Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Greatest Worlds

It's been over ten years since I last read a book by Ursula LeGuin, who passed away two days ago. So I can certainly say her works linger in my mind long after reading them, certainly more than many other authors I read over a decade ago. I first read her over twenty years ago, though, in high school when I encountered Wizard of Earthsea which compelled me to seek out Left Hand of Darkness, then The Dispossessed, a few other novels in her Hainish Cycle, and then The Lathe of Heaven as well. Looking over excerpts and summaries to-day I would credit LeGuin with teaching me at a young age the value of understanding other perspectives, of appreciating the complex factors that form a human personality. Whether in her works of fantasy or her works of science fiction, a consistent virtue in her work is the fascinating exploration of people and how and why they think as they do.

Looking over several quotes from her at Wikiquote, I see many keen and insightful statements, some of them almost reminding me of Oscar Wilde.

As a fiction writer, I don't speak message. I speak story. Sure, my story means something, but if you want to know what it means, you have to ask the question in terms appropriate to storytelling. Terms such as message are appropriate to expository writing, didactic writing, and sermons—different languages from fiction. The notion that a story has a message assumes that it can be reduced to a few abstract words, neatly summarized in a school or college examination paper or a brisk critical review.

And this is absolutely true. What I learned about the value of understanding other perspectives didn't come from LeGuin saying to me, "You need to understand other perspectives!" but by taking the time to invite me into another time and place and showing me how they work. The fact that the books are deeply enjoyable is related to this.

There's something frantic and inherently fearful when people cling to messages over a portrait of experience. As LeGuin also said, "The artist deals in what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words." It reminds me of Oscar Wilde again, saying that art is "the perfect use of an imperfect medium." It's precisely in the lack of precision, the dovetailing of impressions of visceral experience and human relationships, that we get to something that truly speaks to human nature. Partly it's simply the virtue of "showing not telling," partly it's that people naturally respond better to the companionable tone of storytelling over the rebuking and restrictive tone of the prescriptive lecture or sermon. When Ged goes on his journey in The Wizard of Earthsea, it's not a story about how we should be more like Ged but simply about who Ged is and what we do with that is entirely up to us.

The world seems especially in need of more voices like LeGuin's and I'm very sorry to see her go.

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