Tag Archives: Ursula LeGuin

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters

The Wind's Twelve QuartersThe Wind’s Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. Le Guin

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.

Earthsea vol. 1 and 2

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The blurb on the book said Le Guin was to be ranked among Lewis and Tolkien, which was probably why the tattered paperback had survived through so many shelf purges even though I had never yet read it. I finally did, and I think the blurb was correct. There’s a richness, a thickness to the prose coupled with a simplicity in the telling. It’s a simple story, lacking the complexities and mechanics of much of contemporary fantasy, but it’s better for it. It’s about growing up, friendship, learning wisdom, learning to take responsibility for one’s choices. It is also about magic and the wonder of a new world. I think the magic here might be one of the most compelling aspects, because again, it’s simple and somehow true without a bunch of trappings. Magic is about knowing things, about naming things truly. That seems right. I read it, and I should have read it when I was twelve, so I immediately passed it along to a bright twelve-year-old I know.

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2)The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Do you remember the scene in The Horse and His Boy where Shasta has to spend the night at the tombs outside the city of Tashbaan and how creepy it was and how Lewis never really explained the tombs but you knew they were old and foreboding and had entire dark stories of their own? The Tombs of Atuan, the setting for the second book of the Earthsea trilogy of the same title, have that same feel, but we as readers spend the greater portion of the book exploring their secrets. The book focuses on Arha, the Eaten One, the high (and only) priestess of the Nameless Ones who live in the Tombs. Taken from her family at a young age, the only life she knows is that of service to these gods almost forgotten by all outside the desert shrine that houses the Tombs.

The book starts slowly. Coming on the heels of the first volume, it almost lost me in the first two chapters. The main character of the previous novel, Ged, does not make his appearance until almost halfway through the book. But soon the mystery of the tombs themselves makes itself felt, and you’re drawn into Arha’s world and the Gormenghast-like rituals of the tombs and the labyrinth beneath. When Ged finally does show up, the sense of incongruity he represents as a foreigner and stranger to this dark world is effective and dramatic. From there, the plot unfolds quickly (though somewhat predictably).

Where was LeGuin when I was a kid looking for “Christian” fantasy? According to Family Christian Stores, this genre extended to pretty much Lewis, Stephen R. Lawhead, and Frank Peretti. Why wasn’t LeGuin there, bringing some literary depth to these shelves? If the theme of the previous volume, A Wizard of Earthsea, was growing into wisdom and true friendship, this one is redemption. Consider what Ged tells Arha upon leaving the Tombs: “You were the vessel of evil. The evil is poured out. It is done. It is buried in its own tomb. You were never made for cruelty and darkness; you were made to hold light, as a lamp burning holds and gives its light.”

Highly recommended, especially if you know a young person looking for some quality fantasy that speaks wisdom and goodness without beating you over the head with an explicitly Christian metaphor or allusion every other page.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

The Fifth Head of CerberusThe Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t keep beginning reviews of Gene Wolfe’s work with “one of the best books I’ve ever read” or “one of my favorite books of all time,” so I’ll begin instead with Ursula K. Le Guin’s blurb on the cover of my edition. She says that The Fifth Head of Cerberus is “a subtle, ingenious, poetic, and picturesque book; the uncertainty principle embodied in brilliant fiction.” I like that, especially the first part: this book is a subtle and ingenious puzzle, but it’s one clothed in poetic and picturesque language of the highest quality. So, yeah, I will go ahead and say it after all: one of my favorite books of all time.

The work is actually three separate novellas or novelettes. (I’m unsure of the word count, though the shortest, the middle one, is about sixty pages, while the final and longest is over one hundred.) I say separate, but they fit together like the pieces of a well-crafted and interlocking puzzle. Certain words or hints dropped in the first will only make sense after the final story is completed.

The stories take place on the twin worlds of St. Anne and St. Croix against a backdrop of colonialism, slavery, and (possible) genocide. The first story, set in a brothel in one of the cities of St. Anne, captures a rusticity and faded gentrification reminiscent of New Orleans. The first wave of settlers on St. Anne were French, but since then there’s been a war, and the setting (which spans much of the city) has a flavor of faded glory and isolation. The narrative centers around the narrator coming of age and his relationship with his brothel-master and geneticist father. Besides the science fiction elements, which remain subtle, the story is most striking in its tone– the mystery and mystique of an antique house filled with tall, silent women; the city and the slave market– all seen from the point of view of a child growing up and colored with by the dream-like perceptions of one who finds himself the subject of a years- (and perhaps generations-) long experiment.

There are deeper mysteries as well, perhaps only tangential to the first story but central to the second and third. The narrator of the first tale encounters one of these in the course of his childhood schooling, which is simply: what became of the aboriginal natives of St. Croix? There are theories that they did not die out but instead replaced the first wave of settlers and now masquerade as humans. Late in the story, the narrator encounters an anthropologist who has been on St. Croix and accuses him of being one of these native Annese. Yet this is not the riddle central to the first story, which reaches an oedipal conclusion involving cloning, entropy, and regeneration.

In the second story the scene shifts to St. Croix, ostensibly before the wave of French colonization. The narrative here straddles the boundary of history and legend in what seems a relatively straightforward account of the aboriginals on the eve of colonization. There’s a quality about it that makes me recall stories of the Dreamtime among Australian aboriginals, heightened by hints that the aboriginals can change form and the presence of the enigmatic Shadow Children– who may be the actual pre-French, original human settlers or perhaps the aboriginals who replaced them, depending on who is asking and when. This story concludes with the arrival of the new wave of colonists and the realization that a culture will be complete, inexorably lost.

Finally, the third story brings together the strands of the first two and picks up additional pieces in what I thought was the most effective of the trio (on this read). The narrative here is stitched together from interviews, journals, and interrogation recordings being sifted through by a bored official on St. Anne. You quickly come to learn that these are documents related to the case of the anthropologist we met in the first story. He traveled from Earth to St. Anne to attempt to document any surviving evidence regarding the fate of the aboriginal Annese, who have now all but disappeared. Here the aboriginals have the feel of the Fair Folk from European legend, and the blend of science fiction, folklore, and field research is rich, non-linear, and incredibly fun to read. The anthropologist heads into the wilderness in search of lingering aboriginals, certain events transpire, and he reemerges years later to travel to the university on St. Croix, where he is incarcerated as a spy.

Wolfe is doing multiple things with this particular story. There’s the unnamed official himself, flipping back and forth through the materials forming the narrative, slowly allowing us to re-create the events along with him. There’s the account of the anthropologist and his studies and his venture into the wilderness, which reads in places like a nineteenth-century travelogue, and then the 1984-esque accounts of him in interminable detention on St. Croix and subject to random and ominous interrogations. There’s commentary on colonialism and politics and slavery (which is ubiquitous on St. Croix), interviews with early colonists who may or may not have interacted with the aboriginals, and finally the puzzle itself of what happened to the Annese and what happened to the man who came to study them (which I think Wolfe gives us just enough in the second two stories to piece together).

It’s an incredibly gorgeous, subtle, brilliant, lovely book. This is the book that put Wolfe on the map, and if you like good storytelling and beautiful riddles, regardless of how you feel about science fiction, it should put him on yours.

Spoilers: Here’s my own answer to the riddle, in case you care. The first story is still largely inscrutable to me, but it’s pretty clear from the second and especially the third that by the time the anthropologist comes to St. Croix, he has been replaced by an aboriginal (specifically, the boy whom he hired as his guide into the wild). The Shadow Children are the original human colonists who came to the St. Anne, perhaps centuries before the French. They have dwindled until they’re almost a thing of legend to the aboriginals themselves, though their original coming influenced the Annese to take human form. When the French come, the first French colonists are indeed replaced by the Annese. (The narrator speaks of a war, which the French lost. Colonists of other nationalities come after this war, and the French survivors they encounter are actually the Annese.) Certain descriptions by early settlers of the “aboriginals” (who are seen as little better than animals and killed on sight) are prime example of Wolfe’s subtle treatment of horror and identity when you realize they are instead the remaining Shadow Children and indeed human.

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