What’s New for the 4th of February: Ursula Le Guin

Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight
On the empty sky.

Ursula K. Le Guin in The Wizard of Earthsea 


Before you read the rest of this edition, go to In Memoriam, Ursula K. LeGuin which writer Peter S. Beagle wrote this week amid his considerable sorrow at her passing: ‘It takes the shiny off everything. Everything. Including the pure shameless pride of being declared a Damon Knight Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. All of it.’

We indeed lost, as Peter makes apparent in his memorial, one of the nicest, most creative folk this civilization had when Ursula Le Guin passed on just a short while ago at the age of just over eighty-eight. Being somewhat younger than her and a fan of well-crafted fantasy and science fiction, she’s been part of my world ever since my teens. I started off, as many of you did no doubt did, by reading the Earthsea series when it came out oh, so many years ago, as just a trilogy before it expanded greatly. Saga Press is working on a Charles Vess illustrated edition of the first three novels, which should be eyecatching.

The Lathe Of Heaven is a quirky novel about a man in Portland, Oregon (her home town) who when he dreams makes changes in reality. His psychiatrist manipulates those dreams in an attempt to make the world what he wants. This being a novel by her, things really don’t go his way. I’ve read the novel, seen the first of I think three attempts to film it (needless to say she didn’t like any of them) and have heard the audiobook. The novel’s wonderful in print and audio forms, the films really not even mediocre.

I read The Dispossessed first in University not long after I came there in the early Seventies. Subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, it’s set in the same fictional universe as that of The Left Hand of Darkness (part of the Hainish Cycle). I think it’s easily her most visibly political novel with its capitalist-to-the-max planet and the moon-based social democratic society that only exists because they’re effectively a mining colony for their former homeworld. A reading group I was once part of it was discussing it and that discussion got very heated.

Those are my picks for you to read. Now let’s see what our reviewers had to say about her works.2C543E11-A245-4D39-B1E1-8507614B4A2A

Cat reviews something that’s not a novel and which reflects that she was the was the daughter of anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber of the University of California, Berkeley, and writer Theodora Kracaw: ‘Some fifteen years ago, Le Guin created Always Coming Home, an ethnographic history of a people living in a future version of Northern California. Though it’s possible that this might be a far future version of our culture, Le Guin cares not a bleedin’ bit about where or when this takes place; the intent here is world building at its very finest. And world building that is very anthropological in nature.‘

Cat really liked everything in The Selected Short Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin: The Found and the Lost and The Unreal and the Real and he breaks his rule here on reading short fiction: ‘I always suggest that a reader treat short stories like really great chocolate, but if my experience was any indication, these tales are too good to parcel out. I had not encountered nearly all of these as I hadn’t read the collections they’d been collected in. Note that the various Earthsea short stories aren’t here but will be in the Earthsea book noted below. At sixty dollars for two volumes, they’re a bargain for what you get. And I look forward to the Charles Vess illustrated Earthsea, which Saga Press notes will be the complete novels and short stories compiled in one volume titled The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition. Ymmm!

Grey reviews more of her short fiction: ‘When I finished reading the last pages of the last story in The Birthday of the World, I wandered around disoriented for perhaps an hour. This new collection of short stories and novellas by Ursula Le Guin is not like some books that convey comfort and delight so strongly that I finish them in a warm glow, glad to be alive. It isn’t that these stories make me sorry to be alive; rather, I find myself, after reading them, wondering just how alive I’ve been lately. How long has it been since I’ve looked at the sky and thought about how far away it is? How do I truly share space and self with another being? How would it be with me if I considered this year not as 2002, but as the Year One, with last year being one-ago, the way it is in Karhide?’

Changing Planes, another collection of stellar short fiction, gets reviewed by Grey as well: ‘Ursula K. Le Guin is an anthropologist of people and cultures that might be. Her book Always Coming Home is the clearest example; in it she studies a possible future civilization in northern California, unearthing stories and descriptions of architecture, festivals, healing ways and recipes. But a great many of her science fiction novels and short stories, set in the imagined future of the galaxy-wide Ekumen, are the explorations of a curious, observant mind who is truly able to hypothesize the differences that might make a culture alien to us, as well as the commonalities that can draw disparate cultures together.’

She also has a look at the first collection of Earthsea stories: ‘of us who have voyaged in Earthsea have reason to rejoice that its creator, Ursula K. Le Guin, has further news from the Archipelago. When we read the epic adventures of Ged, Tenar and Arren in A Wizard of EarthseaThe Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore, these books were a trilogy. Many years later Le Guin continued the story, while changing directions slightly, in Tehanu. And then, less than a year ago, she surprised and delighted us yet again with Tales from Earthsea, five more stories that brought previously unknown aspects of the islands vividly to life. To quote Le Guin herself in her forward to Tales from Earthsea, “At the end of the fourth book of Earthsea, Tehanu, the story had arrived at what I felt to be now….Unable to continue Tehanu‘s story (because it hadn’t happened yet) and foolishly assuming that the story of Ged and Tenar had reached its happily-ever-after, I gave the book a subtitle: ‘The Last Book of Earthsea.’ O foolish writer. Now moves. Even in storytime, dreamtime, once-upon-a-time, now isn’t then.” In The Other Wind, Le Guin acquaints us with what is happening in Earthsea “now.”’

Jack was very pleased with this offering from her: ‘Some books are just too good not to review as soon as they arrive. Such is the case with Tales from Earthsea, five mostly new tales of Earthsea, the delightful universe created by LeGuin more than 30 years ago.’

Kim looks at a story Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight? which got very special treatment: ‘I got this illustrated book that arrived in the mail. Susan Seddon Boulet’s illustrations take us into the magical world Gal, or Myra as she is known in some circles, experiences after being injured in a plane crash and then rescued by Coyote. Boulet’s work draws us into the world Gal sees with her new eye, a multilayered field of vision that bridges the nature and the appearance of things so beautifully communicated in Le Guin’s story. It has earned a place next to my treasured “children’s” books — the selfishness of an adult who finds some things to beautiful to actually let the wee wilds grub them up. (Mine! Ahem — They get their own copies whenever possible.)’

Michelle looks at a work by her that still provokes fierce arguments some forty years after being published: ‘For the first several pages of The Left Hand of Darkness, readers see the country of Karhide on the planet Gethen as a typical Western monarchy. Through the eye of Genly Ai (pronounced “I,” like a cry), we witness all the traditional trappings of power, military might and courtly intrigue as a king officiates at a pompous ritual. The narrator notices only men at the ceremony, but this may seem quite natural to readers accustomed to European history narratives, which often fail to account for the presence of women at public functions. The Left Hand of Darkness could be historical fiction set just about anywhere — until we learn that the king is pregnant.’

Rebeca got the honour of reviewing this work by her: ‘This classic fantasy series is often compared to The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, but this is not a fair comparison. Although all three can be read as allegorical fantasies, Le Guin is concerned with different religious and philosophical issues, and her writing style differs considerably from Tolkien and Lewis. Le Guin’s trilogy possesses a quiet charm and mystical beauty all its own and is in no way derivative of the other two.These three novels are known collectively as the Earthsea trilogy, but they can be read independently. They are categorized as being for grades 6-9, but their themes are complex enough to challenge adults, and Le Guin’s writing is not over-simplified or condescending.’

The fourth book in the Earthsea trilogy got her attention later on: ‘Tehanu is the last book in Le Guin’s Earthsea tetralogy. It was published in 1990, considerably after the first three books. Although this book, as with the others in the series, has been classified as a children’s/young adult book, make no mistake: this is a mature book about grown-up subjects, and it is a beautiful ending to the Earthsea saga.’

Robert was left almost — but not quite — speechless by LeGuin’s young adult fantasy, Gifts, notwithstanding his admiration for her as a writer: ‘I find myself sometimes genuinely shocked at the books being written and published for children and teenagers in recent years, but then, I grew up in perhaps less trying times, with the likes of Heinlein’s Red Planet and The Rolling Stones as my fallbacks. In the past couple of years I’ve read science fiction and fantasy for juveniles and young adults that deal with divorce, dysfunctional families, spouse abuse, attempted suicide, not to mention the complete collapse of human civilization.’2C543E11-A245-4D39-B1E1-8507614B4A2A

A little known facet of her creativity was her work as a composer. She composed music for her ethnographic study in a fictional form of a matriarchal society in a future California, and as the article titled Listen to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Little-Known Space Opera points out, she also wrote the libretto for a real “space opera”: ‘But you may not yet have made it to Rigel 9, a world that offers small red aliens, two-toned shadows from its double sun, and—depending on who you believe—a beautiful golden city. The planet is the setting of the little-known space opera, also called Rigel 9, released in 1985. The opera features music by avant-garde classical composer David Bedford, and a libretto written by Le Guin.’2C543E11-A245-4D39-B1E1-8507614B4A2A

I’m going to end this edition with her stellar reading of much of A Wizard of Earthsea. She reads  from it in her oh so wonderful voice, and fields questions from the audience afterwards. This performance took place  at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts, Friday, October 10, 2008. It was made possible by the sponsorship of Timberland Regional Library.

About Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don’t always.

It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we’ve done the centuries.

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