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Sean Guynes

The Beginning Place: Le Guin’s Portal Fantasy in Search of the Ain Country

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 Le Guin’s novel The Beginning Place (1980). My edition is the 2018 Tor trade paperback.

We begin a new year in the Le Guin Reread with a new decade in Le Guin’s career. At this point, by 1980, Le Guin was regarded as a master of both science fiction and fantasy. She had written her most famous novels, and with the exception of Always Coming Home (1985) and Tehanu (1990), her career is still remembered retrospectively today as having been cemented by the work she did between A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and The Dispossessed (1974). Yet as we’ve seen throughout this reread, Le Guin’s career as a writer and thinker was far more varied than just the “highlights” of her career; the work she did in her later decades—she turned 51 in 1980—took more nuanced shapes, covered old terrain with new insights, and occasionally rethought some of the political and literary decisions she’d made in her earlier works.

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Language of the Night: Le Guin’s Essays on Why We Shouldn’t Fear Dragons

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 Le Guin’s nonfiction collection The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1979). My edition is the original 1979 edition published by Putnam under the Perigee Books imprint.

And so we come to the end of the Le Guin Reread’s first year, a tumultuous one for our small, pale blue dot of a planet, but one in which I somehow managed to write 20 reread essays covering Le Guin’s career from her beginnings as a professional SFF writer to today’s book, The Language of the Night, a collection of essays and shorter nonfiction published in 1979. We have sailed Earthsea, died and come back, and traversed the vast reaches in time and space of the Ekumen, as well as been to more mundane lands, such as Malafrena, and visited worlds too like our own, but in which a man has learned to dream new realities into existence.

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Malafrena: Le Guin’s Dry Fanfic of Europe’s Liberal Revolutions

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 all of Le Guin’s novel Malafrena (1979). My edition is included in the 2017 Gollancz collection Orsinia.

Some weeks ago we took a look at Orsinian Tales. Though hardly my favorite among Le Guin’s oeuvre, the tales are like fine pastries. Each is a sufficient treat in itself, a work of art, layered with flavors and textures—rich through and through. Some outshine others, but on the whole everyone will find something to bring them satisfaction. Malafrena, by contrast, is a Costco cake. Good, satisfying even, and—if we’re talking about the same Costco cake—sometimes a too-rich delight that takes a marathon to finish (and mostly because you remember that first taste and can’t bear to let the rest go to waste). 

Food metaphors aside, Malafrena is a curiosity in Le Guin’s writing, which we might call a fan fiction of triple-decker French and Russian novels, an odd mix between Fyodor Dostoevsky and Victor Hugo.

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Eye of the Heron: Le Guin’s Introduction to Feminism and Ode to Nonviolence

In the course of this reread, I’ve stated pretty regularly that one of the most admirable aspects about Le Guin as a writer is her witnessing of criticism and her ability to change to address her political failures throughout her career. In 1977-1978, Le Guin was writing a story (really, a short novel) for her agent Virginia Kidd’s 1978 story collection Millennial Women, which touted itself as “tales for tomorrow” by and about women. The book collected six pieces by (white) women—Cynthia Felice (best known for collabs with Connie Willis), Diana L. Paxson (among SF and paganism creds, she also co-founded the SCA!), Elizabeth A. Lynn (who pioneered queer relationships in fantasy), Cherry Wilder (a New Zealand fantasy writer), Joan D. Vinge (no intro necessary), and Le Guin herself—featuring women protagonists. Le Guin was clearly the selling point of the book, the cover of which included only the title, editor name, and “Including a new novel by Ursula K. Le Guin.”

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Orsinian Tales: Le Guin’s Melancholic Stroll Through an Imaginary Central Europe

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 all of Le Guin’s short story collection Orsinian Tales (1976). My edition is included in the 2017 Gollancz collection Orsinia.

Ahem. Where were we? Last month, we left off having finished Le Guin’s YA novella Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, a mundane, not-so-SF novel that nonetheless touched on a great many things that we’ve (re)read together throughout this past year.

2020 has been a shit show, to put it mildly. Le Guin—along with you, my co-readers, from the Le Guin’s “masterpieces in Earthsea and radical SF in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and back in time to her beginnings in the early novels of Hain, her acclaimed novel(la)s Lathe of Heaven and The Word for World Is Forest, and more recently the first collection of her short stories—has been here with us through it all. And yet we’ve barely tasted the entirety of the feast she left behind. So we continue, because it is all we can do these days: on to Orsinia.

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Very Far Away from Anywhere Else: Le Guin’s Thoughtful, Mundane YA Novel of Companionship in an Isolating World

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 all of Le Guin’s short YA novel(la) Very Far Away from Anywhere Else. My edition is the 2004 Harcourt paperback.

We have come, perhaps, to one of the strangest books Le Guin wrote—at least at first glance. A YA novel written in 1976 that has probably the most uninteresting back-cover copy ever attached to one of her works…

[Owen is an outsider, a loner.]

Series: 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.

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Series: 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.]

Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Word for World Is Forest: Ecology, Colonialism, and the Protest Movement

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 novella The Word for World Is Forest, first published in Harlan Ellison, ed., Again, Dangerous Visions (1972). My edition is from Tor (2010) and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel(la).

The period between 1968 and 1974 were magnificently productive for Le Guin, yielding the novels and stories that solidified her reputation in the SFF world and which have inspired writers, critics, and scholars alike for the past half-century. Between her most famous novels, she dropped the literary firebomb of a novella, The Word for World Is Forest. Originally tucked away in Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), the second volume of Harlan Ellison’s story collections that helped shape the American New Wave, the novella was recognized with a Hugo for Best Novella, nominated for the Locus and Nebula in the same category, and upon publication in a solo volume in 1976 was a finalist for the National Book Award.

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Lathe of Heaven: Le Guin’s Trippy Local SF Novel About Reality

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 Lathe of Heaven, first published serially in two parts by Amazing Science Fiction in March and May 1971. My edition is from Gollancz, SF Masterworks no. 44 (2001) and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

I haven’t slept well the past year. I dream too much. I dream, I wake, I half-sleep, the cat wakes me, I dream, I sleep, my daughter wakes me, I half-sleep, I dream, and all of a sudden it’s time for work again. They aren’t nightmares—or at least not always, and when they are, they’re quite mundane: being forced to fist fight a friend or suddenly existing in a world without my partner. That sort of thing. Mostly they’re the kind of dreams that are so closely textured to reality that it sometimes takes hours for me to realize a “memory” was in fact a dream-memory. Thank the Nine I’m not George Orr, protagonist and reality-altering dreamer of Le Guin’s fifth novel, The Lathe of Heaven.

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Le Guin’s City of Illusions: Language and Trust on Space Opera’s Margin

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 City of Illusions, first published by Ace Books in 1967. My edition is part of a three-book collection Nelson Doubleday, 1978, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

In the previous novel of our reread, we encountered the planet Werel and the struggle by descendants of the original Terran colonists to coexist with the indigenous Werelians at a moment of intense socio-political upheaval. Planet of Exile is a great example of the social-science turn in science fiction during the New Wave of the 1960s and exemplifies Le Guin’s concerns with how knowledge gets made and how cultures interact. Le Guin’s next novel, the beguilingly titled City of Illusions, furthers her interest in these subjects, asking not how knowledge gets made, but how can we trust that knowledge—what knowledge can we trust in a world of competing ideologies, myths, religions, politics, cultures, etc.?

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Le Guin’s Planet of Exile: Anthropological Speculations on Cultural Difference and Loss

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 Planet of Exile, first published by Ace Books in 1966. My edition is part of a three-book collection Nelson Doubleday, 1978, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

Among those who care about these things, there are (at least) two ways to divide science fiction. On the one hand we have hard science fiction, with its emphasis on extrapolating futures and possibilities from “real science,” from (exo)biology, (quantum) physics, geology, chemistry, etc. On the other hand, there’s soft science fiction and its supposedly contrasting emphasis on the less-serious, non-natural sciences: sociology, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, and so on.

[Of course, look at any attempt to taxonomize genre and it breaks down…]

Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

Rocannon’s World: Where the Hainish Cycle Begins

A (usually) 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 Rocannon’s World, first published by Ace Books in 1966. My edition is part of a three-book collection Nelson Doubleday, 1978, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

We’ve visited anarchist utopias and lush worlds of excrement and excess, traveled together across ice and political turmoil, gone to the ends of the earth in search of ourselves, into the dark depths beneath the world and even into the afterlife itself. And we came back. We might not be the same as when we started, but here we are. What’s more, we did it all as a new coronavirus emerged and shut us away to work from home. I commend you all for making it this far, yet we’ve only just begun! Now we pass out of the shadow of Ursula K. Le Guin’s most beloved and influential works; now we head into stranger, older lands and start at the beginning.

[Today we come to Rocannon’s World, Le Guin’s first novel…]

Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Farthest Shore: The Return of the King

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 Farthest Shore, first published by Atheneum in 1972. My edition is Simon Pulse, mass market paperback, 2001, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

In fantasy publishing, the joke goes, all is trilogies. You want to write a novel, better have an idea for the next two books if you want a contract for the first. That wasn’t so in the late 1960s when Le Guin wrote A Wizard of Earthsea—trilogies were quite rare and SFF books were often sold as separate set pieces, bound together occasionally as part of a larger storyworld. This carried on the tradition of pulp magazines, which saw in seriality the dollar signs promised by a regular audience. So we have John Carter and Conan by the dozen, Asimov’s robot stories by the far-too-many, enough Witch World for a lifetime, and not as much Jirel of Joiry as we need.

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Tombs of Atuan: Power, Ideology, and Becoming Uneaten

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 Tombs of Atuan, first published by Atheneum in 1970. My edition is Atheneum 2012, and this installment of the reread covers the entire novel.

As a youth, I was obsessed with the darkness—one of those many, little obsessions, the specificity of which died away at puberty only to be recovered in the haze of adulthood nostalgia. In elementary school I drew maps of tunnels that took up entire pages, and penciled in tiny stick figures who climbed about and dwelled there. I read a book about bats (Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing, a topic for another essay, no doubt) and spent a week sleeping in my closet, trying to become a bat. A little later I saw Pitch Black and tried to recreate the film in a dozen play sessions with friends. In middle school, I read R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt novels and fell in love with Faerûn’s Underdark. And on a trip to Ape Cave (a little ways from Mount St. Helens), I got to experience the utter and complete blackness of the world below ground for the first time after I convinced my family to take the lanterns and go ahead around a bend, to let me find my way back to them in total darkness. It was terrifying and wonderful at the same time; it was everything.

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Series: The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

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