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Archive for August, 2018

Reading Le Guin

Published

A few months back, I got the second two-volume set of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work in the Library of America, “The Hainish Novels and Stories.” (She is one of the very few writers to have their work published in the Library while still living.) Since then, I’ve been rereading these stories, or in a very few cases reading them for the first time. All of Le Guin’s fiction, even the earliest work, stands up to rereading; that’s one of the things I value about it. Her sensibility and her care for language have spoken to me from the moment I first encountered them, when I happened upon Rocannon’s World on the revolving wire paperback rack in a stationery store. (The book was an Ace Double, back-to-back with Avram Davidson’s The Kar-Chee Reign.)

As I read through this collection, I thought about how much the late Susan Wood would have appreciated it. First of all, Susan would have been delighted to see Le Guin’s work in the Library of America. Even more, though, I think she would have appreciated the later stories. Before Susan’s death in 1980, I can remember her lamenting that Le Guin had yet to write “the Hainish novel”: that is, a novel about the Hainish themselves, from their own perspective, not just about the many cultures that their ancestors had spawned. While Le Guin may not have written quite what Susan was anticipating, she did come back, after a gap of several years, to write a series of late stories that delved ever deeper into the culture and psychology of the Hainish and their interaction with the rest of humanity.

Susan and I both met Ursula at the same time, in August 1975, in Melbourne, where both Ursula and Susan were guests of honor at the first World Science Fiction Convention to be held in Australia. Later, Susan edited Le Guin’s first book of essays, The Language of the Night. Susan was a passionate scholar and an enthusiastic teacher. (At the University of British Columbia, and at earlier universities where she had taught, she created courses on science fiction and Canadian literature – both of which were looked on skeptically by the English department and both of which brought in large numbers of enthusiastic students.) Her introduction to Language of the Night was a major essay that she worked long and hard on, situating Le Guin’s writing and presenting it afresh to a thinking audience.

It’s entirely possible that, had Susan lived, she would have been the one to write the introduction to Le Guin’s Hainish novels and stories for the Library of America. I like to think so.

When I first started reading that volume, last winter, and started musing about how much Susan would have enjoyed it, I thought I ought to mention it to Ursula. She would appreciate it, I was sure. But I was slow to act; Ursula had been in poor health, and in January she died. I never managed to share that particular insight.

In June, I had the bittersweet pleasure of attending the celebration of Ursula’s life, in Portland, Oregon. It filled the magnificent Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and after a star-studded program of appreciations, ended with a dragon parading up onto the stage and then out into the street. Her long-time home town certainly knew how to celebrate Ursula K. Le Guin.