|Ursula K. Le Guin|
A Wizard of EarthseaBantam, PB, © 1968, 182 pp, ISBN #0-553-26250-5
Reviewed January 2002
Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy has become a fantasy classic, and deservedly so considering its accessible style, rich backdrop, and literate writing. It's a bit perplexing that it's become so popular, since it's a standalone work (though Le Guin returned to it in the 1990s) which - so far as I know - hasn't had a profound impact on other high fantasy novels (certainly not to the degree of, say, Tolkein). I've just finished reading the trilogy for the third time, and found it a bit less weighty than I'd remembered, but it's still good reading.
Ged is a goatherd on the isle of Gont, on the mythical land of Earthsea, an archipelago on a fantasy world. A local wizard, Ogion, learns that Ged has powerful magic at his command, and briefly mentors him before sending him off to the isle of Roke, and the school for wizards (30 years before Harry Potter!). There Ged learns the import of true names and the power they give a wizard over people, animals and things. (Hence, people keep their true names secret; Ged's calling-name is Sparrowhawk.)
But Ged is ambitious and jealous of his fellow - and older - student Jasper, who taunts him from the day he arrives. Trying to outdo Jasper, Ged tries to summon a dead spirit, but instead looses a deadly shadow on the world, a shadow which pursues Ged and wants to take his body to be able to work its evil on the world. Injured and humbled, Ged nonetheless wins his wizard's staff and accepts an assignment to ward off a dragon family raiding nearby islands, and soon finds himself locked in a deadly chase with his shadow.
This first novel is partly a travelogue of Earthsea, as Ged runs a circle through the archipelago before heading far to the southeast with his friend and fellow wizard Vetch to conclude his business. We're shown the simple lives that many Earthsea men live, the wonders of Roke, the nature (or some, anyway) of dragons, a hint of the evil forces sleeping in the world and the impact they have on humans who believe they can control them, and finally a glimpse of the boundaries of Earthsea.
At its core, though, Wizard is more than just Ged's coming-of-age; it's a parable about responsibility. About knowing what you know and what you don't, the importance of knowing what the ramifications of your actions are, and your responsibilities to rectifying your mistakes, no matter what fear you must overcome or the ultimate cost to yourself. That's Ged's rite of passage: Standing up for (and to) himself, taking the lumps that he deserves, but reaping the rewards (though we don't necessarily see them all until later books) that come from completing his task.
Wizard is, in my estimation, the strongest of the trilogy, for reasons I'll discuss below.
Where A Wizard of Earthsea is the tale of the beginning of the wizard Ged's career, The Tombs of Atuan is a significant story from its middle, although Ged is in a sense only a supporting character. In it, we meet Arha, a teenage girl who when quite young was taken from her family and installed as the First Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan. Supposedly the reincarnation of the First Priestess' spirit, she serves the Nameless Ones who rule the tombs, and lives with only women and eunuchs in the tiny village above the tombs. Only Arha can enter the tombs themselves, and they are utterly black and desolate, save for a few notable rooms, one of which apparently has great treasures in it.
Ten years after her anointing, Arha spies and traps a wizard who has come to the tombs to steal the second half of the lost Ring of Erreth-Akbe, which when restored is said it will help bring peace to the lands of Earthsea. The wizard, of course, is Ged, and he curses himself for a fool, being trapped so easily behind the unmovable door to the tombs. But: Ged is the only man Arha has ever seen, and he brings some light and magic into her eventless life, and she does not have him killed, but keeps him alive, and begins to learn things from him. Including things about herself.
Tombs is a triumph of nothingness: Arha's life is nothing, she presides over nothing, she serves nothing, and for much of the book she does nothing. She's not content, she's not discontent; she virtually doesn't exist. She doesn't have to think, doesn't have to act, and doesn't know that there are other alternatives. She's the ultimate provincial character. And Ged is the perfect contrast to her life: Bold, daring, funny, wise... and male. (There isn't a true romance between them, but it seems clear throughout the book that Arha has a crush on Ged.)
This book is essentially Arha's rite of passage, and her test is to learn to see, and to trust, to make her own judgments. But it's less rewarding than Wizard because Arha's test is one that's thrust, almost meaninglessly, upon her, and as far as the plot goes she's essentially only an aide to Ged in his quest for the Ring. Her story is less poignant because she doesn't have to overcome her own mistakes, just her situation.
Tombs is at its best when it's portraying Arha's relationship to her "kingdom" beneath the earth, in its dark and dusty glory, and the little satisfactions Arha takes from the small things she learns about it. But the book's strength is sometimes its weakness, as some segments of exposition go on seemingly forever, and the reader wishes things would just get moving. (This is a problem in the trilogy as a whole - Le Guin seems too in love with the exposition of Earthsea at times - but the nature of this book makes it occur most often here.)
The volume is also strangely disconnected from the previous one, another peculiarity of the trilogy: Characters introduced in one volume as seemingly significant never show up again. The trilogy is in essence three "scenes" from Ged's much larger life, and for all that this book is Arha's, the whole thing belongs to Ged, and that makes this book seem smaller than it is, despite its crafty setting and issues.
Rounding out the trilogy, The Farthest Shore tells a story late in Ged's life, when he has become Archmage of Roke, the greatest wizard in all of Earthsea. In it, a young prince named Arren, heir to one of the greatest lines of kings in the archipelago, comes to Roke to tell Ged that magic seems to be vanishing from the edges of the world, and that people no longer believe in it and are becoming lost without it. After consulting with the Masters of Roke, Ged and Arren set off to the south to learn what they can about the tragedy and see if anything can be done to fix it.
What they learn is that people indeed no longer believe in magic, and even former wizards - stripped of their powers - barely believe anymore. And those who once plied the mystic arts are now lost trying to find their way to the other side of the wall between life and death, believing that they can conquer it and find immortality.
Ged, knowing the folly of this quest, and Arren, whose love for the wizard slowly spoils as he becomes unsure of what he believes, gradually travel westwards in search of the man behind these occurrences, and find themselves beyond the home of the dragons and confronting a man who's made a deadly decision about what he values most in the world, and who is gradually dragging both living and dead after him.
After a fashion, The Farthest Shore is Arren's story, and his own site of passage, but it's a much less successful story than the first two books. Arren not only isn't responsible for the threat to himself and the world, his decision to follow Ged to combat it is one bourne of responsibility he already has, as the heir to an important throne. His role in the book is talked about more than it's shown, and Ged is the true hero here, making devastating sacrifices for the good of his comrade and for Earthsea as a whole. Ged has fully learned the lessons he was taught in Wizard, and his sterling character is truly on display here.
Shore also falls flat in many segments where Arren experiences strong dreams, and a few segments where real events are portrayed in a dreamlike manner. Le Guin never really nails down the purpose of these dreams in a persuasive way, and they detract from the flow of the narrative, either interrupting it, or lending a "suddenly a whole bunch of things happen and now everyone's over here" quality to the story.
The most redeeming element of Shore is the second "travelogue" of Earthsea which we're given, seeing lands which even Ged was not familiar with, and meeting a clutch of dragons and better understanding the nature of the great beasts which they are in the world of Earthsea. The world itself is the most compelling point here.
As a whole, well, the Earthsea trilogy really isn't a whole. It sort-of lurches towards the dawn of a new age in Earthsea, and Ged's key role in it, but that's just a minor plot device, not really a crucial piece of any of the stories. Ged is truly the protagonist of the series, and each book shines brightest when he's on stage, particular when he's talking or thinking, and is a little dimmer when the focus is on someone else. The stories are little stories, of individual people and their individual struggles, and perhaps The Farthest Shore also suffers because it tries to be bigger than its characters.
So, as a whole, the trilogy is by no means perfect, but it's fun, and quick reading, and can easily transport you away to a magical, mythical world for a few hours. And by that measure, mustn't it be judged a success?
This is the rather redundant sequel to the Earthsea trilogy which Le Guin wrote 18 years after its completion. Oddly, it won a Nebula Award, which I find about as perplexing as the later award for Vonda McIntyre's The Moon and the Sun. Neither book strikes me as particularly insightful or especially exciting.
Tehanu picks up just where The Farthest Shore leaves off, focusing on Tenar, formerly Arha of The Tombs of Atuan. Tenar lives on Gont, where she's married, raised two children, and been widowed. Now fortyish, she travels to visit Ged's (and her own) old mentor, Ogion, and witnesses his death. She has also adopted a young girl she called Therru, who was raped and badly burned by several men, and is still in shock from the experience.
While staying at Ogion's house, Tenar sees Therru come out of her shell a bit - helped by the village's witch, Auntie Moss, and also forms an antagonistic relationship with Aspen, the wizard of the Lord of nearby Re Albi. But the big event is the return of Ged, no longer a wizard, on the back of the dragon Kalessin, and the search by the new King and the Masters of Roke for Ged and for a new Archmage.
Tehanu has the sense of nothing much happening which marked Atuan, but whereas the tension was palpable in that novel, here there's just... nothing much happening. There are small moments of tension which ultimately amount to nothing, such as occasional sightings of Therru's assailants, and Ged's desperate wish not to be found by those seeking him, since he is no longer what they wish him to be, but the book is mostly about Tenar (and later Ged) musing about who they are, what they once were, and what they might be. While this is occasionally interesting, it often falls completely flat when the musings turn to the question of "men's work" vs. "women's work", "men's power" vs. "women's power", and so forth. There's a sense that Le Guin felt self-conscious and maybe even guilty that the original trilogy was so male-centered, but this navel-gazing adds nothing interesting to the story, the world, or the series as a whole. Nothing's done with it.
Tehanu feels as diminished compared to its predecessors as Ged feels next to his old self. The sense of import from earlier novels is gone, and we're left with the day-to-day foibles of the characters, which could be interesting, but feels irrelevant by contrast. If this is the story Le Guin wanted to tell, why bother to return to Earthsea to tell it?
The novel falls completely apart in the last 20 pages, as some earlier conflicts and questions are - sort of - resolved, but the narrative becomes extremely muddy at this point. There's no sense of dramatic build-up or resolution; the climax of the book fails utterly.
There are some interesting points to the novel from time to time, such as seeing what Tenar chose to do with her life, and some hints of how the new King in Havnor is taking to his role. But ultimately Tehanu is entirely skippable unless you're a true Earthsea or Le Guin completist. There are no answers here, and barely any questions. There isn't really anything new here. If you're looking for a new fantasy novel to read, look elsewhere.
The Left Hand of DarknessAce Science Fiction, PB, © 1969, ISBN #0-441-47812-3
Reviewed Spring 1996
It's always strange to consider that there are "classics of science fiction", such as - until recently - this novel, that I've never read. (The list is perhaps headed by Stranger in a Strange Land and The Mote in God's Eye, and proceeds from there.) Or perhaps it's not so strange, since I really started reading SF around 1986, with a prolonged hiatus when I chose to major in computer science and discovered the Internet. (Excuses, excuses.)
But it is decidedly odd to have finished this book and to feel that it was quite lacking in many of the qualities which I had - somehow - come to expect it to possess. Not that it approached its subject matter poorly - more that it approached it obliquely. With such a book as Left Hand, I wonder if there's anything I could possibly say about it that hasn't been hashed over thousands of times before by hundreds of people. Maybe not, but I'll try.
The book takes place on a wintery planet, Gethen, on which the human population has evolved into quasi-neuter sexual 'potentials'. Most of the time, the Gethenians are sexless, but periodically they have the potential to fall into either the male or female gender, thus having the ability to become both fathers and mothers. One imagines that this sort of gender equality (or gender absence) would have a profound effect on the Gethenian society, and the book does hint at such differences. But it never quite seems to really rip at the guts of the idea; rather, it dances around the edges.
While I was reading the book, a friend mentioned to me that one of the points of debate generated by the book was the question of why Le Guin chose to refer to the Gethenians with the pronoun 'he' (only very rarely 'she'), rather than 'she', or both equally, or some artificial term. It eventually struck me that this question didn't interest me in the slightest because - regardless of the pronouns used - all the Gethenians felt male to me, with the limited exceptions of Gethenians who were actually pregnant (and not always even then).
This led me to wonder whether this was really a result of the writing, or due to some aspect of my own psyche. It seems likely that it might be both: The book is largely narrated by a "standard" human visitor to Gethen, who is male, and I myself am male. If Le Guin-the-writer has done her job well, one plausible result might be a truly gender-neutral society, and my and the narrator's biases might lead me to naturally map Gethenian behavior onto my own, and see it in terms of my own life and perceptions. On the other hand, another result-of-good-writing might be a society of people who seem a little bit male, but also a little bit female. But it didn't seem this way to me at all.
Assuming, for the moment, that the second result was the one Le Guin was trying to achieve, I wondered if the fault lay within myself. I often feel like I lack a feel for even the superficial aspects of female culture - though I am aware that there is such a thing as distinct from male culture. (Of course, I also feel rather ignorant of male culture, black culture, white culture, and many other shades of American and Terran culture overall.) In other words, maybe I couldn't recognize gender-blending if it bit me on the behind.
But I think there is some justification in the book itself for my perceptions. Left Hand is primarily a political novel set in fictional - but clearly recognizable - political structures. The pseudo-nation of Karhide is essentially a firm autocracy with certain technological enlightenment, while Orgoreyn strikes me as the Soviet Union with a thin veneer of republican democracy. In this environment, Genly Ai tries to persuade Gethen to join the greater human community in the stars, and this, by far, is the driving factor in both plot and characterization. The pieces and playing board may seem a bit exotic, but the knight still moves up two and over one.
And, ultimately, the rules by which this game is played seem starkly male to me. While it would be naive to think that there couldn't be female autocracies or pseudo-communist dictatorships such as these, it seems to me that they would be different from these. I wondered if the fact that the Gethenians had yet to really discover territorial warfare were meant to balance the structures themselves, but this seemed a weak notion to me, especially since Gethenians deal with their own internal political strife through decidedly brutal and unforgiving means (permanent exile, labor camps, and drug interrogation).
Actually, I suspect that I lost a lot of the impact of the book simply because I read it in 1996, rather than circa 1970; my friend also pointed out that times were different then, and that the very notion of Gethenian sexuality was cutting-edge stuff 25 years ago. I can certainly respect that. All things artistic gain a certain feeling of quaintness, given enough time, and while that may lessen their impact for new readers, it doesn't lessen their importance.
One brief subplot in the book involves Ai visiting a group of foretellers. A key notion in this chapter is that the foretellers eventually decided that their ability is essentially worthless (though in a far more benevolent manner than a similar notion expressed in Robert Silverberg's The Stochastic Man). Ai (naturally) protests that his people would find this ability tremendously useful and powerful. A foreteller responds that they may never be able to develop such abilities unless they relinquish such notions.
This struck me in retrospect as a subtle and clever way in which Le Guin said that what appeared important in the book really wasn't, that all the political machinations and the voyage over the ice at the end were really just the driver to keep the reader turning the pages. It was the asides in the story, the brief touching on Gethenian society and how it was presented - or not presented - that was important. And that the novel wasn't so much a position paper than a starting point, something to get the debates going. And on that count, the book certainly succeeded.
The Lathe of HeavenAvon Books, PB, © 1971, 175 pp, ISBN #0-380-79185-4
Reviewed June 1997
The Lathe of Heaven starts from a simple premise: George Orr dreams, and sometimes he has "effective" dreams, dreams which affects reality. Afterwards, he knows that something changed, but reality has been altered so that to everyone else, the change is the way things have always been. Afraid to sleep, to dream, and abusing drugs to prevent this, Orr is sent to Dr. William Haber for psychiatric treatment. Haber uses a machine to hypnotize and examine Orr's dreams, and becomes caught in the changes: He finds that he, too, can perceive the changes, and decides to use Orr to improve the world.
Lathe operates on two levels: First, it studies the relationship between Orr and Haber, and the morality of Haber's actions. Orr is trapped: He can't leave Haber's care because the authorities would then pick him up as a drug abuser, but he hates what Haber is doing to him. Orr believes he has no right to tamper with reality, for better or for worse; it is morally abhorrent to him. But Orr is too passive - and genuinely disturbed - to actively fight Haber. (Haber remarks on this several times, dismayed that such a power was given to a man who lacks the will to use it.) Haber, for his part, keeps Orr on a tight leash, constantly reminding him of the power Haber has over him. Haber clearly has little interest in treating Orr; he wants to use and study Orr, and learn how to let his machine duplicate his power.
The other approach Lathe takes is to study the use and abuse of Orr's power, especially given the haphazard control the principals have over it. Lathe takes place in the near future, in an overpopulated world. At one point Haber makes Orr dream of a world without the population problems; Orr's mind imagines that in the past a great plague wiped out much of mankind, and building and people vanish at his subconscious command, eliminated by the plague. Later, in an attempt to eliminate racial conflict, Orr's mind causes everyone in the world to become featureless gray. Most disastrously, when ordered to dream of world peace, Orr, unable to imagine a world without any violence, conjures up aliens that are being fought in near space. In all these regards, Lathe is an embodyment of the cautionary saying, "Be careful what you wish for, you might get it."
Although The Lathe of Heaven is often chilling, I felt it went over-the-top at times, as with its introduction of the aliens, who seemed either heavy-handed (as antagonists) or enigmatic (when revealed more closely). I wished Le Guin had reined in Orr's imagination somewhat and taken a more subtle approach. The climax of the book, in which Haber "effects" his own mind to affect the world, features an abortive apocalypse which stretched believability for me. I felt that the world, having been through so much already, couldn't take the final blow delivered by Haber.
Also, I felt that the interactions of the characters was not as deep as some might think; their personalities mainly functioned as plot devices to study the effects of Orr's power.
I think if Lathe had been grounded more firmly and relied a bit more on stealth to make its points (and deliver its emotional impact), it would have been a better book. But nonetheless it's quite effective as is.
The DispossessedHarperPrism, PB, © 1974, 387 pp, ISBN #0-7857-6403-8
Reviewed March 2005
Every so often I try another of Le Guin's novels, but each time I have trouble enjoying it. Other than the early Earthsea books, I generally feel that I'm just not Le Guin's target audience. So it was with The Left Hand of Darkness, and so it is with the Hugo and Nebula award-winning The Dispossessed.
The Dispossessed takes place on the world of Urras, and its moon Anarres, thousands of years in the future. (It's unclear whether the inhabitants are humans, or simply human-seeming aliens.) Over a hundred and fifty years earlier, a group of anarchists - Odonians, named for their founder - rebelled on Urras, and their effectiveness caused the ruling countries to give them the moon Anarres as their own. After a mass exodus, the Odonians set up a socialist quasi-anarchist society on Anarres, with only occasional and strictly controlled contact with Urras. Anarres is a desert world with large oceans and no indigenous land life. The Odonians' free society is constructed to gradually terraform the world but also to allow a great deal of freedom - especially freedom from possessions - to its inhabitants.
It is into this world that Shevek is born. Shevek is a talented physicist, but after some difficult experiences in his childhood he comes to believe strongly in the ideals of Odo. However, there is only one university which serves as an outlet for his drive to perform research, and there he discovers that the totally free society indeed has power structures. Within this framework Shevek struggled with his intellectual drives, his desire for privacy and yet need for social contact, and his feelings about the society around him and his responsibilities to it.
Shevek's life is told in braided form, with alternating chapters about his life on Anarres, and about his visit as an adult to Urras, an unheard-of event in his culture's existence. Shevek becomes a visiting professor in one of the foremost cities on Urras. Shevek is close to discovering a breakthrough brand of physics, but felt stifled and isolated on Anarres. So he wanted to find peers to work with on Urras. But the culture shock is huge, as Urras contains several nations of varying degrees of authoritarianism, as well as physical beauty unlike anything he knows on Anarres.
In reading The Dispossessed, I had to quickly adjust my expectations of the book. Rather than being an anarchist society, Anarres is really a socialist one, where the are careful conventions about how to behave with regards to other people, and a complete sharing of property. (It's vaguely similar to the Earth in Ken MacLeod's The Cassini Division.) More importantly, the novel is not really about this culture, or its contrast to Urras; it's rather about Shevek's experience of growing and learning where he belongs within these cultures. Consequently, many interesting ideas the plot threads are only partially developed or left completely hanging because they're not directly part of Shevek's internal struggle.
As a result, the book basically rises and falls based on Shevek's journey. The portrayal of his life on Anarres is very well done, and his sense of isolation, loneliness, longing, and drive is keenly felt by the reader. However, the portrayal of his year on Urras seems almost superfluous, an almost-unnecessary contrast. Partly because the cultures of the nations on Urras are so poorly-rendered. There's a little bit of Vietnam-era Cold War tension there, and a lot of class and gender warfare (the latter of which feels completely artificial and irrelevant to the story), but by and large it feels like a weak satire of 20th century American life. And there's not much plot and precious little resolution to that part of the story. The novel could perhaps have been rearranged in a linear fashion, and the whole Urras sequence - fully half the novel - cut down to a couple of chapters.
Ultimately, the book just didn't work that well for me, despite some interesting elements. As a study of a strange society it never delves very deeply into its nature and certainly never presents much in the way of conclusions of resolutions. As a character study it's very successful in part, but again the finale is weak. There are lots of ideas worth munching on, although sometimes undercut by Le Guin's efforts to convince the reader of aspects of her world which just don't ring true. An interesting contrast is to Joan D. Vinge's World's End, which feels more visceral and real and is overall a much more powerful novel about its hero's similar crisis of self.
hits since 13 August 2000.
|© 1996-2005 Michael Rawdon (firstname.lastname@example.org) http://www.leftfield.org/~rawdon/|