Monday, May 28, 2012

The Wind's Twelve Quarters - Ursula K. Le Guin

The Wind's Twelve Quarters is Le Guin's first collection of short fiction and was published in 1975. Quite unusual for a single author short science fiction collection, it is still in print decades after it has been first published. It is generally regarded as the strongest of her collections of short fiction. Not having read the others, I don't have an opinion on that but I did think The Wind's Twelve Quarters is a bit of a mixed bag. It contains a total of seventeen stories, presented more or less in the order they were published in and cover the period between her first publication in 1962 and 1974, by which time she had published some of her best know and most critically acclaimed novels. Le Guin chose this order so the reader could experience her growth as an author. In that respect the collection certainly succeeds. The later stories are much stronger than the earlier ones. Most of the stories have a short introduction by Le Guin about the inspiration for the story and the editorial changes compared to the original magazine publications. A fair number of stories in the collection are what Le Guin calls psychomyths.These stories are hard to pin down but they are independent of setting and often have a surreal quality to them. Le Guin herself puts it like this:
...more or less surrealistic tales, which share with fantasy the quality of taking place outside any history, outside of time, in that region of the living mind which - without invoking any consideration of immortality - seems to be without spatial or temporal limits at all.
Le Guin on psychomyths - Foreword
Most of the stories that are not tied to her novels seem to fall into this category. Quite a few of the stories are linked to her novels though. There are Earthsea stories in this collection as well as stories set in the Hainish universe and even a story tied to her novel The Dispossessed (1974). The opening story, Selmy's Necklace (1964), is essentially the prologue of Le Guin's first novel, Roccanon's World (1966). It is set in her Hainish future history and in some ways, reminded me a lot of some of Poul Anderson's Technic Civilization stories. It is seen mostly form the point of view of a member of a less technically advanced race trying to retrieve an heirloom that that was lost decades ago. She doesn't properly comprehend the consequences of her request to be allowed to visit the aliens but to the reader the tragedy that is unfolding is quite clear. A science fiction story written in language that is more often found in fantasy. This story clearly shows why Le Guin usually doesn't make too rigorous a distinction between the two.

The second story is April in Paris (1962) is the earliest story in the collection and Le Guin's first sale. I can't say I liked it much. I guess you could say it is a time travel story. I thought it was pretty predictable with more than a bit wish fulfilment in it. Le Guin then moves on to a story that is also a bit predictable but conceptually more interesting. The Masters (1963) deals with a man who is brought up in a very strict guild like environment where things have always been done a certain way and where deviating from this way, or trying to improve upon it, is heresy. He can't resist the lure of progress though. There is another story that is thematically related to this one in the collection. The Masters is very dark, full of despair. Stylistically probably not the strongest piece but certainly an interesting one. The Darkness Box (1963), like The Masters is a piece that can be considered a fantasy or perhaps an early psychomyth. It's a story with a sense of inevitably about it, of pointless repetition. Not a story that makes one feel happy although one of the characters sees things differently.

The Word of Unbinding and The Rule of Names (both 1964) are Le Guin's first Earthsea stories. I haven't read any of the Earthsea novels so putting them into the perspective of the whole series is going to be a bit difficult. I think they lay the groundwork for the system of magic found in the Earthsea novels. A system that appears to be quite sophisticated judging from these few pages. The stories are uncut fantasy, the only ones in this collection. I will have to read one of the Earthsea novels to be sure but I think I prefer Le Guin's science fiction. Still, Earthsea is on the to read list.  

Winter's King (1969) is another story tied to one of Le Guin's novels. It is set on the same planet as The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), a novel in the Hainish cycle that is also on my to read list. The version in this collection has been changed to fit the novel more closely and features the wintry world of Gethen. Le Guin plays with titles and particular pronouns to underline the androgyny or the inhabitants. The story itself is one of mind control and a King struggling to do what is best for the kingdom. It certainly makes me curious about the novel. Gethen seems like an intriguing place and the way gender appears to play no role in society opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities. Something that struck me about this story is how, like in Selmy's Necklace, Le Guin presents a technologically less advanced society in a science fiction story. Some readers would say there is a hint of fantasy in this story.

The Good Trip (1970) is a story that is probably contemporary. As the title suggests it is about drug use among other things. The trip makes it quite a strange story full of weird cognitive leaps and odd situations. Le Guin didn't seem to be opposed to people experimenting with LSD at the time, which was no doubt frowned upon. She does mention in the introduction that she feels that "people who expand their consciousness by living instead of taking chemicals usually come back with much more interesting reports of where they've been." Now there is a bit of wisdom for you.

Nine Lives (1969) is one of the longer pieces of the collection and is a classic science fiction story. One that explores the possibilities of a new technology, in this case cloning. Le Guin studies the bond between genetically identical individuals, who shared most of their formative years and education and have been brought up to function as a team. The idea is disturbing on many levels. These people are a product, designed to outperform ordinary humans but also to be so self sufficient that without each other, they'd be lost. In a way, it is a barrier to get ideas of their own, which of course Le Guin can't help but challenge. As with the best science fiction stories, this one contains plenty of food for thought.

The next story, Things (1970) is another psychomyth. I guess you could say it is about a man who has to take the last leap. It is beautifully written but personally I think it doesn't quite take that many words to convey the message. Le Guin creates quite an elaborate setting. One which would have been exploring in more detail, but Le Guin takes the story in another direction and much of the setting ends up being only marginally relevant to the story. This one was a miss for me. The collection continues with A Trip to the Head (also 1970). All I have to say about this, is that it went right over my head. I guess Le Guin's writing is too intelligent for me sometimes.

What follows is the story with the most beautiful title in the collection. Vaster Than Empires and More Slow (1970) is a story in the Hainish Cycle, covering the lonely journey of a ship of explorers. Given the nature space travel at relativistic speeds, they give up everything they've known to go on this journey. Something not everybody is willing to do. The crew consists of misfits, people who have nothing to loose and the occasional completely dysfunctional character. A recipe for trouble and indeed, the first planet they survey, puts them to the test. This again is pretty straight forward science fiction, with perhaps a touch of horror. Or suspense if you will. I liked it a lot but it is not outstanding.

The Stars Below (1973) explores in a bit more depth, one of the themes we also encountered in The Masters. Scientific curiosity clashes with custom or religion and ends in violence. Where The Masters deals with the event itself, this story shows us the aftermath. An astronomer who's instruments were destroyed hiding in an abandoned mine from his tormentors. It is a tragedy, even when he finds something to replace his interest in the stars. A moving story. I thought it was one of the better ones in the collection.

The collection continues with another science fiction story that is unrelated to a novel. The Fields of Vision (1973) about a group of astronauts who discover a strange city, for lack of a better word, on Mars that messes with their perceptions. One of them does not survive the trip back, the other two have lasting problems with their sense of hearing and sight. Their adjustment to this situation takes very different routes. I liked how Le Guin linked our perceptions with religious experiences in this story, and how much our brain relies on what our senses tell us. Most people trust what their senses tell them without question. In this story the characters know the input they are receiving is somehow changed. The author depicts this as quite a scary experience.

The next story is a very short, to the point science fiction story in which the main character is a tree. Direction of the Road (1974) is a highlight in the collection for me, a brilliant little story about relativity. It would spoil the story to say anything about the plot but is such a strange reversal of how we think of the world works, that I just had to read this story again right after I finished it. If I had to pick a favourite, this story might well be it.

For The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1974), Le Guin received a Hugo Award as well as a nomination for the Locus Award. It is another psychomyth, perhaps the one closest to the loose definition Le Guin put in the foreword to this collection. The story is very abstract in a way, no details on the setting, the author basically tells us to imagine our own, or characters are given. The story revolves around a scapegoat, one who is necessary to keep the rest of society happy. Once again a disturbing thought. One, as the story points out, not everybody can live with.

The final story of the collection is also one of the strongest ones. The Day Before the Revolution (1974) won a Nebula and a Locus award and was nominated for a Hugo. The story is tied to the novel The Dispossessed, a novel that I still consider to be one of the best in science fiction. It's main character is Odo, who is a historical figure in the novel, the inspiration for the anarchistic society on Anarres. She may be honoured after her death, the life of a revolutionary is not easy. The story shows us an ageing Odo, full of grief and a premonition of death. The subtitle of The Dispossessed is An Ambiguous Utopia and this story is another expression of it. Odo achieved a lot but at a high price. I love the final paragraph of this story. As far as I am concerned, it should have won that Hugo too.  

The Wind's Twelve Quarter ends on a high, that is for sure. Some of the stories in this collection are no doubt among the best Le Guin as produced. All things considered, it isn't one of those very rare collections that manage a consistently high quality though. It is a collection that shows Le Guin's style, themes and development as a writer however. With links to her most important works and some award winning stories, perhaps it is not so strange this collection has been in print for more than three decades. I would not recommend someone with an interest in Le Guin's work to start here, it is probably better to have read a few novels first, but for the real fan it is definitely a must read.

Book Details
Title: The Wind's Twelve Quarters
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Pages: 303
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Mass Market paperback
ISBN: 978-0-06-091434-9
First published: 1975

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