A Moment in a Life: Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Day Before the Revolution”

I have always loved “The Day Before the Revolution,” now online to celebrate the Library of America two volume edition of Le Guin’s Hainish novels and stories.

I first read it in the British collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters Volume 2, in 1979, where it is the concluding story and the best of a very very good set of stories. I had already read The Dispossessed and was thrilled to find this story set in the same world. But that’s not why I loved it.

If you asked me now what’s great about it, I’d say it’s because it is that unusual thing, a character story set in another world. It is a moment in a character’s life, that shows you that character’s whole life, and her whole world, and it isn’t our world. I want to say that it’s an intensely human story, which it is, but all the characters are technically aliens, and the story takes place on another planet. What Le Guin is giving us is part of an imagined and complex history of an alien planet and a moment that will change everything for the history of two worlds—and eventually more than two. But the moment is filtered through the perceptions and experience of one old woman.

Laia Aseio Odo is a wonderful character, deeply imagined, complex, and incredibly unusual in SF now, never mind in 1974 when Le Guin wrote this story. People wanting to point at Le Guin’s feminism usually mention The Left Hand of Darkness or Tehanu, but this quiet story is in many ways more revolutionary. Laia is seventy-two, at the end of her life. She has had a stroke, and her right side has not completely recovered, she drools and is intensely self-conscious about it. She is an old woman, in a genre where we still see very few old women. And she is an old woman who remembers being six and sixteen, who still recognizes her sexuality, and who has been an intellectual giant, their world’s (better) equivalent of Marx. Her books of political thought have given a name to the movement, but now she’s old and a little vain and wants to keep thinking about the past.

She has been fighting all her life for the Revolution, and it’s about to come but she’s going to have another stroke and miss it. She has been fighting for a better future that is going to be for other people—and we, the readers who have read The Dispossessed, know that it will only be a partial victory. This isn’t a story about winning, this is a story about going on, “true journey is return” and making what you can out of what you have. “If all you had was mud, then if you were God, you made it into human beings, and if you were human you tried to make it into houses where human beings could live.”

She’s a wonderfully solid character, rounded and real, and it’s a wonderful moment in a life, the day before the Revolution, the day where she sees flowers she has been seeing all her life but never had time to learn their name. And apart from the fact we’re on another planet in an imagined history, apart from the fact a woman is the intellectual powerhouse and revered leader of a movement that doesn’t want leaders, it’s a lot like a mainstream story. An old woman thinks about the past and goes for a walk. Nothing happens. Everything happens. But it could only happen in science fiction, this moment before the revolution, this history, this life.

Incidentally, and it is incidental, another thing that’s unusual in genre, Laia Aseio Odo is a woman of color–she describes herself as “mud coloured” but then so is everyone in this world. Everyone in this story is dark skinned. This was also a neat thing to do in 1974.

But if you’d asked me what I loved about it when I was fourteen and read it for the first time, I’d have said it was the incredible realism of having her wake from a dream in which she spoke to a dead loved one but can’t remember what he said. It was an experience I was intensely familiar with, but had never before seen described. We live in a world where grief is increasingly rare, and not much talked about. (I sometimes think we’ve swapped taboos with the Victorians, so that for us sex is universal and grief unmentionable.) All Freud’s patients had lost siblings in childhood, but with better medicine etc., I am very rare in having done so, and this is great. We are, culturally, mostly encountering grief later in life. I’m for this, it is positive. But when something is culturally normal, culture has ways to deal with it, and when it isn’t, those who experience it anyway can feel isolated by it. Fourteen-year-old Jo was deeply impressed with Le Guin’s portrayal of the details of Laia’s enduring grief for Taviri, the dream, and how he is known by his public name, not his private one. I found a kind of comfort of recognition in it. Which is one reason why I find people saying simplistically that readers need somebody to identify with problematic—at fourteen, I had no difficulty identifying with a seventy-two year old mud-coloured political thinker who had something in common with me, while I had great difficulty identifying with the supposed interests and concerns of teenagers.

The Day Before the Revolution is a beautifully written story, and perhaps reading it now can inspire us to write more characters this real and complex, perhaps even some of old and female and non-white. Perhaps is can also console us and help us find some hope in keeping on going in hard times.

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories is available from Library of America.
Read Le Guin’s introductions to Volume One and Volume Two here on Tor.com.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published a collection of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections and thirteen novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. Her most recent book is Thessaly. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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