TT: Political Commentator

JANE: Last time you said there was another aspect to Ursula Le Guin’s writing that you wanted to explore.

ALAN: Yes – I’ve really always regarded her as a political commentator first and a feminist writer second. Hence, I suppose, my admiration for The Disposessed, which I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Stories With a Message

Politics was a theme she explored again in her novella/novel The Word for World Is Forest, though this time the ideas related more directly to contemporary America. The story was originally published in Harlan Ellison’s collection Again, Dangerous Visions so I’m sure she thought her subject matter was, to some degree, controversial. Among other things, The World for World Is Forest was a direct commentary on the Vietnam war. Le Guin never made any secret of her opposition to America’s involvement in that conflict and the story’s anti-militaristic theme makes that perfectly clear.

JANE: The first time I read the book, I was too young to catch that I wasn’t reading just a novel but political commentary.  In fact, the book quite turned me off, especially how the humans referred to the natives as “creechies” and how many remained closeminded even when presented with evidence that the native population was – in its own way – quite sophisticated.  Sadly, even when I read the book later, I never could get around that initial aversion.

ALAN: Sometimes it’s hard to overcome first impressions when you re-visit a story and try to read it with different eyes.

Have you read the series of stories (and one novel) that she set in a fictional central European country called Orsinia? We learn from the stories that the country was once an independent kingdom which was absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Orsinia sent an army to the First World War. After that conflict ended, Orsinia briefly regained its independence. However, after the Second World War, it became part of the Soviet bloc. At the end of the 1980s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the country again became self-governing. In other words the country has a history typical of the place and times.

Le Guin invented Orsinia when she was in her teens.  As she said in her introduction to The Complete Orsinia (The Library of America, 2016):

Most of the people I really wished I could write like were foreign, or dead, or both. Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there.

At last it occurred to me that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.

She wrote stories set in Orsinia throughout her career and they directly reflect her reactions to the various events that defined the political and social history of Europe and, by extension, of the world at large.

The later stories were sophisticated and thoughtful, but I found the only novel set in Orsinia (Malafrena) to be rather weak. Probably that was because she had been tinkering with it for thirty years or more before it was finally published in 1979. It reads like a nineteenth century novel of manners, and it never really comes alive. The other Orsinian Tales, though, are well worth seeking out.

JANE: Thanks for letting me know.  I must admit, I haven’t read those stories, and when I heard they were based on her juvenilia, I wasn’t particularly interested.  You make them sound much more appealing.

Tell me, have you read Le Guin’s Always Coming Home?

ALAN: No, not in any formal sense. I doubt that anybody has. The book presents itself as a description of the life and culture of the Kesh people who live at some indeterminate future time in California. It’s a ragbag collection of a book that consists of songs, poems, recipes, anthropological notes and anything else that she felt like tossing into the mixture. It doesn’t tell a linear story (though there is a story there if you look closely). Instead it tries to present a whole culture, a gestalt if you will. It’s a book to dip into rather than to read from start to finish.

JANE: Okay, folks!  Tell us, have any of you read Always Coming Home in a linear fashion?

I’ll admit, I haven’t.  The edition I have includes notes that tell you where to go if you want to pick up the more narrative portion of the book, but I’ll be honest.  Stone Telling’s tale didn’t grip me.  I think the reason is encompassed in the second part of her name.  “Telling” isn’t appealing to me.  Nor, honestly, was she.  Even in the sections where she is a small child, I felt implicitly lectured, and I don’t enjoy that.

Once I decided I didn’t like Stone Telling, I dipped into various portions, enjoyed a poem or two, contemplated a recipe, read some of the other bits, but that was it.

ALAN: John Scalzi greatly admires Always Coming Home. He praises it very highly in the obituary he wrote for Ursula Le Guin.

JANE: Thanks!  I went and looked at his piece.  He makes a persuasive argument, but it’s not one that applies to me.  By the time I picked up Always Coming Home, as an English major with an interest in what was then called “Modern Literature,” I was already familiar with non-linear storytelling, and so form alone was not enough to intrigue me – and certainly not to provide an influence.

Non-linear storytelling wasn’t even all that new to SF/F, since many of the New Wave writers – including Roger Zelazny, whose work I had read extensively – had dabbled in these waters.   Creatures of Light and Darkness, published in 1969, immediately comes to mind.

ALAN: I tend to agree with you. I think it’s one of her less approachable works. But despite her occasional failures, she was an important and influential writer. I will miss her now that she is gone.

JANE: Me, too.  She gave me pleasure as a reader, helped me grow as a writer.  Two tremendous gifts.

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3 Responses to “TT: Political Commentator”

  1. CBI Says:

    I read The Word for World is Forest–probably in the mid- or late-70s–and liked it quite a bit, I don’t recall the commentary re the Vietnam conflict to have had much impact, at least for me. Since I then believed (and still do) that the U.S. involvement there was good and just (although poorly prosecuted militarily until Abrams was in charge), I’m not sure why her book didn’t make make that sort of an impression on me. Until Alan mentioned it, I didn’t recall that aspect of the book at all. Truth be known: I still don’t.

    I will have to reread it. In thinking back, my personal perception may have been because I categorized her analogies as being not to reality so much as to a caricature belief that I didn’t share–in effect, as an analogy (if that’s the correct term) to an alternate reality. Perhaps it’s confirmation bias acting on author or on reader–or on both!

    She was a very good writer and I enjoyed reading her writing. Since her politics and emphases differed from mine, at times I found some of her writing preachy if not downright eye-rolling (I’ve same complaint re Heinlein, whose politics are somewhat closer to mine), but she sure could tell stories and hold interest! As a result of y’all’s discussion, I’ve added some of her books to my (re)read list. Thanks much!

  2. futurespastsite Says:

    What a great gift she gave you, probably all unknowing. And you have probably done similar things to others, again all unknowing.

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