Tales within tales

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)
The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Ursula K Le Guin
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories
Harper Perennial 2005

Ursula Le Guin is best known for her fantasy and her science fiction writings, though she also writes other fiction as well as poetry, articles and reviews. The short stories in this 1994 collection, while firmly in the SF genre, also demonstrate her ability to compose in various tones, from light to dark, from gentle humour to philosophical musings. Originally published in various periodicals between 1983 and 1994, the narratives are clearly placed in context by an excellent introduction in which she not only discusses the tales but also mounts a spirited defence of SF as a genre, a defence which twenty years on may be less urgent though no less valid or effective.

She explains that she experiments with SF by using the form to explore character and human relationships, rather than exploring the ‘scientism’ and elitist technocracies that much traditional ‘hard’ SF was associated with and which put off the unconverted. She also denies that SF (and by extension, I suspect, fantasy) is necessarily escapist; instead, by exploring human characteristics, even or especially in alien humanoids, she throws light on our own humanity, humaneness, human-ness; she focuses on the potential strengths of SF, most particularly on a quality that is not always attached to this genre: beauty.

There is no doubting the beauty of many of these stories. “The Kerastion” (the name is for ‘an instrument that cannot be heard’) concerns the impermanence of a society’s art created for their divinity, and how sacrilege may be committed when an individual tries to make sculptures that are not transitory. His funeral is accompanied by music played on a ceremonial flute made by his sister, soundless except to the ears of the dead. This haunting tale feels like an anthropological commentary in that there is no implied value judgement given on what transpires, but it is told with poetic sensitivity and a sympathy for the individuals involved.

Preceding “The Kerastion” is “The Rock That Changed Things”, another story that verges on the fantasy genre but which has a very political purpose, dealing with gender and caste issues for instance. There is also the strange human obsession with unusual stones, as here where the placement of coloured stones within a pattern has a significance which only the initiates have the right to interpret. Aspects of this story reminded me of Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game or Robert Graves’ short story “The Shout”, but only distantly; and the presence of a third eye in these beings reminded me that this was no earth-bound tale.

Another aspect of SF that Le Guin plays with is humour. As she herself says, ‘Is anything deadlier than somebody explaining a joke?’ And so there is nothing to explain in “The First Contact with the Gorgonids”, about tourists coming face to face with extra-terrestrials in the Australian outback, other than that the title and the label suggest a inversion of the more familiar Perseus myth. As for the earliest story in the book, “The Ascent of the North Face”, that transposes the typical names for obstacles and camps on mountaineering expeditions to the more domestic setting whence many of the terms originated; it may be a one-joke story, but it is staunchly and consistently maintained.

It’s less easy to say precisely what “Newton’s Sleep” is about. The title is a reference to a poem by Blake which includes the line ‘May God us keep | From single vision, and Newton’s sleep!’ Ike is part of a group, the SPES Society (named for the Special Earth Satellite), which eventually leaves a devastated earth forever to orbit around it. Discussion and argument arises amongst the travellers about the necessity of learning about Earth geology or even aping Earth culture, such as in the station’s architecture, when the intention is that they will never return. Despite a supposedly rational ethos, the satellite’s inhabitants increasingly see ghosts and find their environment changing, suggesting that you can take humans away from Earth but you can’t take Earth away from humans.

“Newton’s Sleep” is a deeply-layered story. Ike Rose’s family all have Jewish names like Noah and Esther, which suggests a Biblical aspect. Ike, of course, is named after the patriarch Isaac, who went blind in later life, while Ike’s own daughter Esther is becoming similarly afflicted. Newton was another Isaac, a complex thinker with heterogeneous beliefs, one of whose accomplishments was to institute the science of optics. Because he helped lay the foundations for the Enlightenment pursuit of science, he was credited by the mystic poet Blake with only following Reason, the ‘single vision’ of his poem.

Does this imply an anti-Science stance by Le Guin? Not at all. Into the mix comes a reference to Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Engenders Monsters, a self-portrait of the artist being assailed by beasties. The text attached to Goya’s work actually tells us that “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.” In other words, humans need fantasy as much as rational thought in order to create and innovate, in order to be truly human. “Newton’s Sleep” is not an anti-Science diatribe, then, but a plea for combining two human qualities in order to be free of nightmares. The final pages quote an almost biblical message from his daughter Esther: ‘I am going up in the mountains for a while.’ In his desperation to find her in the metallic shell of the orbiting satellite he finds his perception of reality altering, fantasy and reason somehow united. The SPES has become a little like a Pandora’s Box: when everything else has escaped what remains is Hope; and in Latin spes of course means precisely this.

The remaining three stories are part of the Hainish Cycle, Le Guin’s SF universe. Having many years ago conceived the ansible, a device for instant communication across light-years, and seeing it taken up by other writers as a convenient plot-device, she here devises churten theory, which allows for transilience, a way for humans to instantaneously travel across vast distances in space, and much faster than NAFAL speed (Nearly As Fast As Light) would allow. She’s not interested in the nuts-and-bolts rationale behind churten theory, just the impact it has on people and their psyches. To start with, “The Shobies’ Story” is about a group of ten travellers attempting transilience for the first time who find that their individual versions about what happens on arrival are at variance with each other. This is more than just the unreliability of eyewitness memory as it seems to imply that reality changes according to perception. Can the crew of the Shoby find a narrative that they all agree on?

“Dancing to Ganam” is a further exploration of the application of churten theory, this time involving fewer voyagers led by the charismatic figure of Dalzul to the planet of Ganam. This time the dissonance of different perceptions cannot be resolved, does not result in unison but in a fall that inevitably follows hubris. Where there is no clear communication a common narrative can’t come into being.

The last and longest tale “Another Story” is another step along the development of churten technology, set on the planet O. It begin with a traditional tale A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, which to us has elements of the literary fairytale Undine and similar accounts of mortals inadvertently spending centuries in the land of the fairies. Put simply, “Another Story” is as the author tells us an ‘experiment with time-travel’ which ‘explores the possibility of two stories about the same person in the same time being completely different and completely true’. Hideo travels from his home planet to help develop churten technology, but something goes wrong. Will he not only become estranged from family and friends but also lose the potential lover he knew in childhood?

Le Guin describes many of these tales as metafictions, or stories about stories. This quality of tales-within-tales is part of what makes her writing special, along with the lucidity of her prose and the timelessness of her style. Above all, you get the impression that she cares about her creations, deeply flawed as many of them are, and that caring is something that she generously invites the reader to share.

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4 thoughts on “Tales within tales

  1. Reading this makes me think about the characters in my fantasy novel and makes me ask what deeper meanings are there that I’ve never considered. But then I think it’s just too hard to really stand outside and analyze ones own work. I shall have a peek at some of Ursula K Le Guin’s books.

    Your reviews are so well written and show an amazingly analytical mind. Makes mine feel a bit like a fog! 🙂

  2. Oh no, don’t say that! If you must, think of your words as that mist that makes you see objects anew and question assumptions! Much more positive and poetic!

    And thanks for your kind words. I try to respect the sheer creative effort that writers put into their work by giving their writing due consideration, rather than the kind of reviews that I see posted that just say “fantastic!” if they like it or “meh” if they don’t.

    I must look at the details of your book on your blog now!

    1. I wasn’t fishing for comments on my book, but It would be lovely to have a few of your thoughts. I had amazing fun writing my fantasy novel but have found marketing hard work, and I gave up some time ago. I hate selling myself, I don’t need the money, and I found I was spending all my time writing to publishers and trying to promote myself on websites. There was no time left for the very thing I love – writing!

  3. Pingback: Screenplay structures | calmgrove

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