Monthly Archives: March 2011

Ursula K. Le Guin sends you empty-handed into your own revolution

Let’s just say it all together: Ursula K. Le Guin is god.
Damn, girl can’t help it, but when she writes Science Fiction she fucking writes masterpiece-top-notch-blow-your-mind literature. So thanks to you Ursula, cause your SF novels are awesome. Oh, and your Fantasy novels of course. And your short stories. And the way you handle issues of “race” and gender in your writing (most of the time). You totally deserve your own religion. Or something.

Anyhow, the tangled title of this very post is my lame attempt at cleverness, because I am about to review The Dispossessed, a SF novel by Le Guin that was published in 1974.

via harpercollins.com

For many people SF seems to be all about spaceships and aliens and questions of “is it not only escapism, because it has nothing to do with the real world?” That’s when my eyes glaze over and I wanna shoot the person uttering this abomination before god (who is Le Guin, of course). Cause in how far is any sort of fiction closer to reality? To whose reality anyway? And what does reality even mean in the context of SF? I’m ever so puzzled when people feel disconnected to characters and events in SF stories because the surroundings and the technology are not what they expect – since they obviously expect to find their world in a novel or story, or at least the idea they have of the world and the things they’d like to see in it. And it makes me wonder: isn’t that even a graver form of escapism? That characters and actions become so very irrelevant because the whole attraction boils down to only the physical surroundings?

Because great SF comes up with characters and developments that we in our conditio humana can relate to: Characters who are presented with dilemmas that inform our own existence and their ways to deal with said dilemmas.
In the case of The Dispossessed we are presented with a political dilemma of our times: what sort of society do we want to live in? Is capitalism a road to go down or does anarchism and its communal structure present a valid alternative? The narrative takes us on a journey that alternates between chapters set in the now, on Urras, a planet full of nations, many of which are capitalist, some democratic, others socialist and repressive. That is not to say that A-Io, the nation that protagonist Shevek finds himself in, and that is apparently democratic, would not be repressive. There are mass-demonstrations and the government shooting the demonstrators out of helicopters. There are privileged people and an angry underclass. And Shevek, brought up in a distinctly non-capitalist mindset, realizes that despite all the beauty and lushness of A-Io, capitalism does indeed produce a dichotomy: within society, but also within the personality. You need to think of yourself in terms of market value, and at the same time, perversely, your performance in the market determines your value as a person. And yes, this sounds all too familiar for a reason. People do demeaning jobs and accept humiliation and abuse, because the system produces positions that can only survive by putting up with the ugly side of things.

Anarres, the planet that Shevek originates from, is the antithesis to that. It is the moon to Urras (or Urras the moon to Anarres), and while Urras is rich in water, history, nature, cultures and people, Anarres is not, it is more like one huge desert with little vegetation and a constant challenge to those 20 million people who came to Anarres some 150+ years ago, because that way leaders on Urras removed the threat of an anarchist revolution. Those who adhered to the principles and teachings of Odo, an anarchist writer, were able to set up a society from scratch on Anarres, based on their anarchist thinking. That means that everything is organized communally, people do the job that they would like to do and unpleasant tasks are done by everyone on a rotational basis. There is no possession. The things you need are there for you to take, if you need a room or an apartment you ask if there is something free and you get to use it. You eat in dining halls where food is rationed for everyone.
But the wonderful thing about Le Guin is the ability to be critical about one’s preferences. There is no question that she sympathizes with the Odonian society where people share and have a responsibility towards one another, grounded in neither religion nor nationality, but in the simple acknowledgement that as a society, every human is part of it and profits from it, but also has to contribute. And while Shevek in the flashback chapters where we learn about his life’s story on Anarres sets out with an uncritical appraisal of Odonian society he comes to learn that much of the unity and civility comes from having to work together to sustain the people on the bleak planet of Anarres. He encounters hierarchies in his field of physics and in the society in general, even though the first rule of Odonian thinking is that there are no hierarchies, that everyone is the same, that there are no nations, states, and that all administrative bodies are open to anyone and are not to be understood as authorities. But as structures tend to do, they take root and habits and hierarchies develop, and over time Shevek learns that many people might claim that they are Odonians, that they carry the revolution in their hearts, but that in reality they are fundamentally opposed to having their conveniences and habits questioned and thus seek to protect their petty interests, masking it with anarchist rhetoric. And of course all of that too sounds familiar for a reason.

(c) Eileen Gunn, via usulakleguin.com

Late in the novel Shevek has an encounter with the Terran ambassador to Urras (yeah, she is from our Earth, y’all, only far in the future). By then humanity has pretty much overpopulated and destroyed beloved planet Earth and being impressed by the anarchist (or as she’d probably put it: communist) mindset of Shevek she remarks about Urras:

“To me, and to all my fellow Terrans who have seen the planet, Urras is the kindliest, most various, most beautiful of all the inhabited worlds. It is the world that comes as close as any could to Paradise. … Now, you man from a world I cannot even imagine, you who see my Paradise as Hell, will you ask what my world must be like?”

Just to remind you once more: Le Guin is god. And here’s why: Cause right and wrong is nothing set in stone, but is for 99.9 percent of the time a matter of perspective. And perspectives change and are pre-conditioned by how we are socialized and thus the rights seem very wrong to others while the wrongs might seem very right to others and all it boils down to is that it’s probably a little more complicated than we think and at the same time not, cause why not work with our differences, we’re all just human after all. Granted, there is a catch though, cause obviously despite all its flaws, Anarresti society based on Odonian principles of solidarity is much closer to take the individual as a being to be treated and met with respect and is therefore a pretty spot-on comment about what many people in our day and age (and before that and probably after us too) find wrong with capitalism and the permeation of society and state with capitalist thinking and pseudo-reasoning. However, a constant revolution does not mean invoking revolution through words, but make revolution happen in actions. When they are needed. And they are needed often, and going through a revolution is never easy. Especially not when you meet fierce resistance from those who claim to be living the constant revolution, when really, they’re not.

via blographia-literia.com

Ursula K. Le Guin has time and again proven her ability to create and construct believable political entities and situations, remarkably so in her novel The Left Hand of Darkness. But what she is also famous for, especially with the latter publication, is her ability to comment on gender issues and come up with thought-provoking takes on the whole thing.
In the case of The Dispossessed she does so too. The society in A-Io is divided strictly along gender lines. Women are not in politics and many of them are not supposed to be working at all (though in reality, they do, especially in the working class), and they do not attend universities. They carve out their own spaces nevertheless, though the worth of this remains questionable. Once more, this situation represents a heightened version of what we encounter in our Terran societies these days (and probably even more so back in the 70s when the novel was published). And again Anarresti society based on Odonian anarchist principles functions as a comment on the situation. Shevek falls in love, deeply and thoroughly, with a woman who is of her own mind, who, like all other women on Anarres, is equal to men in every respect. And the profound attraction stems from the fact that he can see her as an individual, as the character she is, rather than the societal position that she inhabits or the gender role she performs. Which is really a marvellous concept in terms of attraction and true affection.
Another interesting gender-subversion is Sheveks short-lived gay relationship with Bedap. The text clearly states that Shevek is heterosexual and that Bedap is homo, but Shevek, because he values the friendship moves in with him and even has sex, even though it doesn’t particularly excite him, but because he feels it to be a natural part of their friendship that is kind of a duty he meets, cause he knows that it is important for Bedap. It’s a peculiar construction within the novel, cause on the one hand I find it to be touching, this concept of deep affection within a friendship that leads one to perform sexual acts that don’t correspond to one’s orientation. However, it is also questionable to the extent that we may of course ask why even go there and have sex, when there is no real sexual attraction. And if there is, why not stick with the bisexual label instead of creating restrictive hetero and homo categories. I admit, the thing kinda puzzles me, because although I see the potential issues, I still think it is kinda heart-warming. Which probably has a lot to do with me not having any problem whatsoever with friendships that involve sex but are not romantic relationships, while, I guess, that does not meet a lot of understanding from other people.

Ah, ‘nuff said. The Dispossessed is a veritable classic, and IMHO anyone should have read it. Just like anyone should have read something by Le Guin (and praise her as god). There is a short story connected to this novel called The Day Before The Revolution, which is about Odo, the principle figure shaping the anarchist movement and society we encounter here, but it is less about her theoretical works and rather about her in old age and how she deals with it. All in one day and all right before the revolution that starts the settlement on Anarres. I’ll review it these next days. Until then: Go pick up your copy of The Dispossessed.

Didn’t you hear me? Go and read it!

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Through The Wilderness of a) long time no post and b) a Madonna tribute album

Boy oh boy, it’s been what? 12 days since I last posted? I feel terribly sorry. Alien month was fun and really had me posting on a regular basis, once that pressure was gone…. well and life and all, plus now I’ve got a cold, whiny whine…who even cares?

So, let’s get back to some more regularity and start with some good old reviewing of music. And today we go Madonna! Whoa, kids, calm down. It is only my humble review of a tribute album with the wonderful title “Through the Wilderness – A Tribute to Madonna” which I can only recommend, cause it is really good. Believe me, I could go so much harder on your asses in terms of Madonna, you’d be thankful if you knew…

via amazon.com

The album was released in 2007 by Manimal Vinyl Records (though it unfortunately was never released as a vinyl, though promised), and 25% of all earnings are donated to Raising Malawi the foundation that Madonna herself set up in order to help people in need in Malawi.
I’m gonna talk a little about the cover-versions I really liked on the album and group together all those I rather didn’t, to save up space and nerves.

Jonathan Wilson – La Isla Bonita
Listening to this version of La Isla Bonita I always end up thinking: “this is where I long to be.” Haha, no, what I really think is that this is actually what the song probably always was meant to be, this sort of melancholic, road-movie-esque piece. It’s sad and it’s sweet and it still is La Isla Bonita, surprisingly.

Golden Animals – Beautiful Stranger Blues
One of the biggest surprises on the whole album for me. Now, covering a “recent” Madonna song (meaning non-80s) is a big plus for me, and on top of that Beautiful Stranger is kind of a really cool Madonna song. Now this version is super-different, but keeps the level of overall awesomeness. It’s fun and it doesn’t stick 100 percent to what the original does and says, but in all the good ways and what we get is a song that could also not be a Madonna-cover, but somehow is, and it’s all the more awesome.

Giant Drag – Oh Father
Gem-time! Oh Father in the original is a beautiful song, but Giant Drag is taking it, making it her own and taking it to new heights. Love the fragility of her voice, love the drama, love how much more grounded in reality it all of a sudden sounds. Like a huge art-film-drama taking place inside a motel room, strictly dealing with overcoming the shattered relationship with her dad. Precious!

The Tyde – Hung Up
Hung Up is one of only two non-80s songs on the album and just as the other one, this cover rocks! Hung Up is a very recent Madonna single, but also one that has become very iconic for her very quickly and it is nice to hear that other folksy take on it. It works surprisingly well as an acoustic piece and while Madonna has tried to make it more of a rock song on her recent tours, she kinda failed, while this version most certainly does not. Thumbs up! Makes me wish the artists featured would have been a little more courageous and covered other more recent material rather than the 80s classics.

Alexandra Hope – Lucky Star
Let’s face it: Lucky Star is one helluva song. And this version does not diminish that fact. It’s stripped down, playing more with the naiveté of the lyrics, but it works so well. It is very beautiful, and while I don’t think it outshines (haha) the original version, it is a very nice take on it.

The Chapin Sisters – Borderline
While the original Borderline is an ok song for me, this version blows it out of the water. Seriously, three sisters going all choir on it is about the best thing that could have ever happened to that song. Plus, the Chapin Sisters are super-worth checking out, their cover-version of Britney’s Toxic is equally fantastic. I sorta wish they would have done a whole Madonna cover album by themselves.

Apollo Heights – Dress You Up
Dress You Up is a terrific song, and this trippy version of it is absolutely amazing. I love how it takes me into that kind of drunken-stupor melancholy and leaves me at an emotional place that makes me feel like I am so much more in touch with the rest of humanity while I am at the same time feeling even more secluded. Does that even make sense? I think it is a wonderful cover, doing what any good cover should do.

The Prayers – Cherish
Love the Beach Boys take on this iconic Madonna song. It’s fresh and yet strangely old-school, adding another layer of Bripop-esque don’t-give-a-fuck-tude on a song that is all light-hearted joy and surfer-dudes dancing around a bonfire.

Lavender Diamond – Like a Prayer
The problem with this song is that it is a cover, but not a really awesome one. It’s nicely done, and sounds good, but is way too close to the original version. And that means that I will compare it to the original version and sorry dear Lavender Diamond, but Madonna’s Like a Prayer is so much better in its pop-perfection that yours is but a mere cover. And since we’ve witnessed stellar ones on the album it is kind of sad to see what happens when artists are too literal with the original versions.

And now for those that get no major love from me:
Jeremy Jay – Into the Groove
Tough ground, I’m not a fan of the original Into the Groove, and unfortunately, this version does not convert me to one.
Winter Flowers – Live to Tell
The original Live to Tell is a beautiful song, but much of its impact stems from the fact that it’s the hurt female singing solo about it. The group-choir-y folksy version of that just doesn’t pack the same emotional punch.
Mountain Party – Material Girl
It is the effin’ Material Girl, so if you cover it, there needs to be some ironic distance, right? And I see, dear Mountain Party, you’re trying, but just not hard enough for my taste.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffitti – Everybody
I know a few people who love Ariel Pink, but sorriez, this does not convert me. Too close to the original, which is not that mind-blowing after all either.
Lion of Panjshir – Crazy for You
Kinda blah, kinda ok. Doesn’t really convince me of the need to cover songs. Too much pseudo-drama I guess.
Bubonic Plague – Who’s that Girl?
This does absolutely nothing for me. Sorry, but it sounds like the worst attempt at a remix/youtube-cover ever, and I wonder: they could not find anything better?

Geez, Alex, you say, why do you even review it if you dislike so much on it? Well, I love at least 8 songs on it, so hey! Plus not only good stuff is review-worthy, so there. All in all, I totally recommend checking the album out. I guess you kinda have to have a thing for Madonna to really get into it, but let’s just admit it to ourselves, some of her songs are just very well written, so it is very interesting to see what other people do with the basic premises and create out of them.

Go get it, sez I.

Final verdict on the sole survivor: Ellen Ripley, feminist heroine?

I cheat a little, I admit. I’m just gonna pretend today is the 29th of February, so I can get away with posting my last Alien entry today. If you click HERE you get to the Alien master index, linking to all Alien posts of my “February is Alien month series.” Since the issue of feminism has popped up several times throughout my discussions of the various Alien movies I decided to close this series with talking about Ellen Ripley and her status as a feminist icon. Is it justified, and if so, why?

via 4players.de

Looking at the various Alien movies one thing becomes very obvious: the miniscule presence of female characters, crowned by the major Bechdel-test fail in Alien³ where the only female character is Miss Ellen Ripley herself. However, I’ve said it before, I consider it to be an advantage for the overall plot structure and forgive it on the premise that it was a deliberate decision to create a specific dynamic. And that it does in my opinion, so, okay. In Alien we only have one other woman aboard the Nostromo and she gets killed, and I’d argue that part of the reason why she is on there anyways is to provide a sort of anti-thesis to Ripley. She is afraid, indecisive, and ultimately unable to defeat the Alien, while Ripley is all of this sort of not (yay, grammar!).
In Aliens we have two other female characters and they provide some interesting insights too. There is tough Rambo-woman Vasquez who not only saves GI asses several times but also blows herself up heroically in the end, and who serves as a backdrop to what Ripley once was while she becomes something else: a mother. Cause the other female in the movie is a girl and she primarily serves to awake the nurturing instincts in tough cookie Ripley. She still kicks ass, but she does so, cause she has a quasi-daughter now. Which is about to change radically with the beginning of Alien³.
Alien Resurrection is the first film to present a wider cast of female characters. Among them are scientists (who are stupid and afraid of what they’re actually doing), androids who wonder what it is about being human, and captain’s girlfriend who enjoys foot-massages and breaks down badly once her sweetheart is gone. (I will grace the AvP films only with a bracketed comment: those female characters –tough or not – existed only cause they felt they had to provide Ripley substitutes, and we all know it)

via virginmedia.com

So what about Ellen Ripley herself?
She is the sole survivor, multiple times, and she is because she does not bow down to alpha-male-ish nonsense. She is pretty spot on about what is right and what should be done and about what defo should not be done, like e.g. getting quarantined crew members on board, rescuing the cat, blow a colony up, and kill herself. Ripley, just as the Alien, is a metaphor besides being character, and as such she passes through several stages of female experiences. There is the factor of proving one’s own position and qualifications in a sexist hierarchy, there is the issue of becoming a mother, struggling with the feelings this entails, and also the rejection of motherhood (if we consider her to be pregnant with an alien and deciding to, well, abort the “child”). Questions of female solidarity are touched upon, as is the dealing with sexist remarks and objectification by men. And of course Ripley is more than her gender: the issues she deals with are the acceptance of one’s life story, one’s destiny so to speak, embrace it or reject it, and she remains a self-confident and independent spirit til her very end: she ends her own life, cause it is the only solution she deems acceptable concerning to overall situation and developments. Even as a new and “improved” Alien-hybrid clone Ripley stays true to these traits: she remains in charge of her sexuality (even if it means we have to suffer through abysmal one-liners), she is level-headed in situations of massive crisis, she feels empathy with people even if she does not know them and has no immediate profit in caring about them, and she learns what being human means. The hard way. I guess killing your clone-sister isn’t the easiest thing to do. And well, accepting that the being you fought against the last years of your life is now an inextricable part of you, in the literal sense, even. She once more becomes a mother figure, albeit to an alien this time, and once more she rejects the role, with yeah, terribly racist undertones.
I feel I have to point it out once more: I am not against motherhood, no effin way, mothers rule. But I am against the depiction of female journeys as being complete and meaningful only when they are topped off with becoming a mom. Cause ultimately it means that society tells you that you as an individual are pretty worthless, you only gain worth when having kids. And if we follow the thought through it basically means only being a man really counts, cause a as a daughter the same destiny of having to become a mother awaits you. That is why the glorification of motherhood (meaning that all other conceptions of femininity are rejected or deemed of less value) is often ultimately anti-feminist, or let’s just say it: downright sexist. For all the flaws of the Alien Saga in not only the gender department I truly applaud the series for getting the basic conception of a female and truly feminist heroine right. So: Yay! Feel free to disagree with me tough, but then I challenge you to comment! Muahaha.

via sherdog.net

Admittedly the headline is somewhat misleading, cause this post is more about the overall feminist message of the Alien Saga than just the character of Ellen Ripley. And one super-important yet thus far undiscussed issue is of course the alien.
The depiction of the aliens is highly interesting from a gender-issues-perspective. For once, the alien society is strictly matriarchal. No matter how many the host to a queen might take down, she is still host to a queen, killing her is not an option for the regular alien, since it of course endangers the survival of its species. The whole imagery of having an alien queen, together with her laying eggs (and the complicated mode of reproduction), serves to remind us of some mutant insect rather than an intelligent being or even something resembling human. But this premise is subverted, because in the course of Aliens we witness the alien queen becoming protective of her descendants and finally furious with those who killed them (and yeah, wouldn’t you be?). Alien Resurrection picks up on this, the alien queen literally becomes a mother when she gives birth to an alien hybrid (that is fucked-up-edly white *headdesk*) and experiences what it means to be rejected by your offspring.
While the AvP movies retreat to picturing the aliens as mere killing machines, the overall Alien Saga hints at there being more. They are social beings, and while their whole existence differs considerably from the human experience they are not entirely dissimilar. I’ve talked about the inherent racist implications HERE, but it is less obvious what the message concerning feminism is. In contrast to what the overall series does with the character of Ripley, the alien as a female queen is only valuable because of her function as a mother. However, we never really know about the gender of the other aliens or facehuggers. Do they even have one? Aren’t the facehuggers some sort of omni-gender in that no matter what gender the host, they still always succeed to implant little baby-aliens? Interesting, methinks.

via movieguys.org

Okay, I’ll wrap it up! The short version of this post could have been: Yup, Ellen Ripley is a feminist heroine for a variety of reasons. I just went out of my way to come to a point about the series as a whole, kinda.

And yeah folks, that’s it for Alien month. I guess we got it covered, huh? Maybe, with future films…. and the comics….. ah, never say never.