Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Ursula LeGuin

I knew Ursula LeGuin was in her late 80s, but it seemed as though I was still hearing current news about her appearances or writing, and so her death yesterday caught me off guard. (I guess she hadn't been doing well for a couple of months, but until then was carrying on, just as I'd thought.)

Anyway. I heard the news first on Twitter, and despite knowing she had a great and long life, I teared up each time I would see another post. (As I am now, while writing this.) I finally read the New York Times obituary, which I found pretty half-assed.

For instance the lead said she brought a "tough-minded feminine sensibility" to science fiction, a phrase she would have never applied to herself, I'm sure. The writer also summarized the societies in The Dispossessed like this: Urras is a "messy but vibrant capitalist society, which oppresses its underclass" while Anarres is "a classless 'utopia', which turns out to be oppressive in its own conformist way." The implication being, it seems to me, that Urras was LeGuin's preference, which is obviously not the conclusion of anyone who reads the book with a semi-open mind. She thought Anarres was imperfect, yes, but Shevek returns, right? To work to make it better, more what it is supposed to be, not more like Urras.

My reading of LeGuin's large body of work is spotty. The first book I read was The Tombs of Atuan, because I was 12 or 13 and didn't realize it was the second book in a trilogy. So I met Earthsea through the girl character Tenar, rather than through the young, male wizard Sparrowhawk. Then I read A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore. I must have read The Dispossessed next (after rereading the Earthsea trilogy multiple times,) when it was misshelved among the juvenile novels.

I think The Dispossessed affected me and my worldview more than any other book I've read, partly because of the age I was (about 14, I think). One key point is about the concept of deserving. One of the characters puts it this way:
"For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think."
I soon also read The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and the other short novels from her Hainish cycle (loosely connected with Darkness and Dispossessed). I probably read The Word for World Is Forest not long after it came out in 1976.

I've read the stories in The Winds Twelve Quarters and The Compass Rose, and from those discovered "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" and "The Day Before the Revolution." I've read Orsinian Tales, which is made up of stories from her non-SF world. I finally, just a few years ago, I got hold of a copy of Always Coming Home.

I have not read many (or maybe any) of her essays, and not much of her other fiction (Malafrena or Lavinia, for instance). Looking through her book list, I see there are later works in the Hainish universe I've missed.

Things to do, books to read. Ideas to appreciate from a woman who has left us with so much good.

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