05 January 2012

From the Ekumen to Earthsea

80!: Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin
edited by Karen Joy Fowler & Debbie Notkin

Ursula K. Le Guin, some seven years after I fell in love with her by reading half of The Left Hand of Darkness in one terrible night, remains one of my favorite authors. And I'm barely into her oeuvre, having read just the Hainish novels and scattered short stories. But I couldn't resist picking up this, a festschrift published in honor of her 80th birthday. It's a mix of essays, both personal and more academic, fiction, and poetry. It's taken me a bit to get around to writing this review, unfortunately, so my memory is fading, but I'll do my best.

The personal essays are kinda mixed, but inevitably so. Many of them are about people hanging out, ho-hum, and then bam! Ursula K. Le Guin shows them a whole different kind of sci-fi and/or fantasy. Now, I can empathize because this was my own experience (she is probably the sf writer I wish I could write like more than any other), but to read this repeatedly got a little repetitive. But there are still some gems sprinkled into these essays, such as how Kim Stanley Robinson took her class, or Brian Atterby's very interesting tale of how he, Le Guin, and Karen Joy Fowler edited The Norton Book of Science Fiction. (I've had that thing in my library for years, and it honestly doesn't look too great, but now I'm very curious about it.)

Of the less personal essays, Jo Walton's "A New Island of Stability: Annals of the Western Shore" made me really interested in reading those books someday (my wife liked them), as did Una McCormack's "The Exercise of Vital Powers," which discusses the role of history in Le Guin's work. (I've always found this an interesting theme; I loved the line from Four Ways to Forgiveness that ends with "There is a great river, and it flows through this land, and we have named it History.") And Julie Phillips's mini-biography is excellent, though it makes me want a full one! (I imagine there is one out there, actually; I should go looking.)

There's five stories, four from members of a "wimmin's" collective called "Beyon'Dusa," who apparently deem Le Guin an inspiration. Tributes in this form get tricky, I think. The Asimov festschrift, Foundation's Friends, did by having the writers set their stories in Asimov's different fictional universes, but none of these stories take that form; rather, they ostensibly "honor a great artist who has sustained and transformed a tradition by adding to it." But this tradition just seems to be sf/fantasy stories about women, because that's about as Le Guinian as most of them feel. Andrea Hairston's "Will Do Magic For Small Change," the first chapter of a novel, is interesting, but unfulfilling for obvious reasons. Neither Sheree Renée Thomas's "Touch" nor Ama Patterson's "Seamonsters" interested me; when picking up a book on Le Guin, I just didn't want to be reading some stories that virtually had nothing to do with her that I could see.

I did really like the last one, though, Pan Morigan's "The Heart of the Song," a fantasy myth with an interest in storytelling that resonated with many of the themes Le Guin has employed. (The only non-Beyon'Dusa story, "The Closet" by John Kessel, doesn't even come close to feeling like a Le Guin story, and would be trite even if it wasn't in this book.)

The bibliography is excellently thorough, too. I have lots to read yet, is what I realized. Which is good, as this book reminded me (though I shouldn't've needed reminding) about what was great about Le Guin, and that reading her is always worthwhile.

There's also poems.

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