Between the cracks

IssueJune - July 2024
Comment by Virginia Moffatt

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can pinpoint pretty precisely the moment I fell in love with Ursula Le Guin’s writing.

It was 29 November 1974, between 4.30 – 4.45pm, when the final instalment of her A Wizard of Earthsea aired on Jackanory.*

The book had seized hold of me all week, but the denouement, in which Ged, the wizard of the title, confronts and becomes one with the dark shadow he has unleashed on the world, was totally mesmerising.

I’ve been a fan of Earthsea ever since, and though I was late to the party on her science fiction, I have spent the last few years making up for that.

Le Guin is a writer with a rich imagination and a vivid writing style, creating accessible narratives with complex characters. Whether it is a wizard helping a young woman defeat the dark powers who control her (The Tombs of Atuan), a diplomat trying to make sense of a cold world where nothing is as it seems (The Left Hand of Darkness), or a scientist breaking with his own community in order to share knowledge (The Dispossessed), each story grips, moves and entertains us from start to finish.

Like all good writers, Le Guin’s work focuses on things she cares about – the environment, social justice, pacifism. It is also influenced by her views on Taoism and Buddhism.

Colonialism, oppression, war and politics feature strongly.

The Word for World is Forest deals with an occupied community rebelling against the brutal army, a clear reflection of the Vietnam War.

The Telling, inspired by Mao’s suppression of Taoism in China, gives us a world where the colonised community keep their language alive through secret cultural codes.

The Dispossessed contrasts the anarchist community on the dry and dusty moon Anarres with the capitalist home world Urras, finding weaknesses in both.

Her brilliant short story, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, asks what you would do if you knew your society was built on a horrific injustice, a powerful metaphor for the West’s exploitation of the rest of the world.

Effective world-building is the hardest part of writing fantasy or fiction and it’s something Le Guin excels at, undoubtedly influenced by her father’s career as an anthropologist.

Across her work we see a range of civilisations and communities: a backward island of fishermen and goatherds; a floating community that lives on the sea all year round; a country where the people hide their true intentions in highly stylised language; a world built on slavery, whose moon of male slaves breaks free to create a highly misogynistic society.

Many societies are based on different sexual rules: in one, people change sex during the few days each month when they are sexually active; in another, community property rights are embedded in a four-way marriage; in another, women are sexually and politically dominant and boys are sent away to live with men in castles to perform ritual sword fights and acts of gallantry.

We are often led into these worlds through the eyes of strangers trying to make sense of them. Genly-Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness comes to appreciate and understand Gethen. Dalzul, in ‘Dancing to Gaman’, completely misreads the situation, imagining the people of Gaman consider him a god, when in fact he is a human sacrifice. In the story ‘Solitude’, the narrator grows up and participates in a society that her observer mother totally misunderstands.

It’s a sign of Le Guin’s genius as writer that whether told from the point of view of a native or a visitor, each of these worlds and communities feels totally real and true. As a result, we engage deeply with the challenges her protagonists face and, as with all good fiction, reflect on what it means to be human and alive.

Unusually for an author, Le Guin has the capacity to recognise failings in her earlier work.

In later life, she noted that the groundbreaking gender politics of ‘A Left Hand of Darkness’ would have been improved had she used ‘they’ rather than ‘he’.

She also revised the world of Earthsea in the 1990s to challenge its inherent patriarchy.

It’s this level of honesty that makes her fiction sing, which is why, if you’ve never read her before, you really should. And if you’re already a fan, it’s time to pick her off your bookshelves. You’ll not regret it.

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