Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018

I haven’t written anything about the passing of Ursula Le Guin before now because I couldn’t put two coherent thoughts together. I’m still not sure I’m ready but I’m going to try, despite the cat purring in my lap demanding all the attentions. Living creatures have their own priorities and in that sense I’m no different.

I never met her. Other people who knew her best will have the personal remembrances of the woman herself, I can only speak of her work and its effect on me. I’ve spoken at times about influences that made me whatever I am as a writer, though as I look back on it these influences were more about teaching me something I needed to know at the time I was ready to learn it. Parke Godwin? He taught me lessons about humanity. Fritz Leiber? That the limits of genre were illusory, and there was very little it could not do. Ursula Le Guin? She taught me what magic was and—just as important—what it wasn’t.

There are other lessons, of course. Some I still may not be ready for. Take her classic, The Word for World is Forest. I’m going to have to come back to that one, I hope when I’m a little stronger and wiser. At the time I needed it, however, there was The Earthsea Trilogy, which later became the Earthsea quintet with Tehanu and Tales of Earthsea. Yet in the beginning, there were three: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. They were first marketed as “young adult,” probably because Atheneum, the original publisher, didn’t know what else to do with them, and it was true as far as it went. However, I read them in college, when I really was a young adult, or maybe just a kid trying to figure out what “adult” as in “grown up” really meant. Ged, the young wizard in Earthsea, was trying to sort out the same thing, and in the course of the three—then four—books, he does, even though all the books, especially the last few, aren’t really about him. Which makes sense—a lot of growing up isn’t about you at all, but everyone around you and your relationship with them. Some things I can see now that I couldn’t then, but that’s all right. The lesson was waiting for me.

Then there was her classic, The Left Hand of Darkness, which made me and a lot of other people think about gender and what it does and doesn’t mean. Her early collection of stories, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, which remains one of my favorite books ever.

Now Ursula Le Guin the person is gone from the world, but Ursula Le Guin the writer remains, and there is, I realize, a lot of her work that I have yet to get to, and I hope I will.

I hope I’m ready.



Story Time: Closing Time

Today’s Story Time is from the collection The Devil Has His Due, published in 2012. It’s a book I put together myself, and many of the stories were originals. There’s a reason for both. See, I’ve always enjoyed “deal with the devil” stories. They’re fun to write, but old-fashioned (read “cliche”) and not likely to find sympathetic editors in most conventional places these days whether the story is good or bad. But sometimes I wrote them anyway, just because. So I put them there. “Closing Time” is a bit of an exception. It is not a “DWTD” story. It’s a consequences story. The fact that it takes place in hell is incidental.

Standard Note: “Closing Time” will remain online until next Wednesday, March 21st, when it will be replaced by something else.

Real Life Considered in the Context of a Lewis Carroll Poem

I’ve been a fan of writers like Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear for years, simply because I enjoy a good bit of nonsense every now and again. The Victorians had a gift for it, probably in reaction to the sense of decorum and propriety that infected the bulk of that era—at least on the surface. One thing I especially liked were all the made-up words, words that sounded like they should mean something but really don’t. Like “jabberwock” and “vorpal” and “mimsy.”

One had to be careful with LC, though. He tended to mix real words with the made-up words, only the “flavor” of the real words and the fake words was so matched that it was hard to tell them apart. Take “mome” for example. It’s an archaic word meaning “fool,” but in context it seems just as made up as “rath,” though it’s possible that Carroll took “rath” from “rathe” which means to bloom early, and used it for a flowery sort of creature. Which explains why, for the longest time, I did not think “burble” was a real word.

Turns out I was wrong.  “Burble” means to make a murmuring sound, like a babbling brook, and had been in use since the 14th century. It’s also a technique in pennywhistle where you rub one finger back and forth over the holes quickly to get a similar sound.

If there’s a point to this, other than word play, perhaps one could point out that it is far too easy to confuse nonsense with reality. Which is the only thing that can explain the current political climate. Maybe we all need to listen and consider more carefully when decision time comes again. Nonsense may have its place, but real life isn’t one of them.

Story Time: The Beauty of Things Unseen

Today’s Story Time is “The Beauty of Things Unseen,” originally published in 1999 in Quantum SF, edited by Kurt Roth. As I mentioned previously in my post on Katherine Briggs, this was one of the early stories I got from the notion of the “fairy funeral.” Of course, that’s not exactly what the story is about–you can work that out for yourself–but I do come up with at least one suitable theory along the way.




As always with these things, “The Beauty of Things Unseen” will remain up until next Wednesday, December 6th. Until then, I hope, enjoy.


Podsnappery (n).

Yep. It’s a real word. Not much in vogue these days, but big back in Victorian England and still in the dictionary. Supposedly linked to a character from Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend, a Mr. Podsnap, who lived in a state of blissful denial completely unsullied by unpleasant facts, and thus raised a child who grew up with absolutely no understanding of what the world was really like outside her home, and met it unprepared. I think this word is overdue for renewal, seeing as how so many of my fellow citizens seem to be living under its influence, and nothing else serves so well. “Ignorance” and “denial” come close, but neither does the full job.

English as a language is like that, he said, which should be perfectly obvious to anyone paying attention. We invent new words, borrow new words, and the language evolves. Anyone who doubts that, remember the prologue to the Canterbury Tales? That was proper English, once. Now the average English speaker can still sort out what it means, but only to a certain degree of accuracy. Words drop out of use, or gain new usages over time. “Gay” used to mean one thing, and not very long ago. Now it means something else. People stopped arguing over the difference between “affect” and “effect” and simply borrowed “impact” to mean what they used to mean by “affect.” Can’t say I’m in favor, since “impact” still means “hit” so far as I’m concerned, and being hit does affect you, true, and often effects a change, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same thing. Still, I admit the war is over on that one and I think English lost. Some battles are still being fought, however. For instance, do not attempt to use “irregardless” as a real word around First Reader. She will pin your ears back.

It’s right and proper that new words meet some resistance. They need to be tested and proven before they join the language. Regardless, new words enter usage all the time, sometimes driven by technology (how long before “lol” or “afaik” is accepted spoken usage?), sometimes by necessity, as in “We need a word for that!” whatever that may be. I’m in favor of an import from Japanese, “aware.” No, not “ah-ware” but “ah wa re,” the concept that a transient thing is beautiful, not necessarily because it is pleasing to the eye (though it may be), but also because it is ephemeral and will not last. Like a sunset, or a flower in full bloom, or the turn of a leaf in autumn. Fleeting. I’m not holding my breath or anything, but just putting it out there. It’s a favorite word of mine and I’d love to see it come into English usage, but I know the odds are long.

After all, to think otherwise is to be a tad podsnappy.