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Ursula K. Le Guin, “the emissary from Orsinia,” challenges expectations (loa.org)
68 points by lermontov on Aug 28, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 47 comments

For someone who was/is excited by reading the Orsinia tales: can you share why, besides just telling me repeatedly that you were excited by it?

I am someone who has been often disappointed by vaunted authors of the past (Vonnegut, Clarke, etc.), because their work suffers from the "it's not novel (anymore)" feeling one often has when watching old movies. I get that these were ground breaking when they first came out, but they don't seem to shine anymore, because I was first exposed to works that have iterated upon them...no nostalgia factor to sweeten the deal for me.

Put another way: I totally get that muskets were ground-breaking for the time, but gosh-darnit, I have seen nuclear submarines.

When reading the linked article, I felt a lot of the same: a lot of the "amazing" things I have come across in other novels, and they feel like par for the course for a good book.

Also the whole spiel about Ursula wanting to change the world, and needing a lever and a place to stand...well, she didn't change the world, in hindsight. Did she?


A really bothersome quote from the article: "By speaking from Orsinia, as its only authorized emissary, Le Guin reminds us of everything we take for granted and everything we have neglected."

What the heck does that sentence mean? I can't imagine everything I have taken for granted and neglected as a single meaningful thought or concept. In fact, if I tried to imagine everything I have taken for granted and neglected, it becomes a thought stretched so thin, that it loses all meaning. It becomes nothing because its too many things.

So am I fair in discounting this sentence (and most of the article) as fan gibberish?

My experience with old works is that, while they may at first appear to suffer from the "it's not novel (anymore)" feeling, over time I find that the real issue is that they are far more different from contemporary literature than any contemporary literature. They're too novel.

We can go all the way back and talk about Homer as the best example. The way that _The Iliad_ tells a story, conveys the experience of war, illustrates a character, even the way the language works as you read is completely different from a modern novel. It takes work to adapt to it.

I would say that, in general, that's the joy I find in all older literature, whether it's Joyce, or Dickens, or Philip K. Dick, or Jack Vance: in finding out how it wants to talk to you, and letting yourself fall into some strange mode of communication.

In my mind, every author brings something uniquely their own to the table, and the older you get, the more strange and unfamiliar that thing is.

Anyway — YMMV, of course, and you may be more right than I am. But your take on this made me think a bit, and I thought I'd talk about it.

That's actually...a really good point. It might be that my "it's not novel" feeling is actually "it's too novel (to be comfortable)". Realizing this, it kind of makes me want to rebel against the whole "it feels too old" and actually go re-read some of the stuff that didn't catch my attention before.

Nah, you were right.

But you can get enjoyment from reading hard/old things.

Driving to a great view might not be as enjoyable as hiking to an ok view.

But Philip K. Dick is crap. Not cool to say it. And like you say might have been great for his time, but try and read "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" it's plain awful.

But you can't tell me you wouldn't love to see a musket battle, some of the classics are still around because they were good.

OT: I find Ursula K. Le Guin work just ok. Very overrated. But it's not hard to read something like Earthsea and you can then say you've done it.

PKD has some bad stories, but I think he has a lot of good ones. Electric Sheep isn't one of his good ones, I agree with that. I quite liked most of the stories in Beyond Lies the Wub. An example of a bad story of his from that collection, off the top of my head, is The Indefatigable Frog. That was pretty silly. I encourage you to give Beyond Lies the Wub a shot before writing him off entirely.

I personally tend to think that PKD really rushed all his works. And it shows.

As a ton of SF, his themes and the ideas behind are still really interesting, but it lacks a ton of polishing work.

Aside: I've read the first 100-200 pages of Ulysses seemingly once every year for the last fifteen years trying to "get it" and always end up giving up. (Same for Proust and Pynchon). If you can provide any guidance about what Joyce communicates to you, please do.

(Gabriel Garcia Marquez was also in that group for a number of years/readings, but I finally got over the hump and love that style now. To the point that he may be my favorite author. I think Günter Grass was my stepping stone there.)

These books are not easy to read. They ask some work on the part of the reader. It's not entertainment. They bring much more than their story to the table, but they're way harder to read than non-fiction.

What you need is time. Lots of time. I've read the complete in search of lost time novels when I was around 15. I found it easy to read because I had nothing else to do. And I am plenty sure it changed a lot of things for me.

I've been reading the Magic Mountain and Ulysses for 10 years, unable to finish them yet, but I don't feel it's a problem. Just as you, if I try again time after time, it's probably because I know it's worth it somewhere.

Incidentally, it's not limited to old books. I had the same trouble with Quicksilver from Neal Stephenson until something cracked and I was able to read the whole baroque cycle in less than 3 months.

I highly recommend the Re:Joyce podcast by noted Irish author Frank Delaney. He deconstructs Ulysses in a very entertaining manner, 20 minutes at a time. Available at http://blog.frankdelaney.com/re-joyce/

Also, I recommend listening to the Audible version of Ulysses, which I found much easier than reading it in printed form - the language really comes alive.

I wouldn't say that I "got" Ulysses, but I made it through and enjoyed it.

That would be my recommendation — not to worry about "getting" it, and just read and enjoy the words on the page, particularly the way they sound. The prose in Ulysses is song-like, it can pull you into a trance. (Much like the _Odyssey_.) Obviously sometimes you have to look up a word, but sometimes it's better to let it go and lose yourself in the effect.

I don't know if I'd push myself through to read it nowadays, though. I am more willing to give up on a book now.

I highly recommend Pynchon (yeah, over Joyce) and recommend reading while referring to notes; there are some good websites with page-by-page annotations.

I agree. Ursula Le Guin has never been into YA shit.

> I am someone who has been often disappointed by vaunted authors of the past (Vonnegut, Clarke, etc.), because their work suffers from the "it's not novel (anymore)" feeling one often has when watching old movies.

Clarke and others established the mainstream of modern scifi: spaceships, advanced technology, robots etc. I do 100% agree that most of this genre has been done better later, and especially Clarke suffers from this.

Le Guin's scifi is ...different. Her emphasis is not on technobabble or flashy new gadgets. Her style is ...anthropologic. Technology and space travel are there, but in the background. And this line and tradition of scifi has received much less modern attention, compared to the mainstream.

So while Clarke has been surpassed many times in his chosen style, I don't think anyone has surpassed Le Guin in her style. Not that I am aware of anyone even having tried, really.

Just grab one of Le Guin's books (The Left Hand of Darkness is the most famous) and see if you like her style. I think it's still unique.

> Her emphasis is not on technobabble or flashy new gadgets. Her style is ...anthropologic. Technology and space travel are there, but in the background.

That sounds like a general description of the "space opera" genre: more emphasis on numerous people and their complex interactions.

If "Space opera" is about the great arches of (imagined) history, Le Guin's stories are more at a human level. Le Guin is not opera, she is chamber music.

I recently encountered her blog-based writing advice project: http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/07/27/navigating-the-ocean...

To be honest her responses (e.g http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2015/07/27/navigation-q1-how-do... and http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2016/03/21/navigating-the-ocean... ) seem saccharine and trapped in the past (1940s? 1950s?). This may be ageism on my part. I think there's a degree of pomposity and self-importance in these blog posts and in the Orsinia review.

See also Le Guin's views on the term "ichor":

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ichor 'Author Ursula K. Le Guin, in "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", calls the term "the infallible touchstone of the seventh-rate."'

(Seventh rate? This is ridiculously snobbish. She sounds like a stereotypical patronizing bearded UNIX programmer)

It is very strange to judge an author based on a sentence fragment from a 37-year-old, out-of-print essay collection. It also seems hardly snobbish to me to note that certain terms are heavily overused in particular genres of fiction.

I haven't read the Orsinia works, but I enjoyed Le Guin's first three Earthsea books a lot (haven't read the others yet). They tend to be fairly personal stories about individuals coming to terms with their personal failing's and trying to find balance. The world is also interesting, it feels varied and lived in (she also has an enjoyable take on the ancient unknowable horror trope).

Here's a enjoyable (to me, at least) short story of hers that you can read online (neither in the Earthsea or Orsinia setting):


One particular thing about the Earthsea series that impressed me was something I don't want to spoiler for others, yet which I think I can describe somewhat. Fairly early on, a basic feature of the world and how it worked was introduced, and I just recoiled. It so offended my poetic and rational expectations that I considered it a major flaw, until I got a few books further in. Then it was revealed that the feature was actually wrong, a symptom of damage that evil sorcery had wrought on the world, which fact had passed from the memory of many Earthsea people. Of course having reading that, and discovered a foreshadowing that took decades (from 1968 to 2001) to be fulfilled, I now consider it a major strength of the series.

I think the young Le Guin just needed to build the mythology and cosmology to set up her fantasy world for the Earthsea stories. And hers isn't really so different from the cosmology/theology in some actual folklore. So she just set it up and went on telling the actual Sparrowhawk stories.

Then decades later she started to think of the implications of the chosen cosmology. They are cruel, but so are some of the actual folklore cosmologies. And then she invented this way to correct the cruel features in the fabric of her cosmology, and to write a very unique novel about it.

I don't see any hints in her pre-2001 Earthsea stories that she'd had intended this feature to be "fixed" later.

I didn't like that. It wasn't foreshadowed, it was a clear example of retcon.

The last Earthsea books are a bit to the first three what the prequels are to Star Wars. They're the author being ashamed of their earlier work, and radically reinterpreting it.

Of course, Ursula Le Guin is a much better writer than George Lucas is a director, so the later books are not exactly bad. But they do retcon on the universe and the message.

The first three Earthsea books were heavy with Taoism, which is of course heavily gender essentialist. So it was a lot about gender roles, but in a complex way. The main character Ged is a celibate man, balancing between "doing" (yang) and "being" (yin). I liked it. I think she managed to take a pretty sexist world-view (Taoism) and make it more human, sympathetic - and balanced, ironically enough.

But in the latter books, she apparently didn't think she had been feminist enough. The villains are all men. The victims are all women. Ged now stabs a guy with a pitchfork to save a woman, stops being celibate (with the woman he saved...), I mean, come on. I think it went the wrong way entirely when it came to gender roles.

Why would a timeless natural phenomenon feature a man-made artifact? So tasteless...

If I re-read this series I'll be on the lookout for the Taoism.

I haven't read this series but if you want a good introduction to Le Guin you might try Changing Planes, a 2005 book of short stories. Fairly light reading, but some stories are pretty mind-bending in an anthropological sense.

It's pretty hard to say why some stories click with some readers. I found some of her earlier stories fairly didactic, but then again they were written in the 60's.

It's been too long since I read the Orsinia tales (time to pick them up again...), but in general Le Guin is one of my favourite authors for her social aspect. Much of that is still relevant, though it helps to be aware of society when they were published.

E.g. some here have mentioned Left Hand of Darkness, which goes to great lengths to describe a society where gender is fluid (the people of Gethen changes gender regularly), and the consequences of that on a society where labelling people over gender makes no sense. By consequence, the man from Earth is seen as a pervert for being permanently male.

The idea of gender-changing aliens is not so novel any more, but while transgender people are more accepted, the society depicted in the novel where changing gender or taking on different gender roles is fully accepted is something we are nowhere near. The novel was published in 1969.

What sets it apart more than depicting a now "normal" type of aliens changing gender, is that it is not superficial.

E.g. you find lots of SF where novel details about aliens are basically visual. In Star Wars, for example, even characters like Jabba the Hutt or Chewbacca are pretty much treated like an awkwardly shaped humans - we see little evidence of consequences of any thought given to how their differences would shape their respective societies.

But when Le Guin sets out a world, she tends to weave together a society where the differences from our world have consequences. We don't get a Gethen that is basically Earth with people that change between man and woman with no societal consequences. We get a Gethen where the concepts we tie to gender roles don't make sense to the locals, because Le Guin have given her interpretation of what the consequences of such a change might be.

One younger (though sadly dead) author who adopted much of Le Guins sense of letting social aspects ripple through his work was Iain (M.) Banks, who while focusing more on technology than Le Guin, also spends more time than usual for SF exploring social dynamics and their consequences.

Orsinia tales are similar (and I wish I remembered more details) yet different. Similar in that she has made her changes to society, and then let them ripple through the fabric of her created society, and described the result, instead of inserting her changes and let the rest of society remain.

This attention to detail in depicting the social structure of her fictional societies tends to be what sets here apart. Her societies feel three dimensional and are often the point of her stories, where most fictional societies in literature tend to feel like cardboard cutout theatre sets in the background of the real focus of the story.

Iain M. Banks is awesome. His "A Few Notes on the Culture" essay is one of my favourites.

> Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces.

> The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what- -works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is - without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset - intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.

> It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual [immaturity and] - through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others - a kind of synthetic evil.

> Intelligence, which is capable of looking farther ahead than the next aggressive mutation, can set up long-term aims and work towards them; the same amount of raw invention that bursts in all directions from the market can be - to some degree - channelled and directed, so that while the market merely shines (and the feudal gutters), the planned lases, reaching out coherently and efficiently towards agreed-on goals. What is vital for such a scheme, however, and what was always missing in the planned economies of our world's experience, is the continual, intimate and decisive participation of the mass of the citizenry in determining these goals, and designing as well as implementing the plans which should lead towards them.

> Of course, there is a place for serendipity and chance in any sensibly envisaged plan, and the degree to which this would affect the higher functions of a democratically designed economy would be one of the most important parameters to be set... but just as the information we have stored in our libraries and institutions has undeniably outgrown (if not outweighed) that resident in our genes, and just as we may, within a century of the invention of electronics, duplicate - through machine sentience - a process which evolution took billions of years to achieve, so we shall one day abandon the grossly targeted vagaries of the market for the precision creation of the planned economy.

> The Culture, of course, has gone beyond even that, to an economy so much a part of society it is hardly worthy of a separate definition, and which is limited only by imagination, philosophy (and manners), and the idea of minimally wasteful elegance; a kind of galactic ecological awareness allied to a desire to create beauty and goodness.

> Whatever; in the end practice (as ever) will outshine theory.

He just philosophizes like that in the middle of some discussion about some artificial space civilization lmao it's amazing

The thing is, she made a huge impact on the world. She changed the fantasy genre immeasurably, as much as Tolkien. She wrote bestselling books about gay, non-white, non-European, heroes when that was super rare (not to mention thought of as commercial suicide). She popularized a concept of gender that was based on one's self-identity rather than biology. She wrote THE DISPOSSESSED.

I'm very sorry but if you don't think one of the most influential writers of the 20th century has changed the world, that view seems like a failure of your perspective.

The article was absolutely fan gibberish ;).

When it comes to fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, it's definitely worthwhile to follow the lineage back to its roots. If you didn't, it would be like reading stories about dragons, hobbits, dwarves and elves but never reading lord of the rings.

I wouldn't say Le Guin is a huge part of the main stream lineage of fantasy, but for a particular branch she definitely is. If that branch is important to you, you're missing out if you haven't read her stuff.

Of her works, I have only read "The Left Hand of Darkness". The writing is great, the worldbuilding is interesting, but there's one thing which stops me from finding it entertaining - the lack of a protagonist, in the sense of a main character driving the plot. This is a deliberate choice, as Genly's job is to act as an observer. Things happen to him, and he reacts, but the only time he really acts decisively is during the ice-crossing sequence, which I thought was by far the best part of the novel. This passive main character is a big part of what makes the novel unique and interesting, but it also means I don't strongly care about what happens to any of the characters. The novel reads more like an academic work of anthropology than an exciting story.

No. It's not gibberish, but you need to read more broadly because that paragraph itself doesn't explain. Read some of the surrounding text.

Le Guin sort of writes social/political commentary through the vehicle of fiction. Just read more. You'll get it eventually.

Okay, let me pull out some post-2005 fiction that does the same thing:

James S. A. Corey writes beautiful socio-political commentary in The Expanse series.

Max Brooks' World War Z was biting in its own special way, more (admittedly positive) social than political commentary.

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice shows us a world where the only pronoun is "she", and what it might mean for a ship to love her crew.

There are lots of people who write social and political commentary through the vehicle of fiction. It has kind of been one of the defining features of fiction for all of its existence, no?

> Just read more. You'll get it eventually.

This is reasonable. I get that some things can't be communicated too well, and a lot of my favourites I could recommend only in the same way.

Why didn't the article simply begin and end with those two phrases?

With respect, The Expanse is fluffy and very average. World War Z is well structured but hardly amazing. Ancillary Justice is just... boring. The characters are awful given the excellent concept behind the book.

That said, I find Le Guin quite dull, though the characterisation is excellent.

In suspect we're in that ambiguous area in which people have different opinions but I do find it a little absurd to reference those three books in response to a comment which implicitly disses Vonnegut.

I didn't want to put up those titles as "amazing", only as "pretty darn good (with the caveats: to me, for now, until something else blows it out of the water)". I won't be writing articles extolling their virtues, and I certainly don't think they are timeless.

Maybe you are pretty meh on those books, because something else has captured your fancy much more. I would be interested in knowing what captures your fancy, because we have a common ground we're working off of (in terms of what we've both read).

> In suspect we're in that ambiguous area in which people have different opinions but I do find it a little absurd to reference those three books in response to a comment which implicitly disses Vonnegut.

I wouldn't dare diss Vonnegut, or even Le Guin, or any writer, for that matter---it's not my place, but when I come across articles that evangelize them in the way the OP does, I can't help but think "but what's so great about them?". For instance, Vonnegut established tropes and themes that writers today riff off of constantly, so he's a pioneer. I get that. In some distant sense, I can appreciate that too. I just can't enjoy his works the same way I can with stuff that has come out more recently, because his stuff doesn't seem novel to me anymore.

yeah the article is a bit fluffy. And I probably didn't answer your specific question very well (ie given that you can find the same themes elsewhere, why read Le Guin)

I just think Le Guin works are still worth reading in themselves without having to justify why they are better/more novel/more correct etc than any other particular work.

> I just think Le Guin works are still worth reading in themselves without having to justify why they are better/more novel/more correct etc than any other particular work.

Makes sense to me.

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is perhaps her most biting short story. It's not one of the Orsinian tales, although it could have been set in that world.

Anyone who writes fantasy should read her essays in "The Language of the Night". (Also Poul Anderson's "On Thud and Blunder".)

While Omelas deserves to stand the test of time, it is also an excruciatingly bad piece of writing. Every few years when I revisit the story, I'm stunned by how clumsy the narrative device is.

Is it? I don't know what other device she could use that would draw people in as easily. Remember that before it became the story we talk about, it had to be the story we read. And it's not a story you want to read. If you told it with characters more clearly drawn, it would be about their reaction to the central premise. If you told it less poetically, it wouldn't have the mythic magical realism that keeps you from thinking about the logic, instead of the question.

I thought it was ridiculously ham-handed and obvious until I realized that a lot of people still didn't get it.

Some things that are fine in exceedingly short stories wouldn't work at all in a novel. Other SF authors have really short stories like that: Asimov, Wolfe, etc. When the story is less than four pages long one can afford to re-read the awkward parts.

One of my favorite authors. The Dispossessed is also a fantastic read which goes far beyond the simple classification of SiFi.

I still need to read that one. The Left Hand of Darkness has been my favorite so far.

I love The Left Hand of Darkness. That said, I'm not really a big fan of her Earthsea books.

I very much enjoyed Earthsea, but they are astoundingly different from the Hainish stuff.

I read LHOD just a few months ago. Great stuff!

ohh and "the ones who walk away from omelas"

That one is so good!


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