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.

 

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We Could Be Heroes…But Probably Not

WRITING 02

Not everyone is entirely comfortable with the idea of heroes. They too often have feet of clay, or in these days of the media creature, turn out to be fabricated out of whole cloth, or at least a cheap polyester. Yet we all have them, and writers are no different. The difference is in what inspires us—the words on the page, not necessarily the people behind them. Writing heroes. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when you discover that one of your heroes, known for his gentle and optimistic fiction, is a right wing fascist at heart or another with a unique and powerful voice is a virulent racist. Such things usually kill off normal heroes. As a hero, that is. Writer heroes usually survive, not always, but usually, since it is the words on the page that matter, not the imperfect, venal, or just plain unworthy person behind them, but more so because there’s a secret that the process of writing fiction eventually teaches.

You write better than you are.

I’ve touched on this before, but it’s especially relevant, I think, in the genre today. We all do it, if we’re any good at all. What comes out on the page is smarter, wiser, usually more together than, well, we are. I don’t know how it all works, I just know that it does. So I’m not usually so surprised when it turns out that the writer behind books and stories I love is a deeply flawed human being. Someone you might even cross the street to avoid if you saw them coming.  It happens. It doesn’t matter. Any decent work we produce is, at its core, a reflection of our better selves, maybe even who we’re trying to be, not necessarily who we are. Which is probably why I’ve never been driven to meet writers I admire. Most of the writers I call friends are ones I met even before I discovered their work, and got to know and like them as people first. That way generally works. Someone you only know from their work? Not so much.

Oh, sure, there are exceptions. There are even times when I regret, say, that I never got to meet Fritz Leiber, even though I did have the chance, once, at a World Fantasy Con way back in 1987, and I will always treasure my one and only meeting with Parke Godwin, who turned out to be as grand a human being in person as he was on the page. It’s great when that happens, but I don’t expect it. No one should.

I started this blog post with the idea of talking a little about one of my writing heroes, but I got pulled in another direction. It happens, so I’ll save that one for next time. I never met her, but then again, see above, I didn’t need to. The books and stories were all I did need, or had any right to expect.

So, if you ever want to meet me and manage to do so, I apologize in advance. That is all.

Posterity Can Kiss My Posterior

Yoshino-1Lately it’s felt as if the sf/f field is under a curse. Within the space of a few months we’ve lost Lucius Shepard, Iain Banks, Jay Lake, Graham Joyce, and just this week, Eugie Foster. Nor was it that long ago that Kathy Wentworth left us. I think it was Kathy’s passing that hit me the hardest. Even though we’d been drifting in and out of touch as geography and our separate directions pulled on us, I considered her a friend. Then she was gone before I even knew she was sick. Cancer, like most of the above. All of them gone too soon no matter their ages, but Eugie especially in that regard. She was only forty-two (And for anyone out there who considers forty-two old, all I can say is—wait a while). Continue reading

Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On

Epi Les Paul Special IIWhen a kid picks up the guitar at twelve they might be dreaming of being the next Buddy Guy or Jimmy Page or Bonnie Raitt or Rosie Flores. When one of us starts writing seriously, we might be dreaming of being the next Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner or Ursula Le Guin or Stephen King or Arthur C. Clarke or…well, pick your own poison. Those are what I tend to think of as “flash paper” dreams. Doesn’t take much to turn them into smoke and vapor. Usually a couple of years of working hard and getting nowhere will do it. The interesting thing about the whole process is not that most people quit at this point but rather that some people don’t. I mean, “You can’t have what you wanted, so forget it.” is a pretty powerful disincentive for staying the course. So why hang around when that fact become all too clear?

I think those who don’t quit are the ones who get new dreams. Not “settling for less,” but rather discovering something you didn’t know about in the first place. Something you didn’t even know you wanted, because you didn’t know it existed. In which case your original dream has done its job. It got you started, pointed in the direction you needed to go, even if that place you’re searching for wasn’t where you thought it was. J.R.R. Tolkien made me want to be a writer, but I figured out pretty much immediately that I wasn’t going to be the next J.R.R. Tolkien. For one thing, he was pretty much sui generis and there wasn’t going to BE a next J.R.R. Tolkien. Any more than there was going to be—more of my heroes–another Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin or Fritz Leiber. They’re them and you’re you. Once I got clear on that, then it became okay to figure out who I was and what I really wanted.

I’m still working on that and don’t expect to ever sort it out because the bar keeps moving, and for what little it may be worth, I wish as much for you. You work, you live,  and who you are and what you want to accomplish keeps moving, keeps evolving. That’s better than okay—it’s crucial. As time goes on you’ll know more. If you’re lucky, you’ll understand more. And what you think is important won’t stay the same, at least not entirely.

Getting started is what some dreams are for, but odds are they won’t be the ones that keep you going. And as for who you’re eventually going to be as a writer, that’s not really your problem. Anyone who cares to can sort that out after you’re gone. Maybe you’ll be someone else’s dream, for a while. Maybe not, but either way what matters is that you, when the choice was there, was able to grow and evolve along with those dreams and almost but never quite–a blessing on you–keep up.

For Fritz Leiber

Saddened as I am by other more recent losses in the field, today I’m sending out props to the late Fritz Leiber. Why? Lots of reasons, but in the spirit of the Thanksgiving season, I’ll concentrate on the personal–Fritz Leiber was responsible for a revelation. For those of you (anyone? Bueller?) who are old enough to remember, the mid to  late 1970’s saw a boom in the Sword & Sorcery genre. Yes, it’s still around, sort of, but back then it was different. S&S was HOT, hot like urban fantasy hot, like Steampunk hot, if you can grasp that. As both a reader and a beginning writer, I got caught up in it. REH, the De Camp retellings, Andy Offutt, Gardner Fox for pete’s sake.

And then I found Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Mouser series. I was a little too late to the party to have read them in the Cele Goldsmith Fantastic, as I said before, I came along in the Ted White era, but the Fafhrd and Mouser stories were being collected in book form by that time, and that’s where I found them.

Whoa. Continue reading