Posts Tagged ‘City of Illusions’

On re-reading Ursula Le Guin

September 17, 2019

81yGpmCphML._AC_UY218_ML1_   We lost one of the greatest SF writers ever when Ursula Le Guin died earlier this year, and I promised myself I’d re-read some of her Hainish novels: I did this in a bit of a binge-read while I was on holiday in the Ardennes a week or so ago, and enjoyed Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed all over again. They are very thought-provoking, and you can see the influence of her family background and personal interest in anthropology.

I found myself trying to decide just how good she was, and what exactly she had achieved. The Library of America publications of her works which have come out recently are helpful because they contain her introductions, and also some interesting notes on the novels. Even in the earliest works, Le Guin manages to create very powerful and very moving characters, which, as many critics have noted, does not often happen in science fiction.

The idea that various Earth-like planets were ‘seeded’ with humanoid life at some point in the very distant past, and left to develop, gave Le Guin scope to explore a range of different aspects of human potential and societal organisation: never didactic, she leaves her reader to make comparisons with our own particular world, and way of living, leaves us to make judgements, too, if we have eyes to see.

The last two books I listed are those that most people would recognise as her best, I think. The Left Hand of Darkness puts our human sexuality under the microscope in a way no other writer has done, through the creation of the Gethenians who are truly androgynous: in a work of fiction, a writer can explore and invite a reader to imagine, in way that no textbook or academic work can. I found this idea so interesting that an analysis of this novel formed a major part of an academic thesis I wrote over 35 years ago now; I found myself wondering if I would write the same way now as I had then…

I also wrote about The Dispossessed in that thesis. Coming back to the novel again, I was taken aback to see how much bleaker her anarchist society was than I had remembered, how much more complex, too. Le Guin’s vision of the future of planet Earth, seen through the eyes of its ambassador on Urras, is truly grim, and chillingly recognisable in where we find ourselves heading now – yet Le Guin wrote over forty years ago. Powerful stuff, indeed.

I have pretty much moved on from my fascination with science fiction of forty years ago. I’ve kept a small number of books that I have come to regard as classics of the genre. But I still stand by what I felt all those years ago when doing my academic research at the Science Fiction Foundation, that the genre can make us think deeply about our world, and perhaps lead us to make it a better one, and I still have Ursula Le Guin up there among the very best writers.

Ursula LeGuin: Worlds of Exile and Illusion

September 10, 2015

9780312862114Although a long-standing science fiction fan, I’ve never really got on very well with fantasy. I was a little concerned when I started this volume, which is actually a re-publication of three of her shorter Hainish novels, Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, as it rapidly became clear that there were elements that seemed fantastical… I’d read at least a couple of these many years ago, but had no clear memory of them. I’d read and enjoyed her Earthsea Trilogy very much, but never felt the urge or the need to go back to it, partly because of the magic and fantasy.

The fantasy elements are bearable, in the end, because they never take over the story: LeGuin is always more interested in and focused on the ideas: different human-type races and how they may have evolved over time on different worlds; contact between such races from different planets; the vastness of time and space itself, and the cruelty it inflicts on beings as they travel through space, conscious of the fact that they can never go back to the place they came from, as years, centuries will have elapsed and everyone they once knew will have died, and places will be very different. LeGuin is thinking, no, imagining  a universe where we might like to live but never will, she is conceiving some of the future potentialities of our species – if it survives – as well as confronting the thought that we may not be the first, or the only intelligent (?) species. It takes a powerful imagination, and one miles beyond swashbuckling sword and sorcery that has occasionally bored me to tears when I’ve picked it up by mistake. What is fantastical enriches and illustrates rather than becomes the purpose of the story.

So, an envoy alone on a world tracks down where a rebel base, which threatens the peace of the worlds, lies, and enables its destruction. But Rocannon’s World, and the hero’s story, is of his relations with the inhabitants of that world; though he achieves his goal, he loses the friends he leaves behind, living out his life and dying, apparently forgotten, on an alien world. Small details like this can be very moving, in LeGuin’s work.

In Planet of Exile, two different species learn with great difficulty how to co-exist and co-operate, faced with an implacable foe: LeGuin’s focus is on two individuals, one from each species, who form bonds that surpass each one’s fear of the other, and it’s only in the final novel, City of Illusions, set centuries later, that we learn that interbreeding between the species eventually developed.

The final novel is longer and much more complex, set on an Earth in the far future, dominated by an alien race which keeps its people in quiet but peaceful subjugation: civilisation and progress can be lost, move backwards as well as forwards. There is also the personal quest of the hero, and the losses that must be endured, the people, places and loves who must be left behind…

If you look back to my other posts on Ursula LeGuin’s novels and stories, I think you’ll see that it’s the breadth and scope of her imagination, her sensitivity to relationships between people, and her recognition of the great difficulties involved in creating real progress and real equality, as well as her questioning of our present world and way of life, which make her one of the best science fiction writers I’ve ever read.


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