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Saturday, June 10, 2006

I've been reading some Ursula K. Le Guin

For not the first time, I've been reading some Ursula K. Le Guin. See here, here, here, here, and, perhaps most importantly, here for some of my previous posts on her work. In the last post mentioned, I refer to Le Guin as "arguably, the most important U. S. fantastic writer of the twentieth century." I'm not the only person with that opinion. She is still writing. She says that she is a Taoist. Her work is well crafted, imaginative, and often deals with fundamental social issues.

One of her most important works was The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) one of the few books to win both the Hugo (voted on by science fiction fans) and Nebula (voted on by science fiction writers) awards. It is a great read, and one of the reasons is the biology Le Guin invented for the Gethenians. They look human, but differ in a most fundamental way -- they are neuter (somer) most of the time, and when they become sexual (kemmer) they may become either sex, and there's no way to predict which one. One of the most memorable phrases in the book is "The King was pregnant." There are few permanent monogamous relationships on Gethen. Most people visit the kemmerhouse when in kemmer, there to meet someone who is the opposite sex in this cycle.

I recently read "Coming of Age in Karhide: Sov Thade Tage em Ereb of Rer in Karhide, on Gethen," pp. 284 - 308, in Year's Best SF (New York:Harper Collins Eos, 2002) edited by David G. Hartwell. (Original copyright 1995, in New Legends.) The story, published over a quarter of a century after Left Hand, explains some aspects of their biology that weren't explained in Left Hand, namely how the Gethenians go through puberty and menopause (?). They can end up as externally either male or female, after their sexual cycles are through. She explains a little of how the kemmerhouse works. There is a doorkeeper, who is someone in permanent kemmer. The family escorts the adolescent to the kemmerhouse for the first experience. Accounts a little of the initial sexual experience.

I also read Le Guin's Unlocking the Air and Other Stories (New York: HarperPerennial, 1997) which I had never heard of, probably because it is, ostensibly, not fantastic literature. The book is an anthology of 18 of Le Guin's short fiction, published originally in a variety of locations, including Harper's and The New Yorker. I used the best quote from the book in yesterday's post. That passage came from "Ether, OR," a story about a small town in Le Guin's home state, Oregon, which changes location unpredictably, within the state. As the title suggests, it's an a story about ambiguity, and not just that of location. It is also told from several points of view, showing how the same events and situations can appear differently to different people. Le Guin is good at changing point of view. She did that brilliantly in Left Hand.

Here's perhaps the second best quotation from the book.

There are other stories. She goes back to the Krasnoy of Malafrena, a fictional city in a fictional country in Eastern Europe, in one of them. In another, she describes a unique twist on the story of Sleeping Beauty. In another, a girl grows to over forty feet tall. All in all, it's vintage Le Guin.

Thanks for reading.

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