At five hundred pages, spanning hundreds of earth years and a fair few light years, it is not an exaggeration to say Where-Stand-All: Episodes in the Foundation of Hodrin Civilization, is a science fiction epic. In the tradition of social science fiction; a sub-genre of sci-fi it less concerned with technology and space opera and more with sociological speculation, it is a predictive, precautionary, but ultimately optimistic story. At its core is the belief in the capacity of every individual to be ingenuous, compassionate and mindful, be they Hodrin or Human. By following the birth of the Hodrin civilization (four armed beings with distinctive eye ridge nodules that convey mood) from its scattered populations, through to its highly organised and far reaching domination of Where-Stand-All and beyond, so we too understand the birth of our own civilization and how innovation and progress can lead to both joy and anguish.
The novel eloquently illustrates how culture is both a civiliser and savager.
Its ‘extra-terrestrial’ writer/interpreter, Farrold Saxon, reveals intimate and farsighted knowledge of Where-Stand-All and its inhabitants on a planet closer to the centre of the galaxy than ours. I delighted in the uncomplicated, compassionate nature of the Hodrin and marvelled at their rational organisation of society. Each and every Hodrin is given a name that conveys their true nature, celebrating differences and finding strengths within those differences. Gender inequality is not a word the Hodrin-kind would recognise. Male Hodrin have little speech, but the ability to mind-join with each other and ‘see’ the future. Female Hodrin cannot foresee the future, but can turn the male ‘seeings’ into practical and organised benefits for all. It is not a case of one sex is better than the other rather neither sex can progress without the other. That is not to say the Hodrin do not encounter difficulties. The use of Great Nut syrup to dull the minds of the males and keep them subservient reminds our own kind of the stifling of female progress through economic dependency. The classification of Hodrin based on fur colour, and the restrictions on mating between these different types, is a reminder of how our culture has created equally arbitrary divisions.
The message throughout the novel is one of tolerance, respect and a need to be true to one’s own nature. The Hodrin show us how to live authentically and in tune with each-other and our environment. The Hodrin also remind us of what happens if we try to stifle our desires, or subvert others to our will.
As with the rise of all great civilizations, crisis comes to Where Stand All in the form of the Squeeze, and just like the impending crisis in our world, Hodrin-kind must find a way to exist in harmony or risk extermination.
As you read Where-Stand-All you can’t help but compare it to our world, but it is more than an allegory, it is a message. We are the makers of our own destiny. Each and every one of us must own our thoughts and our actions. We all have a contribution to make, be that a poem or an engineering miracle, or the simple act of holding a hand at the end of a life. If we are true to ourselves and resist those that would divert us with the ‘false idols’, then we too can be magnificent in our own nature.
You won’t be the same after reading Where-Stand-All, but you will be better. And if you are anything like me, you will be left mulling over your potential Hodrin name and what it tells you about your true nature.
This novel should be required reading for sociology students everywhere and a rite of passage for every teenager who has ever asked the question: why is the world the way it is and can we make it better?
ALYS ALWAYS is Harriet Lane’s debut novel about the ‘little’ people, the ones that make world turn for the ones who think it turns just because they will it to. With a cast of morally dubious characters it is both a satire of celebrity culture and an indictment of how lost all of us really are.
What matters is ‘who you know’ and in the small and nepotistic literary world, Frances Thorpe (thirty something sub editor on The Spectator) doesn’t know anyone. That is until she meets Alys Kyte, trapped (and as it turns out dying) inside her overturned car on a lonely, country road. At first Frances wants to forget the horrible incident, until she realises who Alys was married to; literary heavyweight Laurence Kyte. When she is asked to meet the family (for closure) she is invited into a world of privilege and entitlement. Encouraging the friendship of Polly, who is missing her mother and nursing a family secret, Frances’ metamorphosis begins.
Frances is a complicated and calculating female character, which makes this a refreshing read. No chick-lit heroines here. Hallelujah! The story taps into the jealousy us ‘little’ people feel when we pore over the pages of glossy magazines at the lives of the fated, and asks the question; what would you do?
There are two reasons I really enjoyed this novel. The first is the clean prose. Harriet Lane bravely puts her command of grammar under the spotlight by making Frances a pedant, who spends her days correcting book reviews for the magazine she works on. A great plot can be ruined by sloppy writing, and although of the two plot is key, many times I have given up on a book because the writing overwhelmed me (and not in a good way). It is said that great writing is invisible, which does not mean it is without voice or personality rather it does not eclipse the story and become a thing in its own right. Rest assured Alys Always has a clear, ego-less voice in direct contrast to the lauded novels of the ‘emotionally lazy’ Laurence Kyte. Harriet Lane is making a subtle point in both ‘how’ she writes and in Frances assessment of what passes as ‘great’ literature.
My second reason is an emotional one – the most reliable indicator of a good book – and more specifically how I felt about it when I wasn’t reading it. Like falling in love, I was excited about seeing it again and planned ways of making time for it. I thought about it frequently. I was desperate to find out how it all turned out, but at the same time didn’t want it to end. On finishing it, I missed it.
The novel’s protagonist reminds me of the insidious character of Barbara in Zoe Heller’s Notes on Scandal. Like Barbara, Frances’ actions are driven by dubious motives, but the people around her are so convinced of their ‘special’ status that you can’t help but wish she succeeds.
My only minor criticism is that the ending, although satisfying, would have been improved by an increase in conflict. I was craving a character that could really challenge the status quo and push Frances to her limits (and beyond them).
I would certainly read more from Harriet Lane and for those who want a story where the woman isn’t a simpering simpleton waiting for Mr Right, then ALYS ALWAYS is the book for you.
Let me know what you think? Does it matter to you if the lead character is likeable or not?
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