Tag Archives: Ursula Le Guin

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

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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.

Continue reading

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’s 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?

Or

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. Although it surely is SF, big parts of it read more like an adventure novel about friendship, set on a barren world – so don’t expect laser guns, giant AI-cores or wormholes. It combines a sense of wonder with some original ideas, an emotional ending, and, at times, beautiful prose.

It’s an A-list book, that very much has its own voice, but it’s not extraordinary. It could have been A+ though, if Le Guin had fixed 3 quibbles…

First, it could have explored in some more detail the consequences of evolving and living on an arctic world. Le Guin manages to do so to a significant extent, but I have the feeling there could have been at least a bit more.

Secondly, Le Guin should have been able to truly write about the gender neutral inhabitants of Gethen as really gender neutral. As the novel is, they come across too much as just men without a sex drive 4/5th of the time. Their feminine and/or neutral side isn’t explored that much, or a bit 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 isn’t the important gender book some claim it to be, not even seen in its historical context.

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

Had Le Guin, being the excellent writer she is, invested a bit more in the characters, the world building and put some more thought and research in the links between climate, biology, gender and society, she could have pulled of a book that would have been extraordinary, and at the same time 50, 100 or even 200% longer – more good stuff to indulge in as a reader. If she had done so, TLHOD would have been the true Arctic brother of the first book of Dune.

After 150 pages in, I kind of settled on ‘this as a good book’, but the emotions I felt at the end convinced me that it is actually ‘excellent’. TLHOD is, regardless of its relative brevity, a highly enjoyable, intriguing read, and recommended for sure. A classic indeed, that has aged very well.

originally written on the 19th of January, 2015