Ursula LeGuin: Four Ways to Forgiveness

March 30, 2015

512VerrEiIL._AA160_Catching up with unread Ursula LeGuin stories has been more of an eye-opener than I had expected, and has certainly confirmed my feeling that she is probably the most thoughtful and imaginative writer of science fiction I’ve ever come across.

I’ve read several volumes of stories over the last few months (posts here, here and here), all part of her Hainish cycle, and I think this is the last volume (if you know different, please let me know!). The stories are loosely linked by the ideas of betrayal and forgiveness, which makes them moving enough before you start to think about the broader issues she is approaching.

The Hainish civilisation is three million years old, we learn, and has gone through many, different, peaceful stages. Two million years previously it had seeded various suitable planets in the vicinity; those worlds are now coming into contact with each other, having developed differently physically, socially and culturally; there is a very loose-knit federation of planets called the Ekumen. This complex – and not completely developed – system gives LeGuin enormous scope to reflect on how humans live, or don’t live, together. One realises that her father’s having been an anthropologist has perhaps shaped LeGuin’s approach to science fiction somewhat.

The four stories in this book comes across as tantalising fragments, disjointed, disconnected and yet that doesn’t do them justice: there are numerous subtle links and connections between them as she explores and recognises how hard and yet how necessary it is for peoples to understand how they develop and are conditioned over time, and how a deliberate effort to change behaviours may be needed. She puts gender relationships, relations between races, and issues about slavery and freedom under her microscope. This may make LeGuin seem didactic; only a limited and churlish response would stop there, however. She is optimistic about people and the possibility of emotional as well as scientific and technological progress.

Ideas: a world that has not known a war for several millennia; that it’s fine to be part of your own limited and circumscribed little world if that is where you are happy, but that the entire universe is open to you if you want that; that hard and painful choices have to be made and that we cope with them and move on, as what is important to us in our lives changes as we grow older. In many ways, as I read the stories, I came to think that they are actually deeper, more profound and more challenging in a way than the fully-fledged novels, such as The Dispossessed, or The Left Hand of Darkness are. If you haven’t read any of her science fiction, you have missed something great.

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