Inner Lands and Outer Space

Outer-Space-Planets-Moon-1024x1280The opening Ursula Le Guin essay in The Language of the Night is a piece from 1973 entitled A Citizen of Mondath. The title comes from an early example of fantasy writing that Le Guin remembers as having a profound impact on her, a book by the Irish writer, Lord Dunsany, called A Dreamer’s Tales.  

Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea… To the south they are bound by magic, to the west by a mountain.

She goes on to explore the impact of discovering that people were still in the process of making myth; that it was seen as an acceptable thing for an adult to do.  She had, she says discovered my native country.

Fantasy has always been, if not my native country, then certainly one in which I have felt comfortably at home, from the world of Narnia, through Le Guin herself, to my more mature enjoyment of Katharine Kerr and Robin Hobb.  And, of course, there was the teenager’s delight of discovering that I actually live in The Shire.  As someone actively involved in teaching children’s literature the wealth of excellent fantasy from the pens of writers like Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones has been readily available to me and I have delighted in more recent years in engaging with newer authors working in this genre such as Stuart Hill, Alison Croggon and Trudi Canavan.  I love the way in which fantasy allows a writer to explore the mores, social, political and spiritual, of their created world in a manner that encourages us as readers to transfer that exploration to our own.

However, Le Guin is not just considering the Inner Lands in this essay, she is also concerned with Outer Space, with the world of science fiction.

I have, in the past, read science fiction.  After all, as a ten year old I was going to be Astronomer Royal and I still remember the delight at discovering in our class library two sci-fi series by Patrick Moore, one about the daring adventures of astronauts setting up scientific bases on the Moon and the other about even more daring adventurers making their way to Mars.  I was also (and still am) an avid fan of television sci-fi.  I will admit to being an ardent trekkie and The Bears and I are at present working our way through all the episodes of Stargate and Stargate Atlantis (yet again!).  But, these days I don’t read science fiction and Le Guin’s essay made me ask why.

The reason may lie in what Le Guin has to say about critical attitudes to the genre.  Commenting on her early attempts at science fiction, some of which she considers should not have been published, she says that she was getting vain and hasty and that this is a real danger for science fiction writers.

There is so little real criticism, that despite the very delightful and heartening feedback from and connection with the fans, the writer is almost her only critic. Second rate stuff will be bought just as fast, maybe faster sometimes, by the publishers, and the fans will buy it because it is science fiction. Only the writer’s conscience remains to insist that she try not to be second rate. Nobody else seems much to care… In science fiction, sometimes it seems that so long as it’s science fiction at all, the fans will love it – briefly; therefore the publishers will put it in print – briefly; therefore the writer is likely to settle for doing much less than her best. The mediocre and the excellent are praised alike by aficionados, and ignored alike by outsiders.

I’m not in any position to know if this is still the case.  I haven’t pursued an interest in the genre for many years.  What I do know is that 1973, the publication date for this essay, would just about coincide with the time when I stopped reading science fiction intended for adults, and maybe the question of quality was influential (albeit subconsciously) in that decision.  There has been some excellent writing for children in recent years.  I would encourage anyone who enjoys sci-fi to try Philip Reeve’s Predator Cities series, beginning with Mortal Engines or Rhiannon Lassiter’s Hex books and from a slightly earlier generation John Christopher can’t be bettered.  However, whether or not there is now the equivalent available in the world of adult writing I don’t know.

So, this is something of a plea for assistance.  Those of you who do know about these things, would you say that Le Guin’s criticism is still valid and if not, who from the current crop of science fiction writers would you recommend?  I’m happy to try most sub-genres with the exception of vampires.  I am definitely vampired out, I think.  Are there writers who do insist that [they] not be second rate?  And has the critical appreciation of the field improved at all?  I would be glad of any suggestions you might offer.

65 thoughts on “Inner Lands and Outer Space

  1. I don’t know about these things so can’t comment on the Le Guin comment, but just wanted to say YES someone else read those Patrick Moore books. I got the hardbacks out of the library, they had an illustration on the boards in blue and black and I loved them!

  2. Hi, Alex. I stopped reading science fiction in my teens, with Andre Norton and her intelligent cats, but still occasionally read fantasy. So, I can recommend “The Way of Thorn and Thunder” by Daniel Heath Justice, which Ursula K. Le Guin also wrote an approving blurb for on the back of the book (it started out as a trilogy, but then was revised and republished as one volume, which is what I read. It’s great, and is available from, probably too). Hope you like it. I wrote about 3 different posts on it during the last year, because I had to keep setting it aside for work for other posts and stuff, not because it wasn’t gripping.

    1. I’ve just found it here but only available at a reasonable price via kindle. I’ll see if the library has it before I decide to buy it.

      1. You know you can get Kindle for PC or phone for free, just downloadable from Amazon, and download books into there to read if there is a big price difference? You probably did know that, but it’s always worth mentioning it …

        1. Thanks, Liz, yes I do but somehow I resent paying for a download even if it is cheaper, in a way I don’t mind paying for something tangible. I find I buy far fewer ebooks than I thought I would when the idea was first broached.

  3. I think what Le Guin said still holds true. There is a lot of crud published still, but that does not mean gems are lacking! Marge Piercy’s He, She and It and Woman on the Edge of Time are both really good. Neal Stephenson is reliably good and his Cryptonomicon is a chunkster but well worth it. William Gibson is good too. And then there is the James Tiptree Jr Award for sf/f,_Jr._Award that is pretty reliable.

    1. It’s finding those gems, isn’t it? I’ve read some Piercy but not enough and Stephenson is a name I know. Perhaps I need to get hold of one of those chunks and put it to one side for a holiday period. And you’re right. Awards are a good point from which to start. Thanks for the tips.

  4. I suspect that science fiction is like any genre in that there’s a lot of crap but plenty of good stuff, too, if you know where to look. I mostly just read what others recommend, just as I do for any genre. I’ve just recently started getting into Connie Willis and have liked what I’ve read so far. Ditto Octavia Butler. And Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is one of the best books I’ve ever read, in any genre.

    1. Oh yes, Teresa, ‘The Sparrow’ is so far up there in my mind that I didn’t even think of it as science fiction and that in itself is interesting. I feel a post about when genre fiction is not genre fiction coming on. Thanks for the other names.

      1. I want to second Teresa’s recommendation of Octavia Butler! She’s fantastic. And also, I can’t believe I forgot to say China Mieville. I think you would really like The City, and The City. It’s structured like a police procedural but it’s like none other you have ever read.

        1. Mieville is a name I do know but have never been sure where to start. Thanks for the suggestion, Stefanie. I love police procedurals so this should be right up my street.

  5. I admit I rarely read science fiction, but do want to read more of Ray Bradbury having read that genre is incidental to his writing and loved what I have read about him, his quotes and one short story. I think that perhaps is the point, writing that transports could be in any domain or genre, but we seem to get know our writers within the categories they are labelled.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! Nice to see yours and Arti’s Proustian posts up there today!

    1. Thank you, Claire. Try telling someone who isn’t a WordPress regular that you’ve been Freshly Pressed and see the sort of response you get! Bradbury should definitely go onto my list if only because I know I have one of his books on my TBR pile. I’m sure you’re right about our categorising writers too soon and too easily and I also think we forget that good writing is good writing whatever genre it stems from.

  6. I read more Fantasy than true SF. I found a lot of male-centered SF to be sexist and alienating when I was a teenager — Robert Heinlein for one. I found more interesting female characters in fantasy. What Ursula Le Guin talks about surely is only a struggle an established author would face, with pressure to produce and meet deadlines to justify advances. For authors who are not established, the pressure is to have a perfect product, to not need editing and to create a market even before you get published. Under these circumstances, authors are laboring to create something of high quality to make their odds of being published higher and putting it out there without remuneration. I think the world has changed since the 1970s in that respect at least.

    1. I take your point, but ultimately if the work of such authors is to reach a wider audience it is going to need to be read by people who will disseminate their opinions to a wider public and so will they not still be in the hands of the critics, whosoever they may be and whatever the quality of their criticism?

  7. I think there is still a lot of… really… awful… Sci-fi being published. Like, unbearably horrible stuff. I can’t actually stress enough how bad some of it is.

    That being said, with just a tiny amount of research a reader can easily find “sci-fi” that is as incredibly great as the bad stuff is incredibly bad.

    If you’re looking for good sci-fi then I suggest looking at what a lot of people refer to as “Speculative fiction”. This being the kind of intellectuals version of Sci-fi. In essence you get all the stuff you love about sci-fi and ensure that it was written by someone who actually thinks for a living.

      1. Have you ever read Haruki Murakami? He’s a Japanese writer neither scifi not fantasy but not really “normal” fiction either so speculative fits him nicely. If you want something really out there, Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall.

          1. Hmm. I’ve read Hard-boiled Wonderland at the End of the World and 1Q84 and liked them both. but I heard really good things about Sputnik Sweetheart and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

  8. As your confession about non-Proust, I admit I’m not a great fan of fantasy fiction, and I haven’t read any Le Guin. However, from the few that I’ve read, yes, Narnia included, I must say I was really impressed with Madeleine (no pun intended, but what a coincidence!) L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. And yes, I’m so excited to see you’re Freshly Pressed too! Congrats!

    1. Yes, Arti, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ is one of the great fantasy books, regardless of whatever audience is reading it. And again, as with Teresa’s comment about ‘The Sparrow’, it’s one that I never think of in relation to genre fiction. I’m going to have to ponder the reasons for this more deeply.

  9. I can suggest David Wingrove and Iain Banks for starters. Banks recently announced that he has terminal cancer and this is a very sad loss for the SF community as he is a remarkable writer. Wingrove is re-releasing his Chungkuo series with revisions and expansions.

    1. Thank you for those recommendations. Iain Banks I’ve heard of but never read, although I was tremendously moved by all the responses from other authors whose work I do admire when the news of his illness was released. Wingrove is an entirely new name to me and if he’s re-thinking some of his work then I will wait until that’s published and then try him.

  10. Science – fiction seems not a very respected genre nowadays, but there is certainly exceptions.
    Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the 1970s to 80s is certainly one of the best of its kind – a mix of fantasy, science – fiction, and hilarious humour.

    1. I suspect never a day goes past when I or one of my friends doesn’t mention something from ‘Hitchhiker’, which I think we see more as humour than science fiction. We’re of the generation that grew up with it in all its manifestations.

  11. That’s interesting- I have just finished a book about a rabid fantasy and sci-fi reader which lists a whole lot of sci-fi books (Among Others by Jo Walton). It’s set in the late 70s and I was just thinking that a lot of sci-fi classics seem to come from that period. Being more of a fantasy than sci-fi reader myself I hadn’t read most of them, but it might be a good source of recommendations? Plus the book itself is fantasy. Obviously not a good source of more recent reading material though!

    1. What a coincidence, Catie, I have ‘Among Others’ waiting to be read. It is going to the top of the pile right this minute. Thank you.

  12. I have read very, VERY, few authors since the 1970’s who CAN write. Regardless of their genre, writing is rapidly becoming a lost art.

    And I think what Ursula wrote should be applied to all so-called, ‘fiction.’



  13. As a sci-fi fan, I’m cringing! Of course there’s crud in every genre, but OF COURSE there are sci-fi authors (and fans) who care a lot about quality. Read Embassytown by China Mieville, Steel Beach by John Varley, A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge, Glasshouse by Charles Stross… please, please READ some of the genre before flinging a 40-year-old blanket criticism at it. There is sci-fi out there every bit as thoughtful and full of meaning as “normal” fiction or fantasy.

    1. I’m sorry you feel this way, but the whole point of my post was to say that I didn’t know if this criticism was still true and ask what should I read to find out. Had I just read without requesting help then I might well have picked up what you call crud and have come to the decision that science fiction was not a genre I wanted to pursue. As it is, the suggestions provided by yourself and others may well help me to form an entirely different opinion.

  14. I can recommend L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

    While I haven’t cottoned on to his fantasy writing much, he’s a great sci-fi author. I particularly enjoy how his writing often comes with a moral argument, as well as an incorporation of environmental propositions, without preaching. Here’s a link to his website (I’m not a “groupie” or a follower, I just dug this up for your convenience):

  15. Iain M Banks. His Culture novels are superb. Tragically, he is dying of cancer but he will live on in the minds of those who have read his books.

    1. There was a piece in this morning’s Times about him writing to all of his author friends, Mattin. It has been very clear from the response to his news just how much his fellow writers admire him, including a number whose work I have very much enjoyed. He is definitely going to be someone I shall explore. Do you have any suggestions as to where I should start?

      1. No suggestions about that but some suggestions about authors of fantasy…robin hobb a number of trilogies and some of doris lessings later books….definately worth a look.

      2. The first of Banks’ Culture novels The Player of Games is good. These books do take a bit of ‘getting into’ but they’re well worth it.

  16. Oh congratulations on being freshly pressed! It’s fun while it lasts! I have to admit that fantasy and sci-fi are the genres I have practically never read. I’ve got nothing against them – just haven’t ever really discovered them. However, I’m interested in the life of James Tiptree, and I have in my TBR pile Connie Willis, Ray Bradbury, China Mieville and Ursula le Guin. So I’m hoping to get to them soon (you know how that goes!).

    1. Oh yes, Litlove, I know exactly how that goes. I have six books from the library at the moment that I simply have to read before they are recalled and none of them are the two I have to read for imminent book group meetings. But the intentions are good, aren’t they?

  17. I agree that the world is vampired-out. I listen to tons of books on Audible and I’ve stopped buying vampire books, except for my favorite series (Undead and Unwed, they’re hilarious if you ever want a silly read). Conversely, SciFi will always be interesting if you’ve got the background to create plausible futuristic technology. Best of luck with your writing!

    1. I hadn’t thought about listening to science fiction but I have an audible account and it might be a good idea. Thanks for the message.

      1. Oh it’s awesome. They often have sales on fantasy and scifi books. But sometimes it takes a little re-winding to keep up with fantasy universes if you’re not paying total attention. But if you like the voice of the narrator, it’s like being a kid and having someone tell you a story. I love it.

  18. If it’s not too late for me to be entering the discussion here, I wish to offer a few brief observations. I consider myself a fan of both Science Fiction and Ms. Le Guinn. She is not alone in her view that a substantial number of writers, editors, publishers and, yes, even readers sometimes willingly lower their standards for the sake of having “product” in their hands. The discriminating reader must occasionally be willing to gamble. As I am partial to Ms. Le Guinn generally, I can say that if her concept is ever weak, her execution usually carries the day in her favor. I find the same holds true for many other authors in the field: nobody bats .1000 and, if I may mix metaphors here, there can be a certain beauty found in watching even a talented batter strike out.

    1. Of course it’s not too late. I love keeping a conversation going. What I really chime with here is your assertion that ‘the discriminating reader must occasionally be willing to gamble’. If we didn’t do that then we would never discover new authors and broaden our reading horizons. I suppose the question then becomes what odds will persuade us to be willing to take on such a gamble. For me, that is usually going to depend on who has recommended the writer to me and the extent to which I trust their judgement. One of the pleasures of the blogging world is building up a relationship with other bloggers and getting to know which of them have a really discriminating taste.

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