“Early Riser” by Jasper Fforde (2018)

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“Mrs Tiffen could play the bouzouki.”

Jasper Fforde has – even by his own admission – been undergoing a creative hiatus these last few years. He doesn’t know what caused it anymore than his readers do, but suffice to say the literary landscape has been missing its shine peculiar to the man for the duration. As one of the finest and funniest writers we have, it was a huge relief that this month finally saw the release of his newest book, almost two years after it was originally announced.

Fforde takes us to a new world of his imagination in Early Riser as we enter a planet in the grip of an Ice Age, where the ice sheets reach down to the Midlands, and humans hibernate every winter. As the temperatures drop and blizzards set in, only a few people stay awake for the Winter to protect those that sleep. Charlie Worthing is a new recruit undergoing his first season with the Winter Consuls and he doesn’t really know what to expect. Things start bad enough when the nightwalker he’s been tasked with taking care of is lost and rumours begin to circulate about a viral dream that’s causing people to go mad. Things get worse when he accidentally falls asleep for four weeks and is now trapped in Sector Twelve, the most dangerous and insanity-inducing area of Wales known to mankind.

Caught now between two factions – one led by the pleasant and charming Aurora, and the other by the violent and permanently angry Toccata – Charlie finds that he’s now beginning to experience the viral dream too, and what’s more it seems to be bleeding into reality. As the waking world begins to merge with his dreams, he learns the hard way that it takes more to survive the Winter than a thick coat and a steady supply of Tunnock’s Teacakes.

From the opening paragraph, you can tell it’s Fforde. His style is so unique and warm, and his imagination is somewhere I could spend hours swimming around in. I long to be able to write as well as this. His world building is unmatched in its scope. This is now the fifth world he’s created for us, and it lacks nothing. The single difficulty is that because the narrators assume that you live in the world too, many aspects don’t get fully explained, so you have to pick it up as you go along and hope for the best. Fforde layers in so many jokes and ideas that it’s hard work to read him, but gets easier as time goes on and is absolutely always worth it. Here, for example, we not only have hibernating humans but also nuns who pledge their oath to be permanently pregnant to help population growth, mythical creatures that live out in the snow but are never witnessed, an economy based on Snickers bars and the owing of favours, and Carmen Miranda. As with Shades of Grey, his humans are not quite as we are, but this is never really shown explictly – you just suddenly realise that they’ve all grown thick coats of winter fur, some of them in intricate tortoiseshell or spotted patterns.

Fforde also plays with concepts in our world and turns them upside down. Here, weight loss diets don’t exist, as it’s better for you to enter hibernation fat and well fed. The Ice Age means that people are pumping masses of carbon dioxide into the air in an attempt to heat up the world. His fondness for Wales shines through too, as that’s where the novel is entirely set, and it’s only really halfway through when you meet some English villains that you learn all the characters up to that point are, and have been speaking, Welsh.

Despite the surrealism, the core is still utterly believable. It depicts a world that has evolved much like ours – Shakespeare, the Chuckle Brothers and Brief Encounter all still exist – but with the added issue of the encroaching ice sheets. As ever, the characters are real and complex, somehow attractive and very, very human. When it comes down to it, all of his books are pretty much about normal people trying to cope in worlds that seem bizarre to use but completely normal to them. No one has been this sharp on the topic since Douglas Adams, and I think it’ll be many years before we find anyone who can do it this well again.

We’re so glad to have you back, Jasper. Now about those sequels…

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“The Left Hand Of Darkness” by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)

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left hand“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

So many books I read take place on Earth. In fact, I think most books take place on Earth, or at least the ones written on this planet do. As such, it’s nice to occasionally make a beeline for somewhere entirely different; a whole new world. Ursula K. LeGuin is often billed as one of the greatest science fiction writers ever, so why not take to the stars with her and visit her famous planet of Gethen.

Gethen, known as Winter by explorers because of its permanently freezing temperatures, is a planet in a remote corner of the universe that has no knowledge of anything living beyond its atmosphere until an envoy comes down to meet them and welcome them to the Ekumen, a league of planets that is trying to work together in harmony and to share information and technology between them all. The envoy is Genly Ai, who has been on Gethen for two years now, trying to convince the people of Karhide, a Gethen kingdom, to join with the other humans on other planets.

Shortly before his meeting with the king is finally arranged, Genly finds that the Prime Minister, Estraven, is a traitor and has been accused of treason. He is banished from Karhide, and Genly must meet with the insane king alone, only to discover that he is not trusted. Frustrated, Genly meets with the Foretellers, a group of people who can see the future, to ask if Gethen will ever be part of the Ekumen. When he is informed that it will, he moves to another country, Orgoreyn, to try his luck there. But soon his luck will run out, as the people of this planet are highly suspicious and before he knows what’s happening, Genly has been imprisoned and carted off to work against his will. When things start to seem completely hopeless, help might just come from the place he would least expect it.

Notably, I’ve managed to summarise the plot without mentioning one of the key things about this novel, and one of the things that is most well known about it. That is, that the Gethen people are neuter, having no gender or sex or most of the year, and then once a month entering a state called “kemmer”, in which they turn into either a male or female – which isn’t constant in an individual – and breed. After this passes, they return to a neuter state again. This way of living has shaped their entire culture, and so they find Genly strange, since they view him as permanently being in kemmer, which is perverse to them.

Estraven and Genly Ai (Copyright: Evan Dahm 2013)

There’s a lot going on in this book but despite the fact it’s set in a different world with a different calendar, you find yourself very quickly invested in Genly Ai, his mission and the world of Gethen. Exposition is delivered via the use of notes taken from the first investigators, or from old stories told by the Gethen people about their history. The themes are manyfold, but none detract from the story. Clearly, it is primarily a story about gender and sex. Genly has difficulty at first in understanding a society where there is no division of the genders, so there are no dominant/subservient or protector/protectee relationships based on different parts of the population. Genly attributes “he” and “she” almost randomly, based on whether someone seems masculine or feminine in his eyes, but he trips up. The King has been both a mother and a father, and his “landlady” has only ever fathered children.

Communication and the struggle of communicating with different cultures is also a key topic. The people of Gethen have something called shifgrethor, which appears untranslatable to non-Gethen ears, but refers basically to a set of social rules to do with pride, honour and respect. The people of Karhide and those of Orgoreyn treat it differently, and Genly is slow to realise that he’s often been misunderstanding people because of it.

It also appears that in this story there was an original race of humans who spread to different planets and then, when their civilisation collapsed, each planet lost contact with the other. This explains why people look basically the same across the galaxy, as they try to re-establish these connections thousands of years later. Genly is explicitly stated to be from Earth, known here as Terra, which was simply one of the planets populated by the Hainish millennia before. A whole series of books is built up around this by LeGuin, but this is the most famous.

Nonetheless, the story is keenly interesting and mostly about a political situation brewing thanks to the arrival of Genly Ai. The use of many words that are native to the planet or can’t be translated can be a bit overwhelming at times – some of the Karhide people have very long names that, when used in full, can dominate a paragraph – but there’s something about it that makes everything seem believable. At the back of the book, or my edition at least, is a guide to the calendar of Gethen and the names of all the days, months and seasons. This is a great resource to check back on, but not essential to one’s enjoyment.

There are some incredible ideas going on in this book, not least the idea of a population that doesn’t understand gender, and it should be compulsory reading for absolutely everyone. And it’s not often I say that about a book.