Last year the Library of America published two volumes of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish stories and novels. I was not familiar with her early work: I began reading her in the 1990s. My favorite of her books is The Birthday of the World and Other Stories.
I recently finished her first novella, Rocannon’s World, a simple, endearingly awkward effort that does not, I must stress, presage her later brilliance. It is an uncomplicated swords-and-sorcery fantasy, albeit with a time-traveling anthropologist, primitive races in need of the future’s help, and a queen who wastes years traveling in a spaceship to recover a stolen necklace. It isn’t a bad book; it’s just not something I would ordinarily read. If you don’t know her work, you should start with two of her SF Classics, The Left Hand of Darkness, which won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1970, and The Dispossessed (both in this volume). And then you’ll understand what she tries to do in her first book.
I also recently read her last book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, a collection of writings from her blog. She writes in the preface that she was inspired to write a blog after reading Jose Saramago’s blog, which was published in the U.S. as The Notebook.
Some of her blog entries are brilliant. In the first blog, “In Your Spare Time,” she asks questions about aging, the future, and the bland prevarications of the Harvard establishment. She writes analytic answers to an alumni questionnaire she received from Harvard before the 60th reunion of the class of 1951. Le Guin graduated from Radcliffe, which is affiliated with Harvard, but Harvard sent the silly questionnaire. She points out how shallow the questions are. Question 12 asks how her grandchildren have done, “given your expectations.”
Actually, I don’t exactly have expectations. I have hopes, and fears. Mostly the fears predominate these days. When my kids were young I could still hope we might not totally screw up the environment for them, but now that we’ve done so, and are more deeply sold out than ever to profiteering industrialism with its future horizon of a few months, any hope that coming generations may have ease and peace in life has become very tenuous, and has to reach far, far into the dark.
She comes right out and says what she thinks, not softening it. She can sound a bit cranky, as she summarizes her political views in the coded language of sociology–and I don’t always agree with what she says–but what she says is always thought-provoking.
She is incensed by the imprecise language on the questionnaire, and what she sees as right-wing assumptions. And then there is the lack of knowledge about old age. She writes,
But it was Question 18 that really got me down. “In your spare time, what do you do? (check all that apply).” And the list begins: “Golf…”
She asks, Do people in their eighties have “spare time”? She writes about how people nowadays are programmed to be on a treadmill of activities, but her generation grew up with time to read, write, and daydream. She says her time is fully occupied: she embroiders, writes, shops for groceries, cooks, washes the dishes, construes Virgil, and reads Krazy Cat. She says Harvard relegates her writing of poetry and prose to “a creative activity.” As more and more of her time is devoted to body maintenance, an aspect of aging that none of us likes to think about, she finds Harvard’s questions absurd and infuriating.
“The Sissy Strikes Back” is also about aging. She paints a realistic picture of what aging really entails: it is not “You’re as old as you feel.” There is pain, arthritis, the slowing down, needing rides to the grocery store, and luck and money may or may not prolong life: it is not about positive thinking or fitness.
She writes many charming blogs about her cat, Pard. If you’re a cat person, you’ll love them! I loved them. She finds the constant repetition of the word “fucking” in movies and books boring. Proverbs like “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” make no sense to her. She also rages about the lowering of educational and moral standards.
Since our betrayed public school system can no longer teach much history or reading, people may find everyone and everything before about twenty-five years ago unimaginably remote and incomprehensibly different from themselves. They defend their discomfort by dismissing people before their time as simple, quaint, naive, etc. I know Americans sixty-five years ago were nothing of the sort.
I agree with so much here. She is eloquent: I kept marking pages with post-its. In “About Anger,” she admits on a personal level to jealousy, hatred and fear. She says anger is a mixed blessing in political activism: necessary but nursed too long it can be destructive. She hopes “our republic survives this orgy of self-indulgent rage.” She thinks that the “prolonged ‘festival of cruelty’ in our literature and movies is an attempt to get rid of repressed anger by expressing it, acting it out symbolically.” (It makes her sick and scares her.)
Her writing is sharp, not quite as polished as her essays, but that’s the nature of the blog. These are quick, pointed, interesting, and always astute. I