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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Ursula K. Le Guin: Language of the Night

Susan Wood did a great service to literature by editing a compilation of miscellaneous writing by Ursula K. Le Guin. Her compilation is The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1979). It includes roughly two dozen speeches, introductions to books, and essays. The book doesn't appear to be in print, but used copies are available from standard sources, at reasonable prices. See here, here and here for some previous posts on Le Guin.

This is not the place to describe the importance of Ms. Le Guin in depth. I'll let this source summarize: "Ursula K. Le Guin has won many Nebula and Hugo Awards, as well as a National Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Newbery Honor and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement."

The lady can write. She is a master of prose, using words, and punctuation, and point of view, and the other tools available, carefully and well, without letting them get in the way of what she is trying to say.

These are some of the highlights of The Language of the Night:
1) She ably defends the legitimacy of good fantastic literature as literature, not trash. (She also skewers trashy fantastic literature effectively)
2) She mentions authors of fantastic fiction who have influenced her. These include Cordwainer Smith, Philip K. Dick, and Tolkien. (Smith and Tolkien I have read. I have, probably to my shame, never really read Dick.)
3) She writes about why we read:

We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel--or have done and thought and felt; or might do and think and feel--is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become. A person who had never known another human being could not be introspective any more than a terrier can, or a horse; he might (improbably) keep himself alive, but he could not know anything about himself, no matter how long he lived with himself. And a person who had never listened to nor read a tale or myth or parable or story, would remain ignorant of his own emotional and
spiritual heights and depths, would not know quite fully what it is to be human.

For the story--from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace--is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, butthere have been no societies that did not tell stories. p. 31. (published first in "Prophets and Mirrors: Science Fiction as a Way of Seeing," in The Living Light, Fall 1970)

4) She writes about how and why she has written as she has.
5) She deals with the problem of evil. (Le Guin is a Taoist, and apparently believes that everyone is a mixture of good and evil. She is certainly sympathetic to Christians, including Tolkien and Cordwainer Smith.)
6) She comments on an important essay by Virginia Woolf, on character in fiction, and concludes that, if fantastic fiction isn't about character, it isn't worth much.
7) She argues that science fiction is not really predictive:

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. . . . In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrödinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future--indeed Schrödinger's most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the "future," on the quantum level, cannot be predicted--but to describe reality, the present world.

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive. p. 156. Originally published in the 1976 edition of The Left Hand of Darkness.

(More on Schrödinger. For more on his perhaps the most famous -- and misinterpreted -- thought-experiment ever, see here. I'm not sure Le Guin interpreted it correctly, either!)
8) She describes first seeing the 3 volumes of The Lord of the Rings in a university library, and seeing them again and again, and, finally, checking the first one out, and reading the entire trilogy in three days! She says that she has re-read them many times.
9) She writes about writer's workshops.

This lady has been a writer's (and reader's) writer, and even the introductions to her books are gems.

1 comment:

eilonwy said...

Thank you for your kind comments. I am honoured by your presence.

As an aside, I find Le Guin's use of the notions of balance and equilibrium very characteristic of a number of sci-fi/fantasy create works in the 1960-70 era, although she does focus on equilibrium to the point of being almost didactic about it. There was quite a number of works which focused on the polarisation of good and bad, the most notable being George Lucas's Star Wars. Susan Cooper, too, wrote about the Dark and the Light in her The Dark Is Rising sequence.