Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#26: Ursula K. Le Guin

I'm going to stick my neck out again. If you try to review a prolific, respected, widely-read, and more-or-less contemporary author, you're sticking your neck out. (Not least because enough other people have read the same books, and can perform a sanity check on your comments.) For a change of pace I'll let someone else lead off, and start by quoting what my copy of "Rocannon's World" has to say about Ursula Le Guin:

We once wrote that while only a few women wrote science-fiction they made up in quality what they lacked in numbers. Certainly among the ranks of the most highly esteemed artisans of fantasy fiction will be found the names of Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, Margart St. Clair, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. "Rocannon's World" introduces the first book by another of that select group, Ursula K. Le Guin.
Mrs. Le Guin lives in Portland, Oregon, and has made her first sales to the magazines. That she has talent will be evident on reading, for the s-f reader will find in this vivid interplanetary fantasy elements reminiscent not only of the soaring imagery of the above-mentioned but hints of the fantasy of the Tolkien or Merrit type. This may seem extravagant praise for a beginner, but we hope that the reader will sense this for himself and wait, hopefully, for her next novel.
          -- D.A.W. (1966)

There's been three decades worth of water under the bridge since "Rocannon's World" was written. And it's been almost that long since Le Guin was last the subject of such faint (and condescending) praise. The eight years after that introduction was written saw an outpouring of excellent novels -- some of which have stood the passage of time better than others. Among the best of these are:

"A Wizard of Earthsea" (****). This is a superb juvenile. (For all that I think highly of the book, I realize that some readers don't care for juvenile fiction, however good. You've been warned.) The first book of the 'Earthsea' trilogy, it introduces the Archipelago of Earthsea, and the young Sparrowhawk -- the character who connects the books of the trilogy.

It would not be unfair to call "A Wizard of Earthsea" a coming-of-age novel. We first meet Sparrowhawk as a child with incredible magical potential. He receives magical instruction -- the foundation of which is that to know a thing's true Name is to control it -- and progresses swiftly -- too swiftly: One day he casts a spell which is, if not beyond his power, far beyond his wisdom, and summons a Nameless evil. He survives the experience, and continues to progress after that, but his ability to deal with reavers and with dragons is mocked by his continuing inability to Name and recapture the entity which he loosed -- and which continues its attempts to hunt *him* down.

There is a tale told in the East Reach of a boat that ran aground, days out from any shore, over the abyss of ocean. In Iffish they say it was Estarriol who sailed that boat, but in Tok they say it was two fishermen blown by a storm far out on the Open Sea, and in Holp the tale is of a Holpish fisherman, and tells that he could not move his boat from the unseen sands it grounded on, and so wanders there yet...

Fantasy was still reeling from Tolkien in the late sixties, and the explosion of authors who were imitating Tolkien or reacting against him had begun. Part of the attraction of "A Wizard of Earthsea" was how little it owed to "Lord of the Rings". Today, it's still a relief to go back to a world of villages and islets, rather than cities and forts, and of dragons who are cunning and eloquent (albeit voracious), and not just Fafnir clones. If you enjoy this book, you'll definitely want to read the rest of the trilogy -- "The Tombs of Atuan" (***) and "The Farthest Shore" (***+). (Interestingly, the viewpoint shifts with each novel, so we see the adult Sparrowhawk, and later the old Sparrowhawk, through different eyes.)

A fourth book, "Tehanu" (**), is more recent. Opinion is sharply divided as to whether it's a fitting addition to the trilogy or a mockery of it. My own opinion falls somewhere between: It's not a bad book, albeit not special, either, but it fits poorly with the other three. "Tehanu" could have been written to better advantage without recasting familiar characters and places in an unfavorable light.

"The Left Hand of Darkness" (***+) won the Hugo *and* the Nebula awards for 1969, which leaves a reviewer who is less than enthusiastic about it with a burden of explanation. It's a good book, I'll grant, and worth reading. In it, we see the world of Gethen through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy sent by the interstellar Ekumen to invite the nations of Gethen to join it. The most notable characteristic of Gethen, from the human's standpoint, is that its humanoid inhabitants are hermaphroditic, rather than male or female. Almost until the end, Ai continues to perceive almost everyone on Gethen as male, and is constantly being brought up short when his preconceptions misfire. (In constructing a plausible society that lacks sexual dimorphism, Le Guin implicitly holds up a thought-provoking mirror to our own society. Even aside from the implicit critique, the world-building is one of the best aspects of the novel.)

The book deals with other apparent dichotomies as well. One of the two nations of Gethen is a monarchy and another is totalitarian, but their reactions to the prospects represented by the envoy are remarkably similar. Perhaps the greatest illusory gulf is that between Humans and Gethenians. The book begins with Genly Ai looking upon Gethen from the outside, as a traveller or anthropologist. One gets the feeling that his idea of diplomacy consists of talking to the natives in words of one syllable. By the book's end he is still thinking of Estraven, the Gethenian with whom he establishes the strongest ties, as male -- but he has obviously stopped thinking of him as anything other than 'people'.

"No, I don't mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear..."

"The Dispossessed" (***+) is Le Guin's other magnum opus. If I had to compare, I'd say that it's not as good as "The Left Hand of Darkness", but that I enjoyed it more. It's also placed in the universe of the Ekumen, on the twin worlds of Anarres and Urras. (The Ekumen plays a minor but important role, mostly in the background of the novel. Anarres and Urras have nothing like the Ekumen's technology, but their mathematics is superior, and promises to lead to a faster-than-light breakthrough.) Anarres is a habitable moon of Urras, much poorer, settled two centuries earlier by anarchistic utopians. Actually, the term 'anarchistic' is imprecise, not least because these utopians bundled cooperation and lack of property into the same concept.

Although the novel is split between the experiences of Shevek -- an Anarrean mathematician -- on Anarres and on his journey to Urras, Urras serves mainly as a foil to Anarres. The most interesting aspect of the book is Anarrean society, and what it has become over two centuries. Anarres is by no means a failed utopia, but there is a tension between its ideals of freedom and cooperation -- the latter being what ameliorates the worst weaknesses of anarchism -- and there seems to be a human process which causes political power to accumulate at their points of intersection. Annares is evolving what are effectively political institutions in spite of itself, and is uncomfortable with the process. Worse, cooperation seems to shade easily into pressure to conform and thence into coercion -- and freedom shades into a lack of protection for the non-conformist and for the unpopular. Still, by the end of the book, and with Urras for comparison, we see that Anarres is trying to hold onto something valuable -- and possibly viable.

He wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands and held the knuckles out to show Sadik. "See," he said, "they're wet. And the nose dribbles. Do you keep a handkerchief?"
"Yes. Don't you?"
"I did, but it got lost in a washhouse."
"You can share the handkerchief I use," Sadik said after a pause.

The Earthsea trilogy, "The Left Hand of Darkness", and "The Dispossessed" represent the high points in Ursula K. Le Guin's writing. Almost nothing she's written is actively bad, so if you enjoy those and want to read her other books -- novels or anthologies -- you can't go too wrong whichever you try. My own first encounters with her writing were her early Ekumen novels, "Rocannon's World" (**+) and "Planet of Exile" (**+), both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Looking back on them now, I'd say they lack the depth and the skill of her later writing, but are eminently readable. "City of Illusions" (**) was interesting more as a postscript to "Planet of Exile" than for its own merits. I never cared much for "The Word for World is Forest" (*+) -- in which a bunch of American Villain Stereotypes commit ecological, economic, cultural, and sexual rape on another world -- or for "The Lathe of Heaven" (**) -- in which a Man Who Can Work Miracles comes under the control of someone who isn't wise enough to play God -- though I know many think highly of the latter.

There are also a few books it's probably worth mentioning without trying to rate. "Always Coming Home" is not a novel, but a world-building exercise -- an anthropologist's look at a future (largely low-tech) Pacific-Northwest society. I found it admirable, but not interesting or enjoyable. "The Language of the Night" is a collection of essays on fantasy, the best known of which is "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", on modes of speech in fantasy. (I wish I'd thought to refer to it for examples when I was raving about Eddison's "The Worm Ouroboros".) I don't share Le Guin's belief that fantasy speaks to something deeper within us than other forms of fiction, but I *would* recommend this collection to introspective readers of fantasy. (It's a pain to find copies, but they're around.) "Far Away From Anywhere Else" is a novel of young romance written to appeal to the bookish, the intelligent, and the self-dramatizing. I thoroughly enjoyed it -- and then threw it as hard as I could against the wall, because (IM OH SO HO) it was so manipulative of the reader.

There are other books. In particular, as I observed in passing, I've slighted her shorter fiction. If you haven't read Le Guin's writing, I'm not promising that you'll enjoy it -- but I will promise that you'd be making a mistake not to try it.

Dani Zweig
Should 'anal retentive' have a hyphen?
    -- unidentified passing t-shirt