Early on in his column about the books he reads every month (in Ten Years in the Tub), Nick Hornby decided that he would read something he would ordinarily never read. He chose something in the science fiction genre. He would quickly realize his mistake. One of the books he chose to read was one by Iain M. Banks called Excession. Hornby had this to say about the experience:
…nothing in the twenty-odd pages I managed of Excession was in any waybad; it’s just that I didn’t understand a word. I didn’t even understand the blurb on the back of the book…
…The urge to weep tears of frustration was already upon me even before I read the short prologue…By the time I got to the first chapter, which is entitled “Outside Context Problem” and begins “(CGU Grey Area signal sequence file #n428857/119),” I was crying so hard I could no longer see the page in front of my face, at which point I abandoned the entire ill-conceived experiment altogether. (148)
This was hilarious, because this has been my own experience with science fiction as well. I liked The Chrysalids in high school. I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed in university for a utopian literature class (though it was an example of the opposite) and enjoyed it. I also enjoyed Ender’s Game. I managed to read little more than a chapter or two of Dune, which, from what I can tell, is to science fiction what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. Buy my sci-fi reading ended there and the reason is exactly like what Hornby says of the science fiction he tried to read: I don’t understand it.
I’ve had a copy of Ursula K. Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for a decade or more. I enjoyed The Dispossessed enough to think about reading more LeGuin. (Plus I think Bruce Cockburn may have mentioned it as an influence on some song or other of his.) But every time I open it up to give it a go, I am stopped by this, the beginning of chapter 1:
From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-9342-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490-97.
How am I supposed to read beyond that? Is there an explanatory prequel I’m unaware of which I should read first? Is this any way to start a novel? Tolkien is filled with names and history we know nothing about, but at least he does us the courtesy of starting The Lord of the Rings with a prologue about some creatures we can at least identify with.
And what’s with the numbers? As Hornby’s experience shows, this seems to be normal sci-fi stuff. Are we to believe that these numbers are not just random sequences meant to look futurey and sciencey—that they actually mean something? Because I don’t buy it.
I assume that all will be explained as I read the novel, but I’m not sure I’m interested.