Solaris – Stanislaw Lem
I’ve read quite a lot of Science Fiction in the past, though admittedly I do spend more time in the so frequently linked genre, Fantasy. In fact, although the challenge of the last year began with a Sci-fi book, the whole project was, in part, an attempt to distance myself from the genre somewhat and widen my literary purview. Free from that constraint, I decided I’d try one of the classics of the genre, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.
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The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
I have never read a book that I’ve understood less than The Female Man. To the extent that I don’t feel as though I can justifiably give it a rating. You might say that if I didn’t understand it, and therefore most likely didn’t enjoy it, I should give it a low rating, but the thing is that when I could tell what was going on, I was enjoying it, but unfortunately these flashes of clarity were only flashes.
According to the blurb, The Female Man tells the story of four women (who are in fact the same woman) from alternate universes; one that’s basically ours, one where WW2 never happened and the depression never finished, resulting in an even more unbalanced society, a futuristic one where there are no men, and one where men and women are in a constant state of actual war. As far as I can tell, the story is essentially the story of these women visiting each of these worlds in turn. However, I’m a bit hazy, because the novel is split into a number of different chapters, each narrated in the first person and which is often very unclear which of the four women is speaking, making it incredibly difficult to follow.
However, I think that more of a problem is the way things have changed since Russ was writing. She was one of the pioneers of feminist Science Fiction in the 1960s, and a particularly experimental one at that;The Female Man owes a lot to the Many Worlds Theory, which was a relatively new concept at the time of writing (and one formulated by the father of another of the authors I’ve read this year). Nowadays though, Sci-fi seems to have normalised somewhat, at least as far as I’ve come across, so I’m just not used to this level of complexity in my fiction. Or maybe I’m making excuses for myself?
I did want to like the Female Man, but despite trying very hard, it was far too complex a book for me to understand.
Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhelm
As with The Teleportation Accident, I picked up this books because it was featured on a display table in my local Blackwells’. This time, it was a collection of the SF Masterworks series. What stuck out most about the book was the fact it was written by a female author, something that I’ve found disappointingly lacking in Science Fiction.
At the start of the book, global society is collapsing, and humanity is on the brink of extinction, and only one (inexplicably) wealthy and scientifically knowledgeable family have the foresight to see a possibility for survival. Now, if it wasn’t for the fact the blurb and the cover gave away the twist, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to work out that it was Cloning, because they’re already quite far through the scheme before it become evident what they’re doing. It’s never referred to openly, and is introduced first as simply a way of providing food in a world where everything is becoming sterile; it could technically just be a form of IVF or any number of other things. There is a little but of moralising, but in comparison to what you might expect, it’s actually treated as being a necessity that isn’t up for debate.
What’s most exciting about the story however is the fact that the second section takes place long after the “real humans” have all died, and instead focuses on the society the clones have set up, and their own attempts at surviving. There’s a lot of outright rejection of the past, and a bit of murkiness in regard to those few people who are still “born”, but at the heart, it’s frighteningly similar to societies constructed in many other dystopian novels: no real independent thought, community over the individual, and many similar tropes.
There’s plenty more I could say about it, but I’d rather leave it at that and let people decide from themselves. What I will say is that I found the end rather disheartening. It was quite predictable, and while the specifics were interesting, it did feel much like an outright rejection of transhumanism and embracing of human nature. Is that worth criticising? Probably not, but I still felt let down, considering how much I liked the rest of the book.