The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Part I: Le Guin’s Early Stories and Germinative Tales

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering the first half of the short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, from “Semley’s Necklace” to “The Good Trip,” pp. 1-104 in the 1975 Harper & Row hardcover edition.

As a rule, I don’t particularly like short fiction. Before the gasps of heresy overtake me, let me explain: I like big stories, I like to get lost in a world, to become part of the milieu of characters the author is bringing to life. Short stories can offer this and many novels don’t. And some short stories are downright annoy-all-your-friends-with-your-reading-suggestions amazing. Some by Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Nisi Shawl, and (odd as this pairing is) Arthur C. Clarke come to my mind. But as a preservation strategy—we live in a world where dozens of worthwhile SFF novels come out every year—I keep to novels and only delve into the world of short fiction when those friends won’t let me do otherwise.

As a rule, however, I love Ursula Le Guin’s writing. So her first story collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, brings me to an impasse before ever I crack the spine. Upon doing so, I know already I’m in good hands—these are, after all, Le Guin’s—because I’ve already read and loved many of these stories. In fact, what is astounding about The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is just how many of her most famous stories (measured very unscientifically by how well known they are among the average SFF reader) are here, from “Semley’s Necklace” and the “Rule of Names” to “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” and, of course, her most famous two stories of all: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and “The Day Before the Revolution.”

Despite my general disinterest in short fiction—my deepest apologies to Charles Payseur—it’s impossible for me not to treasure The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, which I’m lucky enough to have in the first Harper & Row hardcover edition (bought for $2.99 at a used bookstore, no less!), featuring a minimalist design and a tame but strange 1970s cover mashing up images evocative of fantasy and science fiction in turn. The collection appeared shortly after The Dispossessed won both the Hugo and Nebula for best novel. Comprising seventeen stories, the collection included stories shortlisted for Hugos and Nebulas in 1970, 1972, and 1975, while “Omelas” won the Hugo in 1974 and “Day Before” won the Nebula in 1975. All the stories were reprints, and represented an author recognized by the SFF community (with twelve genre award nominations and six wins between 1970 and 1975) as in her prime, the hot-shot new writer. As Le Guin herself notes in the foreword, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is a retrospective on “the development of the artist” in her first ten years writing professionally.

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters poses a bit of a challenge for the Reread, as short story collections generally do for this sort of writing. On the one hand, I could easily write an essay on each story; on the other hand, I want to actually finish this Reread some day! I’ve decided to break the reread of this collection in two, though I can’t promise I’ll do the same for future story collections. It’s worth taking a closer look at this first story collection, though, since several of the stories become the “germ” (in her words) for novels we’ve already reread and several others are not only among her most famous short stories, but among the most famous SFF stories of all time. For now, I’m going to take a look at the first eight stories, which include the four germinative ones:

  • “Semley’s Necklace” (1964)
  • “April in Paris” (1962)
  • “The Masters” (1963)
  • “Darkness Box” (1963)
  • “The Word of Unbinding” (1964)
  • “The Rule of Names” (1964)
  • “Winter’s King” (1969)
  • “The Good Trip” (1970)

 

Four Germinative Stories

Like the novel worlds they birthed, the four short stories “Semley’s Necklace,” “The Word of Unbinding,” “The Rule of Names,” and “Winter’s King” are wonderful in their own ways, though none is as rich or art as the novels that followed, they range from the truly impressive short story to the cute addition to Le Guin’s oeuvre. 

I’ve already noted my serious admiration for “Semley’s Necklace,” one of Le Guin’s earliest stories and the impetus behind her first full-length novel and first Hainish novel, Rocannon’s World. It’s an excellent choice to start the collection since it places us in familiar territory, but it also just a genuinely good story, something I can imagine appearing in Beneath Ceaseless Skies today, for the way it uses the language of fantasy to write a science fiction story of a woman’s intergalactic travel and the negative effects of time dilation on her life when she returns home. Despite being an early story (and despite Rocannon’s World being frankly shoddy by comparison), “Semley’s Necklace” is lyrical and Le Guin’s attention to language as a craft, rather than merely a vehicle for story, shines through.

Le Guin presaged her three Earthsea novels with “The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names.” The former starts out rather dryly with a wizard caught in a dungeon seeking escape; the barebones of wizardry as presented later in A Wizard of Earthsea are here, but the magical system’s figuration is gaunt and reminds me somewhat of Peter Beagle’s Schmendrick the Magician (the name, Festin, doesn’t help). But what’s cool about this story is how it prefigures the realm of the dead visited in The Farthest Shore, rendering it an eerie place that fits quite oddly alongside the somewhat silly wizard we first encounter. There’s also great attention to nature and trees in particular, which is quite telling of Le Guin’s naturalist investments in later work. As for “The Rule of Names”…well, it’s there. The story explains the titular rule (you don’t tell people your true name or ask them theirs), gives us a bit about dragons and Pendor, and is on the whole a cute, fun story—the fact that the chubby inept wizard is named Mr. Underhill and that he lives, like a certain Hobbit, under a hill is a perfectly demure joke at Tolkien’s expense.

Finally, of the germinative stories, there’s “Winter’s King,” which introduced readers to the world of Gethen/Winter featured in The Left Hand of Darkness. It’s kind of a forgettable story about King Argaven and the political turmoil on Gethen after the as-yet-untold events of the later novel, detailing in small part the effect of the Ekumen’s introduction on the Gethenians. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that, when the story first appeared in the magazine Orbit the same year as Left Hand (though, I gather, it was written and submitted before she had begun work on the novel), it used masculine pronouns for the androgynous Gethenians. Recognizing that her whole “the male pronoun is the default, so that’s what I went with” argument might been less an argument than a quick defense, Le Guin actually changed the male pronouns to she throughout the story with the intent to draw attention to the fluidity of pronoun meanings when paired with supposedly masculine titles (like “Lord” or “King”). It’s an interesting shtick that doesn’t really address feminists’ critiques of Left Hand but does prepare readers for a writer like Ann Leckie four decades later (yes, I know others did it before Leckie!).

These four stories are interesting, to say the least, but mostly as archival context in the history of Le Guin’s writing of longer, more memorable stories. Two are sort of meh, one is funny, and one is beautifully written, but on the whole their greatest accomplishment is how they gesture to the worlds and ideas Le Guin later expands on.

 

…and Then Some

There are, however, four other stories in this first half that we might call standalone, though they carry some of the same concerns as Le Guin’s oeuvre generally. Moreover, they were published largely sequentially, the first stories Le Guin sold, in fact, and there are some tiny, but striking, similarities across them, including worries over loneliness and mental health, or the unenviability of scholars’ lives.

The first story, “April in Paris,” is a complete treat—I don’t know what I was expecting, but not this. Actually, I was expecting something a bit more relaxed and realist, an assumption helped by the rather boring first pages in which a scholar of late-medieval French poetry, Barry Pennywither, sits in a garrett overlooking Notre Dame and whines about the cold, his loneliness, and the useless book he’s just completed. In addition to feeling personally attacked by Le Guin, I was…underwhelmed. But the page turns and we are in medieval France, where an alchemist named Jehan Lenoir is also decrying his loneliness and useless scholarship! Then he suddenly decides to summon the devil in order to, well, I don’t really know, but instead—poof—Pennywither is in the fifteenth century with Lenoir.

The two are rather chill about it, talk all night about chemistry, and Pennywither returns home. But now they’re sad and their loneliness draws them back to one another. Pennywither decides to live in medieval France and the two get along famously until Pennywither asks Lenoir if he ever considered a romantic relationship. This did not go where I had hoped it would, and instead Lenoir uses his spell again and—poof—a buxom Gaulish babe appears, also a lonely person (a slave to some Roman bigshot), and beds Pennywither. Eventually Lenoir also summons a lonely puppy and a lonely archaeologist from 7,000 years in the future (a future that very well could be Hainish?). In the end, the group literally skips off into a medieval Parisian spring sunset, happy and no longer lonely. The story is absolutely hilarious and all the more impressive because it was Le Guin’s first professional sale!

The following two stories, “The Masters” and “Darkness Box,” are considerably less impressive, though Le Guin’s typical depth augments these minor tales. In “The Masters,” which she calls her first properly science-fictional story, an initiate to an arcane order of mystery learning to use The Machine begins to discover black magic, i.e. how much easier Arabic numerals are for calculating complex maths over the Roman numerals that his mystical order is required to know. Moreover, the society exists in a state of forced intellectual stagnation and the gaining of new knowledge, the asking of questions, is forbidden. One man decides to discover why the Sun, their god, moves in the sky and how far from Earth the Sun is, utilizing Arabic numerals. Heresy. He’s executed. A potential revolution of ideas is fomenting.

And in “Darkness Box,” Le Guin weaves a quaint story about her daughter Caroline into a very short account of a prince acquiring a box containing Darkness, pouring it upon himself, killing his pet, and being told by a witch’s black cat that he will now face his exiled brother for the right to the throne. It’s a bizarre, snappy, quaint story but otherwise forgettable even as it hints, ever so vaguely, at questions of conflict and sacrifice.

Finally, the last story in this section is such a great one to end on: “The Good Trip.” It’s a story about LSD, sort of. Actually, it’s a story about not taking LSD but going on an LSD-like trip through one’s imagination all the same! Much like “April in Paris” and so many other stories and novels, “The Good Trip” returns to Le Guin’s well-trod path of romantic (and, yes, almost always heterosexual) love providing sustenance, relief, and calm in the storm that is life. In “The Good Trip,” an Oregonian named Lewis has “lost” his wife, Isobel, to mental illness (it’s implied to be schizophrenia). It’s unclear whether she died, was literally lost, or lives in a psychiatric hospital, but Lewis has spent his days in a flophouse with friends getting high so he can reconnect with Isobel in the hallucinations. But today’s trip is different: he finds Isobel, they reunite, he gets something like closure—only to discover at the end of the story that he hadn’t taken the LSD, the whole trip was a daydream, he doesn’t need the drug to relive his times with Isobel. And so he sets off for a hike. By the Nine, is there a more Le Guin-sitting-at-home-in-Oregon-writing-about-love story than this?!

 

The first half of The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is a grab-bag of the early artist, which—fair enough—Le Guin warns us of in her foreword. Some stories are to be remembered, others forgotten as the inevitable one-off oddballs of a long career in professional SFF writing. The first eight stories give us the starts or impetuses behind some of her most famous novels, while also demonstrating the interconnections among her usual themes and her interest in telling stories of community, friendship, love, oppression, and resistance. If you’re reading along, I’d love to know what struck you about these stories? Did any stand out—and if so, why?

Join me in two weeks on Wednesday, August 26 as we read the second half of The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, from “Nine Lives” to “The Day Before the Revolution.” Be seeing you!

Sean Guynes is an SFF critic and professional editor. For politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.

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