Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion
Susan M Bernardo & Graham J. Murphy, Greenwood Press, 198pp $65 hb
Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion is a volume in a Greenwood Press series, ‘Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers’. In some ways that tells you everything you need to know. It’s a textbook, aimed at bright American high-school students and freshman undergraduates. The series leans heavily on a formula in which individual texts are cut and diced according to various headings, left in neat piles, ready for the student to construct textual interpretations of their own. For each novel (all the Earthsea novels, a selection from Le Guin’s Hainish sequence, The Lathe of Heaven) there is a lengthy plot analysis, with further sections on theme, character development, and in each case an alternative reading of the novel. The authors are familiar with current critical writing on SF and fantasy, which they quote confidently. For those unfamiliar with Le Guin’s work, it is an effective introduction.
Whether through choice or publishing stricture, the authors have chosen to categorise Le Guin’s novels as either SF or fantasy, and to discuss the two sets of books almost entirely independently of one another, with only a little feeble cross-referencing of themes. I can see pedagogic arguments for such an approach, though its failure to recognise the holistic nature of Le Guin’s oeuvre robs the book of a good deal of its critical integrity; on the other hand, thanks to this, and some inconsistency in the authors’ arguments within the two sections, this critical companion comes complete with an implicit alternative reading.
The introductions to the two groups of novels suggests that the authors are not as secure in their appreciation of genre as might seem at first sight. Introducing the section on science fiction, for example, they draw heavily on Samuel R. Delany’s essay, ‘About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words’ (Le Guin herself drew on Delany’s work when co-editing The Norton Anthology of Science Fiction), which talks about the relationship of different kinds of writing to reality. Delany discusses fantasy in this essay, and the authors here note his definition. I assumed they would return to this when discussing the Earthsea novels, but instead they turned to a different set of theorists, while noting, with perhaps a faint hint of disapproval, that Le Guin’s notion of fantasy ‘is broad, as it includes works some might call science fiction’. The astute reader will immediately spot that something strange is happening and, with luck, follow up the discussion.
The sections on the history of sf and fantasy also fail to make any significant links with one another, as though the authors were afraid of genre contamination. There were also some peculiar omissions. How one can describe Le Guin as being influenced by anthropology and then fail to include a substantial analysis of Always Coming Home I don’t know, and I looked in vain for a significant discussion of ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. Perhaps the transcript of their interview with Le Guin best sums up the problems with this book; its authors grapple with their need to render everything neat and tidy while the author and her works resolutely refuse to comply, making everything complicated again. I like to think of future students taking their cue from Le Guin.