Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin died recently. There was lots of information about her death in the news and social media. The general consensus on Twitter and Facebook was that it was so terribly sad that she had died. For her family and close friends, yes of course, it must have been very sad. But I didn’t know her personally. I only knew her through her books. And as far as I’m concerned, she is still alive because of those books.

I first started reading Science Fiction when I was 11 years old; The Martian Chronicles was the novel that got me hooked. By the time I was 14 I had gone through all my Dad’s collection of the classics; Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Clark. I was a freshman in High School when I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings;  it had just been published in paperback in the US and it was on the list of books my English teacher let us order from some book club. For the next 7 to 10 years, Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle-earth was what occupied much of my reading time and shifted me from Science Fiction to Fantasy. During that time, I kept searching for other fantasy novels whose worlds were equal to Tolkien’s. I bought a lot of books that mostly left me feeling very disappointed. My bookshelf was filled with stories about elves and dwarfs and magic that I judged harshly and barely got through without lots of internal complaining. Tolkien remained king. Then sometime in the very early 70s I picked up a paperback copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. I don’t remember how I heard about it. Maybe I just liked the cover illustration. The inside content was even better. I went on to buy each subsequent book in the series. I bought The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore as soon as their paperback versions were released.

Also in the early 70s, I discovered The Science Fiction Shop. It was a tiny crowded bookstore in Greenwich Village that only sold Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was crowded with books, not people. It was the first and only one of its kind in NYC – Science Fiction hadn’t gotten as popular as it would become after the success of Star Wars. I still remember how it felt that first time I walked through its doors and looked around. You could see the entire store from the door. There were a few geeky looking guys amongst the racks and me! I was in heaven!

My method of choosing a new book was simple. If I found an author whose book I liked, I went to the shelf where their name was and bought another of their books. I kept buying their books till I ran out of new ones and then I went on to find another author. After Earthsea, I spent the rest of the 70s and 80s reading all of Le Guin’s books – none of which were fantasy but real Science Fiction, set in the far distant future. I read all of the Hainish novels and all her miscellaneous stuff too. She became one of my favorite authors of that time.

Books can be read for different reasons. In some books, the plot is the most important aspect and that is what you remember it for; in other books, you remember very vivid characters and not so much what they did and in some very rare books, you remember the ideas. Le Guin’s books left me with remembered ideas. Before writing this post, I had to go to Wikipedia to remind myself of the plots and the names of characters but the ideas I didn’t need help with. There have been three strong ideas from her books that have stayed with me ever since I first read them so long ago.

A Wizard of Earthsea taught me that names are very important and they have power; that everyone has their own “secret” name that only their closet friends can know. To know someone’s real name gives them power over you. I loved this idea when I first read it. Ever since I was a child, I hated my name – Hilarie. It was so odd. No one was named that! And it was spelled weird too. I wished I was named something normal like Mary or Sue or Carol. My mother used to console me by saying that when I grew up I could use just my middle name, Ruth, which at that time seemed a more normal name, to my way of thinking. And then I grew up! And couldn’t imagine using Ruth as my name. Hilarie was my true name – my name of power – that no one else had. And now in the world of social media and the internet I have discovered the wonderful reality of having an unusual name. There is no one else named like me. Even though it’s not a secret it nevertheless belongs only to me. And I find that wonderful.

I love when a writer of speculative fiction creates an entire cosmology with many stories and worlds to fill it. Isaac Asimov did this in all his Galactic Empire stories, Iain M. Banks did it with his novels set in The Culture. My favorite authors have been those who do a really believable job at world-building. You can see and feel and smell the worlds they create. Le Guin built her worlds with a deft hand in her novels and stories about the planets that belonged to the Ekumen, a loosely connected league of worlds which had once been seeded and colonised by a long-gone civilisation from a planet called Hain.

My biggest take-away from the Hainish novels was the idea that the Ekumen, in their attempt to reunite the Hainish worlds, sends only one person at a time, a single envoy, to a newly rediscovered planet; a planet that had long since forgotten their Hainish heritage. In the Hainish cosmology, faster-than-light space travel doesn’t exist, travel through the galaxy takes time. If you travel to another solar system, you say goodbye to everyone you once knew. The job of envoy must have been a very lonely assignment; one that often ended in death for many of them. I liked the idea that the best way to convince a race (or a whole world) to join you was not by sending a huge military force but to send one person who speaks for you, to whoever will listen and if the first person fails, you send another. The Left Hand of Darkness was the most important novel in this series and a book I often recommend to friends who “don’t read science fiction”.

Published in 1969, Left Hand is also a fantastic examination about gender, and how it affects the way we relate to the people we know. Geffen is the name of the planet in the book; a world undergoing a planet-wide ice age at the same time as its industrial revolution. Among the Hainish worlds, Geffen was different. Its people, while from the same original human stock, had mutated from having 2 distinct sexes to a race of beings who were “sexless” except for about 6 days each month when they went into “kemmer” becoming either male or female. Each individual had no way of knowing in advance which they would become. The same individual could both father a child and give birth to a child. All other days of the month, they were just human, neither male nor female, yet at the same time both. To this odd world comes an envoy from The Ekumen, a human male originally born on Earth. Through the eyes and emotions of Genly Ai, Le Guin examines the various ways gender affects our lives.  Genly eventually learns to understand and even love a person who seems on the surface totally different from everything he had come to assume about being human.

In these #metoo days discussing gender discrimination and all the talk about the small percentage of women working in many diverse fields, this book should be required reading by anyone who thinks about the importance gender plays in our lives.

Click to see larger image of these other Leguin books I also have.

Click to see larger image of these other Le Guin books I also have.

When I moved permanently to Sweden, I packed up all my New York books in boxes and that is where they have been for over 20 years. I never had enough room to unpack them or shelf space to display them. But my storage room where the boxes have been patiently awaiting my return will soon have to be given up – the lease has been cancelled. I still don’t have enough book shelves for my weathered, yellow-paged paperbacks. So I am in the process now of revisiting them again for a short time; not rereading but reminding myself of the stories that helped to make me who I am. Some of those books I can say goodbye to without a second thought. But some of them I will thumb though softly, revisiting them with love. Le Guin’s stories are among those and like with any old love, I will fondly remember them forever.

 

 

 


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