I remember the day I began reading my first Ursula Le Guin novel. It was a Sunday morning, and I was at a library run by a friend from her own apartment – a most gracious, wonderful human being herself, opening up her collection to a wide-eyed bunch of local kids. I was one of those kids, and those Sunday mornings were little interdimensional rifts into worlds both imagined and real. And peeping out from one of those cosmic shelves was a tiny paperback, yellowing pages and all, called The Wizard of Earthsea.
It was a story about a wizard named Ged who unleashes a terrible shadow upon the world, and then takes it upon himself to stop it. It was, as I said, a tiny story, even by my standards, and I was hardly the age when I was finishing doorstoppers (even though my friends were all gaga over the latest brick shaped Harry Potter). It would be a few years before I would pounce upon more ponderous novels, but somehow Ged’s story just wouldn’t disappear from memory.
Ged, you see, was unlike any wizard I’d ever met. He “began” in the usual way. Too sure of himself, eager to prove to the world the worth of his abilities, Ged would soon be brought down and tamed by forces he barely understood. But the way the novel was resolved had my 10-year-old brain flummoxed. It was a calm end, a peaceful end, where you embraced what was difficult and abject instead of slashing away at it blindly, where humility won the day instead.
Here was a writer trusting a child with darkness, believing in his intelligence sufficiently to not connect the dots on his behalf. It had none of the cheap flash and pizzazz that I would soon tire of as an adult, but which kids lapped up – and still lap up – because there just wasn’t – and isn’t – enough of the good stuff lying around. But Le Guin…man! There was a lilt and rhythm to her words, a cadence to her sentences that made you choke with emotions you didn’t even know you had at 10. Here, here was the good stuff! And from now on, if I wanted my fix, I only ever had to look up that time-tested column: “More Books by the Same Author”.
Growing up again with Le Guin
Fast forward to my college days, and every cool kid knew that “science fiction” was different from “sci-fi”. If you were that anorexic loner in your batch, you kept to yourself and made lists of obscure works by eccentric outsiders in the genre and got a kick out of it, knowing full well that you were receding deeper and deeper into twisted labyrinths of your own and others’ making. But then there was Le Guin, again! She had disappeared for a while, mind, giving you time to bring your wizards to task for all of this growing up you were having to do. But now she was back, taking those same tropes – robots, aliens, robot-aliens, clones, what have you, brain candy on the best of days – and doing odd things to them you’d scarcely think possible.
Item: A desolate wintry planet Gethen, and a people who lacked any concept of gender, except…except during certain seasons when they proved gender to be as fluid a concept as people suspect it to be today. Or rather, as the less bigoted of us do, at any rate.
No, Le Guin didn’t change my opinions about gender and sexuality overnight (and neither did Foucault). But she certainly made me start questioning things I’d taken to be obvious about humans. Love, war, kindness, jealousy…just how many of these things did gender mess up with its grimy hands anyway? How would those things change if we could for once just pull gender out of the equation?
Then there was Gethen itself: a beautiful snow globe, relentless in its need to keep you constantly looking for ways and ideas to keep warm. Is it any coincidence that the toughest, weirdest, most confounding characters in Le Guin novels were planets? Yes, entire planets. You had the “ambiguous utopia” of Annares: again, a desert moon whose desolation perhaps induced fellow feeling, and a love of work for its own sake.
Think “Pandora” from Cameron’s Avatar was unique? Go look up Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest” (an obvious influence on the movie), quite literally about a culture that has no verbal or conceptual way of rationalising violence. What does it do to a species to see their “home” come crashing down, destroyed in front of their eyes? Branching pathways of alterity: always, always with Le Guin these little jerks and stuttering halts, only to have the imagination screech back in alarm at you, “when did you stop imagining worlds?” Somehow, somewhere down the line, you were taught to not value the act of imagining for its own sake, and here was an author who demolished that assumption.
Can Le Guin really be gone?
Le Guin’s oeuvre was a fun house of ideas that invariably had dangerous curves and edges to them. They never hurt you, but they grazed you ever so slightly with their steely brilliance. Here was an author who cherished words, poetry and ideas, all at the same time. It didn’t get any better than this!
And now she is no longer with us. With Le Guin’s passing – she was 88, having left behind a vast body of work sure to enthral millions of unsuspecting readers in the future – we have lost not just a great writer, but a great human being, whose grace and sympathy for the downtrodden and the mute was only matched by her wonder at the mundane and the astonishing alike. Very few writers working within the genre – or without – came close to her self-sure style and complete and utter familiarity with the uncanny and unfamiliar. What was her secret?
It was merely this: you take a dragon (one of Le Guin’s most brilliant re-inventions). A dragon is that hoary old standard of fantasy, and this poor creature is now waiting on some clifftop, tired and exhausted at having been cast in so many tales and parables down the ages. He wants some rest, some well deserved shut-eye. But soon comes hobbling down the road an old woman with a twinkle in her eye, and she proceeds to sit down beside him. The dragon senses her presence, braces for yet another request to star in a quest, a razing of towns, a romance. But this woman merely wants to speak to someone at the end of her long journey uphill. Just that. And the dragon is, for once, asked about his views on the world…just a conversation, really.