Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin

in Musings

I can’t remember the first time I read a book by Ursula K. Le Guin, but I do remember it was Catwings. My parents bought the first Catwings books for my older sister, so by the time I learned to read they were in the house for me to inhale along with everything else vaguely age-appropriate within my reach. I can remember learning that Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings had been published in 1994, and being delighted to read another Catwings book.

But I was a little too young to be paying attention to authors, apparently, because by the time I found the Earthsea books, I failed to recognize Ursula K. Le Guin as a familiar name. I picked them up because they had dragons in them, and at 13 I was going through a rather intense dragon phase. I was not at all a sophisticated reader at 13, and I know there’s a great deal about the Earthsea books that I missed that first time through. But there were dragons, and even then I recognized these dragons were something special. I checked them out of the library again and again. I still check every used bookstore I go to, hoping to find a set of the original trilogy in the paperback edition I loved first, the Bantam Books editions from the mid-80s.

This time the name stuck with me, so when my list of suggested summer reading going into 9th grade included The Left Hand of Darkness, I went out and bought a copy. I turned 15 that summer, and I was not especially more sophisticated a reader than I had been at 13. I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters. I didn’t understand a word Estraven said, even less than poor bewildered Genly in the beginning.

A lot of what drew me to science fiction at that age, I now recognize, was the pulp tendency to explain everything, character motivations and plot mechanics as much as the worldbuilding. I was no good at understanding unspoken implication–in my interactions with others as much as in books. And Left Hand is a sophisticated book. Even when the story moves beyond the complicated web of indirect political machinations in Karhide, it does very little to explain itself. As Le Guin herself says in the introduction, “If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words.”

So, I didn’t finish The Left Hand of Darkness then, but I kept it. I kept wanting to like it. I loved the concept of kemmer, of a people who are genderless the majority of the time. I loved the language, always. I just didn’t understand what anyone intended. I tried it again at least once during high school, and maybe got a little farther, but I still gave up well short of the halfway mark.

But, I still kept the book. I went off to college, and I took it with me. There, I was pushed to read difficult texts in ways I mostly hadn’t been before, and I learned new tools for thinking about the world.

And somewhere in there I reread The Left Hand of Darkness, and this time it stuck. I fell in love alongside Genly and Estraven out on the ice. From there I read all her other books I could get my hands on. The Dispossessed, of course. The Lathe of Heaven, The Telling, Four Ways to Forgiveness, numerous short story collections. I discovered that she’d written a whole other set of Earthsea books that I’d missed because they were shelved differently from the original trilogy in my hometown library.

I don’t know that I can say reading these book changed my life, exactly. I was going through a lot of changes for a lot of reasons at the same time, as many do in college. And post-college the path of my life has been fairly linear and predictable, there’s nothing I can point to and say definitively, here but for the grace of Le Guin go I.

But what I know in my bones is that reading her changed my heart. She changed my understanding of myself, and the world. She has said she’s not good at writing villains. I like stories without villains, where the conflict is murky and internal, and victory in a violent contest is not a neat solution to anyone’s problems. And growing up as a fairly indiscriminate reader of sci-fi and fantasy, I didn’t actually read many stories like that. Mostly you had bad guys fighting good guys, and even when authors made an attempt to complicate the situation, there was a violent triumph over the bad guys and the winners maybe felt a little shittier than average about the violence they had to do. Le Guin’s work was the first to make clear to me how much I wanted to read a different kind of story.

There is so much she taught me about the breadth of space for what could be, beyond what is. Her mostly-genderless Gethenians were nearly as revolutionary to me in 2005 as they were when the book was published in 1969. The Dispossessed quite distinctly changed my understanding of anarchism. The quiet, nonviolent resistence that moves through so many of her stories speaks to me in a way few other writers ever do. She helped me understand how much could be possible if we only unbuild the walls we use to create our own prisons.

The lesson I learned from her that is perhaps most central to the way I try to live my life now is not one that she alone taught me, but she was the first and the best: to be suspicious of my own conviction. I love knowing the truth, I love being right. But she taught me that truth is a complicated business, and the closer to it we believe ourselves to be, the more it slips away. That the best way I can let it draw near is to let go of myself and listen to the truths of others.

From perhaps my favorite of all her books (right now, for now), Four Ways to Forgiveness:

“All knowledge is local, all truth is partial. No truth can make another truth untrue. All knowledge is part of the whole knowledge. A true line, a true color. Once you have seen the larger pattern, you cannot get back to seeing the part as the whole.”