Reviewing a book by Ursula Le Guin - especially a reissue of what is easily her best short story collection - can't help but leave me with a feeling of disappointment. Not at the stories, which all shine and more often than not sparkle with brilliance (one of them won a Nebula, another a Hugo), but at Le Guin as a writer.
Whatever happened to Ursula Le Guin?
Nothing, some may argue, and certainly, her recent work, marking a return to the genre fold, has garnished significant praise and award nominations. But her newer books seem either to be bookending previous sequences - Tales from Earthsea in her famous fantasy series, The Telling in the Hainish cycle - or neat, sophisticated fiction that recalls but does not challenge former glories. In the 1970s, Le Guin was widely recognized as one of the best writers working in the sf and fantasy fields, producing a string of brilliant, award-winning novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed and the Earthsea books. Although Le Guin hasn't exactly entered a bumpy decline since those feverishly creative years - not in the same way that Roger Zelazny, another Great Pretender of sf and fantasy, did through the 1980s - she does seem to have taken a step sideways.
The Wind's Twelve Quarters chronicles that trajectory. Although published when Le Guin was probably at the height of her powers, the collection offers an interesting gloss on her writing career as a whole. The stories can be appreciated as individual, self-contained jewels, but they also present a fascinating summary of her development as a writer, a reading encouraged by her introductions which detail the links between the stories and other books. Some of the stories here were cuttings from those books ('Winter's King' from The Left Hand of Darkness, 'The Day Before the Revolution' from The Dispossessed), some shared the same thematic soil of longer works ('Vaster Than Empires and More Slow' whose forest world background recalls the almost-contemporaneous The Word for World is Forest) and in one case, the story itself was the seed for the novel (a minor character in 'Semley's Necklace' became the protagonist of Rocannon's World). The stories weave in and out of Le Guin's major fictional sequences, engage with her common obsessions and in her finest stories here, proffer tantalising suggestions to what might have been her eventual - if not final - disenchantment with the limitations of the sf and fantasy genres.
While Le Guin probably wouldn't think of them this way, the stories of The Wind's Twelve Quarters can be loosely grouped into quarters themselves. The first 'quarter' is a mixed bag of what used to be called traditional sf (before the New Worlds revolution in style and content took hold in the mid-1960s), one-off exercises in what Le Guin, quoting William James, thought of as '"the probable causes of future experience". The earliest stories are efficient if rather ordinary, ranging from playful time travel tales ('April in Paris') to dark fables about scientific Ludditism ('The Masters'). The fascination with sf extrapolation - Le Guin calls it 'wiring-diagram science fiction' - remained a powerful streak in her work right through the period covered by the book, with fine later stories here about cloning ('Nine Lives') and altered ways of perceiving the physical world ('The Field of Vision').
The next two groups of stories parallel her two main fictional sequences, the Hainish series - set in a common universe and timeline, though it only tends to be used as a backdrop for Le Guin's long-running fascination with the conflict of mutually misunderstanding cultures - and the Earthsea books - a world of linked islands and common magical laws of nature. However, recognizing the connections between stories like 'The Word of Unbinding' to the world of Earthsea and 'Winter's King' to the Hainish universe is of less interest than the common ground beneath all the stories. Le Guin is not concerned with the furniture of either genre, whether supercolliders or swords, but in the play of concepts possible with fantastic worlds. She is especially drawn to writing about those moments when a world is on the verge of being cracked open by an idea, choosing as her heroes, lone figures, scientists and mages burdened by the knowledge that could transform their societies.
However, while Le Guin has the sharp intelligence and the anthropological background to pursue the implications of ideas in her made-up worlds, she never forgets that her stories are first and foremost about people, not flesh avatars of her scientific and philosophical obsessions. Nowhere can this been seen better than in the elegiac final story in the collection, 'The Day Before the Revolution', where in her typical, non-assuming and elegant style, Le Guin writes about Odo, who is both a living embodiment of the revolution of ideas sweeping her planet and an old woman just trying to make sense of her past on the last day of her life. Perhaps nowhere else in SF has the tension between a character's role in the grand exchange of world-changing ideas and the deeply-felt ordinariness of their everyday lives been so movingly conveyed.
It is the last group of stories though that may say most about Le Guin's aspirations as a writer, at least at the time of this collection. She calls these 'psychomyths' - "(stories) outside real time", allegories that retain the matter of sf and fantasy, but stripped of the weight of a specific (if imaginary) time and place, are reduced to fundamental, almost archetypal tales. They can be tall tales - as in the charming story of an old oak tree maintaining the illusion of a relativist world in 'Direction of the Road' - or parables - like 'The Stars Below', where a hunted scientist's love of knowledge leads him to deeper into an underground mine/mind. The best of these psychomyths, and possibly the finest story Le Guin has written, is the fable, 'The Ones who Walked Away from Omelas'. A dilemma that runs to the heart of our own society is laid out with economy and grace: if a utopia's existence rests on the suffering of a single child, how should a good person act? The quiet resolution of the dilemma - the choice by some of its citizens to abandon Omelas for "a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness" - is as powerful a declaration as Le Guin has ever made in her writing.
It is tempting to see the closing stories of the collection as auguries of Le Guin's later writing. She made her own attempt at utopia in Always Coming Home (1985), a bold literary experiment, exciting for its counter to the deeply dystopian sf of the times, though ultimately let down by the lack of directions on how to get there and a rather grating tweeness (not many books about perfect worlds include recipes). Her subsequent withdrawal from sf and fantasy, while not complete, has been Odo-like in its retreat from a literature of world-changing ideas to more personal, idiosyncratic stories. It remains debatable whether her current re-engagement with both genres is a delayed renaissance or not. Nonetheless, with these stories, Le Guin reminds us that any disappointment felt about where she's gone as a writer has been more than tempered by what she's left behind.
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© Philip Raines 1 September 2001