Always Coming Home – Ursula K. le Guin

There’s a Borges story about a cabal of wise men who write an encyclopedia about a fictional world that somehow consumes the real one. Ursula K. le Guin attempts something similar in Always Coming Home.

Her book is a collection of writings, including novel extracts, folktales and glossaries, about a Californian community called The Valley waiting in the far future. Neither a dystopia or utopia, more an alternatopia where every social attitude and custom is different from our contemporary mores, yet somehow everything manages to even out in moral terms. Their idea of wealth is to share, they have no gods but a complicated spirituality, and although their Earth is depleted of the resources they’d need to develop industrial technology they can always consult an interstellar AI that seemed to have descended from our internet.

Guin’s technique of describing another world through fictional secondary sources recall Defontenay’s lost classic Star, which did the same thing back in the nineteenth century. With this sort of speculative fiction, the main community often ends up working like a protagonist, a really big character made up of normalĀ  people who undergoes character development as their culture changes in response to major events. According to me, this technique is what makes ambitious fictional histories like Last and First Men, The Shape of Things to Come and a lot of Tolkein’s stuff engaging to readers. In contrast, Le Guin’s book focuses more on the average person, and that in conjunction with the few changes that occur in the Valley, means that the whole thing didn’t really appeal to me.

Still, the pictures are very nice, and if there’s one thing I say on an infrequent basis, it’s that speculative fiction needs more illustrations. If you’re a massive fan of Earthsea and love the worldbuilding that went into that series, go pick this one up.

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolf

Includes Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Auturch

The Book of the New Sun reminds of me when my ability to read books was outstripped by my ability to understand them. Mainly of that time I read Soul Music in primary school – sure, I understood the novel’s basic plot, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing something pretty important.

Apparently living in the Earth’s future, post several apocalypses, Severian is a young apprentice exiled from the Torturer’s Guild after an inappropriate relationship with one of their clients. Given a nifty sword and somehow acquiring a supernatural jewel associate with the local Christ analogue, Severian explores a world that is simultaneously antique and futuristic. Along the way he falls in with political subversives and a travelling drama troupe, somehow bumping into every important person in his country.

You know how there’s a point in every Philip K Dick novel where you completely lose the plot? These books had something similar happen every second chapter. Maybe it’s because Wolfe uses obscure words for unfamiliar concepts, maybe it’s because every now and then a chapter is a story being told by a side character, maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. Dick gets away with ambiguity because his characters are so well-written they almost feel real, but Wolfe doesn’t manage to do that for me.

I dunno. I’ll have to give this series another try in the next decade, see if I get it then.

The Sculptor – Scott McCloud

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It’s hard to say how big a deal, or indeed what sort of deal, Scott McCloud is. He’s the creator of the excellent comic Zot, which started out something like an Astro Boy pastiche and ended up exploring themes of adolescent angst, alienation and closeted sexuality. McFarlane also wrote Understanding Comics, a documentary graphic novel that explained the conventions of the medium it was created in, like speech bubbles. (It’s been a while since I read it.) He’s an influential guy. You could say that he’s the Scott McFarlane of comics.

The Sculptor is about a frustrated sculptor who sells most of his lifespan to Death, in exchange for the supernatural ability to reform any solid matter into any shape he pleases. Inconveniently, he falls in love a month before the date he agreed to die. Things escalate from there.

This is probably going to be a classic.

Mrs Bradshaw’s Train Companion – Terry Pratchett

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Here’s a guide to all the things you can see on Discworld’s train network. It’s nice to see a fantasy setting that embraces modernity. Nice pictures, nice descriptions, but very depressing to think of all the story ideas mentioned in this guide that Pratchett never got to build on.