80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin
Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
10 January 2011
I made Ursula K. Le Guin laugh. We were staying with friends after a Wiscon when our hosts suddenly announced that there would be extra guests for lunch. The guests turned out to be Le Guin and Vonda McIntyre. Given there were already seven of us, it was a large group that crowded round the table. What followed was one of those convivial communal meals that feature so often in good feminist literature and so rarely in fiction by men (why is that?), during the course of which many jokes were told. I told one of my father's: a distillery worker falls into a vat of whisky. Of course he drowns, but only after climbing out six times to go to the toilet. And Le Guin laughed uproariously.
It is important to remember this, because it is all too easy to think of Le Guin as serious and consequently a little po-faced. She is, after all, one of the first and still most telling voices in feminist science fiction; she is the author of some of the most politically charged science fiction of the last half century; she is an acclaimed teacher of writing and an equally acclaimed critic of the genre; she is one of the few writers whose place in the SF canon is unassailable. She is, in short, important, and we tend not to equate importance with laughter.
Yet I have never seen a photograph of Le Guin in which she does not appear on the point of laughter, stories about her abound with a sense of mischief, and even her critical writing is filled with delight. You get an echo of her sense of fun in some of the contributions to this book, significantly the contributions from those who know her best. But you also get a lot of Le Guin the inspiration, Le Guin the feminist hero, Le Guin the teacher, so remember, all of that is true but it all comes with extra added laughter.
Conceived by Kim Stanley Robinson and compiled by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin, 80! was intended as a personal birthday present on the occasion of Le Guin's 80th birthday in 2009, and originally came in a specially bound edition of one. But now, a year on, Le Guin has agreed that the book should be made more generally available. It is worth it for parts, if not for the whole.
It is not easy to describe this book. I suppose it comes closest to being a festschrift, and there are several pieces that would not be out of place in such a volume. But it is also an opportunity for people simply to express gratitude, which is genuine and often moving, and certainly not out of place in a birthday card. However there are only so many short pieces one can take along the lines of, "I was a 7 stone weakling until I discovered Le Guin, after that I could conquer the world." While it is interesting to gauge how influential Le Guin has been (the most liberating works appear to be, unsurprisingly, The Left Hand of Darkness and, perhaps less expectedly, the original Earthsea trilogy) these expressions of debt have little to say to the general reader.
Far more interesting are the pieces that engage directly with Le Guin's work. These are not exactly critical, of course, and some of them ("Dancing the World: Landscape and Cosmology in Le Guin" by Lynn Alden Kendall) are much thinner than we might hope for (Kendall could have taken three or four times the number of pages and still barely skimmed the surface of her subject). But others are surprisingly revealing. There is, for instance, a very fine short piece on The Word for World is Forest by Gwyneth Jones, and, even better and considerably longer, a fascinating examination of the way Le Guin uses language as healing by Deirdre Byrne.
As ever in festschrifts for authors there are short stories, and as ever I find it hard to make the connection to the work of the featured writer. Inspiration is a curious thing, and while many writers may feel inspired by someone's work, that inspiration is likely to be processed and developed into something that takes us into very different territory. The presence of stories here, therefore, says no more than: "I hail your work and offer something of my own in return." The five pieces of fiction presented, therefore, take us into places, languages, attitudes, and experiences that one is unlikely ever to encounter in Le Guin's own fiction; though "The Closet" by John Kessel does at least play with ideas of gender ambiguity. In terms of Kessel's other work this story is rather weak, but even poor quality Kessel is better than many other writers at full stretch. But it has to be said that the other four stories, all by members of the Beyon'Dusa collective (Andrea Hairston, Sheree Renée Thomas, Ama Patterson and, especially good, Pan Morigan), are better. The first three share an urban, black, beaten down, streetwise voice that Le Guin never assumes, though Morigan's allegory of how we are made and unmade by our stories perhaps comes closest in affect to Le Guin. Nevertheless, I can't help feeling that the poetry (there are contributions from Richard Chwedyk, Karen Joy Fowler, Ellen Eades, Patrick O'Leary, Judith Barrington, and Sandra Kasturi) earns its place in this volume more readily, even if one or two of the verse are really little more than doggerel.
But what really stand out are the pieces in which we most readily see the laughing, mischievous Le Guin, the extended memoirs from those who know her well. Brian Attebery on their time co-editing The Norton Book of Science Fiction; Vonda McIntyre recalling her wisdom and humour, two apparently disparate qualities that she insists necessarily belong together; Molly Gloss on the personal qualities that also inform her fiction; and a truly excellent piece by Eleanor Arnason that examines the different ways our genre would have been diminished without Le Guin, a short essay that neatly turns observations that could have been cringe-making into something light, sincere and true.
Yet the sharing of stories about someone you don't know well may at times seem amusing and insightful, at times coy and mystifying, and a volume like this is no exception. So it is always worth having something that sets the subject in context, and what serves that function here is both the longest and by some way the best piece in the book. It is untitled, but it is clearly an abstract from a work in progress, and that work is equally clearly a biography of Ursula Le Guin by James Tiptree's biographer, Julie Phillips, and from the evidence of what is on offer here it is going to be the equal of that earlier biography. Phillips tells the story up to the death of Le Guin's father in 1960, two years before the publication of her first short story. It is a fascinating story because her parents, Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, were both anthropologists (Ishi, Last of his Tribe) whose ideas clearly fed into Le Guin's imagination, though it was also a somewhat privileged background with homes in Berkeley and the Napa Valley. Curiously, at the time she was discovering science fiction she used to frequent the record store where Philip K. Dick worked, and the two had graduated from the same high school in the same year, but it seems they never met. Then Le Guin left for Paris on a Fulbright scholarship, met fellow Fulbright scholar Charles LeGuin on the ship going over, and the pair were married in Paris not long after. The story of the administrative hurdles put in the way of their marriage, incidentally, explains why she is always so insistent on that space in "Le Guin." I don't expect Le Guin's life to prove quite as full of incident as Tiptree's, though I think this biography will be equally as readable, particularly if it explores some of the oddities of her life such as her Taoism, which is mentioned at several points in this volume but never examined in any detail.
Phillips's account of Le Guin's early years is the hinge around which this volume turns, and if it is not the only first rate piece in the book it is certainly the one that most thoroughly grabs the attention and makes you glad to have read this book. Le Guin, I am sure, laughed with delight.