(Published 6 April 2009, retrieved 29 July 2021.)
Ursula K Le Guin, The Farthest Shore (1972, Bantam 1975)
—, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969, Ace 1975)
—, The Dispossessed (1974, Avon 1985)
—, The Beginning Place (Harper & Row 1980)
—, Illustrated S D Schindler, Catwings (Orchard Books 1988)
Months ago, I mooched four books by Ursula K Le Guin from BookMooch , and have been reading them semi-assiduousy since. I’ve waited until I’d read them all to do a combined post.
A sufficient interval having passed since reading The Tombs of Atuan, I moved on to the third of the Earthsea books and was not disappointed. It reminded me at some moments of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, probably because both books feature a ride in a boat that goes on and on and on. There’s no character as irritating as Reepicheep, however, and though the final destination was fairly clearly signalled, I didn’t have the oppressive sense in this book that all was predetermined, as I did in the C S Lewis book. (If you haven’t read VDT, don’t let these remarks put you off. I believe many people found it utterly delightful, and Reepicheep among its finest elements.)
There are really only two characters in this book: Sparrowhawk, now the Archmage of Earthsea, and young Prince Arren who comes to ask Sparrowhawk’s advice on a problem in his home island, and stays to be his companion in seeking out the cause of the problem – much bigger than Arren knew – and in the end overcoming it. The relationship between the two men, old and young, is a thing of great joy. Arren is described early on as falling in love with the old, wise man, and I can’t help lamenting that the moral panic about paedophilia that has corrupted our culture in the last 30 years has made such a description feel risky. I didn’t care very much about the villain: though the final confrontation with him wasn’t written perfunctorily, I read it without any particular commitment. On the other hand, a splendid non-human character makes its first appearance less than ten pages from the end, completely convincing, completely memorable. How does she do that?
Incidentally, the author biog in this book answers the question about the author’s middle initial: the K stands for Kroeber, the name of her anthropologist father and writer mother.
Then I moved on to a couple of adult books, to both of which I brought preconceptions.
I knew The Left Hand of Darkness had a lot of gender-bending, and I had a subliminal assumption that it was a bit of a women’s liberation tract. It’s not that I expected to be out of sympathy with its sentiments. I just didn’t relish the idea of 300 pages of right-on propaganda from forty years ago.
I needn’t have worried. UKLG is a story teller with a great gift for aphorism (my mooched copy has quite a bit of pencilled underlining of sentences like ‘A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt’) and a miraculous capacity for world-building. On the planet Winter, the humans become sexual for only a couple of days each month unless they are pregnant, and there’s no telling whether a given individual will be male or female in any given month. This holds a distorting mirror up to our assumptions about the primacy of gender for human identity, but there’s no preaching, and the reader is not told what to think about it all. The visitor from a planet where sexes are differentiated much as ours are (perhaps he’s actually from Earth) develops a close bond with a member of the other species, and is alone with him (every individual is referred to as him, even when pregnant) for several months – we know that he will be in ‘kemmer’, kind of like oestrus, during their time together, and the sexual tension will be huge. Not only that, but it’s clear that the shape of the book requires that their relationship reach a new level of intimacy. In the hands of a lesser writer this could have led to erotico-bathetic disaster. Not so here. The author plays completely fair; the tension is resolved; intimacy is achieved; nothing is icky.
If I had subliminally prejudged The Left Hand of Darkness to be 60s feminist polemic, The Dispossessed was filed in my brain under Anarchist Agenda. I may have actually read an excerpt when it first came out, in which there was a lot of exposition about the workings of anarchism on the planet Anarres. As expected, the book was a joyous surprise. The society founded by the followers of the sage Odo is, if anything, more profoundly challenging to our assumptions about human possibilities than the ‘bisexual’ characters of The Left Hand. These are people who learn from babyhood that you can’t own anything, that ‘excess is excrement’. They speak not of ‘my mother’ but of ‘the mother’; they have trouble grasping the concept of class or understanding the function of a state; they refer to the society on their twin planet/moon Urras, from which they are in voluntary exile, as archist and propertarian; and they find institutionalised sexism puzzling:
He knew from Odo’s writings that two hundred years ago the main Urrasti sexual institutions had been ‘marriage’, a partnership authorised and enforced by legal and economic sanctions, and ‘prostitution’, which seemed merely to be a wider term, copulation in the economic mode.
So yes, I guess you could read the book as utopian anarchist propaganda, but it’s much more impressive and engaging than that. The word ‘magisterial’ comes to mind. In Odo, who died two centuries before the action of the book, Le Guin has created a great visionary anarchist. We are given snippets of her life and works; the characters are steeped in them, quote chapter and verse, argue their meaning in a changed context – all in ways that make her a completely believable presence in the society based on her thinking
But the Odonians haven’t got everything right. Shevek, a brilliant temporal physicist (that is, one who deals in the physics of time – Shevek’s general theory of Simultaneity will transform space travel possibilities) can’t get his theoretical work published because the Odonian opposition to ‘egoising’ has congealed into a bureaucratic stymying of creativity, and sometimes wells up into mob hatred of anyone who challenges received ideas. Facing down accusations of treachery – and dodging hurled bricks – he goes to Urras to further his work. Chapters telling of his life up to the point of departure alternate with those narrating his culture shock, seduction and eventual disillusion among the propertarians. The book is still powerful and inspiring after all these years, bodying forth the truism that how things are is not how they have to be forever. I suspect that fans of Ayn Rand would see it as ridiculous fantasy from beginning to end, but then …
What do you do after you’ve written something as profound as The Dispossessed? I hope Ursula Le Guin managed to rest on her laurels for at least a little moment. it may have been a mistake for me to move straight on to another book of hers, away from the ‘Hainish’ world of the last two, because The Beginning Place seemed very pale by comparison. It is fantasy love story rather than political science fiction, and if it wasn’t written in impeccable, musical prose, it would be too long by half for its simple, and predictable, story. But predictable is sometimes just another word for archetypal, and there’s plenty to surprise and delight. Having just intimated a couple of paragraphs back that I was relieved at the absence of a sex scene in The Left Hand of Darkness, I should say that the sex scene in this is handled with a degree of frankness that all the same manages to avoid disrupting the story. We do have this sentence, however, as a warning that sex is dangerous to write about (the characters are fully clothed at this very serious point in the narrative): ‘His desire for her stood up and throbbed against her belly, but his arms held her in a greater longing even than that, one for which life cannot give consummation.’
Some time in the middle of my Le Guin Readathon, a friend said she’d read everything by UKLG in her Anarchist youth. I rushed from the room and brought back the first two Catwings books – this book and Catwings Return – which she admitted she hadn’t heard of. When she brought them back a couple of days later she said she’d enjoyed them, but two were enough: no need for Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings and Jane on her Own (neither of which I’ve read, so it seems I agree with her). Before putting them back on the shelf where we keep books for visiting children, I re-read just this one, and found it just as magical as the first time. I believe the idea for this book came to Ms Le Guin while she was standing in a queue at a supermarket, and she drew a sketch of a cat with wings on the back of her shopping list. S D Schindler’s convincingly realistic illustrations are a large part of the book’s charm. This was probably my fifteenth reading, and the last line still brought tears to my eyes.