Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A Writer I Love, Part I

Ursula LeGuin writes science fiction. Maybe that is why she is not counted in the canon of high literature. For what she writes is high literature, literature written for the brain, the body, the emotions and the spirit. She once said that the task of an author is to express in words that which cannot be expressed in words, and that sums her genius for me.

LeGuin writes like the Shaker maxim: Do all your work as if this was the last task of your life and also as if you had an eon to complete it. Her writing has the same grace and beauty as a Shaker table: everything frivolous and unnecessary has been removed, everything necessary and important has been refined until it is pure beauty. Reading her is as easy as drinking a glass of clear cool water on a hot day, and its effect is equally vital.

Reading her is easy, but understanding her may not be. The simple sentences that so quickly take you into the story hide multitudes of deeper messages and which of these you grasp will depend on where you are in your own life at the time of the reading. Even when you have discovered a new layer of meaning, you can never be sure that there aren't even further layers, not yet visible to you. That she is both transparent and opaque is what makes LeGuin's books some of my favorites.

LeGuin writes science fiction: books about planets in some distant future or fairy tales for adults and children alike. But she also writes about our reality:

Science fiction properly conceived, like all serious fiction, however funny, is a way of trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this vast sack, this belly of the universe, this womb of things to be and tomb of things that were, this unending story.

Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989).

Doing this in a science fiction story makes sense. We are much more open to a fictional world than to our real one, much more able to see, as an outsider, all that is going on. We can't do that with our daily reality; we are too much part of that story, not its readers.

LeGuin uses her genre to explore deep philosophical questions, among them the impact that gender has on human societies (The Left Hand of Darkness), how power is awarded to some and kept from others (the Earthseaseries) and what it means to have good and evil (all her writings). This last question is the one she seems to be most interested in. She repeatedly returns to it and though she has refined her answer over time, it always has its basis in the idea of balance.

In that LeGuin is a Taoist. She states

To oppose something is to maintain it.

The Left Hand of Darkness(1969)


To light a candle is to cast a shadow.

A Wizard of Earthsea(1968)

and even

What is love of ones country; is it hate of ones uncountry? Then it's not a good thing.

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

To see both sides, to look for balance is wisdom in LeGuin's worlds. Her heros are never totally victorious, the evil is never totally eradicated. This sets her apart from the vast majority of fantasy writers in the Tolkien mode, who see the relationship between good and evil as a battle to death. For LeGuin, the victory of good over evil is not the happy ending but just a stage from which more evil will grow.