Memories of the Ekumen

In my undergraduate years I decided to get serious about science fiction, which I’d read and loved since childhood, and used a critical guide (David Wingrove’s Science Fiction Source Book) to identify gaps in my reading that needed filling. This must have been what steered me to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, which I read at around the same time as The Female Eunuch; the combination swept away any tendency I might have had to see 1980s Australia as enjoying an acceptable state of gender relations. But it was left in the shade by The Dispossessed.

The Dispossessed made me an anarchist, even if it was an anarchist disguised as a quiet middle-class uni student. Any time I look at the Political Compass I get a result in the same quadrant occupied by Le Guin’s works, somewhere in the vicinity of Gandhi, which will do me. People reckon that you get more conservative as you get older, but if I’m conservative it’s in holding onto those political ideals, and exercising them wherever possible, in the context of making do in the capitalist societies I’ve lived in. Whenever I’ve compromised them I’ve come to regret it.

Its impact on me was so profound that when I had the chance to spend a year in Britain studying political theory, I used one of the three essays I was expected to produce to re-read and write about The Dispossessed. The others, and my dissertation, I devoted to the most significant theme I could identify in political theory, that of rights and human rights; but writing about The Dispossessed is one of my fondest memories of that privileged year.

It may still be my favourite SF novel. It’s had competition, of course, and Le Guin is only one of my favourite SF writers. Philip K. Dick’s worldview has probably had an even greater impact on me overall, and his A Scanner Darkly is magisterial; but, earthbound as it is, it can’t top The Dispossessed. Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, H. G. Wells and others all wrote novels that haunted me for years; but no, none of them beat it. SF was, in my young experience, more a genre of unforgettable short stories than of wholly satisfying novels; it was rare to find a novel that sustained the mind-expanding impact of a single bizarre idea pithily expressed in a few thousand words. The Dispossessed was one such rarity.

Is it my favourite novel, full stop? After my student days I moved on, largely, from science fiction and fantasy, and read more literary fiction, to see what else I’d been missing. Certainly, I’ve read some great literary novels, whether established classics or the new hotness of their day. But I can’t think of any that have shaped me, and summed up all the other books and stories that shaped me growing up, the way The Dispossessed did.

Keen to repeat the experience, I read more Le Guin. The Lathe of Heaven, which I read on a long-haul flight in the days before personal screens, was also enormously compelling, as was The Word for World is Forest. There were some great short stories. And recently, when clearing out some old books, I found I couldn’t bring myself to part with A Very Long Way from Anywhere Else, her perfect non-SF young adult novel. I bought many more of her books in the early 1990s, intending to read them all, but other books got in the way, and now I find I have some serious catching up to do. In the 2000s I did, at least, read and enjoy the last of her Hainish novels, The Telling, another fine example of the political and anthropological concerns that underpinned so much of her fiction.

Le Guin’s father, Alfred L. Kroeber, was director of UC Berkeley’s Museum of Anthropology throughout her childhood, and before she was born had studied and worked with Ishi, the last known member of California’s Yahi people. Her family’s contact with Ishi offers a clue to the origins of her 1964 short story about Earthsea, “The Rule of Names”. From the Wikipedia page about Ishi:

The anthropologist Alfred Kroeber gave him this name because in the Yahi culture, tradition demanded that he not speak his own name until formally introduced by another Yahi. When asked his name, he said: “I have none, because there were no people to name me,” meaning that there was no other Yahi to speak his name on his behalf.

The most significant gap in my Le Guin reading is the Earthsea books, which I never read as a child and never got around to as an adult. I’ve been meaning to dig out an old one-volume copy of the original trilogy that I’d picked up in my Le Guin collecting days, to read and then pass on to my kids, now that my son is enjoying The Hobbit; but I see from my books database (I have too many not to keep one) that I sold it in a move twenty years ago. Time to rectify that, for their sake and my own, in honour of one of the greatest writers of my lifetime.

24 January 2018 · People

I’ve just discovered that I still have The Earthsea Trilogy on my shelf; I must have planned to sell it but not followed through. Hooray for second thoughts.

Added by Rory on 24 January 2018.