Where on Earth are Outer Space and the Inner Lands?

... as often in The New Yorker as in Asimov's

… as often in The New Yorker as in Asimov’s

Being a Long(ish) Review of The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin.

[Note: A version of this review appeared in the August 2013 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, #300 (available for free download at Weightless Books).  Many thanks for their kind support of my writing.]

Morality and aesthetics are old, old companions, subjects of human pondering and conversation for millennia.  Rare is the philosopher who has not opined on each, rarer the critic who does not wield both in praising the virtuous and punishing the wicked.  Yet, the two domains seem not to share so much as a common border.  Aristotle, working his way through the entirety of human thought, taught that the Good and the Beautiful are different (heteron), the Good being always in motion, the Beautiful often motionless.  Though he did admit that the Good could be beautiful, and that the Beautiful could outweigh the Useful and Needful.  He was, after all, Greek.

Later thinkers worked back and forth through various oppositions, placing the Good or the Beautiful foremost depending on how the Universe was constituted (divine ground-of-being or insensate material).  Artists occasionally chimed in with formulations for Truth being Beauty, Beauty Truth, gnomic un-utterances that puzzle and vandalize Greek pots.  (Again, Greeks.)  Some artists did do more, but typically in a didactic or satiric way.  Aesop and Jean de La Fontaine wrote fables, tales with a moral, the Good wrapped up in the Beautiful, in much the manner of a distasteful pill molded inside a bit of strong-flavored cheese.  Very, very few could blend the two, or even grow the Beautiful out of the Good, not as a sensual misdirection but as from a seed planted in fertile soil.  It would take perhaps the work of both a philosopher and an artist, both geniuses.  Enter, William James and Ursula K. Le Guin.    

The Moral Philosopher and the Moral SF Writer

It may be the second greatest use within the sf/f genres of William James when Le Guin became interested in his essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”.  (The greatest use being, of course, Don Webb’s story “Jesse Revenged” wherein William and Henry strap on shootin’ irons and head to Amarillo to avenge brother Jesse by gunning down the Coward Robert Ford.)  Le Guin found James’s analysis of our innate moral impulse, one that exists outside of the world of lived experience and directs our actions even against our self-interest, to be of interest for fiction.  She borrowed his analogy:

Or if the hypothesis were offered to us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture . . . even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?  (598)

A hypothesis, indeed, and one that called to a fledgling sf author, who from it fashioned a more-than-a-fable “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (though fable she does deem it), a difficult-to-digest nugget that peels back the discreet cover over that “life of lonely torture” and questions as well James’s confident and optimistic spurning in the name of all humanity of that hideous bargain.  For many do not walk away from Omelas; most remain and rationalize their refusal to depart.  But, that is the power of fiction, to encase and enlarge and discourse in subtle ways on the ambiguity that more analytical endeavors seek to dispel.  As we learn, magicians rarely dis-spell.  Le Guin, in fact, revels over her short story being “used by teachers to upset students and make them argue fiercely about morality (iv, 2).”  Well, frankly, James would likely enjoy the arguing.  And, in many ways, he would recognize himself in those who walk away, perhaps most greatly in their ability to see beneath, to question the foundations and not to accept, to learn to see, to listen to someone else, to touch that inner, innate impulse to Do Right.

Which, in and of itself, is a passing strange notion, that James would call Le Guin a colleague.  The essay on morality that inspired Le Guin is not one that would seem to offer aid and comfort to science fictioneers, particularly as James scoffs at basing moral action on any humanist claims for future generations or posterity or the like:

We do not love these men of the future keenly enough; and we love them perhaps the less the more we hear of their evolutionized perfection, their high average longevity and education, their freedom from war and crime, their relative immunity from pain and zymotic disease, and all their other negative superiorities. . . . No need of agonizing ourselves or making others agonize for these good creatures just at the present.  (616)

The Last Men shall be first?  No, sir.  You are on your own, big heads.

Don’t Walk Away, Ursula

Le Guin, however, does agonize and makes others agonize (cf. those upset students), for which we give thanks and from which she gives this two-volume selection of her favorite short stories.  She takes us along 38 steps outside of The World That Is and into 38 other realms, organized into two books whose titles give vague impression of how to distinguish their story contents—magic realism to the left, sf/f to the right.  Though she does love us best, since the second volume gets 20 tales, to 18 for the first.  (Don’t tell her or The New Yorker that I said that.)  In either case, what she demonstrates is the Power of Story, however constituted, built from both the Unreal and the Real and not depending on either to achieve the True.  And to discourse a bit further on that admixing and its admonishing, divulgent result, I must retrace my steps to Omelas.

Omelas is a very ambiguous utopia, moreso than even Anarres, the anarchist planet of The Dispossessed.  It is the epicenter of that hideous bargain that James felt no one with moral impulses would ever accept.  Except Le Guin shows us how we just might.  The cityscape of Omelas is filled with all the accouterments of a perfected urban environment, with handsome train station and magnificent Farmers’ Market and street performers and the Festival of Summer and just enough illicit fun (“the faint insistent sweetness of drooz”) to add spice to the hearty, filling porridge.  And one more thing, to make it believable, as Le Guin puts it: the child (thin, abused, unsexed “it”) who dwells in the locked basement room, to whom “there may not even be a kind word spoken” (6, 2).  And no secret, this.  Every resident of Omelas must be told, some even go to see.  But the terms are absolute: happiness for thousands, misery for one.  And most can accept.  In fact, they find that acceptance ennobling: “They know that they, like the child, are not free.  They know compassion” (7, 2).  All their art, their science, their achievement, their leisure is tinged with that poignant, nigh-heroic burden.

In other words, “This is going to hurt me *more* than it hurts you.”  Funny how the strap never comes down on the ass of the strap-wielder, though.  For those who cannot whip the child, the answer is to walk away from Omelas, heading for “a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. . . . But they seem to know where they are going” (7, 2).

So, what is Omelas?  It is not an autarchy nor a tyranny of the one or the few.  There is no central government described, no hierarchy, no administration.  There is not even an organization that maintains the misery of the child, whose dungeon is “under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes” (5, 2).  Omelas is a collective, a freely chosen co-operative society.  The ones who walk away need no visas, passports, papers to cross the borders.  It is, simply, anarchy.  Which is as it should be.  Le Guin prizes the idea of voluntary, collective society, as many of the other stories demonstrate.  But she does not whitewash it.  If it is based on collective decision and shared responsibility, that is better than autocracy, but it is not a guarantee of moral correctness.  Even when tradition upholds its decisions: the child is a scapegoat (pharmakos), a Classic ritual sacrifice that is made to bear upon itself the ill karma of the collective.  But being wrong repeatedly for a long time is not better than being wrong in a new way for the first time.

And how does one revolt against such a social order?  Not with fists, rocks, guns.  One turns heel, walks away, withdraws from the community.  Removing assent delegitimizes the collective; refusing its terms renders it powerless.  Action through inaction, or “wei wu wei” in the Taoism formulation.  For Le Guin provides anarchy, the political expression of her utopia, with a Taoist moral compass, the spiritual expression.  The ones who walk away have listened to that still, voiceless voice and have heard its cry and, without thought or analysis, spontaneously know what to do, how to follow The Way (“Tao”).

No surprise to find in the headnote to “The Day Before the Revolution” (a story about Odo, the founding mother of Anarres anarchist society) in her first story collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, that Le Guin refers to it as being about “One of the ones who walked away from Omelas” (285).  Nor to find in that book’s Foreword that she describes her stories as “psychomyths”, “more or less surrealistic tales, which share with fantasy the quality of taking place outside history, outside of time, in that region of the living mind which—without invoking any consideration of immortality—seems to be without spatial or temporal limits at all” (viii).  “Omelas” is a psychomyth, a foundation for all her work in either volume.

A Prisoner of Orsinia

Begin at the beginning, the King of Hearts told the White Rabbit.  Volume 1, Where on Earth (“Let’s now find out where on earth we’re going” (ii, 1), Foreword) opens with four Orsinian tales, tales set in the imaginary central European country that Le Guin unearthed while she was in college (“On a sunny morning of 1962 in Cleveland, Ohio, it was raining in Krasnoy” (37, 1) opens “A Week in the Country”) and to which she gave a twentieth-century panorama, from pre-revolt Industrial Revolution through state-centralized collectivism to popular liberation.  A fifth, “The Diary of the Rose”, may be connected, though Le Guin thinks not (but confesses that the character names are Orsinian).  The Orsinian tales feature the kind of educated proletariat whom Marx wished to address, the literate laborers whose descendants move into lower level academic and research positions.  The main locus of action is the city, but forays into the countryside often change characters, city boys in search of country girls (“Brothers and Sisters”), city boys mistakenly shot by security forces (“A Week in the Country”), or a family of the upper-class intelligentsia lingering over a late-summer vacation (“Imaginary Countries”).

The Fabbre family connects three of the tales (“Brothers”, “A Week”, “Unlocking the Air”) and make the arc of Orsinia from traditional society to liberated, post-totalitarian state into a domestic narrative.  The final tale, “Unlocking the Air” (published 1990, the last time Le Guin says she heard from Orisinia) is, in many ways, an anti-psychomyth.  It has the air of fantasy, the central motif being the overthrow of the regime by a peaceful gathering in the central square of discontented citizens who “unlock the air”, expressing their refusal to cooperate any longer by jingling their keys.  Have they walked away from Krasnoy?  Yes and no.  In a sense, they have pushed Krasnoy away; the story gives us short vignettes on the discussions behind the scenes, of the revolutionaries trying to figure out who or what will come next.  “This is a fairy tale . . . This is history” (59, 1), Le Guin writes.  We are not outside of time and place; we are inside history, even if it is a fantastical history.  It is a story of its time, the falling Berlin Wall days of the late 1980s, when the Solidarity union in Poland was seizing the secret files and the state security agents were in hiding.  Of course, the story does recur, as the Arab Awakening revolts show, so there is a timeless quality, perhaps an archetypal behavior (suitable for Jungians like Le Guin).  But we get a much more concrete sense of place with Krasnoy and the Fabbres than Omelas grants to us.  The theme of liberation may be “without spatial or temporal limits”, but the Fabbres are rooted in an existence we recognize.

The problematic Orisinian tale, “The Diary of the Rose”, is one I would include with the others, for it is the most affecting one.  It is an encounter of medical therapist and problematic patient, one who is to undergo the latest examination for mental disorder, a technique of imaging mental states, akin to mind reading, or, more justly, mind viewing.  Dr. Rosa Sobel (at first, unnamed) has to diagnose Flores Sorde (at first “F. S.”), referred by the TRTU (an unnamed security service; abbreviations abound).  He knows, well before she does, that he is to be found unstable (“disaffected”; “a political psychosis”) even though he has no signs of mental problems.  He fears her testing equipment (“Not electroshock?”); she struggles to understand why he is hospitalized.  She attends lectures on “the dangers and falsehoods of liberalism” (97, 1).  He meets a famous philosopher, the author of The Idea of Liberty.  The book is no longer in print; the man no longer remembers writing it, after 60 sessions of electroconvulsive therapy.  The medicalization of dissent is presented as a far worse fate than prison (“There is no judge here to give him a life sentence.  Only doctors to give death sentences” (105, 1), Rosa muses).  Echoes of the old Soviet penal/medical complex abound (there, the diagnosis was usually “sluggish schizophrenia”), but Western societies that offer a plethora of psychoactive palliatives (Prozac and Xanax for all), liberty from discontent in place of actual liberty, are not exempt.  Flores is lost to ECT; Rosa may be saved, and with her, the memory of Flores.  She has learned to listen, she reclaims for herself a name (“I am the rose.  The rose with no flower, the rose all thorns, the mind he made, the hand he touched, the winter rose” (106, 1).)  It is little; it may be enough.

Society, Red in Tooth and Claw

When Le Guin returns from Orsinia, she wanders through more of the fields we know, but she does it shamanistically, traveling highways and byways with powerful animal and vegetative spirits.  Sometimes she leads, Pied Piper of those lonely, inner children all we Baby Boomers bottle up and to whom we cater in their captivity (“The Lost Children”).  Mainly, she follows, wherever the trickster gods take her.  The spirits are a mix of human and non-human.  Which matters less than that they are bound, together, sometimes in life and death (“Gwilan’s Harp”), or afterlife and death (“The Water is Wide”).  There is translation and transformation, nothing is fixed or stable.  Truth is relative.  Even the trees move (“Direction of the Road”) albeit relativistically, translating position and perspective, shifting frames of reference, as needed by the humans who ignorantly believe that they zoom past and that the oak stands in stillness.  Just do not upset the tree by forcing it to intersect your lifepath and so interrupt both of you.

Animals, though, predominate.  They teach us to see the truth behind the fact and offer consolation for our miseries, unicorns for fearful brides-to-be in arranged marriages (“The White Donkey”), or they offer us the honor of their deaths, lions lying down with lambs (“May’s Lion”), if we learn to tell their story correctly.  And what did the readers of The New Yorker think about the shapeshifting equine girls of “Horse Camp”?  Were these fillies simply metaphors for sexual awakening?  Or did their metamorphosis in all its specific horse details carry with it a whiff of the freedom of shedding the human and taking on the animal?  Did any of them absorb a portion of the realism that underlies Le Guin’s magic, much like the realism inherent in the Neolithic cave paintings of animals and horned humans?  Or the readers of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, when they read “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight”.  Did they miss the realism, the folklore, the true belief in the spirit world, for the magic that they are prepared to see?  Did Coyote trick them as much as she tricks everyone, even with their superior genre training and knowledge?  Can they read the psychology of the lost girl and her ordeal, or do they, like audiences of Hamlet, simply nod and say, “Sure, a ghost, of course.  It is a fantasy, after all.”?  And yet, without that tension, without the sense of the air-crashed girl suspended between, the tension of her dream-quest is but a dream, merrily, merrily, merrily, a walkabout in the park.  And it is not; it is life and death and the choice between.  Literally and metaphorically.  Le Guin’s fiction serves up both, and must needs do so, each feeding the other.

Her Own, Her Native Land

But then, she is always coming home.  Volume 1 concludes with Oregonian tales.  (And one writing exercise, “Half Past Four”, a permutating piece of 4 characters in search of a story that could contain all their shifting relationships, though Le Guin avers that there are 32 characters who share 4 names.)  Three tales are set in Klatsand, Oregon, a “semi-disguised beach-town” (more in the collection Searoad), and one tale, well, it wanders a bit.  The Klatsand stories deconstruct Story.  “Texts” proffers a legible world, one in which all the random bits, the pattern of sea foam on a sandy shingle, the stitching of a lace tablecloth, all contain messages to be read.  Transmission of meaning is lifted out of narrative, decontextualized, laid bare.  Nature does not make for simple decoding, and even human artifice is hard to decipher.  Much like fiction, even with all its rules and thousands of years and thousands of examples for us to work over.  “Sleepwalkers” splinters viewpoint into multiples (insert tired Kurosawa film cliché, here), with relative truths struggling to uncover, by individual fragments, the absolute truth of “Ava: the Maid” (as the preppie playwright deems his protagonist, soon to be the utterly predictable, cookie-cutter star of Sleepwalkers, product of small-town, mass-produced culture).  Except that, unlike Rashomon, there is a central truth to Ava Evans, and it is one with which she is comfortable, even as the guests and the owners of the resort at which she works guess at and argue over the facts in the case.  What is the truth?  They who speak do not know; she who knows does not speak.  Or does speak, but softly, and walks “like a tai ji walker, like a woman on a high wire . . . never any sudden movements” (190, 1).  The center is still.

“Hand, Cup, Shell” removes the center, entirely.  Amory Inman, eminent education expert, is dead, but Sue, an acolyte researching his biography comes to interview his family.  As she sinks into the braided lives of Inman’s wife, daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter, the narrative, too, braids, passing seamlessly from character to character with tiny hiccups of thought or dialogue, daring the reader to follow along and find . . . what?  The “Taoist koan”, for Taoist wives: “I don’t see why everybody is supposed to be responsible.”  (211, 1).  The paradox threads through the Inmans, binding them.  Phil (“the Failure”, self-proclaimed) is seen as weak, an all-but-dissertation who simply quit.  Mag, his Ph.D wife, is strong, but it is exactly the reason she was caught, “because of the awful need strength has for weakness.  If you’re not weak, how can I be strong?” (218, 1).  Gret, the granddaughter, discerns how Amory is the only Inman who is real, the only one who will be remembered.  Sue defends, “Everyone is important.  I learned that this summer.”   But, that is not Gret’s thrust: “Important wasn’t the point.  Things didn’t have rank.” (220, 1).  Rita, wife, sums up the triple aspect of hand, cup, shell, each one used in attempting to re-create the sound of the sea, when held to the ear, the sound of blood running through veins.  Actually, it is simple ambient noise, reflected differently by hand, cup, shell.  What we make of it is what makes it the sound that we hear.

“Ether, OR”, a tale “For the Narrative Americans” (headnote; 223, 1), is the final Oregonian tale.  Ether is the anti-Omelas but is not too far away (“Omelas, is “Salem, O.” backwards).  People do not walk way from Ether; rather, it moves from spot to spot, sometimes on the coast, sometimes in the eastern high desert.  It is, in the repeated words of both archetypal wanderer Toby Walker and gung-ho developer Ervin Muth, “a real American town, a place that isn’t where you left it . . . it isn’t where you think it is.”  (247, 1).  It is a town that attracts and gathers in all types, from an ashram (“osh rom”) of “guru people” to a community of Hohovars (traditional dress, formal accented speech, White Russian refugees?).  But, insular as they may be, both ashram and Hohovars are people of Ether, and travel along when the town re-locates.  And it is in building that community that Ether survives, and in carrying it along.  Humans move through space and time, and what we carry with us is memory, the traces of time, and the belief that we can go back home, or at least find home, wherever it moves off to, escaping the overgrowth of invading mall and parking lot kudzu.  If we build community, though, we build home and keep it, even as it skitters about like a drop of water on a sizzling skillet of development.  Walker prophesizes, “ . . . that same night Needless the grocer will come at last to Edna.  To him she will bear no child but joy.  And orange trees will blossom in the streets of Ether.” (248, 1).

Call It What She Will, It’s Still SF & F to Me

Wherein Lord Dunsany rides the New Wave

Wherein Lord Dunsany rides the New Wave

Re-begin at the re-beginning.  Volume 2, Outer Space, Inner Lands.  The title gives away Le Guin’s genre underpinnings.  But, she must harangue the taxonomy and taxonomists of genre with her Introduction, “The Obligatory Bit about Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Genre” (i, 2), wherein she discusses the insufficiency of all definitions and the unproductive nature of labels: “the whole vocabulary—‘realism’, ‘science fiction’, ‘genre fiction’, and the rest of it—doesn’t give even a remotely adequate description of what I write” (iv, 2).  And she provides examples of overdetermined definitions she introduced in her collection Unlocking the Air: “Miniaturized Realism, Geriatric Realism, Californian Realism, Oregonian Realism, and Uncompromising Realism; Surrealism; Mythological Fantasy, Temporal Fantasy, Vegetable Fantasy, Visionary Fantasy, Revisionary Fantasy, Real Fantasy” (ii, 2).  One almost expects (pace Borges) to find Fantasy Belonging to the Emperor, Innumerable Fantasy, Fantasy Written with a Very Fine Camel-Hair Brush, and Fantasy That From a Long Way Off Look Like Flies.  Et Cetera.  Yes, labels, classification, taxonomy are arbitrary.  But, we use them, nevertheless.  Words and definitions are also arbitrary; still, we find uses for them.

Le Guin writes science fiction and fantasy, and in this volume we find examples of same.  She labels the volume “Outer Space”, which is the clear signifier of science fiction.  But, what kind?  That far she declines to tread—“Hard, Soft, Crunchy, Peanut-Free, Social, Slipstream, etc.” (ii, 2), are not identified by story.  But, she drops the clue: “Inner Lands”.  We who do genre hear the echoes: the fantasy of Lord Dunsany includes “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean”, whose opening line starts “Toldees, Mondath, and Arizim, these are the Inner Lands” (3), and Le Guin is, as she avers in The Language of the Night, “A Citizen of Mondath”.  And, mingling the two, we also hear the cry of Moorcock, Carnell, and Ballard: “inner space”, the destination of the New Wave of the 1960s, the period when Le Guin came of age as a writer.  So, we will get sf and fantasy, but it will definitely be peanut-free and soft instead of crunchy.

The Science in the Fiction is Anthropology, Without Apology

Le Guin’s soft science is anthropology, a science rooted in the rich material of life, individuals interacting in community, creating culture.  Her parents, Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, were noted anthropologists, famed for working with a final survivor of the Yahi nation, Ishi (the name means, simply, “Man”, as he had no proper naming, with no one else left to give him a proper name).  Le Guin picks up on her parents’ work, adds in the ideas of Clifford Geertz (“thick description”, the inclusion of full social context to explain behaviors and customs), and produces science fiction of depth, sometimes with the depth of myth.

“Semley’s Necklace” is early, from before Le Guin knew that mixing sf and fantasy produces yet another sub-genre, science fantasy.  The ethnologist Rocannon of the Ekumen (a consensual association of planetary systems) oversees the return of a cultural artifact, or the native princess Semley journeys among the subterranean dwarves and the gods of the heavens to retrieve her dowry right.  It reads either way, as ethnographic study or myth of Scandinavian elements.  Does Semley return unaged from her quest?  Relativistic time dilation effect or magic sleep?  Both are answers to the same question.

Le Guin also does simple interviews, dialogues to bring out the differences in cultures or their unexpected similarities.  “The Fliers of Gy” features feathered humanoids who prefer quill pens to ballpoint and, occasionally, a Gyr may develop wings and take to the air (“perne in a gyre”), though only a few who become winged actually prefer to fly.  She interviews both a flier who delivers the mail and a non-flyer who is a lawyer and prefers to remain anonymous.  “Do you ever dream of flying?”, she quizzes the lawyer.  “Doesn’t everybody?”, he answers (252, 2).

“Solitude” is a more direct application of the anthropologist’s dilemma, a cultural instantiation of the quantum Observer’s Effect – how does the scientist remain detached and yet get close enough to understand the very attachments that she must study?  Leaf and her children, Serenity (girl) and In Joy Born (boy), settle among the inhabitants of the eleventh planet of the Soro system.  Earlier Ekumen Observers were frustrated: the society is matriarchal, lives in communal female householdings called “auntrings”, so males were unable to converse, and it is pedagogical, concerned with the education of children, so adults are unable to quiz the locals without seeming strange.  Communication problem (“CP”), as Serenity notes.  She and Borny pick up the customs, innately, while Leaf conceptualizes and records but does not empathize.  The rupture comes when Borny ages out of the auntring society, having to leave and join a boygroup, ultimately to become a solitary male attached at a remove to an auntring.  The key is solitude but not isolation, solitude within a network of relationships, “the presence of others at a little distance.” (198, 2).  Anything that disrupts these arrangements is “magic” and is to be shunned.  Borny and Leaf cannot accept.  Ren, however, has to find her soul on Eleven-Soro; the Ekumen is no longer her home.  To her, Leaf is a sorcerer, one who uses her (non-supernatural) power “to get power over other persons” (188, 2), one whose persuasions and promises are spells that mislead.  Her songs are the ones sung in the auntrings; her understanding is built around their lessons: “Listen!  Avoid magic!  Be aware!” (203, 2).

And, Yes, the Squid of Space Do Talk, along with Ants and Penguins

On Eleven-Soro, an oceanic cephalopod flashes colors along its skin and the Ekumen biologists try to communicate with it.  Ren suggests that it may not be speaking; it may be thinking.  Many of Le Guin’s stories have communication problems at their heart.  “The Silence of the Asonu” brings up the reverse: the problem of non-communication.  The Asonu are “proverbial” (literally, figuratively) for their lack of spoken language, at least for their adults.  The “Eleven Sayings of the Elder of Isu”, eleven short utterances “collected over four years by a devotee from Ohio” are analyzed for their perceived (or hoped for) wisdom (the “magic native” syndrome, akin to “noble savage”): “1. Not there.  2. It is almost ready [or] Be ready for it soon.  3. Unexpected!  4. It will never cease.  5. Yes” (255, 2).  A believer in “the Secret Wisdom of the Asonu” (258, 2) is even willing to kidnap one of the talkative children and keep her speaking, even by cruel abuse (“Omelas” in mirror image).  What retribution would the Asonu demand for such torture?  “We may well imagine that her people were resentful; but nothing was ever said.” (259, 2).  Those who know do not speak, but perhaps they smile ruefully.

Why not?  Speech is both too effective and not effective at all.  Le Guin brings forward all manner of communication problems in her stories.  The Power of Story is undoubted, but the communication of the story, the very way in which Story is structured and formed, may be altered by the issue of how to communicate.  Like the cephalopod of “Solitude”, the lab-rat alien of “Mazes” is working through media that its captors do not recognize, somatic/gestural/olfactory language that is interpreted as low or no intelligence since the movements fail to solve the puzzle (never mind that the bait/reward is also unpalatable).  Though it figures out that the testing scientists use audible speech, it has grown too weak and prepares to dance its death rite.  And her early Earthsea fantasy, “The Rule of Names”, teaches that the (true) Name is the (real) Thing, but having the right name is not a guarantee that speaking it will bring about the desired result, no more than naming a hurricane lessens the destruction it brings.

More success (maybe too much) is found in “The Author of the Acacia Seeds”, an exercise in “therolinguistics” (animal languages), wherein we are exposed to various reports in academic journals on the new-found discoveries in decoding the communication of non-human species (ant, penguin), with suitable allowance given to their perceptual differences (“Up with the Queen!” is not a term of encouragement in the subterranean land of an anthill, where safety is down).  And why stop with the animate?  Phytolinguistics (plant language) is being studied, though only at the very rough start of the field, which can only speculate on the Art of the Plant: “ ‘Do you realize,’ the phytolinguist will say to the aesthetic critic, ‘that they couldn’t even read Eggplant?’  And they will smile at our ignorance. . . .”  Or even further, geolinguistics!  The language of “the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community of space” (272, 2).

The Telling is the Story, the Fiction is the Fact

Language for Le Guin, like history for Marx, is repeated as both tragedy and farce.  “The First Contact with the Gorgonids” runs both strands together, telling of a husband and wife on a tourist trip to the Australian Outback to see “real abos really living in the desert.”  Jerry Debree is not pleased with the vacation (and we can tell he rarely ever is), Annie struggles to stay out of Jerry’s line of fire (temper, camera, gun, any of it).  The encounter with the Gorgonids is predictable as a slow-motion cream pie sailing across a movie screen, but the outcome, tucked away as an epilogue for Annie, is as sweet as the pie filling.

Against the misadventures of the Debrees, we have the more delicate, if equally cautionary, tale of the first Ekumen FTL test flight with live crew, “The Shobies’ Story”.  The multi-ethnic crew of the Shoby spends time (“isyeye” – the Hainish term for “making a beginning together”) coming to know each other and to speculate about how the “Churten” drive will work and what the experience of “transilience” (leaping across space) will be like, taking no time but still interacting with consciousness.  There is some friction and confusion, churten theory being not well understood, crew having different backgrounds and reasons for making the attempt.  And the leap is not like their NAFAL experiences.  Things on which they depend, like the ansible (instantaneous communicator), fail.  Different crew see a differing destination.  Do they, did they, take a lander down to the surface to sample, or not?  And who went?  Language, along with perception and memory, stretches and twists.  But does not break.  “We need to know what’s—real—what happened, whether anything happened—,” cries Tai (95, 2).  But, no, what they need is to bring themselves together, into their own narrative.  “What happened—What happened wasn’t what mattered.  What mattered was that she came to be with people who gave her freedom,” another crewmember tells her, “They got lost.  But they found the way,” adds another (97, 2).  Like the Buonarotti Drive that Gwyneth Jones uses in her Aleutian universe, the churten process is a consensual hallucinatory experience.  But Le Guin pushes it further, making the consensus not merely a cog in the process but the essence of the transilient jump.  Unless the crew can agree, unless they can gather ‘round the fire and tell their story together, they are lost.  Facts do not weigh as much as the meanings we give to them, the stories we tell ourselves and others, the communities we create out of our storytelling.

The Story of His(or Her)Story

Like an anthropologist, Le Guin investigates the communities that form around our stories, whether voluntary or involuntary, and in particular the definitions of individual identity that we create within the strictures of our social environments.  “The Matter of Seggri” is a collection of documents, detailing the observations and interactions of the Ekumen with the planet Seggri, which articles reveal as much about the observers as about the observed—the first report, given to “the Sacred Archive of the Universe”, is littered with comments about how the locals have “the curse of GOD laid upon this race . . . unrepentant heathens whose ears are stopped to true discourse” (134, 2), along with the more demographic information about the huge sexual imbalance in the population, with women far outnumbering men.  Over time, with later reports, longer contacts, examples of local fiction, and, finally, an autobiography of Ardar Dez, a male who breaks out of the gender roles (ritual sports, sexual services, confined lives) expected of men, we see how Seggri evolves.  Most of Le Guin’s characters are misfits like Ardar, people who face social and personal sanctions for their “aberrant” behaviors, even as their conduct is applauded by the reader.

The story focuses on the psychological toll of being the rebel, the cultural outlaw who breaks the taboos and leads society into new patterns, new freedoms, new definitions.  But, the cost can be high.  In a Seggri romance, after a woman falls in love with a specific man, his desire for monogamy (immorally selfish) leads to violence (he is gelded), and she is pained: “She remembered how she had seen him dance long ago in the contest where he had first been made champion.  She thought, ‘My life is wrong.’  But she did not know how to make it right.” (160, 2).  Ardar Dez is similarly caught between his personal concept of his own identity and what society wishes him to be.  He is not alone, as his “Castle” is reactionary in the face of the on-going men’s liberation (allowed to leave confinement to attend college, what are we coming to?) to the point that the lower status males mutiny, a rebellion that provokes passage of the Open Gate Law.  But, it is still not an open, accepting world in which he lives.  So, he leaves to work for the Ekumen, for a while.  He returns, in the end, “to live among my people, to learn who they are, now that I know with at least an uncertain certainty who I am.” (173, 2).  The political shapes the personal, and vice-versa.  We are bound by society, and our identity is bound up with it.  Whether the binding is supportive or stifling is the question.

Le Guin pokes into several sorts of societies to find out how they influence identity, how identity triggers behavior.  Some of this experimentation has a traditional feel to it, as with “Nine Lives”, a story about a “tenclone”, ten individuals cloned (though divided equally into female and male) and raised together, distinguished by a Hebrew letter (“John Zayin Chow” is one of the females, “zayin” in the Kabbalah being “the woman of valor”), giving them a deep, empathic, almost telepathic bond.  And then the accident takes away nine.  Kaph (Kaballah: the power to actualize potential) is bereft, but the human duo who run the mining station offer to add him to their team.  Kaph is made solitary, but he need not be alone:

“How can you . . . How do you . . .”

But Pugh could not tell him.  “I don’t know,” he said, “it’s practice, partly.  I don’t know.  We’re each of us alone, to be sure.  What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?”   (55, 2)

Unbound by Chains of Tradition

Le Guin is also willing to explore how the changes of identity can influence (or disrupt) society, in her werewolf-in-reverse story, “The Wife’s Story”.  (How could she resist “tale”?)  Here, a first-person narrative conceals some of the issue, even as the action follows the standard pattern of a shapeshift plot.  There is a certain amount of enjoyment from the idea of a “wolf-man” who is cursed with mannish shape.  But, the tragedy of how the altered identity of the loved husband being now the hunted, hated human overwhelms.  The limits of tolerance come with the pack mentality.

Slavery is an institution that represents an extreme of social molding of identity and involuntary induction into social status (binding on the slaveholder, as well, if not so severely as on the slave).  It runs throughout human history from earliest civilizations through modern forms of indentured servitude and wage slavery.  Le Guin touches on both forms in the collection.  “The Wild Girls” is the classical aspect: young nomadic children abducted on a raid by young men from the nearby urban polity.  Mal and Modh, sisters, are Dirt people, taken to live and serve the Crown people of the City.  But, the ghost of one child, called “Groda” (“Nobody’s”) and left for dead, haunts Mal.  The sisters learn the ways of the City, serve faithfully, until Mal is given in marriage to a Crown man of wealthy family, the man who left Groda to die.  The tragedy proceeds, through ritual dance and formal wedding to bloodied marriage bed (made on a broken promise that Mal would not be touched until she turned 15).  There is the duplication of identity (Dirt, Crown) and the associated duplicity (Modh lies to cover for Mal; Modh’s husband lies to protect his Dirt wife).  Over it hangs the institutionalized rape and the preceding and subsequent hauntings.  The wild girls learn to dance and sing, but they never forget how to keen.

Werel and Yeowe are planets where slavery and capitalism worked together for 3,000 years.  Until Yeowe, the colony, broke away, and the systems collapsed.  “Betrayals” tells of the years after the Uprising, after the collapse of the first provisional Yeowean government in a crisis over expelling the Aliens (Ekumen representatives), the same way that the Werelian corporate Bosses were sent packing.  Abberkam, hero of the Liberation and now disgraced former World Party leader, retreats to the marshlands, the played-out former plantation lands that formed sanctuary for old slaves released from service.  Here, too, is Yoss, a former school administrator, city woman looking for “the freedom of desolation” in the marshes.  Circumstances drive them together: a bout of pneumonia, a house fire, the rescue of Yoss’s companion spotted cat.  Yoss, curious and disdainful (how could the Liberator lie, cheat, steal?), talks to Abberkam, and listens to his answers.  And learns about his hopes, fears, betrayals, his mistakes all made with the ideal of building a free community out of the former slave state of Yeowe.  And at the center, the religion that they share, a belief in a sword-wielding god who took himself to the final battle bearing the weapon with which his younger brother intended to kill him until being convinced that battle meant death, not glory.  “Brother, I am thou,” cried the younger, leaving the sword to the elder, who marched to fight “knowing that there is no victory” (115, 2).

Through conversation, Yoss comes to understand Abberkam, and he comes to confess his vanities and his lack of faith (betrayal being most hurtful when out of a lack of belief, not out of self-service).  At the end, there is the promise of peace and the kindling of love.  There is a re-integration, the formation of a community, so hard to re-create after a collapse, even when the collapse is for the best of reasons (Yoss fled her city job due to the disintegration of civil order into ward-by-ward territorial fights).  Here, in miniature, we see the personal and the political, bound into the belief structure that enabled the former slaves to envision themselves overthrowing the Bosses (even if they do not glimpse themselves turning on each other and falling into old, old patterns of behavior).

The religion of Lord Kamye to which Abberkam is devoted is given an Indian gloss, sounding much like Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita section of the Mahabharata before the battle with the Kauravas, and his brother’s cry brings to mind the Sanskrit aphorism “Tat tvam asi” (“That thou art”).  But the Sanskit saying points to the unity of Self and Cosmos, and what Lord Kamye’s brother says aims at something much closer to home.  What I hear is Martin Buber’s expression of commensurability, “I – Thou”, one of the fundamental relationships, that between equal parties, characterized by a dialogue between them (as opposed to the other fundamental relationship, “I – It”, which is marked by monologue and not a shared conversation).  Buber, referred to as the father of Jewish existentialism, sees human existence as a series of engagements, encounters of the self with other beings, inanimate objects, even reality (or deity) itself.  All of these encounters occur in one of the two fundamental ways.  When we engage in “I – Thou”, we meet the other on equal terms, we construct a dialogue, we share.  Politically, Buber favored the idea of kibbutzim, communal settlements created and living consensually with their Palestinian neighbors in peace: “One cannot expect a little tree that has been turned into a club to put forth leaves” (127).  Laia Asieo Odo would agree.

The Smaller They Are, the Better They Rise

And if she has not enough to do with Story, Le Guin also turns her hand at anti-Story as well, by which I mean that she works on inversions and subversions of the standard story patterns, for reasons of humor and insight into the assumptions buried within.  We can think of these stories as “mock” tales, where an exaggeration of a certain element makes enough distortion that we view the story in a different, revealing way.  “The Ascent of the North Face” is mock-epic in a classic sense, being an account of the mountaineering climb of a suburban house.  Not much more than what the title promises, but Le Guin plays it straight, riffing off “Chimney” as both architectural and geological member.  “Small Change” is mock underworld journey, in a tradition that Vergil would recognize or which might be illustrated in a pharaonic tomb, complicated by the narrator being too simple to understand what she sees or where she goes when she follows her dying aunt through a door newly appearing in their two-room home.

“The Poacher” is mock fairy tale, an anti-“Sleeping Beauty”, not in the current revisionist sense of changing the gender dynamics to have the princess become the agent who rescues the knight in shining armor, but in a more subversive way, more in line with the original folktales, contes de fées, rather than the more literary, Disney versions. Here, the beauty sleeps in the enchanted castle surrounded by a magical hedge, until a peasant lad tunnels through and finds the somnolent realm . . . which magically renews itself no matter how often he visits or food he eats or clothing he takes.  So, why break the spell and mess with Paradise?   Le Guin, as she relates in her essay “The Wilderness Within”, was inspired by a Sylvia Townsend Warner poem about the enchanted beauty that poses a question about whether the enchantment is a curse and if breaking it is a Happy Ending.  “I think the story is about that still center: ‘the silent house, the birdsong wilderness’” (13).  And it renews itself, magically, every time we read it: “When we’re done, it will still be there, the place within the thorn-hedge.  The silence, the sunlight, the sleepers.  The place where nothing changes. . . . The story is, itself, a spell.  Why would we want to break it?” (18).   Happy Un-ending, indeed.

At the Bottom of It All

“She Unnames Them” ends the collection, a mock scriptural, an un-creation tale.  Eve (unnamed herself, but she does talk to Adam about “you and your father” and wishes him well searching for “the garden key”) speaks to the animals and gets them to return “the gift” of being named.  As does she: “It’s been really useful and all, but it doesn’t exactly seem to fit very well lately.  But thanks very much!  It’s really been very useful” (333, 2).  Le Guin undoes the work of Genesis, freeing everything from taxonomy, not from personally chosen names, so pets may still be “Rover, or Froufrou, or Polly, or even Birdie in the personal sense” (332, 2), but no more the Linnean latinate qualifiers.  Sans language, sans labels, sans all.  The story un-told.

But, I cannot not leave it there.  I skipped over one tale, the penultimate item in the collection, stowed away at the end, “Sur”.  It is my favorite Le Guin piece, for which I scanned the Table of Contents eagerly on first looking into Le Guin’s holder.  She explains in the Introduction that she included it at the end, along with “She Unnames Them”, her two favorites in the volume, saving the best for last.  It is one of the anti-Stories, a mock domestic; if a mock epic takes a minor activity and invests it with epic tone, here Le Guin takes an epic activity, the race to the South Pole, and infuses it with a simple, homely, down-to-earth sensibility.  Nine young doñas of South America, inspired by the accounts of Ernest Shackleton’s and Robert Scott’s expeditions to reach the Pole, decide to take up the challenge.  What follows is the account of their struggles, rendered in the kind of detail that wraps verisimilitude around the fantasy like an alpaca poncho around the shoulders of a gaucho, describing the “hard work, risk, and privation” that the women face.  Pemmican, sledgehauling, ice shelters, snow blindness, supply depots, altitude sickness and hypothermia, all weave through the journal entries that also detail cups of tea and cocoa and birthday celebrations and the worries of childbirth (one member turns out to be pregnant).  Their ship, the Yelcho, and its captain, Luis Pardo, are the same who will later rescue Shackleton in 1916.

At the epilogue, the diarist cautions that her account should not be revealed to Roald Amundsen, the (apparent) first human to the South Pole: “He would be terribly embarrassed and disappointed . . . We left no footprints, even” (330, 2).  They sought no fame, only the joy of exploration; they staked no claim, planted no flag.  All they wanted was to share the joy with each other, maybe with their families “[e]ven if they are rather ashamed of having such a crazy grandmother” (330, 2).  Others may assume the heroic (Amundsen of Norway), the tragic (Scott, forever and always of Antarctica), even the comic (Reynolds of Nyrsf).  For the doñas, it is enough to know the joy and to share it among themselves, a community of adventurers toasting a birth with “the last two bottles of Veuve Cliquot” on the edge of the Ross Sea.

And it is enough for Le Guin to do the same, to plant no flag, to leave no footprints, to give to us Stories and anti-Stories, inviting us to make our own journey to the bottom (or the top) of this or any other world.  Listen!  Avoid magic!  Be aware!   Join the community, enter into the dialogue, be and become.

Works Cited

Buber, Martin.  Paths in Utopia (trans. of Pfade in Utopia, 1950). Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

Dunsany, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Baron.  A Dreamer’s Tales.  London: George Allen & Sons, 1910.  Accessed via Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8129) on June 11, 2013.

James, William.  “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.”  In Writings, 1878-1899.  New York: Library of America, 1992.

Le Guin, Ursula K.  “A Citizen of Mondath.”  In The Language of the Night.  New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979.

Le Guin, Ursula K.  “The Wilderness Within.”  In Cheek by Jowl: Tales and Essays on How and Why Fantasy Matters.  Seattle: Aqueduct Press, 2009.

Le Guin, Ursula K.  The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.  New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Webb, Don.  “Jesse Revenged.”  In Judas Payne: A Weird Western/Webb’s Weird Wild West (double book with Michael Hemmingson).  Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2010.



  1. Fantastic review/commentary/analysis 🙂

    • Eugene R.

      Just doing my job, sir, just doing my job. 🙂

  2. John McKean

    Monumental! This has to be the most complete and comprehensive review of a collection that I’ve ever come across. It’s definately a keeper! The author has a clear understanding of LeGuin’s life journey, her interpretation of Taoism, and willingness to share these stories with us.

    • Eugene R.

      Thank you, Mr. McKean. I wrote this piece originally for the NY Review of Science Fiction, where you may find similar reviews and articles on speculative fiction, somewhere between the academic and the fanzine.

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