Tag Archives: Ursula K. Le Guin

The Venn Diagram of Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards: 1973

(I’ve been reading the stories that got both Hugo and Nebula nominations. To see all the posts in the series, check the “Joint SFF Nominations” tag.)

You may have noticed something weird about this series. Apart from the two posts where Anne McCaffery showed up, the author lists have so far been entirely male. It’s not that no women have had Hugo and Nebula nominations, but only McCaffery ever managed to get a story on both lists in any given year. Yes, I’m tired of it, too.

So it’s a relief that this latest post includes three women. That’s out of 11 authors, only 27 per cent, and it should be noted that at this point the voters still thought James Tiptree, Jr. was a man. It will be decades before the shortlists are as likely to be all women as all men. But what the hell, 27 percent is better than zero. We’re finally evening out the Dude Ratio in:


The novels that made both the Hugo and Nebula shortlists in 1973 were Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, David Gerrold’s When HARLIE Was One, and The Book of Skulls and Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg. The Gods Themselves won both awards, due not so much to quality as to a general feeling that it was great this old guy was still writing. It was a bland year for novels.

On the other hand, it was a strong year for short fiction. The stories that made both shortlists, most of them great, were:

  • Poul Anderson, “Goat Song” (Won the Nebula and Hugo for Best Novelette): A singer descends into a high-tech underworld to plead for the resurrection of his true love, and is told she’ll follow him out, but he’s not supposed to look… have I read this one before?
  • Arthur C. Clarke, “A Meeting with Medusa” (Won the Nebula for Best Novella): Detailed in the last post.
  • Gardner Dozois, “A Kingdom by the Sea”: A slaughterhouse worker forges a connection with an alien intelligence in his dreams.
  • Harlan Ellison, “Basilisk”: A prisoner of war with a strange power returns to a hometown where he’s a scapegoat for his country’s loss.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Word for World Is Forest” (Won the Hugo for Best Novella): The peaceful Athsheans learn to fight their human colonizers.
  • Frederik Pohl, “The Gold at the Starbow’s End”: A stagnant, collapsing America sends its eight smartest people into space to do some basic research without distractions. The plan goes horribly right.
  • William Rotsler, “Patron of the Arts”: There’s a new art form incorporating holograms and recorded sensations. The narrator commissions a portrait of his wife.
  • Joanna Russ, “When It Changed” (Won the Nebula for Best Short Story): A planet of only women makes their first contact with men in a few centuries, and they’re not enthused.
  • Robert Silverberg, “When We Went to See the End of the World”: A time travel agency offers trips to see the end of the world. It’s briefly fashionable, then people move on to other things.
  • James Tiptree, Jr., “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side”: Humanity is obsessed with aliens, because they’re hot. Like, way too hot.
  • Gene Wolfe, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”: A boy discovers disconcerting things about his origins.

The first recurring theme for 1973 is long titles. A lot of these titles are very long! I’m going to abbreviate them because I’m lazy.

Less trivially, the key word for 1973 is disillusionment. These are not bright futures. They’re stories of failure, collapse, or pyrrhic victory. They’re often angry; “The Word for World is Forest” is the bluntest thing Ursula K. Le Guin ever wrote, and “Basilisk” is by Harlan Ellison. Now that it’s over we’re finally starting to see stories engage directly with the Vietnam war, and these are our main examples for 1973. (Other stories show oblique influence: ubiquitous political protests are part of the background in “The Gold at the Starbow’s End,” and the far-future colony in “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” is culturally French.) They also exemplify a couple of major themes for 1973, which makes them great stories to start off the next couple of sections.

Live and Don’t Learn

In “Basilisk” Vernon Lestig comes home from his stint as a P.O.W. after breaking under torture and talking. His family has fled their home, his girlfriend married someone else, and a mob shows up to administer a beating. The army cleared Vernon, but he’s guilty of contradicting the stories people tell themselves about the war. American soldiers are heroes, and heroes don’t break. Vernon’s normal, unheroic, human breakdown is an awkward reminder of America’s fallibility.

Luckily for Vernon he’s merged with something alien, a basilisk that kills with a breath or a glance. He confronts the mob in the town square and gives them a brief lesson in pain and terror. Then a woman pulls out a gun and blows his head off while screaming “For Kennyyyy!” and everyone goes home thinking they sure showed him. This feels prescient; in the decades to come the U.S. would repeatedly pick fights—in Grenada, in Panama, in Iraq—to prove to itself it could so win a war, to overwrite Vietnam with the straightforwardly heroic and victorious popular memory of Word War II.

“Basilisk” is a story where nothing is learned, and it’s in good company. Our first major theme for 1973 is stasis. These stories put positive change in the same epistemic category as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Problems aren’t solvable. People can’t break out of patterns; they resist epiphanies.

“Goat Song” and “A Kingdom By the Sea”

Take “Goat Song.” I don’t have much to say about “Goat Song.” You know the story. The hero is Orpheus, a giant computer named SUM is Hades, a woman who serves as SUM’s avatar is Persephone. SUM has Eurydice saved on a hard drive. There are Maenads. Orpheus fails his one big test. As usual. That’s the problem with this overstuffed subgenre of myth and fairy tale retellings; I haven’t just heard this one, I’ve heard it a million times. Right where should be moved to pity I’m just thinking “For crying out loud, not again, Orpheus.” When he strolls off to his futile dismemberment I’m relieved to be rid of him.

Anderson said “Goat Song” was inspired by “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” in that it takes place in a world masterminded by an AI (instead of AM, we have SUM). The comparison doesn’t help it. This is the weakest story in the batch—not bad, but not better than okay. If you’re into SFF you know this theme: Earth is a peaceful, pastoral Garden of Eden managed by SUM for the happiness of all, and it sucks. Struggle is good for you! When the world provides everything for everyone people lose touch with the Human Spirit! Orpheus is a great poet because he the only bastard miserable enough to stay in touch with Higher Things.

It’s interesting to compare Gardner Dozois’ “A Kingdom by the Sea.” The title references “Annabel Lee,” an Edgar Allan Poe poem about a man who is, as is standard for Poe heroes (technical term: “Poetagonists”), pining for his dead lover.

Mason works in a slaughterhouse. He’s the guy who hits cows on the head with a sledgehammer. He lives in a tiny apartment in a gray city, eating frozen pizza that tastes of spaghetti sauce and cardboard. Somehow, without noticing, he’s passed the better part of a decade like this: “He will never hit the road again, he is here to stay. His future has become his past without ever touching the present.”

Someone comes to Mason in his dreams. Like “Basilisk,” this is the story of a worn-down schlub whose life is momentarily improved by something alien. The presence is female, and Mason loves her but also seems to identify with her: “He found her, wrapped in the underbelly of himself like a pearl: a tiny exquisite irritant,” and she “blended [Mason] into herself” and “He merged with her forever.” Every night the presence gets closer, until one day Mason wakes feeling he’s finally going to meet her. He does. He recognizes her in the eyes of the day’s first doomed cow, just as it’s too late to stop himself from bringing down the hammer.

“Kingdom” is barely SFF—it’s a character study, and it’s debatable whether anything truly fantastic is happening here at all. Is Mason a telepath whose soul mate is a cow? Is he lost in his imagination? Your interpretation depends on which genre you expect when you read the story. Which makes it a surprising nominee. But Mason might have been an identification figure for fans, who often use SFF as an escape from an all too mundane reality. The presence is an obvious metaphor for Mason’s intuition that there must be more to life than this, a yearning for something undefined but numinous. This is a common wish-fulfillment fantasy in SFF—discovering magic in the world, or a science fictional phenomenon sparking the proverbial sense of wonder. But Mason’s dreams are brained by the hammer of poverty and routine. He can’t imagine a way out of his predicament.

For a fifty year old story, “Kingdom By the Sea” feels dreadfully contemporary. Right now, an entire economic category of Americans feel ground down in inadequately paid, inadequately respected service jobs. They’re carrying mounds of debt, paying for surgeries with GoFundMes, too tired, sometimes, to dream. “Kingdom” is arguing with “Goat Song:” in a world that cares for no one and provides nothing without a struggle, people lose touch with the Human Spirit. Anderson looks at the modern world from the right and thinks it’s too soft, Dozois examines it from the left—more accurately, I think—and sees a world that’s too hard. These are worlds to stagnate, not flourish, in.

“Patron of the Arts”

Orpheus sends Eurydice back to hell. Mason kills in reality the creature he loved in his dreams. In “And I Awoke,” which I’ll cover later, aliens take a heavy toll on their human lovers. Most of these dysfunctional relationships are specifically failed loves. That’s also the core of “Patron of the Arts.”

Of the stories we’re covering here “Patron” has aged least well. It’s not bad, but it’s very male-gazey, and it’s not surprising it’s the least remembered of the batch. William Rotsler is also the least remembered writer; in the SFF world his claim to fame is having drawn the cartoon that inspired Harlan Ellison to write “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” (Which also makes Rotsler responsible for “Goat Song.” Thanks, I guess?)

“Patron” is a character study of Michael Benton Cilento, an artist working in “Sensatrons,” from the POV of a patron who hired Cilento to make a Sensatron portrait of his wife. Sensatrons are an innovative new medium combining high-definition holographic video with “alpha and beta recorders, the EEG machines, the subtle heartbeat repeaters” modeling the subject’s inner life, and project the artist’s intangible, ineffable interpretation of that subject directly into the viewers’ minds. In practice, they’re used mostly for pictures of naked ladies. It’s worth noting that William Rotsler had a day job in the porn industry. That said, this is very well written. It doesn’t baldly describe a plot; it spends time on conversations with Cilento about how he works and his ideas on the nature of art. It’s this surplus-to-plot-requirements stuff that gives a story thematic depth, something too many SFF writers forget even today.

The narrator’s marriage is more of a business partnership than anything. They get along fine, but his wife is more important to him than he is to her and when Cilento comes along they fall for each other. Cilento has been experimenting with some sort of teleportation technology. The narrator discovers the lovers have disappeared together into a Sensatron depicting an alien landscape. Technically this is a happy ending, for the two lovers. But it’s an offstage happy ending. All we actually see is the narrator’s bemused loneliness.

“When We Went to See the End of the World”

Like “KIngdom by the Sea,” “When We Went to See the End of the World,” feels so much like life feels right now. I find Robert Silverberg’s work inconsistent. Sometimes I don’t understand why he used to be so popular. But sometimes one of his stories just hits me, and “When We Went” is one of those. It’s depressed and anxious and brilliant.

“Nick and Jane were glad that they had gone to see the end of the world,” it begins, “because it gave them something special to talk about at Mike and Ruby’s party.” Nick and Jane’s circle are well off, but probably not in what we’d call the one percent: Mike and Ruby’s house is grand, but sounds like the kind of overdone McMansion owned by people who aren’t as rich as they like to pretend.

Trips to the end of the world are the latest fad. You time travel forwards and watch the literal last moments of life on Earth. Nick and Jane declare how moving it all was. They don’t sound moved, just politely enthusiastic, like they saw a pretty good movie. Nick hopes one friend’s wife will find him interesting enough to agree to meet at a motel. He’s a bit put out to discover he’s not the only one who’s taken the trip. Everybody saw a different apocalypse—it seems these are all potential futures. Nobody’s more than mildly curious about this.

After Nick and Jane tell their story, the hosts’ son comes in to announce the east coast has been told to boil their water because of mutant brain-eating amoebas. His parents tell him to go to bed. Between one-upping each other with their apocalypses the partygoers briefly acknowledge other recent news. An earthquake just sent a big chunk of California into the ocean. Nuclear explosions are a regular occurrence. So many Presidents have been assassinated that the national days of mourning are starting to effect the economy. The story doesn’t make a big deal about any of this because Nick and his friends don’t make any big deal. It’s background noise. In the middle of a paragraph about who’s dancing with who, unremarked upon: “Far away there was the sound of an explosion.” These things are happening to other people, somewhere else.

But are they? As the story progresses we learn one of Nick’s friends has a broken leg from a routine mugging. Another is in financial trouble because terrorists blew up his business (are these people actually rich, or living on credit?). The amoebas have already spread to the Great Lakes. Everyone’s dancing past the graveyard, grasping at any distraction, because looking the apocalypse in the face is scary. But constant apocalypse is also boring. “No one was talking about time trips now. The party had moved beyond that point.”

These days a new disaster comes along every week. A coup attempt in Washington? Old news. Accelerating climate change? The new normal. A worldwide pandemic? Bored now. It’s startling how fast we forget. And I’m not just talking about the Nicks and Janes of the world, here; even the left gets briefly outraged by each crisis but never gets around to taking effective action. An apocalyptic collapse of civilization is both imminent and abstract, something very close which we can’t convince ourselves will ever affect us, because we’re distracting ourselves with—

Well, we’re science fiction fans, aren’t we? We distract ourselves with dystopias. City-levelling superhero fights. Zombie apocalypses. Colorful stories about the end of the world.

“The Fifth Head of Cerberus”

Cover of The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Gene Wolfe’s trademark is the unreliable narrator. Wolfe’s narrators don’t understand the audience they’re writing for; or, at least, their audience isn’t the real people who are actually reading. Often they seem to write only for themselves. Wolfe’s narrator’s don’t know what we don’t know. They don’t know what they don’t know. You have to read for what they aren’t saying as much as what they are; what they don’t notice or don’t think needs explanation. Wolfe is dense. Every paragraph says more than it says on the surface. This is unusual in SFF, which has always favored text over subtext. It’s even more striking now, when more than ever genre fiction is anxious to explain everything, lest it be misunderstood.

The unnamed narrator of “Cerberus” writes to understand himself. At one point he recalls a dream. He’s on a ship captained by his father. It’s not moving. The narrator’s aunt is in the dream, too, and he asks her why. She says, “It doesn’t move because he has fastened it in place until he finds out why it doesn’t move.”

The narrator lives on the twin colony planets of Saint Anne and Saint Croix, which deliberately resemble an 18th or 19th century French colonial society. Like historical European colonies, this is land stolen from a native civilization, a race of shapeshifters who eventually died out. Maybe. Sort of. There are rumors that the natives rebelled against the human invaders and replaced them.

The narrator’s father is a distant man accompanied by an injured monkey. He runs a brothel to fund his scientific investigations. Every so often he calls the narrator to his lab to run odd psychological tests. Otherwise the narrator is raised by a robot named Monsieur Million whose head is a monitor screen with his father’s face.

The narrator starts having memory lapses. (At a certain point Wolfe starts using these like blank lines, as scene breaks.) After one gap the narrator encounters a monkey resembling his father’s pet. No, he’s told, this is one he recently adopted himself. He accepts this without protest.

Outside the narrator’s home is a three-headed statue of Cerberus. He imagines a Cerberus with five heads, representing his family: himself, his father, his brother, and M. Million. But it’s appropriate that the statue has three. The narrator, his father, and M. Million are, in a sense, the same person. It becomes clear, though the story is never so gauche as to infodump it, that the narrator is the latest in a series of clones of the scientist who once uploaded himself into the body of M. Million. All were raised as similarly as possible to ensure they become, as closely as possible, the same person. All eventually kill and replace their “fathers,” just as the native shapeshifters became and replaced their human conquerors. (Maybe the clone family are the only humans on the planet.) M. Million has colonized his own descendants, replicating himself exactly. He’s trying to reach some unfulfilled potential. Instead his descendants can’t break out of the pattern he created.

The heads of Cerberus don’t know how to change. The natives of Saint Anne and Saint Croix did, but they just changed into their colonizers.

How Can They Miss Us When We Won’t Go Away?

“Cerberus” is a good segue to our second major theme: colonialism. “Basilisk” was about the effects of colonialist war on the invaders; “The Word for World is Forest” is about its effects on the people invaded. As in way too many old space operas, what we have here is a mid-twentieth-century male chauvinist, militaristic, colonialist future—but this time done mindfully. Le Guin is reacting to Vietnam in metaphor.

Human colonists have enslaved the natives of Athshe, a forest planet. (Earth needs wood!) Le Guin filters half the story through Captain Davidson, who thinks of women as commodities; and of the Athsheans as lazy, degenerate “Creechies;” and whose favored solution to any problem is to kill a few Creechies pour encourager les autres. Davidson’s personality comes out in the prose. He’s careless, thinking in vague generalities (“trees and stuff”). He keeps thinking that one trait or another is “the way he was made” because for him everything is nature, nothing nurture.

Cover of The Word for World is Forest

This is all very blunt, uncharacteristically for Le Guin; in an introduction she wrote for the novella she ruefully admits “I succumbed, in part, to the lure of the pulpit.” But it’s still amazing writing. The chapters in the point of view of Selver, Davidson’s Athshean opponent, are distinct, calmer and more sensitive to the environment. There are casually brilliant images. Like: “Little paths ran under the branches, around the boles, over the roots; they did not go straight, but yielded to every obstacle, devious as nerves.” Which tells us the Athsheans see the forest is a living entity, with a nervous system; and that in their culture yielding to and routing around obstacles is wise behavior. And devious is an unexpected but perfect adjective for nerves, suggesting both twisting and winding, and intelligence.

For the Athsheans a god is a person who brings a new idea into their culture and “Forest” is the story of how Selver becomes a god. Up to now, the Athsheans were pacifists. They don’t kill people. Selver realizes this will need to change, learns violence from the humans, and goes scorched-earth on Davidson’s settlement. It’s a pyrrhic victory; the Athsheans win, but they win by becoming like their invaders.

Davidson becomes a god, too. Facing death, he instinctively assumes the posture he’s seen Athsheans use to defuse potential fights: he lies down and bares his neck. But he doesn’t really understand what he’s done; he hasn’t learned anything. Davidson, the representative of 1970s America, may be incapable of learning or changing. He can only be quarantined.

“The Gold at the Starbow’s End”

In the United States of “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” both social and technical progress have ground to a halt. The population is in a permanent state of protest. They have a lot to protest about. Humanity has pretty much lost the ability to run a civilization and society is breaking down. By the end of the story the President is a lunkheaded used-car-salesman type and Washington is permanently flooded by human-caused environmental disasters. Again, from a 2021 perspective this feels… weirdly applicable.

Dr. Dieter von Knefhausen figures the problem is that everybody’s stopped doing basic research. People look for tweaks and technological refinements that could lead to short-term profits, but nobody’s coming up with really new ideas, either scientifically or philosophically. So Dr. Knefhausen picks the brightest people on Earth and launches them into space where they’ll have nothing to do but think. His plan goes righter than he could have imagined, in the worst possible way. Messages from the starship get weirder and harder to understand. To Knefhausen’s consternation, the astronauts start experimenting with the I Ching and indecipherable mathematical languages. They’re developing something called Farsight and they’ve figured out how to regrow body parts and one of them is sort of dead but not really. As the story ends “bright, terrible” posthumans descend in golden ships to reenact the lyrics to “Oh, You Pretty Things.”

In the last essay I noted that Arthur C. Clarke’s “A Meeting With Medusa” sees evolution as teleological, and takes it for granted humanity must inevitably be replaced by their posthuman space cyborg descendants, “creatures of metal who must one day supersede them.” Here human society is stuck, static; to change, humanity has to create a powerful outside force to colonize itself. But the colonizers first destroy what’s left of civilization—they’re the ones who caused those environmental disasters. The posthumans will repair the Earth, but it’s anyone’s guess whether we’ll recognize what’s left when they’re done.

“When it Changed” and “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side”

SFF appears to be questioning whether any two cultures can meet without one destroying the other. Joanna Russ’ “When it Changed” depicts the moment the planet Whileaway, with a population of entirely women, reestablishes contact with Earth. It’s a brief story with room to sketch Whileaway only in broad strokes, but it’s still vivid. It’s not a utopia, but it’s a good, workable society. But the narrator suspects Whileaway can’t survive contact with men; certainly, the men who’ve arrived on Whileaway are condescending and obtuse. Partly this is an expression of the separatist vein active in second-wave feminism in the seventies; partly it’s a metaphor for how men relate to women with the genders represented as planets. Patriarchal society hasn’t learned anything in hundreds of years. Earth will inevitably fail to see Whileaway as an equal, and Whileaway will be consumed.

Like a lot of James Tiptree’s stories “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side” is about what people do for love. It’s also about cultural capital—about what people do to get close to glamor, to power. Earth has joined the wider universe. Humanity is a backwater hick getting its first glimpse of Hollywood, and it’s fascinated by aliens. They’re attractive. They’re richer than us, more powerful and influential, and that makes them attractive. Humans want to get close to glamor even if it hurts, which it does because these guys have totally different reproductive systems and sleeping with them is like trying to interface an accordion with an eggbeater.

“We’re gutting Earth, to begin with,” says the disillusioned maintenance worker being interviewed by the narrator, a journalist on his first trip into space. “Swapping raw resources for junk. Alien status symbols. Tape decks, Coca-Cola, and Mickey Mouse watches.” The humans of “Awoke” are, like the shapeshifters and the Athsheans in “Cerberus” and “Forest,” letting a hegemonic alien culture displace their identities. Like the Americans in “Starbow,” the humans of “Awoke” can’t imagine their own future, instead borrowing the one offered by their golden, shining neighbors.

The maintenance worker tries to explain this to the journalist, but doesn’t get through; the story ends with the narrator chasing after his first real aliens. Again, we have a narrator who fails to learn anything.

It feels like SFF has given up.

On the evidence of the stories they nominated, how was the English-speaking SFF world feeling in 1973? Well, we’d screwed everything up. And the problems we’d created weren’t fixable, or at least we weren’t going to fix them, anyway. The people America kept invading might get somewhere, although more likely they’d just turn into more stupid assholes like us.

When the (mostly American) fans nominated these stories, the U.S. had just finished losing a war they shouldn’t have fought in the first place, and the Nixon administration was imploding amidst the Watergate scandal. They make interesting reading at a time when America is even more nonfunctional, largely due to societal flaws that were obvious by 1973 but that we never bothered to fix after Ronald Reagan came along to assure us everything was fine.

The stories of 1973 are great, but bleak. They’re futures where no one learns, where humanity is doomed to make the same mistakes forever. Where different people can’t come together, on the personal or societal level, without one hurting the other. Right-wing critics sometimes complain 21st century SFF is too downbeat but, people, it’s got nothing on 1973.

Sometimes SFF touches on ideas outside any real-world context, like post-singularity utopias, four-dimensional life forms, and minds so alien we have no frame of reference to understand them. This creates technical problems, because how do you describe the indescribable? A detailed post-singularity future is bound to come off as bathetic, like those old pulp stories where it’s 900 years in the future and a computer is still a warehouse full of vacuum tubes. Writers usually deal with these concepts like low-budget horror movies deal with their monsters—keeping them offstage, describing them as little as possible, letting the readers imagine what is beyond imagining. It’s interesting that the most obvious thing these stories keep offstage is their most traditionally happy ending, the one the lovers in “Patron of the Arts” get. An ordinary happy ending is as indescribable a possibility as utopia.

Reviewing Worlds of Exile and Illusion 3

I started this third post on Worlds of Exile and Illusion a month ago, but it’s been half-finished a while–I’m only just starting to feel focused enough during my free time to write again. (Here are parts one and two, posted some time ago. It feels kind of odd to have taken so long on this review; it makes it seem as though I found this book more significant than I actually did. In fact, it’s just the thing I happened to be reviewing at the moment I acquired a case of blogger’s block.) Critically speaking, my verdict on City of Illusions was similar to my feelings on Rocannon’s World: Better than most SF adventure novels, not as good as Le Guin’s later work.

What it’s About

A thousand or so years after being conquered by aliens called the Shing, Earth is sparsely populated, its small, isolated human communities separated by miles of wilderness. An amnesiac offworlder named Falk sets off from the east coast of North America to find the Shing’s colony, a city called Es Toch.


Cover art

City of Illusions is twice the length of the other two books–it was published on its own–and is maybe a bit overlong. After Planet of Exile, it feels like a step backwards. Planet read like Le Guin finding her voice. City, like Rocannon’s World, reads like Le Guin is still searching for it, experimenting with common SF tropes. Both are pretty standard quest narratives, Rocannon in a fantasy kingdom and City in a post-apocalypse. The part that seemed most characteristic of Le Guin was the middle of the novel, in which Falk travels through a series of distinct little cultures. (It’s also notable that Falk carries a copy of the Tao Te Ching, a major influence on Le Guin’s work.)

What’s less characteristic of Le Guin is the Shing. They’re evil alien tyrants, basically. We’re told they broke the League of Worlds, conquered the Earth, and destroyed or suppressed most of humanity’s knowledge, technology, and culture. Which is pretty much what you’d expect from aliens in this kind of story. They’re Evil! The hero must stop them!

The Shing, when Falk finally meets them, tell a different story: there never was an enemy. The League self-destructed from its own paranoia. Earth is stagnant not because the human race is being kept down, but because, through fear and fragmentation, it’s keeping itself down. The Shing themselves are just another community of humans. All of which is entirely possible, because in the last two books we didn’t actually see much of the big war. It’s never clear to Rocannon who attacked him, and Planet of Exile isn’t about the war so much as something that happened centuries later because of the war. I had sort of expected that City of Illusions would have a twist ending, and that this would be it–at least superficially, the idea that humanity itself, and not an external alien threat, is its own worst enemy would have been in keeping with the worldview of Le Guin’s Ekumen books.

The real twist is that there is no twist: the Shing are exactly the conquerors they’re said to be, and the book ends with Falk, his memory restored, heading back to Werel to spread the news of the threat. Which I guess is a surprise, more so than the twist would have been. But it’s surprising because it feels wrong.

Way, waaaaay back in part one of this review, I mentioned Le Guin’s decision to give all the people of her universe a common ancestry, and the thematic consequences:

Everybody in this universe is some kind of human–some, like the Gethenians or Athsheans, are very different kinds, but they’re still relatives, if distant relatives. This is, as much as anything, a metaphor: the Hainish universe is no place for the kind of unbridgeable mutual incomprehension you get in, say, Starship Troopers.

I also mentioned the resulting out-of-placeness of the incident in Rocannon’s World where Rocannon and company are accosted by carnivorous bug-eyed monsters. And the Shing, again, are out of place in a way that sort of warps the story. You can see the warpage in the treatment of “mindspeech,” the Ekumen universe’s word for telepathy. This is the thing Rocannon is looking to learn in Rocannon’s World, and as a weapon it’s a little crappy. Yeah, the ability to read minds sounds like the ultimate intelligence source, but it’s hard to make war on people when you feel everything that happens to them. Also, it turns out that in mindspeech it’s impossible to lie. The Shing change the rules: they learn to “mindlie,” and suddenly telepathy is a weapon again. They seem to have punched their way in from a slightly less complex universe and turned everything around them to cardboard. Of the later Ekumen novels, only The Word for World is Forest has a more simplistic moral landscape, and at least there we were encouraged to side not with the Earthmen but the Other.

The end of City of Illusions reads like a cliffhanger, but Le Guin never returned to this storyline–her next Ekumen book was The Left Hand of Darkness, which mentions the war period as something that happened a long time ago, and isn’t it nice that it’s over? And because the vestiges of traditional Doc Smith space opera were a dead weight dragging Le Guin’s early trilogy away from the direction it needed to go, I have to agree: I’m very glad Le Guin ditched this plot.

And I’m glad there was no internet at the time, because if there were I’m sure someone would have been very aggrieved about it on LiveJournal. The idea of continuity probably looms larger in fan consciousness today, in an SF media landscape dominated by serial fiction, shared worlds, and transmedia storytelling, than it did in the sixties. By media-fan standards, the continuity in the Ekumen series isn’t the strongest. It doesn’t need to be: these books are in no way chapters in one big story. What I found surprising was the discontinuity in tone. Fictional universes have conceptual, philosophical underpinnings the way the real world has laws of physics. If these early novels of Le Guin’s feel to me like they exist in a slightly different universe from The Left Hand of Darkness, it’s less because of any forgotten wars than the simple fact that they’re borrowing more from the stock conventions of mid-twentieth-century space opera.

Reviewing Worlds of Exile and Illusion 2 (Now With Fifty Percent Less Relevant Content)

(This is part two of my bloviations about the early Ursula Le Guin novels collected in Worlds of Exile and Illusion. I’ve been letting this sit for a while, but I’m determined to finish it before moving on to something else. Part one is here.)

Planet of Exile

Cover art

Planet of Exile is the best of these three novels, and it’s no coincidence that it pushes the war plot furthest into the background. Instead it’s built around a premise that plays to Le Guin’s strengths: two cultures rubbing up against each other. The war has left a colony from the League of Worlds stranded and isolated on the barely medieval planet Werel. In this shared space, two separate cultural identities are maintained by pressure from both sides: the Leaguers seem foreign because the locals define them as foreign, and because they define themselves as foreign, and the definitions reinforce each other in a vicious circle. The tension reads not only as the fear of one culture being absorbed into another–the balance of power between the locals and the colonists seems about equal, so either culture could end up dominant–but also the fear of being the culture doing the absorbing. The anxieties that inspire colonialists, like the British in India or Viking colonists in Greenland, to rigidly separate themselves from the “natives” are the same as the anxieties that, back home, inspire prejudice against immigrants.

I felt distanced from Rocannon’s World. As fit a mock heroic fantasy, the characters seemed just a bit bigger than life, and proportionately shallow; and the prose tended towards a slightly elevated tone. Rocannon’s World is the kind of book where guys swoop into battle on flying cats. That can be cool, especially coming from someone like Le Guin who can actually write, but it’s not necessarily what I’m in the mood for when I pick up one of her books. Planet of Exile is more grounded. The characters act like people, not myths. The local king isn’t a dashing warrior–he’s a crotchety old man staving off dementia. A siege of the colony perpetrated by the local equivalent of Genghis Kahn and his horde isn’t a swashbuckling adventure–it’s chaos, struggle, short rations, and too-easy death.

Planet of Exile is not quite as deep as Le Guin’s best work–it’s a brisk adventure novel, basically. But it’s still very good. Better, in fact, than some better-remembered SF from the period, or even many recent novels and stories that SF fans have received with enthusiasm. Which is why I’m going to wander off on a tangent again.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Metaphor, and Allegory

Planet of Exile is about emigration, expatriation, and holding on to cultural identity. The colony’s main challenge is that, after many generations on Werel, with the original colonists long dead and the League of Worlds distant and half-recalled history, neither the colonists nor the Werelians see the colonists as natives of Werel.

Someone whose mental image of science fiction was formed by the worst episodes of Star Trek might ask “So what’s Le Guin really writing about? Immigration?” Because, in popular media, that’s how science fiction and fantasy too often work. You have a guy whose face is black on one side and white on the other, and another guy with the same skin tones but on the opposite sides, and they hate each other. And that stands for Racism! You have a planet with guys called “Yangs” and “Khoms” trying to conquer each other. And that stands for the Cold War! Hack scriptwriters love this stuff. So does a fair chunk of the audience, sometimes. Another sizable chunk of the audience doesn’t, because… well, you shouldn’t be able to solve a story, y’know?

You don’t often see this kind of thing in realistic fiction. Well, okay, you do, but everyone immediately realizes it’s crap. Bring on the fantastika, though, and suddenly a lot of crap detectors get a lot less sensitive. A TV detective series featuring flat characters, stupid O. Henry plot twists, ten-ton-anvil morals, and slap-you-in-the-face messages would make it through maybe six episodes of plummeting ratings before getting cancelled. Make it a fantasy series, call it The Twilight Zone, and you’ll be hailed as a television genius.

I’m focusing on media SF because media SF gives lame allegory its biggest audience and greatest cultural influence, but you get low standards in written SF, too. Even people who love SF, even people who write SF, are not immune. Look at what just won a Nebula.

It might be easier to see how most fiction works–as a broad, much simplified generalization–by looking at something set in the real world. I’ll use Anna Karenina as an example so that I can segue into a Tolstoy quotation. A novel has two levels. (I did say “much simplified.” We’re talking grade-school level here. But that’s all I need for the purposes of this blog post.) Level One is the literal level, the specific story about a specific character, Anna. Level Two is the metaphorical level, the level of meaning, and it’s not specific. It’s a jumble of thoughts, issues, images, metaphors, and, well, stuff. It relates to the readers’ lives in any number of ways, and says many things, and can support any number of interpretations, some of them contradictory. Some interpretations may make more sense than others, some may be either particularly insightful or way off base, but none of them will be the One True Answer. As Tolstoy wrote, “If I wanted to express in words all that I meant to express by the novel, then I should have to write the same novel as I have written all over again.”

I’d argue that a book is great to the extent that it provides the reader with stuff. Not that Level One, the story-level, isn’t important–but it’s important because the story the framework that supports the book’s meaning, and if the story isn’t well crafted the meaning is likely to be distorted or dishonest. The problem with Twilight Zone-type stories is that Level One is a thin, unsatisfying veneer and Level Two is simple to the point of tedium. Once you’ve decoded the allegory, matched message (A) to plot (B), there’s nothing else to it.

This is, of course, how our least inspired high school English courses teach students to read novels: as a riddle, with a correct answer. (Write a two-page paper on Lord of the Flies. What is the Theme? List the Symbols.) As a culture, we tend to be a little suspicious of anything with no immediate and obvious utility, literature included. Start a conversation on school curricula, and someone at some point is bound to echo the old students’ refrain: “When are they going to use this stuff?” The great thing about the riddle theory of literature is that it offers an answer: fiction is useful for sending coded messages.

Some people grow up believing this is actually how fiction works. Some of those people even become writers. Mediocre media SF is particularly prone to feature on-the-nose allegories. Is it because the connection between the literal Level One story and the real world is less obvious? Because caring what happens to a fictional character is one thing, but caring about a fictional character in an imaginary world takes an extra mental leap? Maybe allegory is a comfortable mode for writers who just want to know what all this crazy fantasy stuff is for. But fantastic fiction ought to work like any other kind, for all that SF and fantasy stories don’t deal with the real world on their literal levels.

Planet of Exile’s colonists aren’t immigrants. It’s a little closer to the mark to call them refugees, but that’s not really accurate, either–the power relationships between the locals and the colonists are all wrong. They aren’t colonialists or imperialists because they aren’t trying to dominate Werel–they’ve even discarded much of their technology to keep the locals on an even footing. Planet of Exile isn’t definitely about any of those things, but… let’s say it relates to any of them. Reading it might inspire thoughts about any of them, or all of them, or completely unrelated subjects. (Or nothing in particular–if some readers just care about Level One, I won’t argue with them.) It’s all good. Novels aren’t about sending Messages, but generating multiple readings, unique and personal to particular readers.

I love science fiction, I love fantasy, but part of loving a genre is wanting to see it at its best. Look at Le Guin’s early, minor, most conventionally adventure-style novels and it’s obvious how much even the least ambitious end of these genres could raise their games.

Reviewing Worlds of Exile and Illusion (Part One)

Worlds of Exile and Illusion collects Ursula K. Le Guin’s first three novels. By current standards, they’re short books–the first two were published as Ace Doubles, backed with books by Avram Davidson and Thomas M. Disch. They’re minor Le Guin, but minor Le Guin is still better than much of the science fiction being published at any given time.1

These books have also been collected under the title Three Hainish Novels. The Hainish universe is where most of Le Guin’s science fiction novels take place. Here’s the backstory: all known intelligent life forms, us included,2 are the descendants of colonists from the planet Hain. Everybody in this universe is some kind of human–some, like the Gethenians or Athsheans, are very different kinds, but they’re still relatives, if distant relatives. This is, as much as anything, a metaphor: the Hainish universe is no place for the kind of unbridgeable mutual incomprehension you get in, say, Starship Troopers.

Ages later, the human races (or Hainish races, if you want to get technical) are discovering space flight and rediscovering each other. Devices called ansibles allow instant communication between any two points in the universe. The Ekumen, or League of Worlds, coordinates cultural contact and exchanges of information between worlds. This happens mostly via ansible because information can travel faster than light, but living beings can’t. Near light speed time dilation applies. A journey of a dozen light years will take a few hours for the passengers, but more than a dozen years from the point of view of the outside universe. Representing the Ekumen as an envoy to a new world means taking a one-way trip: by the time you get home, if you ever do, everything you know will be gone.

Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions take place on the fringes of a war between the League of Worlds and a mysterious, hostile culture called the Shing, who by the third novel have conquered the Earth. Le Guin’s starting point for these books was the unthoughtful pulp space opera favored by Doc Smith and Edmund Hamilton, which doesn’t sit comfortably with her later work. These novels work best when Le Guin pulls away from the space war narrative.

Rocannon’s World

Cover art

Before fantasy took off as a marketing category, one way to sell a fantasy novel was to laminate it with a thin veneer of science fiction. That fantasy world? Another planet. Those fabulous creatures? Aliens. Magic? Invoke Clarke’s Third Law,3 or “psionics,” which in the science fiction genre are pretty much magic with laboratory cred.

That’s the kind of book Rocannon’s World is: a hundred-page condensed epic fantasy quest. In a couple of ways it’s uncharacteristic of Le Guin’s work. First, one important element of Le Guin’s work is the theme of different cultures making contact and coming to an understanding. It’s the primary plot of The Left Hand of Darkness and The Telling, both novels about Ekumen envoys on recently contacted worlds, and a major part of The Disposessed and The Other Wind. And this is exactly the part of the story that Rocannon’s World skips! Rocannon decides to visit Fomalhaut II in “Semley’s Necklace”; by the first chapter he’s been there for months and is already close friends with the local lord. Second, in one sequence where Rocannon and his allies are captured, taken to a deserted city, and nearly eaten by a band of uncommunicative winged humanoids. It reads like Le Guin’s take on The Thing From Another World, and it’s bizarrely out of place in a universe otherwise free of bug-eyed monsters.

I may come back to those points later when I write about City of Illusions (in a second post, since this one is getting large and as usual I’m writing at a snail’s pace). For now, the point is that Rocannon’s World, as a whole, is not the most remarkable or characteristic thing in Le Guin’s bibliography. Which is why I’m about to spend the bulk of this review talking about the prologue.

Rocannon’s World grew from Le Guin’s short story “Semley’s Necklace,” which became its prologue.4 “Semley’s Necklace” is a story about a woman who enters fairyland for a night to retrieve a family treasure stolen by dwarves, only to find on her return that a generation has passed, her husband is dead, and her daughter is a stranger. It’s a classic fairy tale plot, with the small differences that Semley is from Fomalhaut II, the dwarves are aliens, and traveling to fairyland means flying a spaceship to a museum on another planet.

What makes “Semley’s Necklace” different from a straightforward “yes, but my telepathic dragons are aliens” story is that Le Guin switches styles when she switches planets. The Fomahaut sections are lyrical, and just slightly flavored with the rhythms of oral storytelling. For the museum scenes Le Guin switches to the prosaic, straightforward third person favored by pre-new-wave SF. The implied narrator of Semley’s story is a high fantasy writer, or maybe a folklorist with literary aspirations. Rocannon’s narrator is writing for Astounding Science Fiction.

A vocal minority of hard SF fans are snobs about fantasy. They grumble when a fantasy novel wins a Hugo award. They complain when bookstores file the fantasy and SF together. There was a time when I myself thought I hated fantasy. My excuse is that I was twelve. Even then, though, the “Oh sweet Jeebus there’s chocolate in my peanut butter” attitude didn’t make much sense to me. Where was the hard and fast line between these genres? Don’t they sort of blend into each other? Science fiction stories present themselves as extrapolations of reality, but in practice total impossibilities–telepathy, faster-than-light travel–are acceptable as long as they behave like real-life physical phenomena, working according to definite, predictable rules. Many fantasy worlds are built on similar rigorously worked-out rules (the Lord Darcy stories), or include nothing supernatural at all (the Gormenghast books). Any hard-and-fast definition of either science fiction or fantasy will leave out some edge cases.

It’s clear from “Semley’s Necklace” that whether a story is SF or fantasy partly depends on point of view: how much the narrator, the characters, and by extension the readers understand about the world of the story. Take time dilation. According to the laws of relativity, as an Ekumen ship approaches light speed, time slows down for anyone on board. From Semley’s perspective, she travels for a few hours, stops briefly to pick up her necklace, turns right around and returns home the next morning to find that sixteen years have passed in one night.

Which is also what happens to people who visit other worlds in fairy tales. The difference is that for the hapless denizens of fairyland, as for Semley, this time shift is frightening and inexplicable. For Rocannon, “time slows as you approach light speed” is a fact as unremarkable as “running out of gas makes the car stop working” or “food gets hot in the microwave.” From his point of view the interesting and mysterious thing isn’t that Semley has skipped sixteen years, but that she’s travelled eight light years just to retrieve a necklace. So maybe whether we read a story as science fiction or fantasy depends partly on what the protagonists find wondrous, mysterious, and strange–on the story’s own attitude towards its fantastic elements. The more the non-realist material is treated as a normal, well-understood part of the world, the more the story feels like science fiction.

  1. Their companion novels are pretty much the same deal–Avram Davidson and Thomas Disch were major writers, but these particular books (The Kar-Chee Reign and Mankind Under the Leash) are so obscure I’d never heard of them until I researched this review. ↩

  2. You might object that this doesn’t jibe with the fossil record, but SF writers are allowed that kind of thing when setting up their premises. No one objects to FTL travel, and that’s also technically absurd. ↩

  3. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” ↩

  4. “Semley’s Necklace” is also collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. It reads a bit oddly when divorced from its novel: the first paragraph claims it’s a story about Rocannon, but on its own it’s clearly about Semley. ↩


Ursula K. Le Guin, Lavinia


I’ve been reading a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin this year. In a crazy time, her work feels very calm and sane.

Lavinia is one of her most recent books, and one of her best. I read some reviews after I finished it, and more than one reached a point where the reviewers, in their enthusiasm, were reduced to waving their arms vaguely and saying “this is just a really good book.” As Adam Roberts wrote in his Strange Horizons review, “We might ask, in what ways is this book so very good? But the temptation would be to reply: in all the ways.”

I’m not smarter than Adam Roberts, and I don’t have the Critic Mojo to attempt a close reading of Lavinia or reveal the technical secrets of its success. I’m just saying if you have any interest in the premise at all, you should read this book, and then moving on to some random thoughts (which will be a bit spoilery).

The Premise

Sometime around the third decade BCE, the poet Virgil wrote some pretty good Iliad fanfic. In the Aeneid, a Trojan named Aeneas travels to Italy and founds Rome by marrying the daughter of King Latinus, Lavinia, who has no dialogue and almost isn’t even in the poem.

Lavinia is Lavinia’s life story, told in first person.

Random Thoughts

This is an alternate take on the Aeneid narrated by someone Virgil treats as a plot token instead of a character. In this situation, you might expect a subversion of the original work, with a total bastard Aeneas and Lavinia justly angry with Virgil for ignoring her. That would be a worthwhile approach, but Le Guin is doing something else which to me seems less obvious.

Lavinia works with instead of against the Aeneid, expands it without contradicting it much.1 Lavinia’s role is the same, but she’s not something to be traded. She has some power and chooses her path. She actively works with her father to arrange the marriage to Aeneas, partly because she’s decided she likes the guy, but also because she’s politically savvy. She knows the alliance will be a good thing for Latium’s future because the author has already given away the plot.

Early in the novel Lavinia makes cross-time telepathic contact with Virgil, who’s dying on board a ship to Italy. They hit it off. Virgil is chagrined that he didn’t give Lavinia a bigger role (too late for rewrites), and gives her a heads up on what’s coming. From that point onward, Lavinia isn’t sure whether she’s a real person or a character in a myth. Being a practical sort, she doesn’t worry very much–her life feels the same either way. It’s implied that this is part of why she accepts and eagerly pursues the plot laid out for her: she sees herself as part of a story, and this is her role.2

Aeneas is the upstanding hero Virgil wanted us to see him as. It would be easy to do a subversive take on the guy: Virgil didn’t actually finish the Aeneid before he died, so it ends very suddenly with Aeneas killing his enemy Turnus as Turnus begs for mercy. This is not the most flattering image to go out on. It’s been a few years since I read the Aeneid, but I recall not being very impressed with the hero.3 But he’s easily rehabilitated, for the same reason he looks bad. All Le Guin has to do is carry the story on past the end of the poem. Aeneas, as it turns out, is disgusted with himself, and is a thoughtful ruler for the three years he has left.

Aeneas dies offstage, anticlimactically. The novel carries on past that, too. Where Lavinia parts company with the Aeneid, and the conventions of myths and heroic tales, is in its deliberate lack of climax. Usually the kind of story starring an Aeneas–whether it’s a myth, an epic poem, or a modern fantasy adventure–climaxes in a big damn fight. Lavinia is the story of Lavinia’s life, and like life it doesn’t have a neat climax; it goes on for a while, then gently winds down. Lavinia’s great triumph isn’t victory in battle, but guiding events to ensure that Rome will not be ruled by Aeneas’s incompetent heir Ascanius.

Ascanius grew up with war and believes he can only prove his manhood in battle. This is the kind of thing we associate with “primitive” societies like ancient Greece and Rome, but a lot of people–mostly men–still think this way. Not in the sense that they’re itching to sack Troy, of course, but a lot of men are less interested in being seen as wise, or good, than tough. Watch any amount of television, and pay attention to the ads; there’s a lot of money to be made in convincing men your product will prove they’re not wimps.

More to the point, we sometimes seem to want our leaders to be tough more than we want them to be capable administrators. In the absence of a real war, we metaphorically militarize some mundane problem, declaring war on drugs, on crime, or on poverty, as though we might make people less poor by stabbing something.

One of the best passages in Lavinia is Aeneas and Lavinia’s patient, subtle, not entirely successful attempt to calm Ascanius down. Their point is that if Ascanius thinks he can only prove his virtue by fighting, he’ll be more interested in fighting than anything. And how can a ruler preoccupied with glory be trusted to attend to economics, agriculture, legislation–the dull everyday details that are the real work of governing?

Leadership isn’t about glory and isn’t about winning. It’s mostly about responsibility, and thinking about others before yourself, and the boring daily grind of administration. Lavinia, working in the background of Aeneas’s epic poem, invisibly stage-managing the founding of Rome, might be in a better position to appreciate that than anyone.

  1. Lavinia’s hair is a different color. That’s pretty much it. ↩

  2. It’s tempting to relate this to Le Guin’s interest in Taoism; the Wikipedia page for Tao quotes The Way and its Power by Arthur Waley: “[Dao] means a road, path, way; and hence, the way in which one does something; method, doctrine, principle.” Is her role in the Aeneid her way, her path? Honestly, though, I know so little about Taoism that I’m probably way off base here. ↩

  3. Although Aeneas is nowhere near as big a bastard as Odysseus. Or Achilles, although in his case we were supposed to think he was a prick. ↩