I got this book as part of my free trial with Audible….it’s 34 hours long….it’s 13 novellas. Deals!
Vaster than Empires and More Slow 1975 – 4/5 stars
I haven’t read any of the Hainish novels. And in fact, I haven’t read much of Ursula K Le Guin at all. So I will have to reverse engineer any of the novels that come across in this collection that refer back to any series or worldview. I THINK it will be ok, because I am choosing to believe that Hain is not that different CULTURE by Iain M Banks.
That said, this is a space/planet exploration story. A crew has been shoveled together and one member of the long term crew is not as qualified as the others in terms of his exploratory skills, but he does have one thing they don’t, complete and total empathic abilities. As a result of a treatment for autism (I know….I know! It’s from the 70s and it feels kind of Lawnmower Man/Flowers for Algernonish and bad form, but ok) his emotions were reversed being unable to track others’ emotional states to being unable to not do it. As a result, he is deeply defensive and unpleasant as a way to put up a literal emotional wall to hide his complete vulnerability. He’s a real asshole as a result. They land on a planet that also projects a hive mind type environment and so his ability is both a boon to their basic understanding of the circumstances, but also a hindrance as they try to figure out their next moves.
This story feels very 70s in its black/white characterizations….one species is a total slut both in action and characterization, the Asian character is a total puritan as result of a monolithic view of her culture etc etc. But I am always fascinated by we’re all stuck on this planet/spaceship for too many decades together kinds of things.
Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come out Tonight 1987 – 3/5 stars
In this story, we have a pseudo western and almost Native American fable like story. Doe and Coyote are on a quest. This is an adventure story about innocence and the nature of the world. There’s some funny moments involving creepy hitting on Doe and her inability to understand what sex is.
I am not a huge fan of fables in general and as I said, I don’t like “tales” that much, so I listened to this one while playing a video game and called it a day. I think if I had been reading this story by itself I would have skimmed it over all. It felt a little empty ultimately. Not terrible and not un-entertaining, but not a whole lot to say for me.
In a lot of ways this novella feels like the Vonda McIntyre novel Dreamsnake from the late 1970s, which is amazing if you haven’t read it. But basically, an unfamiliar set of characters on a familiar landscape vying for the lay of the land.
The Hernes 1991 – 5/5 Stars
This novella is the most complete of the three so far, and by turn the longest. In a lot of way it feels a lot like the Willa Cather novel O, Pioneers if it were more modern feeling or a 1990s Margaret Atwood novel.
It’s the story of several women from a a loose family tree in the Pacific Northwest throughout the 20th century. Each woman faces down the choices the land puts in front of us from the moving across the Rockies and the opportunities in California int he early part of the 1900s to the decision of whether or not to get a PhD in a much more modern setting of the 1970s.
Throughout each of the stories, which are told concurrently in first and third person narration the women face similar trials and decisions even as the settings around them shift. There’s a pattern of fatherless children, of cheating, of death in wartime and being left behind, or leaving and returning.
Over all, this is a strong novella and feels quite different from the other two. It shows off Ursula Le Guin’s contemporary writing chops quite handily.
It also speaks to my weird prejudice of the East Coast. I have thoroughly convinced myself, having grown up in one of the oldest parts of the European/American continent (as far as white settlers go) that the West just basically didn’t exist until the 1970s. And this novel, which is kind of about the frontier, but much more so about the cities and towns of the Pacific Northwest challenges that for me. Not only is the land old, but so are the stories of the people who lived there. All those years of playing The Oregon Trail didn’t help me create a schema for this idea.
The Matter of Seggri 1994 – 5/5 Stars
This novella is another long one, and that again visits the Hainish cycle. If I was ever going to be convinced that Hain and CULTURE has some commonalities of common ancestors, well this one isn’t going to convince me.
This one most reminds me of Player of Games by Iain M Banks, which if you haven’t read it, you should go get it from the library this week and read it. It’s so, so good.
This novella kind of works like a Star Trek datapad report on a foreign, alien culture. The Seggri are a matriarchal society. Like a lot of gender swap type literature or stories, this one takes a lot of what is happening and takes it to some extremes. It’s like taking what true about patriarchal societies and actually putting a name to the unspoken rules of society. That is not to say that we don’t have a lot of actual laws that control and dominate women, or have in the past. Right now, we obviously have gender disparity in pay and work opportunities and education, but we call it meritocracy. We have TRAP laws that control women’s bodies and their opportunities and we back that up with a lack of agency and education and super conservative religions across almost every demographic. But we don’t have “Fuckeries” like they do in Seggri.
The novella itself is not just a straight out story though. It’s a compendium of different texts brought together like a report, so you get not only a description but stories and tales and laws. Throughout, this is a strongly voiced, slightly over the top story. It gives me a little more to think about in terms of Hain.
Another Story or a Fisherman of the Inland Sea 1994 – 3/5 Stars
I think this one is ok. It’s shorter than the rest and it works almost as an inverse of the one above. Instead of an outsider’s perspective of an alien culture, it’s almost like an insider’s story dealing with their interaction with the larger Hainish empire. This involves an outsider showing up in a small culture. Again, this feels a lot like a first contact (or more like 100th contact) episode of Star Trek. Unlike Star Trek and much more to the credit of our author, the world-building aspects of stories like this one is much much much stronger than in a singular episode of Star Trek. Like a lot of good world-building sci fi, it’s not about the central conceit, but about an exploration of the world itself. Digging deeper into a culture that wasn’t just created in a writer’s room, but almost worked backwards to discover how a world became.
Part of this novella deals with the science of interstellar travel and time and distance, and how that could be collapsed. But since all space stories are basically boat stories, there’s a tension regarding how instantaneous communication and travels, especially as that technology exponentially grows and speeds up, cannot keep up with the slow growth of culture. This is an early 1990s novella that is already getting at the potential tensions and issues with mass communication and the internet.
Forgiveness Day 1994 – 4/5 Stars
This novella also takes place in a Hainish world. In this story, two very different people from two very different cultures find themselves on either side of a peace negotiation ala an annexation of a world. Trapped in unfortunate circumstances, the two find themselves slowly better understanding the sharp differences among their cultures.
In a lot of ways, this is a pretty typical story. A person from a powerful regime who is taking over someone from a less powerful regimes begins to see things from the other’s perspective, leading to cultural understanding, and eventually romance. But in this story, it’s quite different because of the not only the nature of the world-building aspect of the novels, but also because of the nature of the people involved. One of the problems of post-colonial literature is that there is a failure to understand on both sides. This is less of a problem for the colonial power, because the way they often see it it is their humanity, not their culture that is at odds. So for Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, it’s not the essential humanity of the Congolese people that is being lost, but the very humanity of the Englishmen involved in the trade. In this novella, though, while the Hainish Ecumenicals are the superior powers, they are trying to cultivate a warlike peoples whose main economy is slavery. So it’s not super cut and dry. But even in this balance of power, the problem still deals with the treatment of this new culture. It’s a lot like Caliban in The Tempest, he is violent and savage in his ways, but he didn’t ask to be enslaved, and while he might be too savage for Italian culture, he was doing just fine on his own. This is a challenging proposition for those involved in this story, how to deal with a culture based in brutality, without brutalizing them. Otherwise, this is a very good encapsulated story about how cultural erasure breeds contempt.
A Man of the People 1994 – 3/5 Stars
I am a lot less interested in sex and sexual politics than the average science fiction writer, I think. Especially, if you consider how many books are either about a) doing aliens, b) weird exaggerations of how sex works on Earth, or c) some version of the two. So this novella, which is about all of these things, particularly the way sex and sexuality is not only scientifically controlled in a genetically modified future, but also how manufactured and litigated sexual politics and sexual mores are as well. In this version of the world, you have this combination of a greater control over genetic material in general and then a much much stricter control over its dissemination (pun intended, for sure). The result then is an even more overtly controlled world than we currently live in.
Like plenty of other writers, this interplay between genetic science and sexual politics is nothing new. I am reminded in part of the future planets of the latter half of Joe Haldeman’s Forever War and even in some ways the Betan versus Barryaran sexual views on reproduction in the Vorkosigan saga by Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s no surprise then that the argument goes that as more and more cultures develop in response to their technology and their own place in the world, their needs, and their desires, the differences in sexual politics will change and morph as well.
This has been part 1 of X parts of reading the Ursula K Le Guin novellas.