Tag Archives: Le Guin reread

Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read: Planet of Exile

blog-ursula-le-guin-worlds-of-exile-and-illusionToday in the Ursula K. Le Guin (re)read, we’re returning to the Hainish cycle with book 2, Planet of Exile. (If you missed the discussion of Book 1, Rocannon’s World, click here.)

Le Guin herself didn’t see the Hainish books as any kind of coherent series–they’re a set of loosely connected stories all set in the same universe, but widely separated by distance and time. They’re linked by ideas such as the ansible (a faster-than-light communication technology, available even though her universe specifically does not have an FTL drive for ships) and a Federation-like entity that is sometimes called the League of All Worlds and sometimes the Ekumen.

What the Hainish books do not have are recurring characters or overarching plots across the series. What they do have are thematic links. And sometimes more…but we’ll get into that when we hit City of Illusions.

So, on to Planet of Exile…

Basic premise: A young woman (Rolery) from a low-tech alien culture meets a man (Jakob) whose people were stranded on her planet long ago. Both cultures are facing pressure from change, external forces, and the unforgiving nature of the planet itself.

This is still very early Le Guin, but you can already see her preoccupation with culture and her way with language. (I want to be her when I grow up.) I read this shortly after Rocannon’s World, which aside from the prologue (“Semley’s Necklace”) is a standard quest story / planetary romance, and pretty lightweight emotionally. Planet of Exile starts out in a similar vein, but midway through it takes a turn into classical tragedy, and I was surprised how affecting the ending was.

On an SFnal level, the planet’s orbital period is 60 Earth years long, with four seasons. That allows for a lot of fun worldbuilding. For one thing, it means the locals (the Tevarans) have a very different way of thinking about time, especially since they are nomads and live in a different place each season. Their winter homes, for example, fall out of living memory and become semi-mythical…as do the stranded aliens, who live in the same place all Year. The result is a mythic or allegorical feel to the book.

Sadly, its age is showing. The gender relations are distinctly old-fashioned — the old Tevaran leader Wold is the most obviously sexist character, but nobody questions, for example, the idea that Rolery should hide in a safe place nursing the wounded while Jakob goes off to fight. It’s amazing to think that this was published only three years before The Left Hand of Darkness (famous for its exploration of gender).

Similarly, the race relations are clunky — both the Tevarans and the aliens look down on the other and see themselves as the “humans”. The indigenous Tevaran people see the alien exiles as “not really people” and arrogant for acting like they think they ARE people; the aliens can’t believe the locals haven’t even invented the wheel. The aliens are dark-skinned, the Tevarans are light-skinned (and a third group, the Gaals, are even more so), and both can’t stop commenting on the other’s looks. The Gaals are even more “othered” — they’re not really thought of as people at all but as a biological force, like the years-long winter, until one character comments on this very late in the book.

A side note before I get into the real spoilers: The aliens follow a form of the Prime Directive, laid out by the League of All Worlds — no exposing the locals to high technology. Since they’re stuck on the planet, this means that they too are losing their technology despite efforts to the contrary. This is a shift from Rocannon’s World, where some of the locals were explicitly taught high technology (and lost some of their artistry in the process).

[SPOILERS for the ending…]

 

There’s a sense of melancholy among the aliens — their society is stagnant and slowly dying, because they’re stuck on a world that’s not theirs. (They seem to be Earth humans.) Until… (dun dun dun) That’s the real conflict in the book: the sense of dislocation and isolation of a people. Jakob and Rolery are just proxies for its resolution (another thing that gives the book a mythic quality). I was sort of expecting the aliens to escape the planet at the end, maybe because I mistook the Stack for a forgotten spaceship over the mantelpiece. The aliens are forced by circumstances to work with the locals, it all goes wrong at the midpoint, but they still end up retreating together and starting to integrate. The biological part of the solution comes out of nowhere near the end — it would have been better if hinted at earlier. Though I guess it kind of is, with Jakob being able to mindspeak with Rolery early on — that’s a proxy for biological transmission. Regardless, watching the aliens have their idea of “home” shift from “a place we’ll never see again” to “here in this place we’ve made”…that’s what tilted this book, despite all its imperfections, into a classic for me.

 

[END SPOILERS]

By the way, here’s some neat Le Guin news:

(1) The Earthsea novels are being reissued this fall in a new collected edition, illustrated by Charles Vess (!!!). Details and sneak peeks available in this article at The Verge.

(2) There’s a new feature-length documentary about Le Guin, by filmmaker Arwen Curry, and you can watch the trailer and read a bit more about it right here.

Next up, we’ll be looking at a couple more short stories from The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, and then it’s on to City of Illusions, more shorts, and then the biggie, The Left Hand of Darkness (which I’m rereading right now). Hope you’ll join me!

 

Advertisements

Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read: “April in Paris” and “The Masters”

Welcome back to the Le Guin (re)read! Today we’re tackling the first and second stories she sold to paying markets. “April in Paris” was published in the magazine Fantastic in 1962, and “The Masters” was published in 1963 in the same magazine.

I’m reading them in a collection of her early stories, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. According to her introductory notes, before she was published she amassed a long string of rejections (and practiced her perseverance!). This for a writer who would later go on to win all of the major science fiction and fantasy awards, become one of only five women to be named a Grand Master of Science Fiction by her peers in SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), and be awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. So if you’re an aspiring writer in the “collecting rejections” stage, take heart!

But I digress…

Note: This post is an analysis of two stories, so there will be minor spoilers throughout. I’ll flag those that are more major.

April in Paris

The first thing you notice as a reader is that the speculative element isn’t immediately apparent. Le Guin devotes a chunk of words to describing the forlorn state of Barry Pennywither, and then another chunk on the even more forlorn state of Jehan Lenoir before finally introducing the summoning/time-travel spell that connects the two. I suspect that if this had been a later story, she would have gotten there quicker.

As in her novels, she stays in deep third-person POV, describing the moment of connection first from Lenoir’s perspective, then from Barry’s very different one. There’s a funny moment when Barry realizes that the other man is speaking not English but French…and there’s something funny about his French…and then a page later he realizes that the man’s speech is odd because it’s very old French, something he has only ever seen written. (Le Guin uses the same device in City of Illusions – coming up a little later in this blog series – when a character has to draw on his knowledge of an ancient language that he has never heard spoken.)

[SPOILERS]

Although this is an early story, it’s clearly in dialogue with others of its subgenre: she has obviously read other time-travel tales and decided to explore a different angle. So her characters exchange knowledge, but quickly realize there’s no point in trying to apply that knowledge in their respective times. What would they do with it? Who would believe them? What would be the point, really? Instead, they simply revel in having it, and even more, sharing it.

For that is the crux of the story: the human connection. That’s what our duo is really looking for, not knowledge for its own sake. Later on, when more characters join the initial pair, they build even stronger connections (though rather heteronormative and even sexist to today’s sensibilities). Finally, they realize that connection (and its flip side, loneliness) is what has created the magic at the core of the story, literally. And ta da, there’s the theme.

[END SPOILERS]

So the story is pretty straightforward, by Le Guin’s later standards. But one can already see the preoccupation with relationships and psychology over the speculative-fiction trappings. She’s using SF to say something; she’s not interested in the cool SF ideas for their own sake, but what she has to say cannot be said without SF.

The Masters

By contrast, this story is all about knowledge: the control and withholding of it, the reinvention and secret sharing of it.

Again, it starts with a very tight focus (though the initial point of view is omniscient): the protagonist, Ganil, in the middle of a scene that’s vivid and visually arresting but has no context. Gradually Le Guin pulls back to give us information about the world (aka worldbuilding): this is an initiation, and Ganil is a Master of what in our world we would call a guild.

One interesting note: Ganil’s friend and mentor, Mede, is described as having blue eyes, but this is so unusual in Ganil’s world as to be seen as a deformity. Le Guin’s Earthsea world is famous for being a rare early fantasy setting full of brown and black people. “The Masters” is six years before the first Earthsea book, with the desire to upend racial assumptions already on her mind.

We learn that although Ganil is a master of his craft, being a master doesn’t involve calculation or critical thinking, just memorization. Mede is the one who nudges Ganil along to (re)discovering this dangerous knowledge, not by telling him outright, but by planting the seeds for Ganil to figure it out himself. It’s exhilarating watching this happen, the excitement of discovery and then of explaining it — rather like “April in Paris”, in fact.

[SPOILERS]

The only woman in the story is Ganil’s love interest. It’s a rather feeble attempt at inclusion, as in Le Guin’s early novels. Thank goodness she realized that she could write about women (and other genders, as in The Left Hand of Darkness) if she wanted to.

By the end, control has come down heavily on our thinkers. Mede is dead, and Ganil is forced to endure terrible punishments and then flee. But, like Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451, he flees with his knowledge and Mede’s still intact. All is not lost; there is hope in the darkness.

[END SPOILERS]

“April in Paris” is a story that would not be possible without its core fantastical device, and it centers around two intellectuals who bond over sharing knowledge, but it’s really about human connection. By contrast, “The Masters” is less about science fiction than it is about science, the joy of it and the suppression of knowledge and the unbeatable relentlessness of human curiosity.

 

Next up, we’ll return to the Hainish Cycle with Planet of Exile. I hope you’ll join me!

 

 

 

Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read: Rocannon’s World

blog-ursula-le-guin-worlds-of-exile-and-illusionWelcome back to the Ursula K. Le Guin (re)read! In our third installment, we’re talking about her first published novel, Rocannon’s World.

(Previous installments: “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and “Semley’s Necklace”/”Dowry of the Angyar”)

As I mentioned last time, Rocannon’s World starts with a prologue, “Semley’s Necklace”. It sets up the various sentient races of the planet in question, and briefly introduces the novel’s main protagonist, the scientist Rocannon. But it’s not closely related to the main action, and here’s why…

The universe of the Hainish tales has FTL communication technology. (Le Guin coins the term “ansible” here; it will later be picked up by other SF authors — see the Wiki article on ansibles.) But what it doesn’t have is FTL transportation for humans. Le Guin will explore the implications of this in various ways as she goes on.

For Rocannon’s World, the initial significance is that due to the quirks of non-FTL travel, Rocannon meets Semley on a space station, then she returns to the planet, but when Rocannon follows, he lands many years later, when Semley is dead and her grandson Mogien is already an adult. It also means that when Rocannon’s ship is destroyed along with his shipmates shortly after landing (not much of a spoiler — it happens in Chapter 1), he is stranded and his home planet is in danger…unless he can make his way across the planet to send a warning.

So we arrive in a pretty straightforward fantasy quest story, trekking across vast stretches of land while exploring varied landscapes and peoples along the way. The fantasy resonances go right down to the multiple sentient races — the Bronze-Age feudal tribespeople (the Angyar), hobbits (Fiia), dwarves (Gdemiar/Clayfolk), and more that Rocannon meets along the way. The inhabitants call Rocannon a Starlord, although they don’t think he’s a god. There are even giant flying cats that can be ridden. (Le Guin would later repurpose the idea in her children’s series Catwings.)

Still, Le Guin has fun with the SF side as well, showing both the low-tech and high-tech perspectives. Semley’s story does a neat job of exploring spaceflight and other high-tech stuff from the perspective of someone who doesn’t understand it at all. In the main part of the novel, there’s a battle of wills between Rocannon and a random belligerent hall-leader who clearly does not understand Rocannon’s protective suit but is determined to beat Rocannon (spoiler: he loses, partly because of the suit but also because Rocannon gets rescued by someone whose life he saved earlier).

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

Le Guin is also engaging with some big themes while telling an adventure story. For example, what does loyalty mean and what is a life worth? Yahan pledges his life to Rocannon to protect himself from Mogien after he defies Mogien’s orders, then saves Rocannon’s life by rescuing him from the warlord (as mentioned above). Rocannon later gives up the necklace to save Yahan’s life. Several of his companions die to get him to his destination (in fact, Mogien dies as payment for Rocannon’s newfound telepathy, which proves to be essential for Rocannon to complete his quest).

There’s also a running theme of naming. What’s in a name? Are names necessary when you (a) are telepathic, and (b) can describe everything in relation to everything else? Kyo, the little Fiian, is actually named after his village; Rocannon first loses his own name’s pronunciation (the locals call him Rokanan) and then his birth name (he gains the epithets Olhor, the Wanderer, and pedan, the god).

And there are a few stellar moments of “sense of wonder”: the flying on giant winged cats; the creepy but cool Winged Ones and the little word-collecting Kiemhrir; flying through a mountain pass in a snowstorm and emerging high above a MUCH lower plain.

[END SPOILERS]

This is early Le Guin, and it shows — it’s much less sophisticated than her later work, but you can see the seeds of the writer she will develop into. For example, she’s already paying a lot of attention to the prose, which makes this a treat to read. Surprisingly (if you’ve read her later work), there’s no exploration of gender, and it’s a heavily male-dominated story; the few female characters are very much sidelined, but at least they’re not stereotyped.

The worldbuilding isn’t terribly complex, but she clearly made an effort to keep things consistent. For example, most of the fauna (of all sizes) are mammals with wings. There aren’t any insects, and therefore there are no flowers – tree pollen simply releases itself. And not one but several of the humanoid races are telepathic to some degree (she was writing in an era where telepathy was firmly in the science fiction arena).

Rocannon’s World forms a loose trilogy with Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, linked by the shadowy Enemy that Rocannon faces. We’ll be talking about those two in the near future, probably with some short stories interwoven (to make a readalong easier). But coming up first, a few announcements. Stay tuned!

 

Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read: Semley’s Necklace

First, a quick note to say that I have the beginning of a new serial story up at Turtleduck Press. It’s called Coat of Scarlet, and it’s a gay steampunk romance. With pirates, because I can.

Anyway, welcome to the second installment in the Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read! (If you missed the first installment, it’s here: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.) Today we’re talking about the short story “Semley’s Necklace.”

“Semley’s Necklace” was first published in 1964 under the title “Dowry of the Angyar”, and then reappeared as the prologue in Le Guin’s 1966 novel Rocannon’s World. In the collection of her early stories, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, she writes that “Semley’s Necklace” was the “germ of a novel” that became Rocannon’s World, the first in her loosely connected Hainish cycle.

Rocannon himself appears only briefly, in a sort of frame story that places “Semley’s Necklace” in perspective. He is a scientist in the galaxy-spanning League of All Worlds (later called the Ekumen), which forms the backdrop of most of the Hainish novels and stories. Against this backdrop, Le Guin is free to tell whatever stories she likes, each set on a different planet, starring different characters, at a different point in history — which is why the Hainish cycle is not called a series. These days we might call it a ‘verse (at least those of us who are fans of Firefly, or of my fellow Turtleduck Press author KD Sarge).

The protagonist of “Semley’s Necklace”, the Lady Semley, has only the dimmest concept of all this. From her perspective, she might as well be in a fantasy story populated with hobbits (the Fiia) and dwarves (Gdemiar/Clayfolk). Not only does she not understand technology or spaceflight, she’s not interested in understanding. The story implies that this is more a trait of her people, the Angyar, than a personal failing of Semley’s. Or is it? What do you think?

Either way, the story presents an interesting contrast in perspectives. Semley is scornful of the funny-looking Gdemiar, but according to the documentation that Rocannon has access to, the Gdemiar are considered the most advanced race on the planet. They have a curiosity and cleverness that the Angyar and Fiia simply don’t. There’s also a throwaway line about how the Gdemiar are probably no longer capable of making beautiful things like the necklace of the title, since they’ve been guided into industrial production (no Star Trek-style Prime Directive here!).

[SPOILERS…]

The core of the story, Semley’s quest to find a lost heirloom necklace, is a Greek-style tragedy about the danger of pride – a character going on a quest she doesn’t fully understand (and doesn’t try to understand), attaining her goal, but losing the reason for it in the end. It makes spaceflight sound like a visit to Faerie, with all the tricksy agreements and bittersweet results one might expect from such a visit.

[END SPOILERS]

Le Guin writes in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters that this is the most “romantic” of her stories; later on she moves more into psychology, losing the fairy-tale feel. She’s not doing anything with gender yet, and the writing isn’t as controlled or sophisticated as her later works. But even in this early story, one can already see her interest in ethnology, in differing worldviews, in the collision of low-technology and high-technology cultures that keeps recurring throughout the Hainish tales. And I found “Semley’s Necklace” to be more emotionally affective than I expected, given how early it is in her oeuvre.

If you have thoughts about “Semley’s Necklace”, please share! I’d love to chat.

Next up: the rest of Rocannon’s World, in which Rocannon is stranded on Semley’s planet and must embark on a quest of his own. Come back the week of May 21 and we’ll discuss!

 

Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

blog-ursula-le-guin-omelasWelcome to the first installment in the Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read, in which I geek out about her work and invite you to join me! We’re starting with her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, because (a) it’s so well-known, and (b) it’s short, so it makes a good read-along.

The story was first published in 1973. To put that in context, her first novel was published in 1966. Here are the dates for some of Le Guin’s best-known novels:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea #1) — 1968
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (a Hainish Cycle novel) — 1969
  • The Lathe of Heaven (standalone) — 1971
  • The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea #2) — 1971
  • The Farthest Shore (Earthsea #3) — 1972
  • The Dispossessed (a Hainish Cycle novel) — 1974

So by the time she published “Omelas”, she was already at the top of her game as a professional science fiction writer. And it shows…

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The story starts off like any other fantasy story — describing the city of Omelas and its people in grand, sweeping terms. Sounds pretty typical. But a few paragraphs in, we get this:

Given a description such as this one tends to look next for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and surrounded by his noble knights, or perhaps in a golden litter borne by great-muscled slaves. But there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians. I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few.

Whoa…suddenly we’re in a meta-story. The narrator is making comments on the story, in first person, while telling it. This isn’t a normal story at all–in fact, there aren’t even any characters (except one, whom we’ll get to later). It’s a thought experiment that actually works.

Having said that, there’s also some beautiful, lyrical writing. From the same paragraph:

The trouble is that we have a bad habit … of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.

…and then she goes on to show, through the rest of the story, how happiness can be complicated, even poisoned. Do the people of Omelas have true happiness? …I don’t know, what do you think?

She goes on in this vein for a while, speculating about what Omelas does and does not have (cars? probably not. orgies? sure, let’s give them orgies. Good thing I wasn’t drinking anything just then…). The point is to illustrate that Omelas isn’t an inane utopia, it’s complex enough to be believable.

And then we get to the real meat of the story: the child hidden in the closet, who must be unhappy so that everyone else in Omelas can thrive.

I knew this about the story going in, so I was surprised how effective it still was for me as I read it. Le Guin describes the child’s circumstances in unflinching, brutal detail after detail. The pure happiness described earlier begins to sound horrifically callous.

Then the narrator explains how the people of Omelas justify the suffering to themselves, once they learn of it around the age of puberty: the child is too far gone to benefit from kindness, they can do nothing to change its circumstances anyway, and all the good in Omelas depends on this one child’s misery. It all sounds fairly reasonable to most of the people in the city, since they go along with it.

…except for the few who refuse to participate, and just opt out by leaving the city. They don’t come back and start a revolution to rescue the child, they don’t take their loved ones with them; they just make a decision, one at a time, to leave.

The question is left hanging: would you accept this deal? To have a prosperous society, everyone in it happy and content, at that price? But…no matter how awful the price, would you really be able to walk away?

There are any number of parallels one could draw. It’s tempting to ask: What is this an allegory of? What is Le Guin really writing about? We could come up with any number of answers, based on contemporary issues or issues that were big at the time when she was writing.

My copy (the ebook edition) includes an afterword by Le Guin herself, who talks about her influences, and then writes:

In talking about the “meaning” of a story, we need to be careful not to diminish it, impoverish it. A story can say different things to different people. It may have no definitive reading.

And a reader may find a meaning in it that the writer never intended, never imagined, yet recognizes at once as valid.

What do you think? How should we read the story? What does it “mean”?

As I mentioned earlier, I knew the basic premise of the story ahead of time, but I was amazed and delighted by the mastery of craft woven around it. The story’s not just a fable or a philosophical question; she has fun with it too, and knows exactly when to throw in meta-commentary or immerse us in the moment, when to draw on our emotions and when to make us think. And I was blown away by the ending. That’s quite a feat for a story with only one character (and no character arc…unless you count the society as a whole, or the reader’s reaction? What do you think?).

Over to you! Did the story work for you? How effective is it in what it sets out to do? If you’re familiar with Le Guin’s work, is “Omelas” a good representation of her writing?

Next up: We’re going back to the beginning! I’m aiming to read the Hainish Cycle (both novels and short stories) straight through in publication order, with maybe some unrelated short stories thrown in for variety. Here’s what’s lined up for the next couple of posts:

 

  • “Semley’s Necklace” (short story; also published as “The Dowry of the Angyar”)
  • Rocannon’s World (novel; note that it starts with a prologue, which is actually “Semley’s Necklace”)
  • [short story, TBD]
  • Planet of Exile (novel)

…and then we will see! Hope to see you back here to join the (re)read on May 7.