Thinking About What Matters

9781328661593_custom-98a5c984a54b82218a0fc4bb11b82f1021da6b56-s400-c85The author does not frequently show up in these pages. But when she does, it is worth noting because she says things that matter, and that gets us thinking. In the case of this book she is stating the obvious, that there is no time to spare. But sometimes it is good that someone of her stature states it anyway. Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this review:

Ursula K. Le Guin’s mastery of fiction has remained so consistent throughout her decades-long career, it’s easy to overlook her accomplishments in other forms. Sure, she’s the author of iconic, award-winning science fiction novels such as 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness and 1971’s The Lathe of Heaven, not to mention the beloved fantasy series The Earthsea Cycle, which began in 1968. But those distinct works share Le Guin’s firm grasp of poetic language, science, and history. Accordingly, she’s a brilliant poet, albeit a less recognized one. Even further down on her résumé are her wins as a nonfiction writer. Her 2016 collection of essays and reviews, Words Are My Matter, won the Hugo Award for Best Related Work in 2017, despite the fact that the book did not focus exclusively on science fiction — nor do her other nonfiction collections, including The Wave in the Mind from 2004 and now, No Time to Spare, a new book that assembles some of her most cogent ruminations on everything from gender politics to anthropology to, yes, science fiction and fantasy.

One of our most acclaimed and inventive authors of speculative fiction, specifically science fiction and fantasy, Le Guin has thought — and written — long and hard about genre. With her characteristic mix of wit and erudition, she dives into the definitions of science fiction and fantasy in “Genre: A Word Only a Frenchman Could Love,” her definitive statement on the subject. In the essay — which appears in Words Are My Matter but was originally a speech she delivered at a Public Library Association conference — Le Guin cites Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, and the Bible in a sweeping, penetrating take on the way we categorize and prejudge everything from space opera to romance. Her takeaway (“There are many bad books. There are no bad genres.”) exemplifies her keen ability to boil down complex issues to their essence, even as she argues with nuance and grace.

Le Guin champions genre fiction — but not blindly. “It Doesn’t Have to Be the Way It Is” from No Time to Spare sharply examines the traditional function and substructure of fantasy literature, a place where “imagination and fundamentalism come into conflict.” Her point is that fantasy is not, as widely assumed, a form of fiction where anything goes. Uncertainty is an important building block in fantasy literature, but the genre largely fails when it has no internal causality. “It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who likes science can dislike fantasy,” she says, and then — in a tactic she often employs — she uses that seeming paradox to illuminate the big truths, as she sees them, behind the philosophy of storytelling. At the same time, she’s not above rolling up her sleeves and geeking out, as she does in her The Wave in the Mind essay “Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings” — which is just as joyously bookish as the title implies.

As strongly as genre factors into Le Guin’s nonfiction, so does gender. In the essay “Introducing Myself” from The Wave in the Mind, she ponders male and female pronouns, spinning the issue into a clever, biting thought experiment about body image, the force of language, and the fluidity of identity. It’s not a surprising position, considering that one of Le Guin’s most celebrated novels, The Left Hand of Darkness, dramatizes these same issues, only on an alien planet many centuries in the future. One of her most powerful qualities is her ability to frame contemporary concerns within the far-flung speculation of science fiction, but essays like No Time to Spare‘s “A Band of Brothers, a Stream of Sisters” highlights just how adept she is at writing about the real world. In the piece, she gauges female solidarity against male solidarity, measuring with a sociologist’s eye as well as a feminist’s. “Can women operate as women in a male institution without becoming imitation men?” she asks, solidifying a question that floats more subtly at the heart of her fiction…

Read the whole review here.

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