21 October 2009

Happy Birthday, Ursula LeGuin!

Today is LeGuin's 80th birthday, and also the 40th anniversary of the publication of Hugo-winner The Left Hand of Darkness.

LeGuin is one of my favorite writers. She's written fantasy, science fiction, and YA novels and short stories. You can read her extensive bibliography here, or the short version. (I need to get the other 2 books in the Annals of the Western Shore...)

I first read The Left Hand of Darkness in 1986 or 87, when I was in fifth grade. I'd just read Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time books, borrowed from my elementary school library, and LeGuin was shelved right next to her, so... I can't remember if I read the Earthsea books first, or if they were checked out at the time. I'm fairly sure most of the book went straight over my head, but I loved it. I found a copy at the used book store 7 or 8 years ago and reread it then. I've been working to complete my collection over the years, slowly. It's hard to get out of print books, you know.

The Left Hand of Darkness was a groundbreaking work in 1969. It's part of the Hainish cycle, a loose series of stories set in a future of space exploration and contact. On a planet called Winter, an explorer cum ambassador for the Ekumen (the league of worlds) befriends a Gethenian and goes on a walk with them. Gethenians are androgynous, almost a-gendered, except for a period called kemmer, during which they take on one set of sexual characteristics. It's not always straightforward which set they get, and it's not even always the same set! There's a story of political intrigue and betrayal, of course, though that seems like a side concern.

LeGuin's strongest suit, which is no doubt related to being the daughter of a very famous anthropologist, is creating worlds you can believe in, populated with people you can believe in. Much of the Hainish cycle reads like a vehicle for cultural anthropology. The Ekumen goes around exploring new worlds and observing the native inhabitants (without interference.) They may interact, but there are Rules about influencing their societies.

Her prose is sparse, almost Spartan, but still incredibly detailed. It's as far from the lyrical purpleness and skirting the point favored by some modern SF/F writers as possible, yet her imagery is at least as evocative as theirs. Moreso, perhaps, because it's not obfuscated under deliberately clever word choices.

If you've never read anything she's written, you're missing out.

Happy birthday, UKL. May there be many more.

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