Five Great Books

In a near future, the air pollution is so bad that everyone wears gas masks. The infant mortality rate is soaring, and birth defects, new diseases, and physical ailments of all kinds abound. The water is undrinkable—unless you’re poor and have no choice. Large corporations fighting over profits from gas masks, drinking water, and clean food tower over an ineffectual, corrupt government.

Environmentalist Austin Train is on the run. The “trainites,” a group of violent environmental activists, want him to lead their movement; the government wants him dead; and the media demands amusement. But Train just wants to survive.

More than a novel of science fiction, The Sheep Look Up is a skilful and frightening political and social commentary that takes its place next to other remarkable works of dystopian literature, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and George Orwell’s 1984.

Volume one gathers the first five Hainish novels: Rocannon’s World, in which an ethnologist sent to a bronze-age planet must help defeat an intergalactic enemy; Planet of Exile, the story of human colonists stranded on a planet that is slowly killing them; City of Illusions, which finds a future Earth ruled by the mysterious Shing; and the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning masterpieces The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed—as well as four short stories.

Volume two presents Le Guin’s final two Hainish novels, The Word for World Is Forest, in which Earth enslaves another planet to strip its natural resources, and The Telling, the harrowing story of a society which has suppressed its own cultural heritage. Rounding out the volume are seven short stories and the story suite Five Ways to Forgiveness, published here in full for the first time.

The endpapers feature Le Guin’s own hand-drawn map of Gethen, the planet that is the setting for The Left Hand of Darkness, and a full-color chart of the known worlds of Hainish descent.

Teen me strongly preferred proper science fiction, with its entirely plausible telepathy, faster-than-light travel, and orthogenesis rather than implausible fantasy. I would never have chosen to buy a McKillip book, no matter how many World Fantasy Awards she won. Sure, awards, but this was—ack! thbbpt!—fantasy. But sloth and procrastination sent the Quest of the Riddle-Master trilogy heading my way.
The omnibus contains all three volumes of the story: The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976), Heir of Sea and Fire (1977), and Harpist in the Wind (1979). Plot: Prince Morgon of Hed, a prince of a minor holding who has intellectual ambitions, discovers he has inadvertently become engaged to Raederle, the second most beautiful woman in the world. Dire consequences follow and the stakes escalate. All is told in an elegant style that was completely wasted on a Canadian teen who thought Harry Harrison’s prose was the bee’s knees. I have since repented.

Triplicity is a bonanza volume that brings together a trio of ingenious full-length novels:

Echo Round His Bones: The invention of the matter transmitter had given the U.S. an edge in a Cold War that was on the verge of becoming hot. The Soviet Union’s nuclear installations on the moon abruptly ceased to be a threat, since the U.S. Army had transmitted its arsenal to Mars, and could deploy those weapons anywhere instantaneously. Captain Hansard was aware of the strategy, but knowing the military bureaucracy as he did, he never expected to get involved first-hand. He was oblivious to the fact that transmission produced a peculiar and unpleasant side effect. But on that score, he wised up fast.

The Genocides: Anderson, a farmer, called them simply “the Plants.” They were all identical–600 feet tall at maturity, with smooth green trunks and huge leaves. Their spores had entered Earth’s atmosphere seven years earlier, and within days the entire world was covered with a rich green carpet of seedlings. But the Plants were destroyers, using up the planet’s soil and water, and giving nothing in return. Anderson refused to yield to the bizarre invasion. Placing his faith in God, he resolved to beat the Plants at their own game. And sure enough, although small towns and big cities succumbed, Anderson and his clan continued to survive.

The Puppies of Terra: The Masters arrived in the late 20th century–godlike entities who regarded humans as mere pets to be pampered and played with. Most men and women flocked to the kennels eagerly, because the “leash” by which the Masters controlled their pets gave pleasures and abilities that undomesticated humans could never hope for. But not everyone was content with the situation, and gradually the dissenters and rebels began to band together to fight for their freedom . . . .

This is an art book. While I had no animus towards art, I also didn’t collect it. Not that my tastes mattered as long as that little response-requested card was gathering dust somewhere.
Barlowe and Summers (as well as editor Beth Meacham, who provided the text for the book but wasn’t listed as an author until the second edition) offered an assortment of aliens as interpreted by the artist. Many were familiar from books, thus giving me the pleasure of figuring out exactly what the artist got wrong (must follow the text!). Other aliens had featured in books of which I had never heard. As a result, my list of books to hunt down and buy got that much longer.