Tag Archives: Ursula Le Guin

TEHANU – Ursula Le Guin (1990)

TehanuSome 17 years after Le Guin completed the original Earthsea trilogy, she returns to the isle of Gont. This time she focuses on Tenar from The Tombs of Atuan, but also Sparrowhawk remains an important character, and Arren from The Farthest Shore plays a part as well.

It’s commonly known Le Guin wrote this book partly to rectify the gender imbalance in the initial trilogy, and in the fantasy genre in general. Indeed: wizards and mages are Men, and females with magical powers generally are foul witches or servile priestesses. The medieval setting of most fantasy stories is filled with patriarchy and Kings – nobody needs to be convinced of that. So yes, in today’s parlance, Tehanu is woke – but not fully woke, as I’ll try to explain.

Before I write a bit on the book’s political issues, let me try to give an overall appraisal of Tehanu, without spoiling the first three books.

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These books are related somewhat, I realized when I finished The Farthest Shore. Both deal with old men in boats, old men trying to overcome negativity through perseverance. Both books explicitly offer supposedly deep insights on human nature, and humanity’s place in Nature. One could easily write a 50-page essay on similarities and differences, but the farther I’m removed from the literary sciences that dominated my early twenties, all I can think is: why would I?

Assuming Hemingway and Le Guin are authors positioned differently on the ideological spectrum, it could be a fun exercise to point out they share a lot of common ground, but in the end, doing that would also point out the relativity of such verbal heuristics – which ultimately most theorizing about culture is.

In this case, my heart goes out to Hemingway: his old man returns home, accepting the futility of his efforts, to a world that keeps spinning just as it did before. Interestingly, for a leftist author as Le Guin, her old man also returns home, accepting his mortality, to a world that is fundamentally changed for the better because it needed a Young New Leader. Peace, in Le Guin’s fictional world, is not reached by painstaking processes, but simply by the prophetic arrival of a King.

But I digress – I’m not going to write that essay. Instead, two reviews after the jump.

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YOU SHOULD COME WITH ME NOW – M. John Harrison (2017)

You Should Come With Me NowYou Should Come With Me Now features 42 short stories written between 2001 and 2015. About half of those are very short, about half a page, and previously appeared on M. John Harrison’s blog. Harrison calls the short items “flash fiction”, but the “prose poem” moniker would have worked just as well.

Having said that, categories aren’t of much use in this collection: this truly is genre defying prose. There are elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror and the plain the weird. But ‘elements’ is indeed just that: mere elements – as the core of most of these stories are humans and human relations: for every ounce of speculativeness, there’s three ounces of something Raymond Carver would have been proud of too. So yes, what we have here is a 21st century Franz Kafka: fiction about the ordinary weirdness of being human, all too human, in a setting that’s at times a bit off, and at times perfectly normal.

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THE TOMBS OF ATUAN – Ursula Le Guin (1971)

The Tombs of AtuanA Wizard Of Earthsea is one of my favorite books regardless of genre. Absolutely mandatory for any serious fantasy reader, a small, delightful gem in the midst of heaps and heaps of cheap trash. The Tombs Of Atuan is the second of the Earthsea series, but should you be weary of starting yet another long fantasy streak, don’t worry: this book is its own, with a storyline that wraps up neatly. Both novels can be read independently.

Just as the first installment, it is a short book: only 130 pages. These books were originally intended as children’s literature, but easily defy and bridge whatever YA vs. grown up distinction.

Much to my surprise, Sparrowhawk, the Wizard of Earthsea himself, only appears halfway in this book. The protagonist this time around is Tenar, a child believed to be the incarnation of the high priestess to ancient, dark gods – serving temples, tombs and a subterranean labyrinth on Atuan, an desert island.

Again this is a bildungsroman. In A Wizard Of Eartsea the most important lesson was that one should acknowledge your negative sides, and accept death and darkness within. Le Guin this time serves us a journey out from darkness, but it is not so much a lesson for us readers, as the description of secularization growing. Tenar’s coming of age, her enlightenment, comes with the loss of superstition and faith. Continue reading

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA – Ursula Le Guin (1968)

A Wizard Of Earthsea 1st editionWhen I was 14 or so, I tried to read a Dutch translation of A Wizard Of Earthsea, but stopped a few chapters in. It didn’t click – maybe because it was a bad translation, or maybe because this might not be a children’s book at all.

Or maybe it was because at 14 I was too old to appreciate it as a child, and too young to appreciate it for what it really is: a humbling, brilliant piece of writing.

Le Guin’s first book in what would eventually become a cycle of six – The Tombs Of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972), Tehanu (1990), The Other Wind (2001), and Tales from Earthsea (2001) – appeared a year before her other landmark work: The Left Hand Of Darkness.

TLHOD is a favorite of mine, but I think this surpasses it, easily. Why?

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THE DISPOSSESSED – Ursula Le Guin (1974)

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed is a famous book: it won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus awards, and it tackles a tricky subject: politics. It is set in the Hainish universe, on two twin planets. On Anaress, a group of dissidents founded an anarchist syndicalist society that has been going for about 2 centuries when the book starts. The other planet, Urras, has three states, of which the most important ones are modeled on the USA and the Soviet Union.

The book follows Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anaress who, in a gesture of dissent, travels to Urras, hoping to be able to finish his revolutionary theory about time there.

Theodore Sturgeon praised The Dispossessed, saying “it performs one of [science fiction’s] prime functions, which is to create another kind of social system to see how it would work. Or if it would work.” I don’t fully agree, as I didn’t feel I was transported to another world: the cold war politics alert sign was constantly flashing.

That is my main problem with the novel: it is so obvious, and so obviously about Earth, I always felt Le Guin’s intentions, instead of feeling a story. It is no secret Le Guin has leftist sympathies, and also in this book it is clear where her heart lies: sure, Anaress has its problems, but it is liberal about sex, it is pro-gay, feminist, and people don’t eat meat. There are only two big problems on the planet: it’s arid and doesn’t easily grow food; and the anarchy syndicalist system of the Odonian society slowly evolved into a bureaucracy, with stagnating power structures popping up.

The fact that this book is praised so much seems to me the result of a couple of things, that at the same time explain why The Dispossessed didn’t fully work for me.

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THE LATHE OF HEAVEN – Ursula Le Guin (1971)

Lathe Of HeavenI came to this with high expectations, since I loved The Left Hand of Darkness, and I loved all the interviews and talks with Le Guin I’ve read or seen. This short book seems almost universally loved by the reviewing community too, and many people report that there is lots of food for deep thought in it.

For sure Le Guin has a vivid imagination, spelled out in beautiful prose. There are great lines to be found throughout the 182 pages.

Do you feel you relate satisfactorily to other people, that you have a niche in the emotional ecology of your environment?


Darkness lay softly on the bare pine floor, unpolished, unswept. George Orr lay down in that mild darkness, full length, face down, the smell of the dusty wooden floor in his nostrils, the hardness of it upholding his body.

But I’m sad to say The Lathe Of Heaven left me frustrated by its sloppy content. The entire book reads like a rant against utilitarianism, Malthusianism and the likes. The story is set in a more or less dystopian 2002, wherein the protagonist George Orr discovers that his dreams can literally transform reality. His psychiatrist, William Haber, cannot resist using George’s powers to change the overcrowded world into a better place. Of course, predictably, things don’t turn out for the better – classic King Midas, like W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw.

The entire book seems to be written to advocate non-intervention, in favor a more Eastern way of thinking, with quotes by Chuang Tse, a tao master, sprinkled throughout the book.

Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.

There is a lot to be said for Acceptance as a way of being, and my beef is not with Taoism. My beef is with a few false dichotomies Le Guin introduces, and a caricatural treatment of utilitarian, pragmatic politics.  Continue reading

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS – Ursula Le Guin (1969)

The Left Hand Of DarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness is the first book I’ve read of Le Guin, and it is great. Big parts of it read more like a fantasy adventure about friendship, set on a barren world. It combines a sense of wonder with a few original ideas, an emotional ending, and, at times, beautiful prose.

I have three minor quibbles…

First, it could have explored in more detail the consequences of living and evolving on an arctic world. Le Guin manages to do so to a certain extent, but I have the feeling she could have done a whole lot more.

Secondly, Le Guin should have been able to write about the gender neutral inhabitants of Gethen as truly gender neutral. The inhabitants come across too much as just men without a sex drive 4/5th of the time. Their feminine and neutral sides aren’t explored that much, or worse, they’re depicted stereotypical – like the fact that they see no shame in crying. A couple of times it is simply stated that this or that in their society is a result of them not being “men” (there is no war), but that isn’t really felt in most of their actions (there is murder due to political rivalry), nor in the structures of the societies Le Guin created. As such, this is not the important gender book some claim it to be, I’d even say not even seen in its historical context, but I can understand why it would seem that way from a superficial point of view. On the other hand, I guess the book might have had some effects back in the days, opening up a few readers to other ways of thinking, and as such contributed to certain discussions society was having, and is still having right now.

Finally, some of the characters could have been fleshed out a whole lot more, such as the king, Tibi and Obsle. This would have enhanced the emotional impact of the book even more.

Had Le Guin invested a bit more in the characters and the world-building, and put some more thought and research in the links between climate, biology, gender and society, she could have pulled off a book that would have been extraordinary – and that probably would have meant a bit more pages to fill. If she had done so, TLHOD would have been the true Arctic brother of Dune.

150 pages in, I kind of settled on ‘it’s a good book’, but the emotions I felt at the end convinced me that this is actually an excellent novel. That’s no mean feat. The Left Hand of Darkness is a highly enjoyable, intriguing read, and very much recommended. A classic indeed, more so, one that has aged well.

originally written on the 19th of January, 2015

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