Over the weekend, I finished Clan of the Cave Bear and found a cheap paperback copy of Left Hand of Darkness at a Salvation Army store.
I’m only a couple chapters in, but the difference between LHoD and the previous Hainish novels is fairly striking. It’s the first to admit up front that a galactic federation is not particularly effective administratively, and it is a hard sell to get someone to give up autonomy when your big selling point is keeping your autonomy. So why join up?
UKL herself has said that the Hainish books aren’t really a ‘cycle’, though the 2nd and 3rd were definitely tied together. What I wonder at is the “restoration” period. After a galactic empire falls, how is it rebuilt? In City of Illusions, Earth has been bombed back to the stone ages culturally, if not technologically. How does one come back from that? Werrel has gone from primitive backwater world to fledgling space-faring civilization over 600 years, but one light-speed expeditionary mission does not a galactic power make. From what information we’re given, Werrel seems to be the rebirth place of the humanoid space empire (no news is ever heard of from the other major member worlds, so one might imagine they were stomped by the Shing just as badly as Earth was), so the Ekumen must’ve been pretty much started from scratch. Ansible technology has been rediscovered and, after however many hundred years, there are enough member worlds for Galactic Federation 2: Electric Boogaloo to have sent a new emissary to Winter for LHoD.
The Telling reminded me in many ways of some of the later Earthsea books, and maybe a hallmark of later LeGuin: fascinating and meditative story portraits in which very little actually happens. Chronologically, LHoD is the only bridge between the Hainish books I’d read and the Telling. The Telling is a thought experiment framed as a Hainish story, but doesn’t really jibe fully with the other books. Ironically, by giving it a more grounded setting and history of its protagonist, it’s harder to suspend disbelief. Earth of the Telling is more of a ‘near future’ Earth that happens to be part of the galactic federation (I don’t think it’s called the Ekumen in the Telling, so it could be an earlier book chronologically). But it’s hard to think of Earth having places like Vancouver and Calcutta for earthlings to identify with as being from or cultural and ethnic distinctions as we think of now being present on a world that was reduced to isolated homestead clan cultures. It might make sense for the Telling to take place earlier, but that sort of adds to the sad futility of a downbeat story with only a few bright rays at the end. Which is why there is no “Hainish cycle”, just books that make occasional and oblique references to the planet Hain. Fascinatingly enough, the copy of Left Hand of Darkness I found makes no reference to being part of any cycle of any sort.
The good: I finished reading the original Hainish cycle and am half-way through one of the new ones. It’s been fascinating to see it morph from what could’ve been a highly entertaining, but rote, sword and planet series into something completely different. And again I’m reminded of how strange it seems that LeGuin’s materials are rarely adapted for film and how awful the results have been when they were.
The bad: I watched the first season of X-Men Evolution with my girlfriend. First run, I’d completely avoided this show because X-Men High just sounded like an awful and dumb idea. And turns out I was completely right. There was no fate of the world or even fate of the neighborhood stuff going on here. Just Prof X and Magneto playing Gotta Catch ’em All* with mutant teens, whose problems range from dealing with being colossal dorks (this show makes being in the ButterCream Gang seem more hardcore than being an X-Man) to dealing with petty bullies. The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants has always been kind of a mediocre villain force (they always seemed like less of a brotherhood than a collection of thugs with low self esteem that could be easily bullied by Magneto), but putting them in Highschool and doing some ultra low stakes villainy makes this iteration one of the least compelling rogues galleries I’ve ever seen. At least in Static Shock, they took the petty-ass villain-bs that you’d expect from highschool kids given superpowers and had some fun with it (like the fat kid who flew around ripping off hot-dog carts).
Anyway, I’ve had a bit of a revelation on the next project I want to try (one that I actually plan on making publicly consumable), though it’ll take some time. I’ve got an idea for a CYOA book. It will be a Cirsova book. It will take place in the distant past, pre-empire, and center on a city far to the north of Polaris during the decadent hey-day of Northern Kingdom. I’ve got a few of the choices mapped out, but after I start writing, who knows where it will go. If I can get it to hyperlink correctly, I’ll release it as a PDF but I also want to put out a paperback.
*:Magneto and Mystique are like Team Rocket only less effective or entertaining.
I’m coming to realize that I have a difficult time with combining world-building and story-telling. Whether it’s in my game or in my personal writing, I find myself failing to successfully fuse the two.
In the case of Cirsova, I’ve done a lot of world building, but never figured out a Narrative to put there to the point where there is no story other than the implication of a decaying empire obsessing over a dead empire.
In the case of the game I’m running, I feel like I have a story to tell of a wicked king who intends to reclaim his kingdom from beyond the grave, but, in part because of borrowed setting, my world-building feels sparse and lacking.
It helps, though, to know that I’m not entirely alone, and even some of my favorite authors have had the same problem. I just finished reading the first novel in LeGuin’s Hainish cycle, Rocannon’s World. The worldbuilding (a 4 mooned backwoods planet in the intergalactic federation is inhabited by warrior humans riding flying cats, telepathic cave-dwelling troglodites, their above-ground cousins, and giant insect-men) is great. The story (an ethnologist’s expedition is destroyed by bad-guys wanting to use the planet as a badguy base, so he and his native friends must find the badguy base so they can get the federation to drop a bomb on it) is kind of meh. Still, it’s an enjoyable book.
Seeing that even my favorite authors sometimes struggle with fusing story and world-building, if anything, makes me feel less alone.