My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Le Guin convinced me with the first two volumes of her Earthsea Cycle that she was worth classifying with Tolkien and Lewis as a writer whose fiction stabbed at the deep, bright heart of things. But while Tolkien and Lewis were not known for their short fiction, Le Guin’s first publications were short stories. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is what Le Guin calls a retrospective sampling of the first decade of her short fiction, spanning 1964 to 1974. I don’t know Le Guin’s complete bibliography, but it’s clear this collection contains the seeds of many of the novels for which she would ultimately gain such recognition.
The collection shows a growing author playing in the wide fields of science fiction and fantasy. Some of the tropes, especially in the early stories, are almost painfully worn now, the plots predictable, but it’s hard to tell whether this was because Le Guin was young or because the field itself was young and what seems prosaic now was ground-breaking then. The language is always layered, lovely, and descriptive, but stories like “Semley’s Necklace,” with its relativistic twist, or “The Masters,” with its theme of forbidden science, have not aged well. There were others stories– “The Good Trip” and “A Trip to the Head”– that were largely inscrutable to me. And “The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names” set out some of the groundwork for the later Earthsea work but without the depth or beauty held by the full-fledged novels.
Yet the collection got better and better the further I read. “Winter’s King” finally convinced me of something I had long suspected– that I need to read The Left Hand of Darkness. “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” was a truly excellent story about forests and a planetary intelligence that I’ve been trying to write for years. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” shows Le Guin at her best as the poser of riddles based on magic and morality, and “The Stars Below” was my favorite story by far: the haunting tale of an astronomer in a skyless world, looking for the light below that he once saw above.
The thing I keep coming back to in Le Guin is this sense of light in the universe, never far from the surface in her work. “Beyond all imagination,” the astronomer says in “The Stars Below,” “in the outer darkness, there is light: a great glory of sunlight. . . . There is no place bereft of light, the comfort and radiance of the creator spirit. There is no place that is downcast, outlawed, forsaken. There is no place left dark. . . . There is light if we will see it.” My suspicion is that this belief informs much of Le Guin’s work. There is a huge strata of speculative fiction, far too much to wade through in a single lifetime, but there are certain authors in whose work veins of gold and brightness run thick, and I think Le Guin is one of these.