Saturday, November 22, 2014

You need more Ursula K. Le Guin in your diet.

People of the Listserve --

When I was thirteen, I was visiting my grandparents and passing a lot of time in the public library in their Portland, Oregon neighborhood. My grandfather was very sick; the atmosphere in my grandparents apartment was tense and mournful, and I was happy to spend as many hours as possible out of the house. I'm a lazy reader and usually turn to familiar books to comfort myself when I'm feeling low, but most of the books I knew well had been checked out, so I found myself browsing through fantasy and science fiction titles for books I hadn't yet read.

I don't have a precise memory of coming across Ursula K. Le Guin's "A Wizard of Earthsea," but I'm certain the endpaper maps of the Archipelago, the island-world of Earthsea, captured my attention right away (maps are endlessly seductive.) I hoped, I think, that the story inside would be similar in mood and feeling to C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, or to "The Hobbit."

What I found instead was very different: there were certainly the trappings of adventure. "A Wizard of Earthsea" is a story of magic, and danger, of a young wizard who attends a school for spell casters, a terrible shadowy being, dragons, evil enchanters, and lots of sailing. But it is also a story about pride and humility, about the precarious balance between human desires and the natural world. And about being and not-being. It unsettled and surprised me -- it was melancholy and strange, utterly memorable but elusive in the way that none of the other works of fantasy I had encountered were.

I finished "A Wizard of Earthsea" within a couple of days, and immediately picked up "The Tombs of Atuan," the story of a girl taken from her family and made the priestess of a deathly religion, and how she gains her freedom. It was even shadowier and more troubling than the first book, and it stayed with me all the more after my grandfather died, during that same visit.

Since that time I've read more of Ursula Le Guin's fiction: all of the remaining Earthsea books ("The Farthest Shore," "Tehanu", "The Other Wind" and "Tales of Earthsea") as well as her books "The Left Hand of Darkness" and "The Dispossessed," which are works of science fiction, but which focus far more on people and their relationships -- and on ideas -- than on any of the usual themes and ideas one associates with SF. It's difficult to describe the experience -- especially considered in total -- that reading Le Guin's work imparts, but anyone who's had an encounter with one or more of her books will know what I mean.

"The Left Hand of Darkness" is a story about (among other things) about a people whose gender is not determinate, but which changes in response to their situation. It was the first book that I ever read that offered me a glimpse of how constructed and totalizing our ideas about "male" and "female" are. "The Dispossessed" is a similarly eye-opening treatment of ideas about freedom, property, and how we make our societies.

Thisis hardly an exhaustive list of her books, but these are (perhaps) her most essential ones. Sometimes I think the only magic that could exist would have to be of the sort Le Guin has written into being. If you haven't read any of her books, I hope you'll pick one up. Write me if you do. Thanks for reading.


Bill Tipper
william.tipper[AT]gmail.com
Brooklyn, NY

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