Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ursula Le Guin - Profiles (SD #15)

Ursula Le Guin (1929 -)
Author: Demandred

The time has finally come for us to pay due respect to the mistress of fantasy and science fiction, after a long period of unseemly neglect. Very few are the writers who can rise up to her achievement in defining and developing the science fiction genre. But, first things first…

The events of her life are rather unremarkable - she wasn't in Vietnam, she didn’t engage in bizarre occupations before she built up her reputation as a writer. Ursula Le Guin was born in 1929 in Berkeley, California, the daughter of renowned anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, which in a way accounts for the method she employs in many of her works and her special interest in subjects related to anthropology, which are among the predominant themes in her fiction. Her mother was an anthropologist herself, as well as a writer. Le Guin received a Bachelor’s Degree in literature from the Radcliffe College in 1951 and a Master’s Degree from Columbia University in 1952. A year later she married the historian Charles Le Guin, whom she met while studying in Paris. The two of them have lived in Portland, Oregon since 1958, avoiding public appearances.

The first short story that Le Guin submits to a science fiction magazine, is rejected, which is hardly a surprise, she being eleven at the time. Her first successfully published short story was called April in Paris in the Amazing Stories magazine. Her first published novel was Rocannon’s World, released in 1966.

Her most popular works (in fact taking up the larger part of her creative output) are the fantasy series taking place in the realm of Earthsea, as well as the novels of the Ekumen Cycle. In the case, though, the definitions "SF" and "Fantasy" are rather relative - neither is Earthsea a classic fantasy, nor is the Ekumen Cycle pure SF. The Earthsea series of novels is somewhat unique in the field of fantasy fiction - the plot, the setting, or the outcome of the "Good vs Evil" struggle are not as important. It is not the standard yarn to kill some time, a book that you will forget in a month’s time. The deeper message that Le Guin has infused in the series has the quality of connecting with the more sensitive readers and leaving them with ample food for thought afterwards. Balance, the choices we are obliged to make, whether the end we tend to justifies our means, the power of things’ true names, etc.

Le Guin’s other significant cycle concerns itself mostly with the issues that arise from the clash of different cultures, the development of the political and social models under diverse conditions and preconditions. Her knowledge of anthropology shines through in these books, the various societies invented by her and populating distant planets look incredibly realistic and are meticulously and systematically described. The events take place in the distant future, where a large number of planets are inhabited by descendants of human beings, who are almost like us, or only slightly deviating from our understanding of humanity (the asexual people from The Left Hand of Darkness). The main themes here are similar to those of the Earthsea series, with the addition of a larger dose of social-political ideas and issues. The most famous among them are The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, both winners of Hugo and Nebula. The former is a stunning and penetrating study of a society without any gender distinctions, and the latter - an original take on the issue of whether it is possible for an anarchistic community, which has abandoned all claims to government and private property, to exist.

Both books fully deserve the acclaim they've received and are still considered some of the greatest classics in the science fiction genre (although their subject matter subordinates the SF elements to matters of greater anthropological and sociological import). As a whole, the Ekumen Cycle is a far cry from the so-called hard science fiction, which is mainly concerned with the implementation of new technologies in the future, and bearing the mark of scientific argumentation and prognostics. There are no strange and evil aliens there either, nor are there any cutting-edge technical gadgets or majestic spaceships. Le Guin uses the premise of a human civilization, advanced enough to be able to spread on a number of foreign planets and diversify, culturally and socially, to illustrate her ideas about the juxtaposition of humanity and nature.

Apart from her most famous creations, Le Guin has written a large number of other books, most popular among which is The Lathe of Heaven. This is the story of a man, whose dreams can affect and alter reality. The man is manipulated by a psychiatrist, striving to create an utopical society. This is, to me, Le Guin’s best book - only 170 pages long, it contains a rich fare of great ideas, characters and atmosphere, as well as a good number of rewarding plot twists. Le Guin has also published many short stories, and it is unfortunate that only a fraction of those have been released in Bulgaria. She has not constrained herself merely to writing fantastic fiction, but has written also poetry, children’s books, mainstream fiction, etc.

Another thing that is deserving of mention is that, for more than 40 years now, Ursula Le Guin has been working on her translation (or interpretation, rather, since a translation faithful to the original is impossible) of the ancient Chinese thinker Lao-Tzu’s classical philosophical treatise Tao Te Ching, the principal foundation of Taoism (known among us Bulgarians as Daoism). The concepts associated with understanding and interpretation of Taoism by Le Guin, are instrumental in her fiction, this being especially apparent in The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea series.

Here I will enumerate some of the most important distinctive features of Le Guin’s works:

- Ideas, both original and gripping, often hiding beneath the sometimes simple plot. The fact that I have thought through each of her books for at least a week after finishing it, and often even after that, speaks volumes in itself. The ideas in her books never intrude upon the reader, and many of her works possess a delightful ambivalence of meaning.

- Incredible style of writing - Very few writers nowadays can equal Le Guin’s voice in telling a story and her skill with words. The way she writes is clear, poetic and moving at once. A pleasant respite from the mire of mediocrity and downright incompetence that has been flooding speculative fiction lately.

- The presence of real, complete characters - all behaving as a normal human being should, with all the good sides, as well as the bad. No invincible superhumans or inadequate puppets.

- The pervasive atmosphere - in almost all of her works the atmosphere is gloomy, oppressive, dark even, but also inexplicably and poetically beautiful. One can easily plunge into the vast seas of Earthsea or travel across the boundless glaciers of Gethen. Her books, contrary to genre cliches, seem to open out after they end, instead of rounding up.

- Maybe the chief element in almost all of Le Guin’s fiction - the unraveling of the plot is, to a great extent, a fa├žade under which the true essence and intention of the book are concealed. That is why it often lacks excitement and surprise. If you are of the people that judge what they read by the pace of plot and action, you are almost certain to be disappointed.

But if you want something more out of your reading experience than mere entertainment, something that will make you think, and to relive the story alongside the characters, then Le Guin is the one you need.

(A complete list of Ursula Le Guin's works follows in the original article)

Translation: Trip

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