Wednesday, 24 January 2018

No 55: Ursula K Le Guin: A short tribute

Just yesterday I was dipping into Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays and occasional pieces, The Wave in the Mind; this morning I discover that the Grand Dame of sci-fi/fantasy has died in Oregon, aged 88. It is somehow significant she was born in the same year as my mother.

            I’ve referred to Le Guin before in this blog, and especially to her most famous, prize-winning novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. I chanced to take over teaching this other-worldly work from a departing colleague back in the ‘90s; and more recently have reintroduced it to the first-year university syllabus. A few students are put off by the other-planetary setting, but fewer than in previous years, when the academic prejudice against sci-fi and fantasy was stronger. And some students who have little long-fiction reading experience behind them find the multi-strand, episodic structure of the narrative a bit tricky. But few fail ultimately to be seduced by its central adventure-journey, its lively and dense evocation of a wholly weird society, and its challenge to gender stereotyping.  Above all, though published more than 50 years ago, Left Hand treats fundamental issues of sexual exploitation, political power, and cross-cultural (mis)understanding that are more relevant to South African society than ever.

            Much of Le Guin’s fiction is at bottom about culture and ways of wresting companionship from conflict. This is not surprising given that both her parents were anthropologists. Her novel Always Coming Home is a particularly slow anthropological portrayal of an imaginary California-set society, but the societies depicted on altogether other imagined planets also gain in realism from her understanding of how mental, material and linguistic features build and intermesh to constitute a “culture”. Perhaps most importantly of all, her heroes are a far cry from the bragging, heavy-shouldered, weaponised macho-men of so much American fantasy fiction and television: Le Guin understands more than anyone that the courage required to compromise is far greater than that required to start a war, not to mention more subtle and intelligent. She begins from a foundation of humility, selflessness and pleasure, as captured in some of my favourite passages from Left Hand. If anyone is a mouthpiece for the author in that novel, it is Faxe the Weaver, a self-deprecating but wise practitioner of the Handdara religious sect; Faxe says: “Ignorance is the ground of thought...”  He echoes the philosophical aims of the Ekumen, the novel’s interplanetary organisation of non-forceful co-operation: “The intensification and amplification of the field of intelligent life. Adventure. Curiosity. Delight.” Le Guin’s attraction to Taoism – crudely, the philosophy of yin-yang balance – shines through here and elsewhere.

            I’ve not made a particular study of Le Guin’s work more broadly, though I’ve read a good number of her 20 novels, and at least a portion of 100-odd short stories. The work ranges unexpectedly widely in genre and audience, from children’s stories, through the Young Adult series of the “Earthsea Quartet” and the later somewhat similar series Powers, Gifts, and Voices, to the almost post-modern Changing Planes. Amongst the more adventurous novels is Lavinia, Le Guin’s imagining of the founding of Rome as seen by Aeneas’s wife Lavinia, who is accorded a mere two lines in Virgil’s second-century epic The Aeneid. It’s perhaps just a little too self-consciously feminist, and too self-aware of its own story-telling to be quite satisfactory, but it’s risk-taking in a way I appreciate.

            One ought not to forget, either, her many generous but perceptive reviews of others’ works, especially in my experience in the Guardian Review of Books. Most often, however, I go back to her essays, especially in the volume Dancing at the Edge of the World, and especially the essay “The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction”. Throughout her career, Le Guin promoted the value of fiction as a “thought-experiment” way of addressing real-world issues, and the saving value of the imagination itself. If anything is lacking in our conflict-riddled world, and in the world leaders who generate those conflicts, it is the imagination to think of new and compassionate ways through and out, and indeed the courage to imagine at all.

            Finally, Le Guin was concerned with the health and robustness of language itself, as both theme and vehicle. Though perhaps not as mellifluous or poetic as some of her contemporaries, she was nevertheless a stylist of great felicity. Yesterday I marked a short passage from her essay-talk, “A Matter of Trust”:

I have enormous respect for my art as an art and my craft as a craft, for skill, for experience, for hard thought, for painstaking work. I hold those things in reverence. I respect commas far more than I do congressmen. People who say that commas don’t matter may be talking about therapy or self-expression or other good things, but they’re not talking about writing. ... If you want to be a writer, find out where the comma goes. Then worry about all that other stuff.

That’s typical of her tone, too: at once firm and chatty, wise and slightly acerbic and generous all at once. Ursula Le Guin is one writer I really would like to have met. Too late now – but if her work has not exactly 'changed my life', it has opened up doorways for me that might otherwise have remained forever closed. And there is more of her work I have yet to discover and enjoy: fiction as a “carrier bag” of life-wisdom that will persist, I believe, for generations to come.


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