Sunday, October 21, 2018

Birthday Review: Later Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin

In honor of what would have been Ursula Le Guin's 89th birthday, here's a selection of my reviews of some of her stories -- all pieces published after I started reviewing, so fairly late in her career.

Tangent, 2000

Ursula K. Le Guin's stories are always worth looking forward to.  "The Birthday of the World" (F&SF, June 2002) is another fine effort.  The narrator is the only daughter of God.  After God dies, she will marry her younger brother and they will jointly be God.  As we quickly gather, the story is set in a land where religion and monarchy are intertwined: "God" is the joint King and Queen, as it were.  The narrator's story continues as turbulent times come to her country.  They are powerful and violent (the narrator befriends a teenaged girl whom her father had raped and enslaved), and have been successful in war, but there are hints that this may end.  One of her brothers wishes to be God in place of the chosen brother.  The continued inbreeding in God's family seems to be causing genetic problems.  And finally a strange set of visitors appears.  Le Guin nicely portrays yet another different culture, and as usual she centers her story on a real person who truly comes to life.  I felt the ending, especially the nature of the "visitors" (which you may have already guessed) was a bit cliche, a bit flat, but this is still a fine story.

Locus, March 2002

While I enjoyed the novellas in the two Asimov's issues I've mentioned, the best stories in those issues are shorter stories.  The pick story this month is a novelette by Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Wild Girls" (March).  It's one of her trademark "anthropological" SF stories, set on an unspecified planet, with three interrelated groups of humans: City people, Dirt people, and Root people.  Very roughly, the City people are aristocrats, the Dirt people peasants, and the Root people merchants.  The story opens with a young band of City men raiding a Dirt village, apparently to steal Dirt children to become slaves or, in the case of beautiful girls, concubines or wives. Le Guin slowly develops a picture of a rather cruel culture, with a number of interesting facets, all viewed deadpan, from an inside perspective.  More importantly, she intertwines this with the involving story of the destiny of two of the Dirt captives, sisters, as they grow up and attract the attention of the City men.  Le Guin remains one of our very best writers, and this is one of her finer recent stories.

Locus, June 2002

Ursula K. Le Guin's remarkable recent outpouring of SF continues with an original story in her new collection, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. This is "Paradises Lost", a very long novella (at over 36,000 words nearly a novel) about a generation starship. Le Guin specifically mentions Harry Martinson's long poem Aniara in her introduction, and indeed I was reminded in some ways of that work. Le Guin's interest is mostly in the society on board the ship, and specifically in the ways such a society will be stressed by the arrival at the destination star. Much of the story details the way in which a stable shipboard society has been established -- major adaptations such as the one child per person rule, and minor adaptations such as children wearing no clothes for the first few years of their lives. Le Guin then shows the growth of a new religion, fundamental to the ship itself. The final conflict is between adherents of this religion, who do not wish to leave the ship, and those who are willing to colonize the destination planet. Le Guin intelligently considers the likelihood that many shipdwellers would have no interest in moving to a planet, though the created religion is too harshly a caricature, made so clearly stupid, that her argument perhaps loses force.

Locus, August 2002

We are treated to a new Ursula K. Le Guin story, first posted at The Infinite Matrix, June 3. "The Seasons of the Ansarac" is a fine Le Guin story, in her familiar anthropological SF mode.  The Ansarac are a race that live according to their "Way": essentially, they live half the year in cities, crowded lives, but forming no families.  Each spring they migrate to the country, and there they live on isolated farms, with their mates.  But then a meddling visitor suggests change ... .  Solid, witty, work, and Le Guin's imagination about different ways of being a family remains a wonder.

Locus, November 2012

Tin House #53 celebrates its two home bases, Portland and Brooklyn, with stories and articles by residents of those places, and/or about those places. The magazine is notoriously friendly to the fantastic, and it's nice to see a new story from Portland's Ursula K. Le Guin, and it's especially nice to see that "Elementals" is a delight -- charming and imaginative, in tone reminding me of her Changing Planes stories. It describes a few "elemental" creatures: "Airlings", "Booklets" (which cause typos), and "Chthons" and "Draks", creatures of the earth and fire. Clever, gently funny, warm and thoughtful.

Locus, August 2018

We’ll begin with two traditional "literary" magazines -- for good reason. The Paris Review features a story for the late, much-lamented, Ursula K. Le Guin, "Firelight". It is, appropriately, a story about her most enduring character, Ged, on his deathbed. Not much I can say about except that it does not disappoint, it’s very moving -- and a quote: "He would go on this time, until he sailed into the other wind. If there were other shores he would come to them. …" Tears -- of loss but also celebration.

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