The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Part II: Le Guin’s Psychomyths and Those Who Walk Away

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 “Nine Lives” to “The Day Before the Revolution,” pp. 105 to the end, in the 1975 Harper & Row hardcover edition.

In the last post of the Le Guin Reread we looked at the first half of Le Guin’s first story collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, which we continue here. I was pleasantly surprised that no one shamed me (to my knowledge) for my comments about short stories generally (thanks for sparing me, Rich!), and in fact one reader wrote elsewhere in recognition of the feeling of getting lost in a world as opposed to a story.

While the early stories of the collection are something of a retrospective on the first few years of her life as an SFF writer, “coming up” through the magazine world with increasingly better and more ambitious short stories—several of which launched the storyworlds that made her career, quite literally—the second half reflects the difference of a writer finally coming into her own. I (regrettably but, for me, truthfully) called the first half “meh,” but the nine stories of (my arbitrarily divided) part two are individually and collectively anything but “meh.” “Semley’s Necklace” and “The Good Trip” were but a taste of what Le Guin can do with the short story form, and Wind’s Twelve Quarters culminates with a bevvy of heady, beautiful, and thought-provoking stories composed with a careful, sometimes quiet, power. The stories are as myths or fables—little bits of truth and reality poured into SFF skins.

Unsurprisingly, a shared set of symbologies unite the stories of the collection, and these meanings are drawn all the more clearly in the later stories. Among these are an abiding interest in and love for the rural and the rustic—trees, caves, roads, pathways—as well as in the myths, mysteries, and psyches of human cultures across time, space, and genres. Indeed, Le Guin labels nearly every story in the second half of Wind’s Twelve Quarters as a “psychomyth,” though she’s never really clear what she means by it beyond a short description in her foreword to the collection: “more or less surrealistic tales, which share with fantasy the quality of taking place outside any history, outside of time, in that region of the living mind which—without invoking any consideration of immortality—seems to be without spatial or temporal limits at all.” 

Whew, a mouthful, but which basically means: a fabilistic or mythological story independent of most temporo-spatial markers that would place it noticeably in, say, “medieval Europe” or “far-future China,” and that by virtue of being tempo-spatially (and, to the extent possible, linguistically) unmoored is able to focus on “human” “truths.” Of course, the idea of a “psychomyth” is itself a fantasy—not unlike the idea of a shared, universal “human experience”—but it’s a nice fantasy and one allows Le Guin to establish a kind of writing unto herself that helps her carve a literary-intellectual niche for herself. And this isn’t a bad thing, since with few other exceptions (at least in this collection!), Le Guin’s stories that actively aim for being labelled fantasy or science fiction are, well, just OK (a surprising thing, since her SFF novels are fucking fantastic, but every writer is different!). Psychomyth is nonetheless an interesting concept for thinking through these stories—Gabrielle Bellot, for example, pinpoints how “Omelas” uses the psychomyth to defy generic categories—and at the same time points toward just how much thinkers like Carl Jung (sorry, but blech!) influenced Le Guin’s writing in the early half of her career.

There are nine stories and psychomyths in this reread, three of which will likely be familiar to Le Guin stans, and the others of which, if unfamiliar, will come as a wonderful surprise. These stories are:

  • “Nine Lives” (1969)
  • “Things” (1970)
  • “A Trip to the Head” (1970)
  • “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” (1971)
  • “The Stars Below” (1973)
  • “The Field of Vision” (1973)
  • “Direction of the Road” (1974)
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1974)
  • “The Day Before the Revolution” (1974)

I’ll do what I did in the previous reread and cover each story shortly and succinctly, discussing plot and theme, and what the story means for Le Guin as writer-thinker, the idea being to provide a somewhat holistic picture of The Wind’s Twelve Quarters as a whole. In taking this route, I end up deemphasizing the final two stories, which are no doubt Le Guin’s most famous, but others have written about those stories at great length and I’m not sure I can add much to the din.

Onward, then, to the stories!

To start with—no. “Nine Lives” is not, unfortunately, about cats. Let the disappointment sink in for a moment and remember that Le Guin probably wrote Catwings to correct this immense error, or at least that’s my headcanon. So “Nine Lives” isn’t about cats, but the title is probably an immense troll on the story’s publication venue: Playboy. Yep, the magazine that built Hugh Heffner’s empire and made porn mainstream. And it’s the only story she wrote under a pseudonym (U.K. Le Guin) at the editor’s insistence. To be sure, there’s a lot of sex in “Nine Lives,” until there’s a lot of death. This is the story of a tenclone, a group of five male, five female clones of a brilliant scientist named John Chow.

The clones (they’re actually referred to as a singular) have come to the planet Libra as an elite work-crew for a newly discovered mine; they work better than non-clones because of their intense bond and social cohesion (the nightly sexual pairings—is it sex or masturbation, one non-clone asks—between male and female clones helps). One accident later, however, and only one of the tenclone is left: Kaph. The nine lives, then, is a reference to the nine lives, the nine selves, Kaph loses when the rest of the tenclone dies; he experiences intense pain and suffering, almost as though a psychic bond is shorn at the others’ death, and through it all he is aided by two non-clones, who show him the way toward making human connections outside of the clone collective. It’s a very sweet story about homosocial (potentially homosexual between the two non-clones, though I don’t think that’s Le Guin’s intention) bonding and grief, learning to see other humans as people to share life with.

“Things,” by turns, is not sweet, but bittersweet—and my favorite story in the collection next to “Semley’s Necklace” and “The Good Trip.” Originally titled “The End,” altered by Damon Knight from Le Guin’s preferred title, it is a psychomyth as close to Le Guin’s definition as possible (or at least as comparable as “Omelas”); she might have called it a “pure psychomyth.” The story takes place in a village at the supposed end of all things. The villages are split between the Weepers, those who gather to lament the end, and the Ragers, those who party hard until it’s all over. The Weepers and the Ragers have left the things that mattered behind, detaching themselves from whatever made meaning in life, what glued together the social order, what made the village a village.

In between these groups are folks like Lif, a former brickmaker, along with the widow of one of Lif’s fellow bricklayers. These two haven’t yet detached from the order of things / Order of Things, and so go on trying to find meaning—at first in trying to do what brickmakers and widows do in the normal course of things, and later in one another. Lif turns to a myth of far-off islands to create meaning for life in the end times, but his culture has no boats, so he decides he’ll chuck all his bricks into the sea in the hopes of making a pathway to islands that may or may not exist. This gives his life meaning and as his relationship with the widow develops, she too becomes interested in his project, and together they build a path. One night, all the villagers are gone, their attachment to the world finally severed. For Lif and the widow, this signals “the end,” so they decide it’s time to try the path. Try they do, and soon myths become real. 

I love “Things”—which I agree is the better and more thought-provoking title—because it’s beautifully written, short, and simple, evidencing just how well an economy of language and form can create something so amazing. At the same time, it’s a complex questioning of the relation between lifeways and cultural meaning, between “things” (as objects, as cultural practices, etc.) and the meaning that has both Buddhist and anti-capitalist overtones (that interact in not-so-easy ways). It’s a story that deserves more attention and one I’m sure I’ll be returning to again and again.

I can’t say the same for “A Trip to the Head,” which demonstrates that an economy of language and form, even in Le Guin’s hands, don’t always produce little works of staggering literary genius. It’s another psychomythological story, by her description, in which the object of extrapolation is the question of how powerful an imaginative force is the mind. It pairs well, in this way, with “The Good Trip,” and also places the mind above psychotropics as a force for creation. In this story a person, Blank, emerges from a forest with no knowledge of their identity (City of Illusions vibes, anyone?). Blank talks to another person, imagines who/what they might have been, and becomes that person, only for it to not feel right, so he (the newly assumed identity) takes off for the forest to forget this iteration of self, starting the cycle all over again. It’s a story worth reading once in your life if you have the inclination or if it happens to be in front of you; otherwise, it’s nothing to go out of your way for. What it has to say about the mind and imagination have already been said, and said better, in the other novels and stories we’ve covered.

By contrast, “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” is one of those stories that says what it says well and also resonates powerfully with many of Le Guin’s other themes, making it something worth seeking out and wrestling with. It’s a novelette in the Hainish cycle that departs from the usual “here’s how humans evolved on this world” fare to instead imagine a world of collectively-sentient arboriforms (tree-like and plant-like organisms). At the same time, it’s a massively problematic—and as a result, critically interesting—story featuring an autistic character (or, really, a character “cured” of autism).

The set-up of the story is also quite unique among the Hainish stories, since most feature some sort of League representative to a human world, whether before or after their integration into the League. But “Vaster” is about Terra’s fundamental dissatisfaction with the “fact” that all sentient life in the universe was seeded by the Hains; it’s not a major plot point, nor discussed very often, but Le Guin uses the frame to highlight that Terrans as a group don’t deal super well with being told they aren’t special—really an allegory for Americans. So Terrans send out Extreme Surveys, crewed by the occasional non-Terran curious about the wider universe, to spend several hundred years traveling in FTL ships to see if anything sentient exists outside of the Hainish sphere of influence. Well, reader, you can guess what happens: they find something. A whole planet of plants that, after many months, the crew discovers has evolved into a collectively sentient lifeform that is terrified of the otherness represented by the humans. 

This is all quite interesting, but the real focus of the story is on the cured-autistic crewmember Osden, who has apparently been “cured” of his inability to parse external emotional stimuli (only one possible manifestation of autism) to such an extent that now he is magnificently empathic, and can feel all sentient beings’ emotions. As a result, most people are uncomfortable with him and he lives constantly in their disdain, discomfort, and even hate. But it’s his abilities to sense emotion and feelings that help the crew discover the plant planet is sentient. It’s a story that simultaneously does everything wrong you could do when writing about autism, but also demonstrates forcefully and tragically the ways in which neurotypical folks ostracize neuroatypical folks. But I’ve never claimed Le Guin is perfect, and the story provides a great deal to think about with regard to disability, ecology, sentience, and emotion. No wonder it has remained one of Le Guin’s most discussed stories.

The next two stories in the collection are short, intelligent, fun mysteries (of a sort). “The Stars Below” is a fantasy about an astronomer whose science is considered heretical and who is literally forced underground, to live in the dark of a mine nearing the end of its productivity. “The Field of Vision” is science fiction about two astronauts who return from an archaeological dig on Mars, one deafened and the other blinded.

Both are, in Le Guin’s presentation, psychomyths. “The Stars Below” doesn’t have much to recommend it, honestly, except that it is a great example of a person losing their shit because, well, a bunch of priests burned their livelihood and forced them into underground exile as a heretic—buy, hey, at least the astronomer helps the struggling miners find a new vein of silver! Actually, what’s great about this story is you can see Le Guin returning with gusto to writing about people learning to live underground and in the dark, as she did so perfectly in The Tombs of Atuan. “The Field of Vision” is by far the better story, with an Arthur C. Clarke feel to it, what with the giant, unfathomable alien structures and the revelation of God’s reality and immanent presence in the universe. Which is…odd?…for Le Guin. I won’t spoil it; check it out for yourself, since the mystery is worthwhile.

The final story before we get to the Big Two of this collection is “The Direction of the Road,” a story that like many of her shorter ones grew out of a family moment, a familiar memory, a Le Guinism. In this case, it’s a tree off Oregon State Highway 18 that Le Guin and her family passed several times a year, a tree that came to define that particular stretch of highway for the family, a part of the Order of Things. And so Le Guin spins a tale of that tree, of its long life among humans, of the coming of cars, the paving and repaving of roads, the explosion of traffic, and, after so many years, the death of a heedless driver at the base of the oak. The story is told in first-person and is at first rather confusing, since the oak speaks of itself as an entity in constant motion, growing and galloping and roaming, but while some of Le Guin’s language confuses, her intent is purposeful: to bring to life the inner being of an organism that, to many humans, hardly seems to be “living” but is almost always a backdrop in a world of roads and cars. Le Guin’s oak is a vibrant being and one who rejects the meanings humans place upon it: when the human dies, he sees in the oak the face of Death, freezing that vision in eternity through his death. But the oak rejects this, refuses to be an eternal symbol—of death or elsewise—and instead embraces its ephemerality in the organic sphere, as long and ancient as that may seem to us short-lived humans. It’s a great story that leads well into the final two of the collection.

And so we come to “Omelas,” a story about which I have little to say beyond what has been said by others—and often better (or at least more forcefully). It is not only Le Guin’s most well-known story, it might also be the most well-known science fiction story of all time, if only because every other philosophy course in college assigns it and (dryly) asks students, “So, what would you do? Discuss!” I jest, mostly because my partner is a philosopher, but truly Le Guin’s set up of the moral and ethical dilemma is an important one, and as she notes, it’s a question—would you let the child suffer in order to live the dream?—at the heart of modernity, whether you understand the “modern” world as one forged by the industrial revolution, the birth and growth of capitalism, or the expansion of overseas empires through colonial landgrabs. (“)Omelas(”) is a powerful allegory for the ways in which systems of power lift up some at the expense of others. 

The particular ways Le Guin tells the story, that utopia exists for all because one person (a child) lives in pain and horror, comes from a critical tradition that frames questions of systemic oppression in individualist tones—in this case the thinking of early psychologist William James. So the utopia of Omelas and the utopian bargain emerge from an intellectual tradition that attempts to understand how people think and why they think, especially with regard to our ethical duties to other people. As a result, walking away seems perhaps radical in this situation, an allegorical disavowal of the system as a whole.

That’s the psychomyth; taken literally, however, as something other than a parable, the decision to walk away looks a lot grimmer—and that’s exactly what other writers, for example, N.K. Jemisin, who responds in “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” by suggesting that the more radical thing to do is, well, reread the title; or Egyptian author Mona Namoury, who turns to the agency of the one imprisoned. “Omelas” is for sure an ambivalent story, one that has no easy solution because there is no solution, because utopia is ambivalent, because utopia doesn’t exist, is only ever in the making, just over the horizon, the journey and not the destination, and it always implies the presence of dystopia. For Le Guin: yin and yang, no light without the dark. But, seriously, don’t take my word for it; check out one of any several thousand essays on the story

Though “Omelas” has become Le Guin’s most famous story, she ends The Wind’s Twelve Quarters with a different banger of a tale: the prequel to The Dispossessed, the story of the founder of the anarchist movement that ends up on Anarres. “The Day Before the Revolution” is the story of Odo, manifester of the Odonian revolution that upset the Urras political world 100 years before The Dispossessed. It is—and I’m sorry if this sounds repetitive, but it’s only because it’s so true of Le Guin’s shorter fiction—a great little piece, particularly for the way it presents this revolutionary icon as a curmudgeonly old woman not all that interested in the final ends of the revolution, in part because the youths have taken it their way. But so it goes, so political movements transform, because a living politics is not defined by an individual, and Odo knows this, too. Through this Le Guin extends her argument in “Omelas” that utopia is open-ended, ever-changing, not an Eternal force but a Relative one, like the oak by the roadside.

What I particularly love about the placement of “The Day Before the Revolution” in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is that Le Guin calls it a story that’s actually about the ones who walk away from Omelas, or more precisely that the Anarresti are the ones who made the decision to leave the utopia of a lush, verdant planet for the harsh desert of the moon. It’s honestly not a great parallel between Omelas and Urras, but—let’s go with it?—Le Guin’s forcing of the parallel reveals who got left in the wake of the Odonian movement. After all, when Shevek visits Urras, he finds that there are many anarchists and revolutionaries fighting against the violence of two oppressive states—the folks who, in Jemisin’s words, stayed and fought.

In all, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is a multifaceted, intellectually rich, and artistically transformative collection of short stories that showcase the vibrancy of an artist becoming an artist. As a collection, it’s a fascinating microcosm of the same pattern of transformation and growth we see across the novels already covered in the Reread. Some stories are forgettable, many are worth a reread every couple of years, and a few stick tenaciously to the mind like a utopian parasite. Whatever the aesthetic judgments—hey, maybe you found these stories pretty boring, and that’s all good—the historical one is clear: here is a story collection that serves as a foundation for the larger storyworlds, themes, and political concerns that make up our collective cultural memory of Le Guin.

Join me in two weeks on Wednesday, September 9 as we read Le Guin’s not-very-SFF YA novel Very Far Away from Anywhere Else. 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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