this review, I have to admit something: I’ve never been a fan of Urusula K LeGuin. I know, I know, she’s written so many books, and won so many awards for them. She is considered one of the great feminist sci-fi writers, a collective which I should whole-heartedly support. I think its a prejudice that started in middle school when I read, and was disappointed with, A Wizard of Earthsea (which I haven’t read since then, and which I should probably go back and read again before I start disparaging it).

That said, the concept of this story, and the way in which le Guin approaches it, is fairly wonderful. Orr is a man living in a post, pre, and concurrant apocolyptic world, and he was born with a strange gift. Sometimes when he dreams, his dreams come true. His dreams actually alter the past, not the present or the future, so that when he awakes things around him have changed, but no one else notices because “they’ve always been that way.” Orr is not a man who likes to have that kind of power, he just wants it to go away. After turning to drugs to keep himself from dreaming, Orr is sentenced to Voluntary Theraputic Treatment and is introduced to a psychiatrist who specializes in dreaming. This doctor hypnotizes Orr in an attempt to get him to stop being afraid of his dreams, and by a function of being near Orr is taken along with him into the next “reality” and remembers the changes. The doctor sees this as an opportunity to make their world a better place to live, the only problem is, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Over the next few months, the doctor takes it upon himself to “fix” all the unhappiness in the world. The doctor orders Orr to dream of world peace, no more war in the middle east, and when Orr awakes planet Earth is united together… in a war against the aliens. As each session with the doctor creates a world that is less and less familiar, Orr begins to believe that the doctor is fundamentally damaging reality, but he has to overcome his own passive nature and take one vital step towards action to save the world from the excesses of the doctor.

I think my dislike of The Lathe of Heaven stems from the wordy pseudo-philosophical style in which it is written. “It was not standing there, Orr thought: not in the same way that he would stand, or sit, or lie, or be. It was standing there in the way that he, in a dream, might be standing. It was there in the sense that in a dream one is somewhere.” Now, normally I’m a big fan of prosetry (writing that is half prose half poetry), but I believe that it has to serve a purpose. There has to be a point the author is trying to make. In this instance, it is strangely out of character for Orr to be thinking in such philosophical circles. Orr is described as being flat, completely mentally balanced, and passive to the extreme. The other characters do not think of him as stupid, but as being simple, direct, and usually saying exactly what he thinks. So this particular quote, and others like it, just feel like the author’s self-indulgence and love of her own writing style (and I know it when I see it, I’m often guilty of this flaw myself.) Just because a sentence is purely beautiful, well written and meaningful doesn’t mean it belongs in the story. And when a novella is barely 150 pages, every word has to count, every sentence has to contribute to the story as a whole, and not just be a way for the author to expound her own brilliance.

Le Guin also has the tendency to get a little bit “preachy” in The Lathe of Heaven. This is her chance to tell you some of what she thinks is wrong with the world, and how *not* to fix the problems. It tells you what le Guin herself is afraid of seeing in our society, and some of the societies Orr dreams up are pretty scary. This novel asks the reader to choose between race and gender issues versus uniformity, freedom versus control, what makes the perfect world?

When the ending comes, it is with a jumble of psychadelic abstract images. The reader is left knowing that le Guin believes there is no “lathe of heaven,” there is no tool that can create the perfect reality, utopia cannot be found by shaving away the things we don’t like. We are just pieces of the puzzle, we can’t see the whole image, we can just attempt to find where we fit as individuals. (And I forgive her; sometimes, as authors, we can’t help but throw in some prosetry, because we think it sounds pretty.)

Surface Detail ★★★★

An Impressive Work of Scope, and Gravitas

I think what we all really love about Iain M Banks is his ability to come up with an idea, and then to not only run with it, but to travel at light speed with it to the furthest edge of the galaxy of our imagination… and sometimes one step further.

His ideas aren’t merely creative and individual, they are unique because of the depth to which he explores them. Sure, people have created super-powerful futuristic space exploring societies before, but Banks has put much more thought into how such a society would develop, and the quirks it would have, and the repercussions of its power and technology. It is his attention to detail that makes the Culture so interesting and expansive. People have created AIs before, and even put them in ships, but Banks has actually given them a personality that is not, and never has been, truly human. How would something act that had come into being, fully developed, as war ship with capabilities a mere biological could never understand? How does such a being define itself? And we all know that our favorite detail of the Minds is the names they choose, unlimited by convention or character count.

Authors have certainly explored virtual reality before. They’ve played games with it, they’ve gotten lost in it, they’ve even dipped their toe in the vast ocean of implications that comes with true VR. With Surface Detail, Banks went scuba diving. What are the consequences of post-biological existence in near-limitless virtual realities that are managed by any society with enough cash to create an Afterlife? What if wars no longer needed to be fought in “the Real” and soldiers could be rebirthed at the will of their commanders, remembering everything they learned from all their previous “deaths?” And what happens when the pan-human galaxy is faced with a group of societies who truly believe hells need to exist to keep the living in line?

Strangely enough, given the extensive descriptions of a particularly nasty hell and multiple violent murders, this was one of Banks’ least complicated and overall positive novels. I had gotten used to the bittersweet taste of his often sudden conclusions that rarely leave a main character alive. This time we’re left with all our characters, if not alive in a biological sense, existing as individuals in whatever realm they started in on page one.

This novel did not “fall outside of normal moral constraints” in the way that Banks sometimes spins a plot. In Surface Detail, all of the bad guys were uncomplicatedly bad, just greedy men, or dirty politicians, or demons in hell. All of the good guys were just people trying to live their lives, do their jobs, or escape their abuser once and for all.

In many ways, Surface Detail catered more to fans than to strangers picking up their first Culture Novel. As frequent travelers within The Culture, we were gifted with detailed descriptions of space suit tech, protection droids disguised as tattoos, crazy war-ship minds, new branches of culture intelligence, and even a previous character that is not exposed until the very last sentence. However, I think a novice to the culture world would be left feeling a little unimpressed. The true scope and breadth and depth of The Culture is somewhat ignored, and all we see are the surface details of something that is so much larger. The characters themselves aren’t as complex as I’ve come to expect from Banks. The details were as exquisite and creative as always, but for all those extra pages, I think there was actually less going on than in (for instance) Look to Windward or Excession.

While this may not be my favorite novel by Iain M Banks, it was still an incredible piece of science fiction, and leaves the average modern space-travel novel behind in a trail of 4D space dust.

Victorian Dress

I created this dress for the 2011 Victorian Ball (put together by Triangle Vintage Dance). No, it is not strictly victorian, I decided I’d just rather have fun with it, and create something I thought was pretty. The dress is two separate pieces, the green overdress, and the cream ruffled underskirt. Also, I specifically taught myself how to crochet just so that I could put my own lace on this dress. And in case anyone is wondering, I’m really bad at crocheting, I much prefer knitting.