February 27th, 2010


February Books 16) Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin

Well, it is a pretty easy decision in the end: my vote for Best Novel in the BSFA awards goes to Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin. (Second: The City & The City, by China Miéville; third: Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts; fourth: Ark, by Stephen Baxter.)

Pretty much everyone knows the basic outlines of the Odyssey and the Iliad; I believe that the Aeneid has been rather lost in the last few decades. For those who don't know it, it is a long poem in twelve books by the great Latin writer Virgil, recounting the tale of the Trojan prince Aeneas and his escape from Troy to found a settlement on the future site of Rome, despite the temptations of Dido, the queen of Carthage, and various other setbacks along the way. 

Myself, I did the first half of Book II for my Latin O-level many years ago (a lengthy flashback where Aeneas recounts the fall of Troy) and had skimmed to the end of Book VI in translation, but I realised reading Lavinia that I had never even started the second half. And the great thing is that it doesn't really matter; it is striking that the book appears to appeal to readers who don't know Virgil at all as much as to those who know him backwards.

This is partly because Le Guin introduces Virgil himself into the book as a character, a ghost from the future trying to finish his poem, discussing it with Lavinia, filling her in on the bit of Aeneas' story she hasn't experienced herself, aware some how that he himself is going to feature in someone else's poem, and making her aware that she is in fact a character in his. It's a profound reflection on Story and what it means to those who tell it, and those who are in it.

The other fascinating characters are Aeneas and his destiny. Aeneas, rather like Frodo, has a quest to follow and fulfill, and is grimly conscious of that burden (which loses him the first two women he loves, his Trojan wife Creusa and Dido of Carthage). Virgil likes to describe him is 'pious', which has all kinds of confusing connotations for today's audience. Le Guin unpacks this infuriating adjective and explains Aeneas to us much better than any translation could.

On top of that, the world-building is super. Lavinia's pre-Roman Latium is pagan, of course, but does not have the anthropomorphised gods that Virgil knows. It is also slightly magical - omens come true; Aeneas' shield tells the future; and of course Virgil himself appears, possibly more real than Lavinia. The social structures of gender and power are beautifully delineated. I have no hesitation in voting Lavinia top of my bsfa ballot, and share the dismay of those who wonder why it did not greater recognition for the Hugos or Nebulas last year.

(See also an excellent group discussion of the book in four parts: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

I may not know much about art...

...but I know what I like.

Actually, I'm often not really sure what I like, especially in the visual arts, where many years of experience have demonstrated to me that I just don't really care enough about good graphic design to be particularly good at it. But the BSFA challenges me to cast a vote on the nominees for its award for best artwork, so I have been looking at the entrants.

As ever, I rank them here in reverse order of preference. Also I hope my snipping and inserting here of bits of each artwork can be considered fair use.

I wasn't wildly impressed by Nitzan Kramer's alternate cover for Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Taken on its own, it is blocky and cartooney, and the eyes of the giant sea monster seem poorly placed; in context, of course, it misses the point of the book which is about human interactions, the sea monster being a mere incident.

Adam Tredowski has three of his covers for Interzone on the shortlist; the one for issue 220 is imaginative enough but didn't quite grab me - one meanly suspects that it has been tilted at an angle to try and distract you from the fact that it's not really clear what the picture is about. Nice contrasts, I admit.

I liked his cover for Interzone #225 slightly better; two minuscule figures pick their way past fantastic and twisted ruined tubular machinery to a blindingly lit gulf (so bright that it almost hurts the eyes). I don't know if it related to a particular story (Interzone covers don't always) but I would read whatever this is based on.

Even more so with Tredowski's cover for Interzone #224, where a green belvedere clings to a fertile escarpment, with a troubled sea lying below and strange habitats (I suppose) floating high above in the background. Somehow the balance of colour and detail works for me here in a rather pleasing way.

Stephanie Pui-Mun Law's "Emerald" is in a totally different league; an enigmatic image from a dream - a giant tree, a burst of natural vitality; are the figures at its foot supplicants, victims, offspring? I love the sense of energy and mystery about it. This is the only one of the artworks where we are given a legend to help explain what it is about (unless you count "20,000 מיל מתחת למים" for Kramer's piece), but the description raises more questions than it answers.

In the end though my top vote goes to Stephan Martinière's cover art for Ian McDonald's Desolation Road (jacket design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke). It has a tremendous futuristic feel; it basically tells you that this is a book which includes giant railway trains on Mars, which is accurate enough. The sense of confrontation between the human figure and the locomotive engine is palpable; so is the idea that we are seeing just one part of a big, big world. The concept is slightly similar to Tredowski's Interzone #225 cover, but I prefer the way it is done here.

I have to say that I approve whole-heartedly of giving the award to individual artworks rather than to artists as the Hugos do. It seems to me that if the other awards are for individual works of fiction or non-fiction, art should be treated the same way.