Wednesday, 24 January 2018
Ursula Le Guin
I've always been a watcher and reader of science fiction - from my early days of watching Fireball XL5 - but didn't discover Ursula Le Guin till my early twenties. I'd been reading my way through my husband's collection of sc-fi paperbacks - lots of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Poul Anderson and the series of adventures 'starring' Perry Rhodan - when I stumbled on The Dispossessed. By and large, so far everything had been about rockets, aliens, wars in space with the emphasis on plot rather than characterisation (the odd exception being Asimov's I Robot stories) but The Dispossessed was different. Yes, it was set on fictitious planets, but it was about people, society, and the failure of a Utopian ideal, rather than the mechanics of space flight.
From there, with the help of the local library, I found The Word for World is Forest, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Wizard of Earthsea, and numerous other books and short stories, in all of which Le Guin used an alien setting to explore very 'human' social, cultural and political themes (even when writing about werewolves). This is what appealed to me so much,a nd I don't think I've found another writer who so exactly mirrored my views while expressing them far better than I could.
Eventually I picked up what has become one of my favourite collections of short stories - Orsinian Tales. Set in a fictitious East European country, rather than on a distant planet, these stories highlight moments of that country's development from the Middle Ages through to the Cold War era, but with the emphasis always being on the personal aspect, exploring what we might consider as contemporary issues - feminism, identity, freedom of thought and speech. My favourites have changed over the years, but today I'll pick The Fountains (what it means to be 'free') and Imaginary Countries (a pure nostalgia trip for a time and place that never was). There's also a longer novel, Malafrena, set in Orsinia, in the early nineteenth century, a time of rebellion and revolution across Eastern Europe. It always feels a bit side-lined by Le Guin fans but I love it.
Reading through the obituaries this morning I came across a quote from The Left Hand of Darkness "It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters, in the end". Thanks for sharing the journey, RIP Ursula Le Guin.