Tag Archives: reread

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.

 

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Genre Classics (Re)read: Ursula K. Le Guin

blog-ursula-le-guin-worlds-of-exile-and-illusionA little while ago, I announced the SF&F Genre Classics (Re)read, in which I planned to read (or reread) classics and then blog about them. For those who want to play along, first up is the recently deceased and much beloved Ursula K. Le Guin.

Where does one start with Le Guin? She was a grand master of words. She tackled big ideas like a philosopher, and captured small moments with a poet’s ear. She was a multi-talented author of a huge range of works–adult science fiction and fantasy, YA and children’s books, novels and short stories, poetry, non-fiction, even translations. So…take your pick.

I haven’t read even half of them, which is why I’m embarking on this slow (re)read. Here’s a sampling:

YA Fantasy: Earthsea and Annals of the Western Shore

Many readers of a certain age first discovered her through the Earthsea books, which today might be shelved as YA fantasy. She first published a trilogy (starting with A Wizard of Earthsea), and then, much later, returned to the world of Earthsea for several more loosely connected novels and short stories.

More recently, she wrote another YA fantasy series: Gifts, Voices, and Powers.

Children’s Fantasy: Catwings

Writing a good children’s book is much harder than it looks, but she has done that too, with her Catwings series (flying cats! what’s not to love?). I haven’t read her other kids’ books–if you have, please chime in!

The Hainish Cycle

blog-ursula-le-guin-the-winds-twelve-quartersBesides Earthsea, she is best known for The Left Hand of Darkness, a science fiction novel that explores gender in ways that were groundbreaking at the time (it was published in 1969 and won two major genre awards, the Hugo and the Nebula).

This novel is part of a loose cycle of stories all set in the same universe, dubbed the Hainish Cycle. One way to describe them might be “sociological and psychological science fiction”.

She has also written a number of short stories in both the Earthsea and Hainish universes, as well as standalones. Many are just excellent, and we’ll be getting to those in our (re)read. Speaking of which…

The (Re)Read

I’ll be posting every two weeks for a while, starting on April 23. I’ll be tackling the Hainish Cycle novels in publication order (The Left Hand of Darkness is number 4), mixed with her early short stories from the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. If you’d like to follow along, here’s what’s coming up [EDIT: links are being added as the posts go up]:

  • “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (short story)
  • “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)
  • [short story, TBD]
  • City of Illusions (novel)

…and then we will see!

Her early novels are very short by today’s standards, though not for the time when they were written. If you want to play along, they can be found in several collections, most recently Worlds of Exile and Illusion (available in trade paperback and ebook formats).

See you back here on April 23 for “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”!

 

If you’re already a fan, what’s your favourite Le Guin novel or short story?

Announcing: The SF&F Genre Classics (Re)read

Heya, blog readers! Just a quick post today, to tell you about a new blog series I have planned…

As an author trying to keep informed about the market, and a reader excited about new books, I tend to read a lot of recent-ish publications. For example, in 2017, all but 4 of the books I read were published sometime in the last 15 years.

But every once in a while, I like to go back and read a classic — either something I read long ago, or a work I never got around to reading. This often means science fiction and fantasy classics. I also read classics that aren’t part of these genres, but for the purposes of this blog series, I’m focusing on SF&F.

As a former English major, I firmly believe that it’s important to go back and revisit the classics — to understand where one’s genre came from, to trace its development, to understand the basis for the conversation that is happening among the works in the genre. (I didn’t come up with the idea that a genre is a conversation, but I can’t find the correct attribution. If you know it, please chime in.)

Reading something old can be a little disorienting — it might feel trite until you realize that, no, actually, this book was the first to present the idea, or to put two things together this way. All those other books you’ve already read on the same topic? They were riffing off this one — expanding its central idea, complicating it, interrogating it. Here is where it came from. (For example, YA dystopians look a little less fresh if you’ve already read ’80s author William Sleator, and of course Bradbury, Atwood, Orwell, and Huxley.)

I plan to focus on authors who are dead, but I may also dip into very well-known, older works by living authors — works that have attained the status of classics.

To recap: this will be an occasional blog series in which I read (or reread) an SF or fantasy classic and then talk about it here. One work per post. Books, short stories, even films…I’d love for you to join me.

First on my list are works by Le Guin, Tolkien, and Octavia Butler. If there are any other authors you’d love to talk about, drop them in the comments below!

If you liked this post, you might enjoy: Strong Girl Characters: YA and MG Classics

 

Book Nostalgia: The Time Quartet by Madeleine L’Engle

Like many of us, I devoured a lot of books when I was young. More than a few of them have become books that I can’t look at with any sort of objectivity now, books whose words are still lodged deep in my brain. A reread might show that they’ve been visited by the Suck Fairy. Yet they might still hold some of the emotional power that grabbed me so strongly back then. This post is the first in a series that looks back at some of my favourites.

First up is Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet – A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters. (I haven’t read any of her books about the next generation of Murry-O’Keefes, or the fifth book that made the original series into the Time Quintet.) I reread the original four, and was struck by what I remembered and how it shifted.

The first two are Meg’s books, and they’ve become my favourites. Meg, the awkward, bespectacled girl, was someone I identified with very strongly. I was fascinated by the subgenre of science fantasy, in which ~magic, space travel, science, and classical evil are juxtaposed – one reason why I loved Diane Duane‘s Young Wizards series as well. While I generally prefer antagonists with believable, human reasons for doing what they do, the Echthroi are damn creepy, and Meg’s standing up to them in each of these two stories (to save Charles Wallace in both, plus her father in the first and her hated school principal in the second) rings of fairy-tale heroism in the best way.

I’m going to skip to Many Waters, which I remember being confused by, and my recent reread confirms that impression. The pre-Flood world, with its seraphim, nephilim, and miniature mammoths, is a strange place, and what little we see of it doesn’t convey the level of evil I would have expected to make the Flood necessary. There’s also not a lot of plot or character development; Sandy and Dennys spend most of the book waiting around or gardening or worrying about the flood, and they return to their world in much the same state as when they left it. (Tip of the hat to Narnia here, in which the Pevensies spend years as kings and queens and then go back to being children – something that was pretty much left out of the books, much as I love them, but explored very nicely in the recent films.)

A Swiftly Tilting Planet coverA Swiftly Tilting Planet [ASTP] is the one I have the most complicated relationship with. When I first read it, it was hands-down my favourite – time travel, destinies, exotic locales, wordplay with names, and unicorns, oh my! (Lloyd Alexander’s The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha tickled my fancy in the same way. It was my favourite of his until the Westmark trilogy took over – I was also a sucker for princesses posing as beggars.) But in my recent reread, I was highly disappointed to find a passive protagonist who’s just along for the ride – which I realize is the point, but it doesn’t make for gripping reading – plus some uncomfortable hints of racism and the “Noble Savage”. The Suck Fairy was at work.

At the same time, ASTP still holds seriously powerful writing. L’Engle’s lyrical prose, in this book particularly but also in the preceding two, made such a huge impression on me as a child that rereading it felt like unearthing hidden corners of my brain. (It’s in there so deeply that I have to assume my own prose has been influenced by it. Or at least I can hope!) Same goes for some of the sequences – the Murrys holding hands and singing “Dona Nobis Pacem” as a desperate prayer for peace, the sections where Charles Wallace is trapped in the brain-damaged Chuck, the gradual redemption of “Beezie”, and of course the wonderful rune. There are some things that the Suck Fairy just can’t touch.

 

For another take on rereading the Time Quartet and L’Engle’s other books, see The Madeleine L’Engle Reread on Tor.com.

 

Have you reread any of these books or another childhood favourite as an adult? How did it hold up? If the Suck Fairy visited, which parts did she leave untouched?