Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the most highly praised authors of the past decade. Within science fiction circles, her name immediately enters discussions of the best writers in the field: her fellow professionals in the Science Fiction Writers Association have twice honored her work with the Nebula Award for the best novel of the year—for The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969 and The Dispossessed in 1974. But one wonders how well Le Guin is known outside the genre. In larger circles she is likely to be known as the recipient of the National Book Award for children’s literature for the three novels of her Earthsea trilogy. But defining those three books—A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore—strictly as children’s literature is like saying that Alice in Wonderland or The Lord of the Rings are only children’s books. In her five award-winning novels (not to mention a number of others), she has built up an immense reputation in two specialized fields, but one that is scarcely felt in the literary mainstream. It sometimes happens that a movie actor gives an especially fine portrayal, but the excellence of the work is recognized too late for the presentation of an Oscar for the role. Hence, the next year finds the actor being voted the award for a much inferior part, as a kind of compensation. It is hard to avoid the feeling that something of that sort has happened to bring Orsinian Tales a nomination for a National Book Award.
Orsinian Tales is a collection of eleven stories; their publication dates span Le Guin’s career, from the earliest, “An die Musik,” first published in 1961, to the latest, “The Barrow,” reprinted from a 1976 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Yet, although they cover by far the greatest part of her writing career, a set of short stories less characteristic of her work could not have been assembled. In fact, an award for Orsinian Tales would be a kind of insult, as if one were to ignore the south forty acres and judge a farmer’s work by the potted plant in the living room.
To evaluate Orsinian Tales, one must begin with the fact that Le Guin is a writer of science fiction and fantasy; all nine of her novels fall into that category, as does the greater part of her shorter works. But a science fiction novel is not easier to write nor less capable of reaching the limits of art than any other kind; indeed, Le Guin is one of the writers who in recent years has done much to prove the truth of these assertions. For fifteen years she has been writing science fiction and fantasy that suffer not at all by comparison with the work of any other living writer. Her work therefore arouses an expectation in the reader who purchases a volume by Le Guin that he is buying science fiction. The publishers of Orsinian Tales contribute to the maintenance of this assumption by the book jacket description of the stories as set in “imaginary countries inhabited by imaginary people with real problems.” The reader’s chief surprise is likely to be the discovery that the setting of all but two of the stories is not fairy land, or Earth of the future, or some far planet, but central Europe from 1900 to the present.
Although the setting of the stories of Orsinian Tales is never stated, and one will not find the towns listed in an atlas, the insertion of a few words suffices to locate them in Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Rumania. The inhabitants spend kroner, for example; they revolt against Soviet dominance in 1956. At another point, some characters go to church, to Lutheran services. Ah, one thinks, perhaps Sudetenland Germans, but nothing else supports or contradicts this impression. The musical instruments played, as another example, are not those specific to a particular folk culture, and therefore, identifiable, but those common to the whole of the Western world—a guitar in one instance, a bass viol in another. But these are exceptional details; in general, the stories are not particularized enough to identify them more precisely, and here is one of the principal problems in the execution of the stories. By contrast, in The Left Hand of Darkness, the plot moves through two large countries, Karhide and Orgoreyn, on the world of Gethen; the two are as different as Sweden and Portugal. One need not be told that the action is located in one country or the other; the manners of the people, the customs, even the languages tell us where we are. Similarly for The Dispossessed: a rich and abundant detailing differentiates the moon of Anarres from the nation of A-Io on...
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