Musings over disagreements that I have with Ursula Le Guin’s recent review of Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel

February 3, 2014 § 7 Comments

Last month, I wrote a short piece predicting negative reactions from certain portions of the SF/F readership in response to Chang-rae Lee’s recently-released On Such a Full Sea.  So it was with no great surprise that I found out this past weekend that Ursula Le Guin had penned a fairly negative review for The Guardian.  Having just finished reading the book Saturday, it was interesting to compare my initial impressions of the whole work with hers.

Frankly, I found her review to be rather useless.  She spent so much time blathering about the “seriousness” of dystopic fiction and how writers from other traditions needed to “respect” those serious traditions that the focus became more about how On Such a Full Sea does not conform with Le Guin and other SF/F Keepers of the Sacred Flames’ expectations for a dystopic novel that I was left wondering if I had read the same novel as her.  Let’s examine her points:

Dystopia is by its nature a dreary, inhospitable country. To its early explorers it held all the excitement of discovery, and that made their descriptions fresh and powerful – EM Forster’s “The Machine Stops”, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But for the last 30 years or more, Dystopia has been a major tourist attraction. Everybody goes there and writes a book about it. And the books tend to be alike, because the terrain is limited and its nature is monotonous.

The most familiar view of it is a wild landscape, more or less catastrophically ruined or neglected, in which human settlements exist widely separated from each other and cut off from nature, other species, sometimes even the outer atmosphere. These enclaves – underground or in domes or behind walls – are human hives, controlled by government and supporting a regimented, sheltered, safe, highly unnatural, often luxurious, “utopian” lifestyle. Those inside the enclaves consider those living outside them to be primitive, lawless and dangerous, which they are, though they also often hold the promise of freedom. So Dystopia has a hero: an insider who goes outside.

 This storyland dystopia (interestingly enough, capitalized throughout the essay as if it were a proper place on par with say Djibouti), when reduced to such terms, feels rather too commonplace.  There is a risk of distorting individual stories here, and I believe that is what Le Guin manages to do in her attempt to place Lee’s tale within these parameters.  Where her “touristy” metaphor fails is that she presumes that dystopia is primarily about place.  Place can be powerful, it can influence human lives, but place is an external factor that depends upon active (and occasionally, passive) human participation, whether it be in collusion with the environment or in reaction to it.  Too frequently in dystopic SF/F, place is given such a precedence over human agency that the power of the potential clashes (or submission) between environment and human actors is muted in favor of trying to make the environment/place so frightful.

So while Le Guin does at least address the “promise of freedom,” dystopic fiction is not necessarily as much about a hero/heroine going “outside” as much as it is about an inward journey.  Winston Smith may futilely rail against Big Brother, but he also has to go within himself to root out his own collaborative tendencies.  In Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Rubashov’s journey from Party big-wig to political prisoner awaiting a show trial, his reminiscences and self-recriminations map almost neatly to the internal conflicts that lie at the heart of many older dystopic fictions.  The horror of these fictions depends much less on the menacing environments as it does on how the characters interact and move within this milieu.  This is something that is lacking in Le Guin’s definition of dystopia and this lack underscores what I perceive to be major failings on her part to understand just what Lee set out to do with his work.

  Chang-rae Lee‘s guidebook to the country is, as one would expect from a professor of creative writing, full of ingenious variations on predictable themes, and written with such complex subtlety of point of view as to give it at least the appearance of a new understanding of the place. It follows the usual inside/outside pattern. A vague entity called “the directorate” maintains two kinds of enclave: crowded and industrious worker-class colonies produce the necessities for upper-class colonies called Charters, where people live in lavish and competitive luxury. Outside these somehow protected zones is anarchic wilderness, called “the counties”. The narrator-guide is a first-person-plural voice that represents and speaks for the people of B-Mor (Baltimore), a colony of Asian-ancestry workers who grow food for the Charters. This “we” voice is also inexplicably able to know and relate the journey and the emotions of the hero who goes outside.

Leaving aside the back-handed compliments that are rather unbecoming of her, her summary of Lee’s story barely grasps the surface of what is transpiring.  Yes, there is a tripartite division (Charters, worker centers like B-Mor, the Counties),  but what transpires is much more nuanced than the capitalist/proletariat division that Le Guin hints at.  There are many things transpiring within Lee’s B-Mor (Baltimore 300-400 years in the future) that are actively undermining the premise Le Guin presents.  One is the nature of “promotion” and the fears engendered in the Charters when someone from one of the worker colonies scores so high (top 2%, later reduced to 1.5%) on standardized tests that they threaten to disrupt the illusion of superiority that has been so carefully cultivated.  These discussions of education and health care disparities, so intertwined into the text as to become as integral to the tale as the frame story of the girl Fan’s journey outside B-Mor in search of her lover Reg (who happens to have a natural immunity to a host of genetic diseases called C–), make this “dystopia” something other than the clichéd struggle of human vs. nature.

But these elements seem to confound Le Guin:

A good many things in the novel were inexplicable to me, such as how and when North America came to be like this, what happened to nation and religion, how raw materials are produced and how, without trains or good highways, they manage to have coffee, petrol, electronic devices, food in plastic pouches, neoprene suits, plastic throwaway dishes and implements – unsustainably hi-tech luxuries that we in 2014 enjoy thanks to our immense global network of industrial production. In a broken, sporadic civilisation, where does all this stuff come from? Neglect of such literal, rational questions in imaginative fiction is often excused, even legitimised, as literary licence. Because the author is known as a literary writer, he will probably be granted the licence he takes. But social science fiction is granted no such irresponsibility, and a novel about a future society under intense political control is social science fiction. Like Cormac McCarthy and others, Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially. As a result, his imagined world carries little weight of reality. The whole system is too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire, even if towards the end of the book the narrator begins to suspect its insubstantiality.

 Here the single-minded focus on that damnable “worldbuilding” yet once again raises its ugly head.  Le Guin couches this disdain for Lee’s perceived lack of “good worldbuilding” by noting that he’ll get excused in other quarters for exercising “literary license,” whereas in SF/F, he would be castigated for being “irresponsible” in creating his (as M. John Harrison put it recently in a series of tweets) “fauxthentic” setting.   Here the punctilious curator emerges from her office to correct the unruly visitor who has dared to not observe the decorum of her place.  To that I simply call BS.  The very act of writing often questions, steals, mangles, and alters perceptions of what is “real” to create something that, for lack of a better word, is hyperreal or at least uses these alterations to say things that may be more important to one group than to another.  It is obvious by now that Le Guin is irked that Lee is not following the carefully cultivated path of “proper” dystopic storytelling and that this whipper-snapper needs to be smacked on the hand with a ruler or, like a naughty puppy, have his nose rubbed in the dirt.  What Lee does within his book is question several premises:  how do those living within a stratified system that is gamed against them adapt to their environs?  Why do we seek change when there is the possibility of personal failure at best and fates worse than mere death at worst?  Do we have even the illusion of free will in these settings?  How do we narrate our lives when we are ignorant of so much?  Does religion have to lie at the core of matters?  These are questions that have been addressed by several other writers over the centuries, of course.  Yet what Lee does here is raise them within a multi-faceted story in which place/environment does not matter as much as the humans that are living within these bounds.  That is what lies at the core of On Such a Full Sea and I think Le Guin largely misses this in her diatribe against Lee not being as uniform in his descriptions of place and faux time.

This raises a larger question:  does the setting within a presumed dystopia have to be meticulously constructed in order for the story to be effective?  In stories that aren’t strictly dystopic, such as Charlotte Gilman’s Herland or Voltaire’s Candide, the settings/premise frequently take a back seat to human interactions and development.  If one examined their “worlds” too carefully, no doubt there would be inconsistencies and dodgy “world” dynamics that would “ruin” the “realism” of these imagined places.  Let me say that again with greater emphasis:  would “ruin” the “realism” of these imagined places.  Ay, there’s the rub.  Lee is not as interested in the “realism” of his imagined setting as he is in exploring concepts within the framework of Fan’s search for Reg (and the ancillary issues discussed by the anonymous narrator who jumps back and forth in literary time to address certain points from a variety of viewpoints).

Is Lee’s novel perfect?  Of course not.  There are times in which the narrative loops out too much, threatening to derail the Fan/Reg framing plot, but his characters and their thoughts and situations are better-realized than Le Guin gives them credit for being.  In her rush to condemn On Such a Full Sea for not being the dystopic fiction she desired, I believe she missed a great deal of what this novel was:  a series of metaphors for our current lives and how our fears and dreams can constrain us while presenting the illusion of liberation.  This is what interested me most about Lee’s novel and while it may not be “orthodox” in its treatment of dystopia, its exploration of characters and how they adapt to their surroundings while simultaneously challenging these environs when necessary makes this a better novel than the one Le Guin apparently read.

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§ 7 Responses to Musings over disagreements that I have with Ursula Le Guin’s recent review of Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel

  • Martin says:

    Where you are discussing Le Guin's reading of Lee (which is hardly at all), this piece is interesting. Where you are discussing Le guin's review itself, it is worse than useless. This is because you've started wiht your conclusion and had to ignore the facts to fit your argument. Your central charge is that:

    “She spent so much time blathering about the “seriousness” of dystopic fiction and how writers from other traditions needed to “respect” those serious traditions that the focus became more about how On Such a Full Sea does not conform with Le Guin and other SF/F Keepers of the Sacred Flames' expectations for a dystopic novel that I was left wondering if I had read the same novel as her.”

    Unfortunately, you've made this up. Le Guin mentions seriousness once – “Like Cormac McCarthy and others, Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially” – and the genre she is refering to is not dystopic fiction but rather social science fiction. She does not mention respect at all, despite your quote marks; she actually says that Lee is irresponsible and superficial in his use of speculation and that this is to the detriment of his novel. So rather than “blathering on” (which is a pretty rich description anyway given your pearl-clutching complaint of “back-handed compliments that are rather unbecoming of her” later in your piece), Le Guin makes a specific complaint (which is different to the one you have identified) in a single paragraph and then returns to it as the concluding sentence of her review.

    You next quote her two opening paragraphs in their entirety. The first of these is a metaphor describing dystopian fiction; the second is a non-metaphorical description of a certain type of dystopian fiction (the “most familiar” type and one in which she situates Lee's novel). But you then weirdly conflate the two by saying: “Where her “touristy” metaphor fails is that she presumes that dystopia is primarily about place. Whether or not dystopia is primarily about place (something that Le Guin does not actually say in the second sentence), this is unrelated to her metaphor (since it is a metaphor). You then go on to say that something is “lacking in Le Guin's definition of dystopia” despite the fact she has not offered a definition, only a descrition of a certain type – a description she has offered as a way of contextualising and introducing Lee's text. But obviously this issue is unrelated to both your introduction and your central points so let's skip forward to that:

  • Martin says:

    “Here the single-minded focus on that damnable “worldbuilding” yet once again raises its ugly head. Le Guin couches this disdain for Lee's perceived lack of “good worldbuilding” by noting that he'll get excused in other quarters for exercising “literary license,” whereas in SF/F, he would be castigated for being “irresponsible” in creating his (as M. John Harrison put it recently in a series of tweets) “fauxthentic” setting.”

    Again with the imaginary quotations. Le Guin never uses the word 'worldbuilding' which you write “yet once again raises its ugly head” despite neither you or Le Guin having made a reference to it previously. Le Guin's actual complaints are that Lee presents a world that is a) inexplicable and implausible and hence poor social science fiction and and b) “too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire”. To disagree with Le Guin you either need to claim that Lee is not attempting to write social SF, warning or satire (and hence the criticism is irrelevent) or that plausibility and coherence are not necessary attributes of those forms (and hence the criticism is incorrect). You do neither and instead invoke the unmentioned and undefined concept of worldbuilding. Le Guin's complaint is that Lee should show us where the coffee comes from (the deadening minutia of worldbuilding as the term is commonly used as a criticism) but rather that coffee exists at all (a much broader complaint that Lee has failed to consider the basic implications of the story he wishes to tell).

  • Martin says:

    “Here the punctilious curator emerges from her office to correct the unruly visitor who has dared to not observe the decorum of her place… It is obvious by now that Le Guin is irked that Lee is not following the carefully cultivated path of “proper” dystopic storytelling and that this whipper-snapper needs to be smacked on the hand with a ruler or, like a naughty puppy, have his nose rubbed in the dirt.”

    The idea that Le Guin is defending the purity of dystopian storytelling from literary outsiders is laughable. I don't know how much clearer she could be in her opening paragraph: she thinks a small number of literary writers wrote some fresh, powerful dystopian fiction during the first half of the last century but that in general it is a dreary, limited and monotonous (yet inexplicably popular) form. In case you missed that, she ends with another swipe at “dreary old Dystopia”.

    So what are the frustrations that inform Le Guin's review? Firstly, that too many people write dystopias, an uninteresting subset of social SF. Secondly, that literary writers can get a free pass for writing implausible social SF. These frustrations crystalise in the form of Lee's book, an implausible dystopian novel by a literary writer. Is there any reason to believe Le Guin think literary writers can't ever write good dystopias? No, and, in fact, she mentions three literary writers and no SF writers when discussing good dystopias. So why jump from this to 'us versus them' generalisations and other heated rhetoric about “Keepers of the Sacred Flames” and “punctilious curators”?

    You do eventually get round to saying that you think On Such A Full Sea is best read as a fable rather than SF. That's fine but then why not disagree with Le Guin on those grounds? Instead you've welded unrelated criticisms of SF as practiced and SF as a culture to an broad attack on the concept of realism that lacks all coherence.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    Martin, when a reviewer devotes the first four paragraphs of her review to defining dystopic fiction and references “tourists,” I would have to say that implication is not a positive one. Unless using “tourist” in reference to writers from other lit traditions is somehow a positive term (which I seriously doubt) that contains its own gravitas, then it is not hard to see that Le Guin has spent a great deal of time setting up the lack of “seriousness,” even if that word itself is used toward the end of those first four paragraphs.

    The “pearl clutching” is rather belabored metaphor. Pardon me if I am trying to grasp how my criticism of a piece that rarely mentions anything specific about Lee's novel is anywhere near akin to a defense of certain socio-cultural mores.

    As for the conflation, I quote her words entirely for all but the last two paragraphs in order for others to see them in their full context. I happen to disagree with her placing Lee in the “most familiar” and furthermore, I happen to think that too often SF/F-oriented writers/readers limit their scope when it comes to such settings, thus my discussion of both. Granted, I could have devoted more space to both in order to engage in inductive-style argument, but that was not my design when I set out to write this late last night.

    I inferred that, Martin, I inferred that from her piece. Now if talking about her questions on why certain specific elements of the faux society are not emphasized does not imply “worldbuilding,” pray tell what was implied there. As for the part with the literary license, I should indeed have stated that even clearer than stating “I call BS” to her comments about how lit license will be a magic waving of the hands away. Funny how I mention all of this in relation to Gilman and Voltaire in the following paragraph.

    Oh, I didn't miss it. Just as I haven't missed several other of her reviews that make similar complaints about writers using certain other SF tropes. Do I need to go link to them as well?

    As for your final criticisms, those are very fair ones. I didn't do some of that because I am likely to write a full review of the Lee. But I do have to ask this: Does dystopic fiction have to be SF? Lee's book is more than just a fable, but I do wonder if in some ways, dystopias are a sort of warped fable in their structure, symbolism,and execution. But that's for another time.

  • Anonymous says:

    U mad, bro?

  • David Duffy says:

    “…when a reviewer devotes the first four paragraphs of her review…”

    I thought LeGuin was living up to the responsibility of a reviewer to entertain us. She didn't enjoy the book, and instead spent time riffing on Tourism in Dystopia, a la Changing Planes. In much of her work, she has shown no antagonism to fabulation per se. I don't have a problem with flipping between “readerly protocols” either – it can be great fun, but sometimes it doesn't work.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    Nah, nothing more than mild disappointment…in the netspeak typing😉

    David,

    I guess we just had different takes on it then.

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