The challenge of taking a look at the work, as a whole, of Ursula K. Le Guin is that she is so prolific. How to pick out the best moments in such a full career? How to make sense (if such is necessary) of a bibliography that spans decades and genres? A fully annotated bibliography could be like the map in Borges that grows to the size of the geography it is supposed to represent; I exaggerate of course, but the task is a daunting one.
The daunting nature of the task—a summary of "Le Guin-ness"—gets more intimidating, just as it gets more rewarding, when you consider Le Guin's recent streak of excellent books. Most writers run out of steam after a certain number of years, yet Le Guin shows no sign of this (more details in a moment). I've noticed this particularly in the case of Le Guin because of an odd trait of mine: I'm generally a bigger fan of the earlier work in writers' careers and lose interest just at the point when, according to conventional wisdom, they are coming into their full powers. I freely admit to a certain jadedness and a related love of novelty on my part, not necessarily the most flattering of attributes. All the same, when I maintained an interest and appreciation for Le Guin's recent material, despite being fairly familiar with her books, I couldn't help but realize that something curious was happening.
My job of arguing that Le Guin has done some great work in the last few years has been made much easier by Adam Roberts's piece (right here on Strange Horizons) about Lavinia. Lavinia, Le Guin's 2008 release, takes us back to the aftermath of the Trojan War and the events told in Virgil's Aeneid; in Virgil's epic, Lavinia is a local girl who gets married off to Aeneas when he lands on the Italian Peninsula. Lavinia doesn't even get to speak on her own behalf and Le Guin takes on the challenge of telling the story from Lavinia's point of view. This is a project that is ringed by writing pitfalls of every kind, and Le Guin deftly skirts them all.
In his review, Roberts makes an interesting aside. I quote:
Certainly I enjoyed this novel more than any Le Guin since the 1970s; and that (it's almost tautological to add this) means that I enjoyed it more than pretty much any novel since the 1970s.
(Roberts goes on to add: "It possesses a depth, clarity, and wonder greater than most of the fiction being published nowadays." I couldn't agree more.)
Thinking about Lavinia, and with Roberts's comments in mind, some pieces fell into place for me. This leads me to venture a broad sketch of Le Guin's career: early classics (1960s-1970s), an experimental period (late 1970s to early 1990s), and a recent run of stellar works. I will attempt a broad sketch of each era (with the cautionary tale of the Borgesian map in mind!).
Era 1: Early Classics
Le Guin began her career writing books that were science fiction, fitting into the groove of the genre in obvious ways. You can find her first three novels in the omnibus Worlds of Exile and Illusion—if memory serves, they are rather short and on the conventional end of the spectrum. (Having said that, I just ran across Orson Scott Card's praise for Rocannon's World, saying of Le Guin's first novel: "I had a memory of it as a watershed reading experience for me—as a young man contemplating a writing career, I read Rocannon and thought, over and over again, 'So this is possible!'")
I consider The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, about as far as anyone could go in the "classic SF" mode. In particular, I'm thinking of the whole discussion around the book with regard to using "he" as the pronoun for androgynous characters. Here is a marvellous and ground-breaking book, and it uses a male pronoun for characters who are neither male nor female (except occasionally one or the other). I got this notion of the book's shortfall from the source; see Le Guin's rather insightful comments on this topic in her collection of essays, Language of the Night. I give Le Guin lots of credit on this file, however, since even an innovative work like The Left Hand of Darkness comes from its own cultural context. Every era has its own boundaries, and its own ground to break; I'll return to this point again.
As early as 1968, Le Guin showed an interest in fantasy, and most would call it more than an interest, since that was the year she published A Wizard of Earthsea. It's a quest novel (of sorts) featuring a young boy named Ged who has a hot temper and might become a respected wizard. The second and third Earthsea books, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore, came out in two-year intervals following. Earthsea has an indefinably solid feel about it that the best fantasy worlds have, a sense that we are not being shown everything because of an interesting story in the foreground but all the background indisputably exists. Not an easy feat, especially in short works like these. I recently re-read the first three Earthsea books, and I came away with a much deeper appreciation for the second, The Tombs of Atuan.
Another multi-award-winning book, 1974's The Dispossessed, was a capper for this era. The Dispossessed is another book in Le Guin's set of Hainish novels, and one that explains a key piece of technology of the universe in a subtle and socially focused way. So, on the basis of two science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and a trilogy of short fantasy works, the three Earthsea novels, Le Guin won numerous awards, gained a reputation as a writer to watch, and so forth. Then what happened?
Era 2: Experimental
Here is where Le Guin branched out into as many genres as possible—at least that's what the evidence looks like from this end. Poetry? Check. Children's adventures that sound cheesy in description but are actually good? Let's see, Catwings, Catwings Return . . . check! And that grail/bane of all genre writers: mainstream novels? Yup.
For me, this part of Le Guin's career is typified by Always Coming Home, partially because this is the book from this era that's most familiar to me.
Always Coming Home was published in 1985, after nearly a decade of work on Le Guin's part. She uses every means at her disposal to create a culture from another time (past? future?) and transport the reader to that world. The Kesh live in an area much like Northern California, and their lives are pretty good, except that unruly children need to be raised, a nearby tribe has ambitions of power, and much more. But the worldbuilding overbalances every other element of the book. Looking back on my notes, I see that The Left Hand of Darkness and Always Coming Home share a similar structure: sections of background/cultural material alternating with sections of foreground narrative but in the case of Always Coming Home, the foreground narrative is miniscule. This carries the worldbuilding urge to its logical extreme, as if Le Guin were testing this one piece of the genre toolkit to see how far it could take an ambitious writer.
Here's a thought: would Lavinia be a lesser book without something like Always Coming Home, a book of beautiful writing and intense focus which somehow remains as dense as a brick to a wide reading audience, in Le Guin's bibliography? Lavinia shares the writing and focus, but reads like a dream. In this sense, the experimental period—that era between the early classics and the recent releases—is crucial to that recent renaissance. Always Coming Home feels like a journey so deep into the mechanics of a novel that Le Guin could write anything after it with an unprecedented precision of effect. And further to my point about the boundaries of a particular era, the experimental nature of Always Coming Home seems to have been part of the process by which Le Guin moved ahead and addressed new sets of challenges. Lavinia may not be filled with hip references and/or hot vampires, for example, but neither does it feel like a book that wandered in from the '60s or '70s. Not every writer can do this! I'd take Always Coming Home followed by Lavinia any day over a dozen reiterations of The Left Hand of Darkness.
On a more personal note with regard to this era of Le Guin's career, I would like to point to something she published in 1993, Blue Moon over Thurman Street. This book is made up of two things: poetry, supplied by Le Guin, and photography, supplied by her friend Roger Dorband, both cataloguing and exploring a specific street in Portland. This book, along with Kim Stanley Robinson's Three Californias trilogy, was part of the inspiration for my book/travel site, BiblioTravel.
Era 3: Recent Classics
Starting with The Telling (2000) and the last two Earthsea books, The Other Wind (2000) and Tales from Earthsea (2001), Le Guin has been on a terrific streak. These last two Earthsea volumes are well-regarded but didn't register that much with me; I'm much more fond of The Telling, a book set in the same Hainish universe as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed which holds up well against the earlier classics.
That said, I think I prefer the non-Hainish and non-Earthsea books of Le Guin's recent output. She started a YA series called Annals of the Western Shores in 2004 with Gifts, and has written two more novels, Voices in 2006 and Powers in 2007, in the series. All three are highly recommended.
I've already spoken about Lavinia. I'm still not sure why I was so surprised by the book. Perhaps the premise? I don't read as much historical fiction as I used to. Perhaps I was expecting heavy exposition in the style of Always Coming Home. I don't have much to add to what I've already said (and what Roberts said in his full review). If you've ever admired a book by Le Guin, you owe it to yourself to give Lavinia a try.
What might Le Guin be up to next? It's really hard to tell. She's a member of Book View Café, an online venture jointly started by twenty authors. She also recently translated Kalpa Imperial from Spanish. Whatever's next, Le Guin has earned and re-earned our trust. I thought the Annals of the Western Shore was humming along nicely as a series, and didn't understand what this out-of-left-field Lavinia project was all about. Post-Lavinia, the bar is even higher, but that hasn't stopped Le Guin before.
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