The latest issue of the prestigious literary magazine Tin House focuses on the super-hip twin meccas of Brooklyn and Portland. Having been a resident of one of those places for a long while, I can say with authority there’s certainly something of a science fiction vortex going on, making the inclusion of a speculative fiction story in the Brooklyn/Portland issue unsurprising. That awesome fantastical tale doesn’t come from a young hipster writer, however—instead, it’s an epic piece delivered by none other than Ursula K. Le Guin.
Titled “Elementals,” this story takes on the structure of a kind of encyclopedic guide to creatures that are unseen by humans but remain closely linked with the natural world. Brilliantly, all three sections of the story describe creatures whose existences are theoretically possible because in each case, it’s impossible for human beings to witness them. In this way, the elementals of these stories are like contemporary versions of ancient gods—beautifully fantastical explanations for various natural phenomena. Sure, we could attribute earthquakes and volcanoes to plate tectonics, but why bother when the notion of chithons and draks are so much more fun?
The first creatures described by Le Guin are called “airlings” which are essentially invisible flying creatures who are born and die in the sky. Le Guin is a master at examining gender in science fiction, and here there are almost reverse echoes of the author’s famous The Left Hand of Darkness, as she describes the mating habits of the airlings:
“Airlings have not gender, or share a single gender, as you please. Young adults pair off on brief, warm, summer nights in the higher latitudes above the sea; the couples play in the air together, meeting, at the end of intricate and rapid configurations of flight, for a long close, kiss.”
Whoa! Don’t you wish your girlfriend/boyfriend was an airling? Sounds lovely! Le Guin’s mastery of painting beautifully tragic portraits of invisible creatures becomes extremely heartbreaking in the third section, in which she describes the chithon and draks: two creatures which are possibly different evolutionary stages of one beast. Picture the chithons like giant Frank Herbert-style sandworms, knocking about in the depths of the earth, causing numerous earthquakes. Le Guin characterizes the cause of this shaking as a giant “earth snake,” and indicates residents of Japan and California “know what they are talking about.” The reason we’ve never seen a chithon is because there’s no way to get a picture of something that lives so deep in the Earth. Le Guin points out that it would be easier to photograph something in space than something so deep in the Earth. She explores the interesting notion of how a photograph of something seems to make it more real, even if there was previously evidence to indicate its existence:
“The giant squid was known for a long, long time only through rumors and strange wounds on a whale’s side and improbable decaying fragments of an enormous corpse; and like giant squids, chithons live deep, stay down and don’t come up. We’ve invaded the depths of the sea and photographed the giant squid, it isn’t just an old sailor’s tale, it’s a celebrity now like everybody else—it’s real, see? that’s a real picture, so the giant squid is real, the way it wasn’t until we took the picture. But there are no photographs of a chithon. Well, there are some. There are photographs of Nessie in Loch Ness, too. You can photograph anything you believe in.”
I like how Le Guin contradicts herself and plays with the notion of belief in the fictional versus a predilection toward the probable. Both are conflated here in a manner which immediately reminded me of Conan Doyle’s belief in faeries and ghosts, while his most famous fictional creation—Sherlock Holmes—didn't believe in any supernatural activity. Somehow, our brains can hold both things to be true. The narrative voice of Le Guin in this story seems to be dismissive of Nessie, which is hilarious when you consider the creatures that she’s describing as being “real.” But it’s in this irony where the purpose of imagining supernatural creatures controlling the natural world becomes clear: some part of the human brain likes and thrives on rational contradictions.
In her lovely ending passage, Le Guin postulates the belief that chitons become draks; otherwise known as beasts responsible for volcanoes. Like a pupa turning into a butterfly, chitons metamorphosize into draks before bursting up through the crust and undergoing a fiery death inside of a volcano. But these creatures aren’t exactly invisible. There’s an interesting distinction:
“All of this must remain, for now, speculation. The chitons are not invisible, but they live in utter darkness, and it is not certain that nobody has ever seen one. The draks are visible, but they live in white-hot lava, and only momentarily, blindly are they ever seen.”
The only other elemental detailed is text-based creature called a “booklet.” Here, Le Guin comes up with a creature responsible for a lot of typographical errors. Frighteningly, these creatures also seem to have invaded e-books and internet texts, too. As I wrote this, I could have sworn I saw my text swarming with booklets! These creatures are more meta than the other creations in this piece, but no less elusive.
The whole story and the rest of the issue are worth reading! (Contributors Hannah Tinti and Adam Wilson don't serve up science fiction stories, but they're both fantastic, vibrant writers worth knowing about.)
More than anything, “Elementals” is further proof that Le Guin is just as thoughtful and relevant to literature today as she was in the previous century. The Brooklyn/Portland issue may be a snapshot of two cool and literate urban areas, but Le Guin's hipness—like her creatures—is formidable and damn near immortal.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.