Ursula Le Guin -- S/D, etc.

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On the "Introduce" thread, Scott said he wanted to read some Le Guin. I didn't get around to her until a few years ago, and the Earthsea trilogy totally knocked me flat. I guess it's considered "young adult" fiction, but it seems to me that it works on a lot of different levels. I love how spare and allusive her writing is -- she tell a lot more by implication than anything else. But the only other thing I've read is Left Hand of Darkness, which similarly affected me. On the basis of those books, she's becoming one of my favorite writers, genre or elsewise. So, what to read next? (Or if there's anyone who thinks she's an overrated hippie, you can say that too.)

spittle (spittle), Sunday, 21 December 2003 20:31 (nineteen years ago) link

The Lathe of Heaven and The Disposessed were both very good. I read both of them a long, long time ago, so that's as good as my review gets. They're worth investigating.

ginny (ginny), Tuesday, 23 December 2003 02:31 (nineteen years ago) link

search: first earthsea trilogy as near-perfect fantasy, 90s earthsea as elucidation/exploration of why it's not really possible to write that sort of fantasy anymore; the lathe of heaven (hey-i-could-be-philip-dick-if-i-wanted); the dispossessed (ish); always coming home, but not to actually you know read

destroy: suspect editorial practise of that one anthology that gets taught a lot, some non-sf books that are a bit too margaret atwood for my liking

tom west (thomp), Wednesday, 24 December 2003 21:28 (nineteen years ago) link

I was, in the past, completely convinced that Always Coming Home was one of the signal works of imagination of all time: the complete (and completely narratively absorbing) anthropology of a really cool, albeit nonexistent and post-apocalyptic, tribe of people.

Between that and "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" being all about Oregon politics (spell "Omelas" backwards, duh), I worshipped that shit. Not really sure how I feel now, though.

Haikunym (Haikunym), Wednesday, 24 December 2003 23:10 (nineteen years ago) link

fourteen years pass...

The family of Ursula K. Le Guin is deeply saddened to announce her peaceful death yesterday afternoon. https://t.co/DC7oy16EWD

— Ursula K. Le Guin (@ursulaleguin) January 23, 2018

Sanpaku, Wednesday, 24 January 2018 12:26 (five years ago) link

two months pass...

Her final book, the non-fiction No Time To Spare, is on sale on the Kindle store today.

adam the (abanana), Tuesday, 3 April 2018 11:33 (five years ago) link

four years pass...

In THE PENGUIN BOOK OF THE MODERN AMERICAN SHORT STORY (2021), I read Le Guin's story 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas' (1972).

Omelas turns out to be the name of an imaginary city, a kind of utopia, where Le Guin describes happy festivities going on. It's a utopia, with a meta- element in that the narrator keeps addressing us and saying 'what do you think you'd find in this city?' or 'I'll add this', etc.

Eventually the narrator states that all this happiness is dependent on the fact of a single child being locked away in degraded conditions. People in Omelas are aware of this but go along with it and reckon it a rational sacrifice.

Then at the end she mentions the people of the title, who, mainly because of this underlying fact about the child, leave the city and go to unknown parts.

There is an element of deliberate unreality or incoherence at the centre of this. For one thing, if Omelas goes on for a few decades, then the 'child' would not stay a child, even if it stayed alive. Le Guin doesn't say 'every 10 years, the child is replaced by a new one' or anything. So in that sense the scenario is timeless. For another thing, it's not explained why the child's degradation enables the utopia. A causal, scientific reason? Not that we can see. Magic? Possibly. Possibly the story is implying that a magical, supernatural effect really does link the child and the utopia. Or is it, rather, a matter of superstition or 'magical thinking'? Is the utopia founded on the fact that people *think* this child needs to stay locked away? I think that is a plausible interpretation of what Le Guin means.

The story seems allegorical; seems to be implying a structure of thought or action for us to think about. Most simply, that would be: good things can be dependent on bad ones, and is this trade-off valid? But I feel that it's somewhat more specific than that. At least, it's: good things in society are founded on oppression, and is this valid? This would be a version of Benjamin's 'document of civilization / document of barbarism'.

Yet I feel that the implication may even be more specific than that, and may implicate 'modern Western civilization'. The utopia would be, say, the consumer and pleasure society of this society, especially by the time of the recent 1960s. The child would be, say - class exploitation? Or perhaps, more tellingly, something like the exploitation of what was then called the Third World. The message would be 'First World affluence rests on Third World degradation - are you content with that?'.

The vehicle of the allegory would be imprecise for delivering that message, as there is such an imbalance between the utopian city and the one child, whereas, for instance, the Third World was vast numbers of people. But this would be deliberate on Le Guin's part, because her 'thought experiment', if we can call it that, is testing whether the ethical trade-off would be valid even if the suffering was very limited, not vastly widespread.

That leaves 'the ones who walk away'. This could be anyone with a conscience. In a more historically specific form, though, I feel that it may be 'counterculture' people who have 'seen through' the roots of their consumer society and refused to accept it. This analogy could be flawed in various ways - for one thing, the utopia itself looked somewhat like 1960s counterculture. And anyway people have been refusing the compromises of society for a long time - from Christians, say, to modern socialists and anarchists. Nonetheless I feel as though this text from 1972 might be talking from a specific situation at that time, and not merely in very general terms.

the pinefox, Saturday, 31 December 2022 11:10 (eleven months ago) link

as someone who reads things in the most literal fashion, I thought this was the most transparent allegory (which isn't a criticism). of course there's no mechanism by which the child's degradation could enable the utopia, except in the most handwavey magical way - "a bad wizard made it so" - which le guin doesn't stoop to.

I agree it's about modern western civilisation, though only because that's the civilisation it was written in. a reader in any civilisation based on oppression could find it instructive.

her 'thought experiment', if we can call it that, is testing whether the ethical trade-off would be valid even if the suffering was very limited, not vastly widespread.

I'd say the allegory involves a single child because the suffering of a single child nearby is easier to imagine than that of millions far away, and so is more likely to prick ones conscience, though the suffering of millions is obviously far worse.

I've always pondered ('always' - I think I first read it ten years or so ago) what it could mean to walk away from omelas. (obviously one can think of counter culture types, or going off grid and self sufficient). or more usefully, if one can't walk away, what else could one do - I can't say the story has ever prompted any particular action on my part. or more abstractly, how complicit are we, compared to the citizens of omelas?

ledge, Saturday, 31 December 2022 15:14 (eleven months ago) link

also I sort of want one of these:


ledge, Saturday, 31 December 2022 15:24 (eleven months ago) link

Ledge is otm but I think you came close to it at the end - capitalism is a fairly obvious reading, no? The people of Omelas live in comfort at the expense of the wretched poor, whose suffering they are desensitised to. Literally. You see people walk past homeless people in the street all the time! It is very much about that kind of callousness.

bit high, bitch (gyac), Saturday, 31 December 2022 18:46 (eleven months ago) link

yes I thought exactly that this afternoon when I walked past a homeless person to go into a supermarket.

ledge, Saturday, 31 December 2022 20:29 (eleven months ago) link

Last I read a mostly very favorable review of The Beginning Place(1980) in John Updike's collection, Hugging The Shore: he says it's

full of just and subtle touches...The dragon they must slay---white and wrinkled and blind, hideous and piteous, loud with pain and craving, heavy with viscera---would appear to be our sorry carnality incarnate, with a runny touch of the subconscious chaos, the foul disorder of bad dreams, that threatens to melt Portland in The Lathe of Heaven(1971)...Le Guin is a magisterial imaginer, whose invented realities outrun any rigidly allegorical interpretation...This elegant parable of late adolescence fails at credibility only when it presses its moral too earnestly and starts to sound like a marriage manual...Their first physical union comes on with far too many trumpets.

Yeah, the strengths and weaknesses of that sure sound like Le G. to me---so I want to read the book for sure.
Updike starts by doing a good job of putting it in context of literary history, without going on too long.

dow, Saturday, 31 December 2022 21:27 (eleven months ago) link

I don't think I've ever actually read The Beginning Place, but that description of the dragon reminds me of the sea-monster in Kipling's "A Matter of Fact":

Then he said with a little cluck in his throat, ‘Ah me! It is blind. Hur illa! That thing is blind,’ and a murmur of pity went through us all, for we could see that the thing on the water was blind and in pain. Something had gashed and cut the great sides cruelly and the blood was spurting out. The gray ooze of the undermost sea lay in the monstrous wrinkles of the back, and poured away in sluices. The blind white head flung back and battered the wounds, and the body in its torment rose clear of the red and gray waves till we saw a pair of quivering shoulders streaked with weed and rough with shells, but as white in the clear spaces as the hairless, maneless, blind, toothless head.

Lily Dale, Wednesday, 4 January 2023 04:26 (eleven months ago) link

I don't think it's top tier le guin, I'm quite surprised to find it was written after most of her best known works.

I thought I was reaching the end of her substantial bibliography (excluding poetry, children's books and non fiction) but it looks like there's half a dozen novels I've yet to read, and two or three short story collections.

ledge, Wednesday, 4 January 2023 09:05 (eleven months ago) link

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