This is a collection of some of Le Guin’s science fiction, and a few fantasy, stories.
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
Omelas is the perfect city, the inhabitants happy. Le Guin’s description seems to include the freedom to enjoy whatever it is you want to enjoy. The city is not naive, but full of intellectual vigor. The price for all this happiness is that there is one child who is completely unhappy, shut up all alone, naked, in the dark, unloved. Each inhabitant must see the child as they grow up, to know what price that is paid. And there are some who leave the city, who cannot live in perfect happiness at the expense of another’s.
There is a legend from one of the distant worlds of the League, of Semley and her necklace. Semley was the young wife of the price Durhal. The world had recently been conquered by the Starlords of the League, but their land was still trying to continue their feudal lifestyle. Wealth was rare, and becoming rarer. Semley’s family once had a great necklace, and she wanted something to show her status. So she went to the Clayfolk, who had her necklace. They lived underground, and, we learn, were more technological than Semley’s primitive culture. She asked them for her necklace; they attempted to explain things would not work out the way she imagined, but she had no value for their mumbo jumbo. So they took her in a train to a starship, and by starship to the Museum on another world. She asked for the necklace from the Curator, and since technically all the items were on loan from the original culture, they gave it back to her. To Semley it seemed but a short time that she was gone, but the journey took 16 light-years, so everyone she knew was 16 years older, and her husband had died seven years earlier. In shock and grief she gave the necklace to her daughter (who was nearly as old as she was), and ran off into the forest.
The tenclone arrived at the mining planet to begin exploitation of the uranium deposit found by Martin and Owen. The tenclone was five males and five (sterile) females, all cloned from the same man, John Chow, but given different training. They lived and worked together, finishing each other’s sentences, even sexually coupling in a communal way (did the same male always sleep with the same female? Unclear, since they all looked alike.) The tenclone was the complete human: never alone, always accepted, no needs (although, is sleeping with your clone really just masturbating?). However, collectively they acted self-centeredly; they never talked to the other two men on the mining. They did not need anyone else. However, the planet was highly unstable, and nine of the ten clones died in the mine. The tenth took some time grieving, but then slowly started to learn how to relate to others.
I was taken by the aliens to be tortured. They gave me picked leaves to eat, but since they were no longer living, they no longer had any nutrition, and I slowly starved despite being full. They made me run in increasingly difficult mazes. Despite their torture (although they never once treated me cruelly, which was the worst part), nonetheless I danced the maze dances, the increasingly complex maze dance for love of my craft. The two-legged aliens tried to communicate with me (which they did using sound), and seemed to ask what needed to be done to prevent me from dying. But I was too weak to answer. Now I dance the dance of death, which they will not understand, either.
First Contact with the Gorgonids
Mrs. Jerry Debree was constantly put down, insulted, and belittled by her husband, who liked to look strong. He was an American, and he was in an Australian bar bragging about how nobody could do native dances like the U.S. (despite not having actually seen a Native American dance). The men in the bar suggested he could find some “abo’s” at Grong Crossing that put on a great show; her women’s intuition had picked up something, but Jerry would just belittle her if she said anything. Ninety minutes into the deep outback they came across a group of natives. Jerry got out of the car to take pictures of them. The native put a weak hand over the lens, and Jerry pulled a gun on him. The “native” opened its eye and Jerry was instantly paralyzed, like stone. She got out and went over to him, with the alien’s snakelike hair looking at her. Two aliens (eyes closed) carried him to the car for her. He was completely paralyzed the rest of his life, but she got so much money from the first-contact video that she could afford the care. Even better, she was the hero of the story; she was the first to make contact with aliens.
The Shobies’ Story
The Shoby was the first ship to test out the Churten drive on humans. All other ships used NAFAL (Nearly As Fast As Light) drive, and time dilation meant that, while the traveler experienced little time on a voyage to another star system in the Ekumen, all the people they knew aged many years. The Churten could get there instantly, but although it worked with apes, it had never been tested with humans. Not all of the crew was certain that it would work, and thought that Gveter did not actually know what he was talking about when he tried to explain it. When the Shoby did churten, half the crew observed that they had arrived, and half observed the ship as transparent and themselves still in orbit around Ve Port. A crew went down to the planet they were in orbit around to take samples, but again, their experiences did not match. The ansible did not work, so they could not communicate, nor did the NAFAL drive, so they could not return. Finally all shared their experiences and discovered the effect of the churten depended on what they believed would happen, and returned safely.
Yoss was an old woman who had come to the village to strengthen her soul in solitude. Planet Yeowe had been an agricultural world colonized by Werel, which brought its slaves to tend the fields. They over-farmed the land, which was now unproductive. Also strengthening his soul was Chief Aberkkam, who led the rebellion against Werel, helped by the Ekumen, and they had won. Abberkam was known as a womanizer, a smooth talker, a liver-in-luxury, and an embezzeler, but it was when he betrayed a friend that he was kicked out of the World Party in disgrace and came to the village. Yoss did not like him, nor he her. But she realized he was sick one day, and took it on herself to care for him. He came down with pneumonia and she had to care for him for some time, coming over in the afternoons to cook for him and then returning to her house, where she read the spiritual text and a book of other worlds. One of her pets died. Then, her house burned up when she used wood in a fireplace meant for burning peat. Yoss was in the village when it happened, but Abberkam saw and came over to her house. He invited her back to live with his house, because she had treated him with respect, despite he not having deserved it. He wanted to be her lover. She was unsure, but agreed to live a while in the large house.
The Matter of Seggri
The Hain ancestors of the Seggri must have altered the Seggri’s genes during colonization, because the male:female ratio was 1:16. Men, being valuable, had prestige, but women, being numerous, had the power. So men were sent to castles, where they competed non-stop, playing other castles’ teams in sports. Men were restricted to the castle, except for the successful sportifs, who spent nights at the local fuckery servicing women. Women went there either for pleasure or to sire a child, paying for the opportunity (with a big tip to the man if the baby was a boy). Ekumen observers recorded how the society was run by women, with women in leadership, colleges being all women, and men treated sexistly, as unable to handle basic tasks of society. Over time, the system broke down and a revolt in one of the castles led to men being given equal opportunity legally, although societal feelings trailed the legal rights. The first man who went to college ended up having to go to an off-world Ekumen college.
Officially a report from the daughter of an Ekumen observer at Soro, she describes how her mother took the family to Soro, which was unusual in that adults did not talk to adults, but only to children. So the only way to learn anything was to bring your children to an auntring (village of women) where they would be taught through story and song, and then ask the children. Men lived alone near an auntring, and women would go visit when they felt like sleeping with their favorite man. One of the values of the culture was no magic. Magic was using words to persuade or manipulate someone. Another value was silence. Perhaps it had something to do with what happened to the People, who seemed to have a much higher civilization, able to make things like metal knives, but had nearly destroyed themselves. The observer had a boy and a girl, and the boy got old enough that he had to go to the boygroup. After he was gone a while, one of the men indirectly communicated that the boygroup had unhealthy leadership and the men did something about it. Despite the cultural taboo, the son came back and told of a “Lord of the Flies” kind of life in a group alone. The mother packed them both up to the Ekumen ship. However, the daughter had bonded with the culture, in particular with the idea of finding your soul/identity, which her mother was preventing. The rift widened until eventually mother and son went back to civilized Hain (parting forever because of time dilation), while the daughter went back to Soro. She wandered around, as young women do, staying with one of the men a while, but always wandering, until she wanted to have children. Then she contacted the ship, told all she could about the culture, and went back to the auntring.
The Wild Girls
Bela ten Belen, of the City took five men and went hunting for nomad children for slaves. Bela and his companions were Crowns, and Crowns could only marry Dirt (slaves) women. Crowns owned all the property in the city, but could not make anything; only Roots could make things, which they sold from shops they rented from the Crowns. Crowns typically bought a Dirt girl as their wife, paying a large price to the owner. So Bela and his men arrived at the nomad camp looking for slave girls that would grow up to be their wives. They kidnapped some girls, enough for one each, but Ralo’s girl took sick and died. Bela had captured Mal, and her sister Modh followed her willingly, so Bela got two slaves. Bela treated his slaves nicely and Modh grew up happily. Mal, however, was haunted by the girl Ralo had let die. He had given her a name shortly before she died, so she could not got to the heavens unburied, but her soul stayed on the earth. Modh was attractive and Bela eventually married her. He was a reasonable man, and she obeyed him instantly, but did not fawn over him or anticipate his wishes, and she was unmoved by ecstasy or torture (although he never tortured her); this created a tantalizing distance and kept him interested. Over time they even became friends. Ralo wanted Mal, and although Bela did not want to sell her to him, since he was a cruel man, eventually he offered so much that social pressure made it impossible for him to say no. The night before the wedding the ghost-baby cried and terrorized the entire household, but the marriage went through anyway, and Mal killed Ralo as he came to her. As a Dirt women, she was not buried, despite Modh’s insistence. Modh was pregnant, but Mal’s ghost came to her every night, and her baby was too large and killed her.
The Fliers of Gy
The people of Gy are people with feathers instead of hair. Some of them grow wings and develop thin bones and can fly. Development is a painful, yearlong process, and is fatal if stopped. It is usually fatal afterwards, too, since the people in the villages push the winged ones off a cliff. If he or she flies, they shoot it with arrows, and if it falls, they kill it on the rocks. But in the cities there is a mixed view. Part of the problem is that having large wings is awkward for daily life when not flying, and another part is that most flyers will unexpectedly find their wings no longer working and will fall out of the air and die. There are no warning signs and there is no way to predict who it will happen to. Some Gy people love the feeling of flying and live a life full of it, often delivering critical messages for the government (sent in pairs, in case one experiences wing failure). Others are to risk averse and never fly, going even so far as to try to hide or minimize their wings.
The Silence of the Asonu
The Asonu people are notoriously silent as adults. In four years, one elder spoke only 11 short phrases, between one and five words. The devotee from Ohio interpreted the statements as a slowly expressed spiritual statement, although if one looks at the circumstances surrounding the statements, they seem well-explained as ordinary comments. Children learn to speak from other children, and gradually become quieter as they age. One man kidnapped an Asonu child, who stopped speaking at the usual age and not even torture and beatings (before the child was discovered) could make her talk.
The Ascent of the North Face
Houses on the street are slowly climbed like mountains.
The Author of the Acacia Seeds
An Ant text written in pheromones on twelve acacia seeds is interpreted as rebelling against the Queen in a new linguistic analysis. A great deal of the new interpretation is interpreting ant culture. “Without ants” is interpreted as “alone” rather than literally, since an ant has no word for “alone.” Likewise, “Eat the eggs! Up with the Queen!” sounds contradictory unless you realize that up is where the harsh outside is and that down is where home and safety is, thus a better translation of “Eat the eggs! Down with the Queen!” is suggested. The journal goes on to discuss the difficulties of understanding penguin, and the almost insurmountable difficulties of understanding plants, which communicate kinetically, entirely through motion.
The Wife’s Story
A wolf wife found her husband coming back with strange scents periodically. She eventually discovered that he changed into a human when the moon was not full. The pack killed him after that discovery.
The Rule of Names
In Earthsea speaking the truename of something gives you power over it, so people are careful not to say too much. The small, remote island of Sattins Island had but one wizard, Mr. Underhill, who lived in a cave, and did rather inept spells. As a result, the villagers treated him familiarly, merely as one of themselves. They asked him over to dinner, and he reciprocated once, but he did not like people in his cave, so he would meet people outside. One day a boat arrived with just one person, whom the villagers named Blackbeard (as he obviously could not give his name). Blackbeard was ostensibly a peddler, but the old sea captain knew that the only people who sailed alone, with an oaken staff, were wizards and Mages. Blackbeard was too young to be a Mage, to the disappointment of the villagers. Eventually Blackbeard inquired of the fisherman Birt how Mr. Underhill had arrived, which he had done alone, and with a boat that was full of something heavy that they carried to his cave. Birt took Blackbeard to Mr. Underhill’s cave, and Blackbeard told him a story. Long ago, a dragon had plundered the main castle at the center of the Archipelago. Many perished trying to retrieve the riches of the castle, but eventually someone discovered that the dragon was gone. They found that the treasure was gone, too, but they did see the bones of a dragon. Blackbeard, an heir to the riches, and a powerful wizard himself, tracked this wizard powerful enough to kill a mighty dragon down to Sattins Island. He had also learned his truename, by means of black magic. Blackbeard called out the wizard, and the two dueled in different forms, until eventually Mr. Underhill took the form of a dragon. Blackbeard then said his truename and commanded him to take his true form. Nothing happened. The dragon Yevaud said that was his true name, and this was his true form. Blackbeard blanched and asked about the dead dragon. “It was another dragon.” After Blackbeard’s death, Birt fled the island immediately, taking his love interest, the schoolmistress with him. Three days later, Mr. Underhill emerged as a dragon, and since his truename was known, no need to bother with the disguise.
An aunt and a niece, both near death (successively) explore a hitherto unseen room. For the aunt it was filled with all kinds of stuff, but when she came out of the room she was dead. For the niece it was empty, but she was dead upon exiting, too.
An impoverished boy explores the King’s wood (which they lived next to) for food, because his father refused to work. Eventually he found a very tall thicket of thorns (which had lots of berries in season). He slowly explored the extent of it, finding that it was circular. When the blacksmith died, he stole his tools, and began the laborious process of cutting through it. The thicket grew unusually rapidly, but he made it through after many days. He found a castle where everyone was asleep, and no matter what he did to a room, when he returned everything was exactly the same as before he left. In a tower he found a woman that had pricked herself on a spinning wheel, and looked like she might be easily woken up. He never returned to that room, and left breaking the enchantment for someone else. Instead, he lived a life of lonely luxury, living in the castle among the sleeping servants, eating all the king’s food which magically reappeared.
Some adventure-seeking women make an expedition to the South Pole before the men do, but do not say anything about it so that the men will not be embarrassed.
She Unnames Them
Eve persuades the animals (some with difficulty) that they do not need the species names that Adam has given them, because it put a barrier between hunter and hunted, and between her and them. She even returned her name to Adam, and left him, because she wanted freedom from being boxed in to being Eve. Adam was too busy and did not even care, which was a bit of a disappointment.
Le Guin’s stories are all interesting and well-told. In the science fiction stories, she uses the Hainish Ekumen as a framework for an unlimited number of planets in which to explore ethnological elements taken to the extreme. The others present a situation in which it gradually becomes clear that the apparent situation is the opposite of a familiar situation, told from the opposite perspective as usual. Some are a little too surreal for me to determine what is going on. But all of them are told with even pacing, slowly unraveling the mystery of context. Her characters are very human, and have very emotional reactions to events. The characters generally grow throughout the story (although some grow negatively), culminating in the big reveal at the end.
However, I did not enjoy this anthology. First, all the stories are negative or unhappy. Second, the societies described are generally dysfunctional and painful to read about. Third, just like most movies, a few entirely unnecessary sex scenes ruin a perfectly good story. In fact, several of the stories are quite graphic. Fourth, the book feels like it has an atmosphere of “progressive,” the greatest right is to do whatever feels good ethic, with a one-with-the-earth mothering spirituality. I find this atmosphere to be stifling, partly because I strongly believe that real people do not actually have sex without attachments, solitude without depression, and healthy families without fathers. It may work in the “progressive” theology of equal in value implies interchangeability, anything-but-Christian reactionary spirituality, but all the evidence I have seen in the real world suggests that “progressive” ideology is dysfunctional.
The stories are well-told and may very well be 100-year stories. However, they are painful to read, no matter how elegantly told. I simply do not want to experience the events in those stories, even vicariously. There are a few exceptions: I liked The Maze, First Contact ..., and The Rule of Names. Also, Semley’s Necklace was a poignant tale of unforseen loss brought on by greed, and Nine Lives thoughtfully reflected in the failures of being self-contained, but coupled with the others, it made for a long slog. If you want to explore the craft of writing and storytelling, these are great examples to learn from. However, if you yearn for the healing of this world’s problems caused by humanity’s endemic dysfunction, think twice.