Archive for Ursula K. Le Guin

The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K. Leguin

Posted in books, sf with tags , on November 2, 2009 by Matt

The Word for the World is Forest was originally (1972) published in Again, Dangerous Visions. Le Guin developed it into a 1976 novel of the same name, but the copy I read has only a 1972 copyright, so I guess it must be a reprint of the novella version.

The story revolves around the colony world of Athshe, where Earth humans (one of several human races in Le Guin’s Ekumen) are exploiting the native human people and forest resources; disguising their avarice and brutality behind a facade of standard procedures and official protocols.

Roughly every third chapter is told from the point of view of Davidson, one of the most brutal of the human colonists. He refuses to recognize the natives as human, and wishes his commanders would simply recognize what he sees as “reality” and give him a free hand to use whatever means or methods can most efficiently harvest the timber the colony is meant to return to Earth. These chapters read today as somewhat heavy-handed in their depiction of the military-industrial mindset. But to me they had more interest as what looks a lot like a direct attack on the practical hyper-competent hero of golden age SF.

From the title, I had expected the book to dwell more on ecological issues. But, while ecological destruction by the colonists is a major issue, its just one of several conflicts going on in the story. I had also expected a more downbeat ending, probably with ecological impacts spiraling out of control, something the colonists ought to have expected if they had only reflected on the quirks of the native language. Thankfully, instead of pushing through with the plotline implied in the title, the story took a direction and came to a conclusion I hadn’t anticipated.

Another point of interest here is that the story does something that is surprisingly rare in SF, and shows a culture in the midst of a major technological upheaval. A major plot element is the introduction of the ansible, a means of instant communication across interstellar distances, eliminating the light speed barrier to communication. Rather than take the new technology as established, Le Guin shows it being introduced for the first time to the colony world, where some colonists disbelieve it, others pretend they can ignore it, and some fall right into line with the instructions coming to them from Earth over the ansible link. Unfortunately the introduction of the ansible points out what is possibly the the one critically unbelievable aspect of the whole story: the idea of a colony seperated from its homeworld by a 27 year lightspeed gulf continuing to follow any orders at all from back home.

Even with these few faults, its clear why the story was so well received in the early 70’s, and the story can still be read as an important comment on its time (and on the SF of the time), even if it doesn’t have the ageless quality that would maintain its relevance today.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Posted in books, sf with tags , on September 27, 2009 by Matt

Somehow I never managed to pick up this classic story until now.

Genly Ai is the envoy of the Ekumen (an interstellar affiliation of planets) to the planet Gethen. What makes Gethen unique (aside from its ice-age climate) is that its people are ambisexual, not divided into two sexes. Gethenians are basically asexual (or only latently sexual) for most of each month, until they enter kemmer. In kemmer, a Gethenian might take either the male or female role in sexual relations and childbearing.

Ai is trying to get either of the two main powers on the main continent to agree to join the Ekumen. Karhide might be described as feudal, but Le Guin carefully shows how non-sexual psychology modifies feudal political relationships. The description of Orgoreyn, on the other hand, reads like a gloss of The Gulag Archipelago, although in fact this book predated the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s by four years, and again there are differences from the Stalinist model due to the Gethenian psychology.

If the heart of SF is literature that takes a technological premise and explores its ramifications, The Left Hand of Darkness might be considered the quitessential SF novel. Even in the final chapters, new facets of the Gethenian psychology and society, derived from their unique biology, are still being revealed. This is not just a chapter or two of scientific or technical premise tacked on to the front of a long action story, but a speculative exploration from front to back, and that is what really made the book shine for me.

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Ursula K. LeGuin

Posted in books, sf, short story collections with tags on August 2, 2009 by Matt

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters collects 17 of Le Guin‘s stories originally published in the ’60’s and early ’70’s. In a foreward, Le Guin describes the book as a “retrospective” collection. Even though we now know she had more than 30 years of writing still ahead of her, the description is apt as the stories show significant developments in her style between the earlier and later ones.

Le Guin’s first sale, “April in Paris”, is here, for example. It’s a somewhat run-of-the-mill time travel story that will certainly be remembered as a competent first sale, and not as a display of all of Le Guin’s eventual talents . Other early stories such as “Darkness box” and “The word of unbinding” are written in a stilted, archaic voice that detracts from the stories themselves. In “Semley’s necklace”, apparently one of the earliest Ekumen stories, the stilted language is distracting, but does have its use in distinguishing the local culture of a somewhat backward planet from that of the galaxy at large.

In later stories, though, the stilted language is somewhat smoothed out, and the themes become more abstract, leading to stories with nearly poetical qualities. “The stars below” and “The ones who walk away from Omelas” are probably the best examples of this development.

Overall its an enjoyable collection, showing the early stories in Le Guin’s two main sequences (Ekumen and Earthsea) as well as the development of Le Guin’s style in her first decade of publishing.