Le Guin, Ursula K(roeber) (Vol. 22)
Ursula K(roeber) Le Guin 1929–
American science fiction and fantasy novelist, short story writer poet, and author of children's books.
Noted for its clearly delineated portraits of alien worlds, Le Guin's work reflects her interest in Taoism and an Oriental view of history. Le Guin is the recipient of several Hugo and Nebula awards and is best known for her Earthsea trilogy.
(See also CLC, Vols. 8, 13, Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8: Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers.)
The five stories by Ursula K. Le Guin with which this essay is directly concerned—Rocannon's World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966), City of Illusions (1967), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and "The Word for World is Forest" (1972)—are all set in what may be called the Hainish universe, for it was the people of the planet Hain who originally "seeded" all the habitable worlds of this part of the galaxy and thus produced a humanoid universe that is single, expanding, and historically continuous, but at the same time marvelous in its variety, for each planetary environment caused specific local mutations in its humanoids as they adapted and developed. The result is a universe full of "humans" who display enough variety to provide for any number of alien encounters, and since any possible stage of civilization can be found on some particular planet, new definitions of "civilization" can be made in a narrative rather than a discursive mode….
Besides the continuous time-space history, these narratives are bound together by a consistent imagery that both extends and informs meaning. Although Le Guin has used particular images which emerge naturally from the cultural and ecological context of her imagined worlds as linking devices within each work, she has also consistently used light/dark imagery as a linking device for the whole series. Again and again, good emerges from ambiguous darkness, evil from...
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[Ursula K. Le Guin] has been compared to C. S. Lewis, with some appropriateness, especially as concerns her juvenile trilogy, but that comparison fails ultimately because she is a better writer than Lewis: her fictions, both juvenile and adult, are richer, deeper, and more beautiful than his. She is probably the best writer of speculative fabulation working in this country today, and she deserves a place among our major contemporary writers of fiction. For some writers, the SF ghetto serves a useful protective function, preserving them from comparison with their best contemporaries. For Ursula Le Guin, as for others, this protection, and the sense of a responsive, relatively uncritical audience that goes with it, may have been helpful during her early development as a writer. But with The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) she displayed powers so remarkable that only full and serious critical scrutiny can begin to reveal her value as a writer. (p. 2)
The Earthsea trilogy consists of A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972)—the order of book publication not quite coinciding with the narrative chronology of the texts. These books have been compared to C. S. Lewis's chronicles of Narnia, especially by English reviewers, for whom this constitutes considerable praise. But the comparison is misleading. Lewis's books are allegories in the narrow sense of that much abused...
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[The Left Hand of Darkness] functions as a science-fiction novel about the writing of a science-fiction novel and is particularly informative for that reason. Since the various fictional genres can be meaningfully defined in relation to basic myths or to segments of myth, the mythic concern of LeGuin's novel, in spite of its attendant deleterious effects on the narrative, does have its point. (p. 77)
Making sense of the novel, and this is its essential weakness, depends upon an act of dislocation on the part of the reader and seeing what should be implicit as explicit, seeing the way in which the mythic structure rigorously, almost mechanically, determines the various turns of the plot….
It is proposed that, as a result of their ambisexuality, Gethenians are much less prone to the dualistic perception that conceivably is related to the permanent male/female split that characterizes most other forms of humanity: "There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive"…. (p. 80)
This Gethenian peculiarity is epitomized by the book's title, which is extracted from "Tormer's Lay":
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Here is capsulized the destruction...
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The typical Le Guin hero is a visitor to a world other than his own; sometimes he is a professional anthropologist; sometimes the role is forced on him; in all cases he is a creature of divided allegiance. As a student of an alien society, he has responsibilities to his own culture and to the culture he visits; he must sympathize with and participate deeply in both, for it is by the experience and analysis of their differences that he hopes to arrive at a deeper understanding of the nature and possibilities of mind and of social organization. In his role of scientist, the anthropologist expects cultural division and has been trained to explore it; but as an individual, he finds that his personal attachments exist to an important degree independent of and at times in conflict with his social duty, so that, almost inevitably in Le Guin's work, he finds that he has difficulty reconciling his public, political obligations with the bonds he has developed as a private individual. Though the cultural division often serves to exacerbate his dilemma, Le Guin's hero, as a moral individual rather than as a scientist, often confronts a universal human problem of—in bald terms—how to harmonize love and public duty. The two divisions the anthropologist hero faces are not completely separate, however; different societies demand and deserve different sacrifices. Therefore, the inquiry into what the individual owes society leads naturally into a study of the nature...
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Monroe K. Spears
It is part of the [attractiveness of The Language of the Night] that Le Guin does not presume to present herself as critic; instead she has allowed Susan Wood (whose editing is devoted and very intelligent) to assemble the book from addresses, reviews, introductions and essays written over the past decade. Partly because of this variety and unpretentiousness, partly because of the candor, seriousness and penetration with which Le Guin speaks of her own work, but mainly because of the pleasure of seeing a first-rate mind at work on these matters, I should say that this is the most attractive introduction to science fiction yet to appear….
Although Le Guin is suspicious of definitions and boundaries in the world of fiction, she makes the necessary demarcations well. Whereas the mainstream or "absolute" novel (as she prefers to call it) presents reality "as expressed and transfigured through art," sf or fantasy presents "a personal variation on reality; a scene less real than the world around us, a partial view of reality." But "by that partiality, that independence, that distancing from the shared experience, it will be new: a revelation. It will be a vision, a more or less powerful or haunting dream. A view in, not out…."
Malafrena, in this context, is puzzling. The jacket blurb calling it a "breakthrough, mainstream novel" is certainly misleading. It is not sf or fantasy, but neither is it...
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Margaret P. Esmonde
Le Guin employs the same pervasive light-and-shadow imagery in both her science fiction and her fantasy; the significance of true names, the touching of hands, and the circle journey are important in both. The nature of evil and the preservation of the Equilibrium are her concern in Earthsea as well as in the Hainish novels. Specific images are repeated almost exactly…. Taoism is a major philosophical influence in both, and both reflect her interest in dreams and deep understanding of anthropology.
But more important than any of these analogies—and basic to the achievement of her primary purpose in both the Earthsea trilogy and the Hainish novels—is Le Guin's use of the psychological journey toward the integration of personality that Carl Jung wrote about. The progression of an ego from uncertainty and self-doubt to assurance and fulfillment is a process to which Jung devoted a great deal of attention. So, too, has Le Guin; in one form or another, the theme appears in all her novels.
In the Earthsea trilogy we have the best opportunity to see how she uses it. The protagonist of each volume undertakes a journey of personality that culminates in the integration of his self. Since these straightforward stories deal in strong colors and plain fabrics, we can readily detect the design the master patterner has woven, not just in Earthsea but throughout the entire fabric of her work. (p. 16)
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Peter T. Koper
The differences in narrative setting which separate Le Guin's fantasy and her science fiction are tangential. Happy endings are unrealistic and produce comedy like "April in Paris" and fantasy like the Earthsea trilogy. The exile or death of the hero, which is realistic, is the basis of tragedy and of the pressure toward verisimilitude that makes science fiction like "The Masters" or [The Left Hand of Darkness] seem realistic even though the narratives are governed by far-fetched assumptions. What is essential to Le Guin's work is not detail of setting or the type of action, comic or tragic, which she imitates. What is essential is the argument which runs through most of her major pieces, the way in which explicitly in her science fiction and implicitly in her fantasy, she examines the effects of science on individual personalities….
I will hazard the generalization that most science fiction is concerned with the technological consequences of science and hence that when science figures in such work it does so as a source of the setting or of impetus for plot developments…. The themes of [such a] novel do not really involve science. Science, more precisely some hypothetical extensions of current science and technology, provide the furniture of the setting and the impetus of the plot.
In arguing that science is the central focus of Le Guin's fiction, I do not intend to group her with those "hard core" science...
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Authors like LeGuin are perpetually being asked to "talk about their work," and since that is tantamount to recounting the cute things your cat did last week, authors respond—as LeGuin largely does [in The Language of the Night]—with criticism. Of these intelligent and novelistically graceful essays, the weakest seem to me those in which the author tiredly repeats the obvious, usually at the prodding of a publisher, and the best of the pieces written spontaneously and affectionately for fan magazines. At times LeGuin's teacherly generosity keeps her at too elementary a level; "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," for example, is a model of how to do this sort of thing well, but it's also something a fine mind ought not to do so often. There are some thoughtless or derivative remarks as is inevitable in a collection of largely occasional pieces, e.g. LeGuin's traditional walloping of politicians (Shirley Chisholm?) and oddities like her condemnation of "sensualists."… (pp. 100-01)
If there's an overall flaw in Language it's LeGuin's passion for morality and how that passion is likely to be misused by readers. She notes it herself … and is flexible enough to avoid its dangers in pieces like "The Child and the Shadow" or the absolutely first-rate piece on Philip K. Dick, but many of her readers won't be….
One of the surprises of the collection is the author's delicious sense of comedy, from her "mad...
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[In The Beginning Place] Ursula K. Le Guin has returned to the intrapsychic landscape of her earlier fantasies … and has had her characters reject it as a permanent habitation. Two modern young people, Hugh and Irena, discover a strange, fantastic realm, which Irena calls "the ain countree," and which they enter, are changed by and finally leave behind as they return to the real world.
In the essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" … included in The Language of the Night Le Guin distinguished the genuine, risky Inner Lands ("Elfland") from the banal imitation which is really the outside world in disguise ("Poughkeepsie"). In The Beginning Place she brings Elfland into violent contiguity, as it were, with Poughkeepsie, both places rendered in a gray, gritty, realistic style which may annoy fans of the author's more colorful fantasies but which strikes me as an impressive Le Guinian advance….
In short, Elfland and Poughkeepsie are badly out of gear here, a situation which forces the author into inadvertent lies about the latter, that working-class people are inarticulate, that marriage is a mystical, once-for-all fusion (of the right people only, of course), that clumsy, shy Hugh is a possible real man (and not a woman's dream of one), that his gentleness will not vanish with his guilt over his mother (though Le Guin has previously connected the two), and that achieving his (carefully atypical)...
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Ursula Le Guin's Malafrena is set in an era familiar from novels such as Le Rouge et le Noir. The background is nineteenth-century Europe under the yoke of the Austrian Empire; the ideas are those of liberty and nationalism; and the hero, Itale Sorde, is the son of a provincial landowner—pro-Napoleon, romantic and full of idealism….
Malafrena is a remarkable feat of imagination. Background, characters and dialogue all have a fully autonomous life: there is a minimum of "period" writing and of intrusive passages of historical information to distract the reader from the plot. Despite the unspecified location—the names of places are given but we are not told where in Europe Malafrena and Krasnoy are—and the importance to the novel of political ideas, the action is both natural and convincing. Ursula Le Guin writes with such felicity that she evokes with equal assurance a family evening on the terrace or a debate in the National Assembly…. The balance between home and away, country and town, old loves and new, is constant; and there is a series of unforced contrasts between the squalor of the city (both its aristocratic salons and its slums) and the sweetness of the domey. Through touches like the view over the rooftops in Itale's first garret, the smear of excrement on the pavement he notices when about to start out on his life's adventure, and the apples eaten on the barricades, the author reminds us...
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[Malafrena] is Le Guin exercising her considerable talent in a work whose chief idiosyncracy may be that it owes more to Tolstoy than to Tolkien…. [Like] Tolstoyan dramatis personae they introspectively mull their relationships with both one another and the state, seeking either happiness or justice, if not both, in a society immemorially dedicated to the status quo….
What is new here, apart from the historical setting, is our apprehension that Le Guin has taken an important additional step, for at novel's end Sorde is poised for a further foray into the world outside his beloved Val Malafrena. The vita nova is not a will-o'-the-wisp.
At the risk of incurring the ridicule of those amused by old-fashioned concepts of Truth and Honor, I would call Malafrena a noble book. It affirms the psychological necessity of lofty aspirations without cringing away from a vivid depiction of the private and public vices that flesh is heir to. It acknowledges but does not surrender to the ubiquity of injustice and suffering. Orsinia may be an imaginary country, but what happens there mirrors, and necessarily magnifies, the imperishable realities of the human heart. (pp. 64-5)
Michael Bishop, "Books: 'Malafrena'," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (© 1980 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), Vol....
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The social sciences inform [Ursula K. Le Guin's] fantasies with far more earthy substance than the usual imaginary space-flight, and her hypothetical futures have a strong flavor of familiar history…. ["The Beginning Place"] describes with plenty of moral and psychological complexity the mating of two modern young people; its fantastic terrain … belongs not to any conjecturable future but to that vast, vaguely medieval never-never land whose place in our shared nostalgia was sealed by Malory's telling of the Arthurian legends, revived by Tennyson and William Morris, and given phenomenal modern currency by Tolkien's saga of Middle-earth. (p. 94)
The adventure that Irene and Hugh come to share in this storybook village is excitingly told, and so simply, boldly composed of the ancient motifs of curse and quest that any summary would reveal too much. Read as a metaphor of sexuality emerging from masturbatory solitude into the perilous challenge and exchange of heterosexual encounter, "The Beginning Place" is full of just and subtle touches. Both Irene and Hugh first fall in love with images of themselves: Irene is dark, and Hugh is fair, and the objects of their infatuation in Tembreabrezi—the saturnine Master, the fair Allia—exaggerate these aspects. 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...
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Ursula K. Le Guin's Threshold [published in the United States as The Beginning Place] makes its effect by a firm presentation of the world from which fantasy is an escape….
The appeal of Threshold is that the suburban world and its two characters are well realized, more convincingly realized in fact than the world on the other side. The time-warp enables them to make several visits to both, and Hugh and Irena take their characteristics with them into the magical. Hugh retains his plodding sincerity, Irena her jealousy and anger that her world has been discovered by this stranger. The people of the other side, it transpires, are in some kind of danger, and the story becomes a standard quest myth, although deference to contemporary feminism gives Irena a somewhat more positive role than is customary for women in quest-literature. Hugh slays the dragon, but by this time Ms Le Guin seems to have lost interest in making the magical moving, and concentrates on the relationship between Hugh and Irena. We never even discover if the curse is lifted, for the protagonists' conclusion is that the real world, from which they were both running away, is where they belong. Le Guin deflates her own fantasy, and from a strong beginning produces a weak conclusion.
Robert Hewison, "Astounding Alternatives," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980;...
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