Hear Ursula K. Le Guin’s Space Rock Opera Rigel 9: A Rare Recording from 1985

In her remembrance of recently departed sci-fi great Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood describes “an absurd vision” she drew from Le Guin’s fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea: “There was Ursula, moving calmly down a hill of whispering sand under the unchanging stars; and there was me, distraught and running after her and calling ‘No! Come Back! We need you here and now!’” Atwood longs for Le Guin’s responses to the crises of the present, the old hierarchies of power and privilege reasserting their cruel dominance over men, women, children, and an already overburdened environment.

The problem of power and its abuses is one Le Guin returned to over and over in her work. “As an anarchist,” writes Atwood,” she would have wanted a self-governing society, with gender and racial equality.” As a keen anthropological observer of human behavior, she saw how and why technologically-advanced, yet psychologically reactionary societies stray from these ideals, destabilizing the ecological balance they depend on to survive and thrive. Le Guin fought back in her way. She was a prolific builder of poetic new worlds. Through them, we will always have her wisdom, and in a few rare instances, we have her music.

No, Le Guin didn’t compose, but she did write librettos for three different collaborative projects. Above, we have her “most noteworthy melodic undertaking,” according to Locus magazine’s Jeff Berkwits, Rigel 9, a space opera with music by avant-garde composer David Bedford, recorded and released in 1985. (It's also streamable on Spotify. Listen below or here.) Rigel 9 “tells a pretty classic space story,” Cara Giaimo  writes at Atlas Obscura. “Three astronauts, named Anders, Kapper, and Lee, are sent to explore a strange world. After Anders goes off to collect plant samples and is kidnapped by extraterrestrials, Kapper and Lee argue over whether to rescue him or save themselves.”

Amidst this drama of tiny red aliens, a double sun, air that smells of cinnamon and yellow and orange trees, we learn a few unsettling facts about what has happened back on Earth. “The Earth has no more forests,” sings Anders, “no wilderness, no still places.” Evoking a Sartrean horror on a planetary scale, he gives us an image of “only human faces, only human voices…. The Earth has no more silence.” The resources we need to replenish not only air and water, but also weary minds have disappeared. These revelations set up Anders’ seduction by the lushness and quiet of Rigel 9, and the gorgeous soprano voices of its inhabitants.

Bedford’s music is transporting, with “Bowie-esque synth sweeps” and saxophones, thrilling choral movements, and a pounding rhythm section that puts one in mind of Queen. Scottish New Wave duo Strawberry Switchblade make an appearance, as the lead voices of an alien funeral procession (top). The dialogue and spoken performances can be a bit corny, but the space rock opera has never been suited for subtlety, and Le Guin and Bedford purposefully created the drama as a radio play of sorts. “We had talked about the composition as ‘opera for ear,” she explained, “That is, a ‘radio opera… We liked the idea of being able to imagine the scenery, and then putting that scenery into the words and the music.”

That same year, Le Guin released another musical effort, teaming with musician Todd Barton for a cassette-only production called Music and Poetry of Kesh, released together with her novel Always Coming Home. And ten years later, she worked with classical composer Elinor Armer on Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts. This eight-movement work features Le Guin herself, narrating a text about “a fantastical realm,” Berkwits writes, “the Uttermost Archipelago in the fifth quarter of Island Earth—where sound literally sustains life.” Just above, hear one movement, “The Seasons of Oling,” a further reminder that Le Guin, who never shrank from the violence of our world, could always imagine enthralling alternatives.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Celebrate the Life & Writing of Ursula K. Le Guin (R.I.P.) with Classic Radio Dramatizations of Her Stories

Until yesterday, had you asked me to name my favorite living writers, Ursula K. Le Guin’s name would appear near the top of the list. As of yesterday, I can no longer say this. Le Guin passed away at the age of 88, and left millions of fans bereft—fans with whom she had shared some of the finest science fiction and fantasy written in the 20th century, and with whom she happily shared her wisdom and advice in the free online workshops she held in her later years, her way of connecting with readers when she retired from writing.

Like many people, I first came to Le Guin’s work through her 1969 Nebula and Hugo-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that exploded ideas about what science fiction could be and do. That novel is part of a series of stories called the “Hainish cycle,” which—like C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy—are deeply philosophical and deeply sensitive to the emotional and psychological resonances of the questions they grapple with.

But unlike Lewis, Le Guin sought not to resurrect old mythologies, but to show how the boundaries and divisions we take for granted might easily become arbitrary and unfamiliar; how we might become something entirely new and different.

There are many other writers who come to mind when I think of Le Guin—Octavia Butler, Frank Herbert, Iain Banks, and, of course, Tolkien. Like many of the best writers in her genres, Le Guin’s fiction is contemplative as well as spectacular—she could write space opera, sword and sorcery, and adventure stories just as well as any of her contemporaries, but her sustained focus on the nuanced interrelations of character and theme—on the agony of choice, the possibility of freedom and connection without coercion, the social and ecological consequences of blind acquisition and thoughtless action—gave her work a depth many of her contemporaries lacked.

Le Guin’s anarchist environmentalism and “tough-minded feminist sensibility” opened up paths for dozens of writers who came after her and who also did not fit the typical molds established by the pulpy magazine stories of the early twentieth century. She was a scholar, earning an M.A. in French and Italian literature and doing doctoral work in France on a Fulbright in the mid-fifties. But unlike certain, more insecure, writers, Le Guin did not wear her learning on her sleeve. She wove it into the texture of her narratives and the allusive lyricism of her prose.

Le Guin’s highly distinctive qualities—her poetry and inquiry, toughness and sensitivity—are evident in even minor, lesser-known stories. Today, to celebrate her life, we bring you a few of those stories, as adapted into radio dramas by the 70s program Mind Webs and the late 80s NPR showcase Sci-Fi Radio. At the top of the post, hear “Diary of a Rose,” below, “Field of Vision,” and, above, “The End.”

And, just above, hear part one of a CBC dramatization of Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, the fifth novel in the Hainish cycle, though chronologically the cycle’s beginning. (Hear all six parts of the dramatized novel here.) Subtitled “an Ambiguous Utopia,” the novel, writes DePauw University’s Judah Bierman, is “a prizeworthy contribution to the debate about the responsibility of knowledge, of the visionary and of the scientist, in a planned society.” But like all of Le Guin’s fiction, it is so much more than that, a work that bears repeated reading, and listening, and that never exhausts its possibilities.

Note: If you're interested in getting professionally read versions of Le Guin's novels, consider signing up for a 30-day free trial to Audible.com. When you sign up for a free trial, they let you download two audiobooks for free, and keep the books, regardless of whether you become a long-term subscriber or not. Get details here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Teaser Trailer for Fahrenheit 451: A New Film Adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Ever-Relevant Novel

From HBO comes a teaser trailer for an upcoming adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, a film that went into production a year before the 2016 election--that is, before things in America took a turn for the worse and the weird. That life has started to imitate Bradbury's art hasn't been lost on the film's director, Ramin Bahrani, who told critics at the Television Critics Association:

Politically things are going in a very strange direction in terms of what is real and what is not real... I think we’ve been going in that direction for a long time, it’s just now kind of being revealed to us more clearly. So I think from a high level, that’s a problem....

I don’t want to focus so much on [Trump] because I don’t want to excuse the 30, 40 years prior to that. He’s just an exaggeration of it now...

I don’t want us to forget what Bradbury said, that we asked for this... We are [also] electing again this thing [a smartphone] in my pocket . We are electing to give it all away to this.

Between the technological advancements in last 20 years and politics, I think Bradbury’s biggest concern about the erosion of culture is now… and the speed at which this is advancing is exponential.

Will we actually get ahead of the dam, or will it just be a flood and up to some other generation to bring back all of Bradbury’s heroes?

The new film starring Michael B. Jordan, and Michael Shannon will come out this spring. Stay tuned.

via Devour

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Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, the New Series Starring Bryan Cranston, Anna Paquin & Steve Buscemi, Now Streaming Free on Amazon Prime

Do I like Philip K. Dick? Do androids dream of electric sheep? Honestly, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to answer such questions about the subjective experience of artificial beings. But I know for certain that I like Philip K. Dick. Deeply admire, respect, fear, even… there are many words I could use to describe the way I feel about his imagination and vision. And I could say much the same about the film adaptations of Dick’s work, up to and including Blade Runner 2049, which wasn’t as visually overwhelming on the small screen after its release on streaming video but still as emotionally captivating in its narrative, pacing, score, and director Denis Villeneuve’s fidelity to, and expansion of, the original film’s use of color and monumental, future-brutalist architecture to tell a story.

Though he very much wanted to break out of science fiction and achieve the status of a “literary” writer—the distinctions in his day being much harder and faster—Dick’s fiction has provided the ultimate source for the cinematic sci-fi epic for several decades now, and shows little sign of falling out of favor. The commercial and creative question seems to be not whether Dick’s stories still resonate, but whether they translate to television as brilliantly as they do to film. Critical opinion can sharply divide on Amazon’s adaptation of Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle (about a world in which the Axis powers triumphed), which might be “ponderous,” “boring,” and—in its second season—“the worst TV show of the year,” or “the second best show Amazon has ever made.”

How much this latter judgment conveys depends upon how highly, on the whole, one rates the quality of programming from that corporate mega-juggernaut threatening to overtake nearly every aspect of consumer culture. To say that I find it ironic that such an entity possesses not only one Philip K. Dick property, but now two, with its latest Dick-inspired anthology show Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, would be to grossly understate the case. The author who imagined an intrusive internet of things and a dystopian world where advertisements appear in our minds might also find this situation somewhat… Dick-ian (Dick-like? Dick-ish?). But such is the world we live in. Putting these ironies aside, let’s revisit the question: do Dick's stories work as well on TV as they do on film?

Find out for yourself. The first season of Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams is now streaming on Amazon (see the trailer above), and you can either purchase it by episode, or binge-stream the whole thing gratis with a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime. Given that the series, which adapts stories from a collection of the same title, is not the product of one singular vision but a different creative team each time, you may agree with Evan Narcisse at Gizmodo, who writes that the episodes “don’t just vary in aesthetics; they vary widely in quality.” It has a star-studded cast—including Anna Paquin, Janelle Monae, Terrance Howard, Steve Buscemi, and Bryan Cranston (who co-produced)—and some impressive production values.

But Electric Dreams also has a significant challenge set before it: “to show both new viewers and conversant fans why Dick’s oeuvre matters, which is hard in a world where we’re eerily close to some of his fictional realities.” Indeed—as we ponder whether we might be characters in a simulated reality, our thoughts and beliefs manipulated by powerful companies like those in Dick’s unsettling Ubik—watching the show might add yet another layer of bewilderment to the already very strange experience of everyday life these days. But then again, “if you feel weirded out while watching, that just means the show is doing its job.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear a Complete Reading of the Newly-Discovered Kurt Vonnegut Story, “The Drone King”

Twenty some years before a young engineer named Ray Tomlinson invented email, writer Kurt Vonnegut invented bee-mail in “The Drone King,” a story that didn’t see the light of day until his friend and fellow author Dan Wakefield unearthed it while going through old papers for a new Vonnegut collection.

The collection’s co-editor, Vonnegut scholar Jerome Klinkowitz, estimates that it was written in the early 50s, likely before the publication of his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952.

This early work, recently published in The Atlantic as well as Wakefield and Klinkowitz's collection, shows an author whose gallows humor is already firmly in place.

Several of his favorite themes crop up, too: the enthusiasm of the misguided entrepreneur, the battle of the sexes, and technology taken to absurd extremes (i.e. bees delivering scraps of messages in soda straws tied to their thoraxes).

If we’re not mistaken Indianapolis, Vonnegut’s boyhood home, now host to his Memorial Library, puts in an unbilled appearance, as well. The story’s Millennium Club bears an uncanny resemblance to that city’s Athletic Club, now defunct.

The self-pitying male haplessness Vonnegut spoofs so ably feels just as skewer-able in the post-Weinstein era, though the doddering black waiter’s dialect is rather queasy-making, especially in the mouth of the white narrator reading the story, above.

You can buy "The Drone King" as part of Kurt Vonnegut Complete Stories collection or read it free online here. The Atlantic was also good enough to create an audio version. It's excerpted up top. And it appears in its entirety right above.

"The Drone King" will be added to our Free Audio Books and Free eBooks collections.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A New 2-In-1 Illustrated Edition of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? & A Scanner Darkly

FYI: Illustrators Chris Skinner and Andrew Archer present a new illustrated edition of two Philip K. Dick's novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? & A Scanner Darkly. And it comes in a great format. Read one novel, then flip the book upside down and enter the next altered reality.

The 2-in-1 book is only available through the Folio Society website.

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Watch the New Trailer for Electric Dreams, the Philip K. Dick TV Series, Starring Bryan Cranston, Steve Buscemi & More

If you had told critics and film executives thirty-five years ago that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner would be one of the most beloved sci-fi films of all time—that it would transcend cult status to become a near-religious object in science fiction and anime filmmaking—you would likely have been laughed out of the room. If you had predicted that, thirty-five years later, it would spawn one of the most spectacular sequels imaginable, you might have been met with concern for your sanity. The world was just not ready for Blade Runner in 1982, just as it was not ready for Philip K. Dick in the 50s when he began his writing career and “couldn’t even pay the late fees on a library book.”

In the following decade, however, Dick’s work came into its own. Many years before it provided a near-infallible source for technological prescience and existential futurism in cinema, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novella from which Blade Runner adapted its story, got a Nebula award nomination, one of three Dick received in the 60s. Five years earlier, he won a Hugo award for The Man in the High Castle.

Now, after the success of that speculative historical novel’s grim Amazon adaptation, the company has partnered with Channel 4 and Sony for another small-screen Dick project—Electric Dreams, co-produced by Bryan Cranston, a longtime fan of the author.

An anthology series based on Dick’s stories, Electric Dreams first airs on Channel 4 in the U.K., and will soon move to Amazon, where Prime users will be able to stream the whole 10-episode season for free. (If you aren’t a Prime user, you can get a 30-day free trial to watch the series, then keep or cancel the membership.) Electric Dreams reminds us that a couple of phenomena from Dick’s heyday have made a significant comeback in recent years. First, imaginative, high-concept anthology shows like Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and the Duplass brothers’ Room 104 hearken back to the success of The Twilight Zone and lesser-known shows like Roald Dahl’s Way Out.

Secondly, we’ve made a return to the paranoia, social unrest, authoritarianism, and threats of nuclear war that formed the backdrops of Dick’s visionary fables. These are indeed “anxious times,” as Cranston says, but he and the show’s other producers instructed the writers to “use the original material as a springboard to your own re-imagining of the story—keep the core… or idea behind it and enhance that and see how that affects not a Cold War period when it was written, but now. How does it affect the modern-day audience?”

Given the all-star cast and high-dollar production values evident in the trailer above, we can likely expect the same kind of quality from Electric Dreams as we have seen in nearly every Dick adaptation thus far. And if it doesn’t catch on right away, well, that may be everyone’s loss but those viewers who recognize, as Dick himself recognized when he saw Blade Runner in 1982, that they have experienced something truly unique.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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