Visions of Paradise

Friday, April 14, 2006

Four Ways to Forgiveness

Ursula K. Le Guin pulled off what is an amazing trick for any writer. From the late 1960s through the late 1970s she was one of the major science fiction writers, turning out such masterpieces as The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, “The Word For World is Forest” and seemingly endless others. Then she vanished into the world of borderline fantasies and pure mainstream for twenty years. Several critics even assailed her for abandoning the SF genre totally for purely literary fiction, even though Le Guin never made such a pronouncement herself.

Then abruptly in the mid-1990s, Le Guin returned full-force to science fiction after an absence of over a decade. When writers return to the genre after such a long gap, their work usually pales in relation to their earlier, groundbreaking work. Was the post-Foundation’s Edge Isaac Asimov nearly as good as the Asimov of the 1940s and 1950s? Or the Theodore Sturgeon of the post-“Slow Sculpture” or the L. Ron Hubbard of Battlefield Forever series? Of course, there were exceptions, but I think it is fair to say that very few science fiction writers ever made such a stunning return to the field as Ursula K. Le Guin did after an absence of a decade or longer.

Four Ways to Forgiveness features the Le Guin at her very best, four novellas published in 1994 and 1995. Collectively, they are an absolutely wonderful group of stories based around Le Guin’s usual concerns: incisive character studies set against a backdrop of sociological studies of well-developed human cultures. The characters are generally very intriguing and exciting to investigate; the cultures themselves are fascinating, and the political events that Le Guin unfolds are generally very thought-provoking. And for those who like their science fiction literary, Le Guin remains the master of those works which fall in the overlap between science fiction and literature.

Both “Betrayals” and “Forgiveness Day” are love stories. The former tells of a woman who has abandoned civilization to live along as a hermit, and her nearest neighbor. a former hero of the revolution who was disgraced for selfish, greedy actions. When the neighbor becomes ill, the woman feels obligated to come to his aid, during which time she learns a lot more about the neighbor than she expected. The latter story tells of a female envoy to a male-dominated world which has just emerged from a revolution but which is still war-torn as differing factions struggle for a piece of the spoils. She and her hard-line male bodyguard are kidnapped and trapped together for several weeks. During that time they learn a lot about each other’s attitudes and, as is normal when people are imprisoned together, they develop strong feelings for each other.

“A Man of the People” and “A Woman’s Liberation” are both about freedom. The former story is the weakest story in the book, although certainly not because its plot is weak. Its protagonist grows up on a powerful planet with a rigid culture which he escapes and ultimately become an envoy to the same world as “Forgiveness Day.” He falls in love, almost dies before falling out of love, then becomes involved in a women’s underground movement since the society that freed itself in the revolution has become totally male-dominated and the women wish to achieve their own independence. The problem with the story is that all of this is laid out but nothing really happens. “A Man of the People” is the mere outline of a story. The envoy’s feelings are not explored satisfactorily, if at all, and the women’s struggle for independence is portrayed very superficially. The story ends with the women seemingly on their way to equality, but why? And how? I think Le Guin tried to pack too much into this story’s 70 pages. Either she should have narrowed her focus to one topic, or else expanded the story as much as it needed to do all the topics justice. Probably a 200 page novel would have been more satisfactory.

“A Woman’s Liberation” is a much more complete story about a female slave (called an asset in the story) who undergoes an incredible number of torments as a slave, only to find that freedom , whether earned or given, still contains nearly as many restraints as slavery did. More satisfying than “A Man of the People,” this story could potentially be a masterpiece if expanded into novel-form.

A Fisherman of the Inland Sea
is a collection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s post-retirement shorter fiction, just as Four Ways to Forgiveness was a collection of her novellas. And it is just as good.

“Newton’s Sleep” is a powerful story about a group of very intelligent, wealthy people who form a perfect society on an orbiting space station, barely escaping the economic, ecological, and human chaos swirling across the surface of the Earth. Everything on the space station seems so perfect except for a bit of bigotry raising its ugly head, until a few children start seeing the ghost of a burning woman drifting through the space station. Then other people see an old hag, then some bison, and so on and so on. This was my favorite story in the collection.

“The Shobies’ Story” and “Dancing to Ganaan” are companion pieces about the first ships experimenting with the faster-than-light churten drive. The interpersonal dynamics of the crews of the ftl ships partially determines the nature of the societies on the worlds they reach, a fact which is the mystery of the first story, but which becomes the basis of examination in the second. Together they form a top-notch novella about reality and how one’s perceptions shape it. Two highly-recommended stories.

“Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” is an example of Le Guin in her society-building mode. This story examines the scientists who develop the churten drive, especially how the dedication of one scientist to his experiments drastically affects his family and personal relationships. The ending is a bit contrived, and probably a bigger leap in suspending disbelief than the churten drive was over Le Guin’s ansible communication, but since in any Le Guin story the science itself is only incidental to the human relationships, it is a non-damaging little conceit in yet another well-done story.

It might seem ludicrous to see that Le Guin returned to the field better than ever after her two decades away, but both collections are absolutely delightful, combining characterization, sense of wonder, maturity, and thoughtfulness are all rolled into compact little packages. What more could anybody expect from modern science fiction?


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