Saturday, August 19, 2006

Book Review: The Wind's Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. Le Guin

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead

The Wind's Twelve Quarters is a retrospective — an exhibition of a representative selection of an artist's life work. There's however a caveat. It's not Ursula K. Le Guin's "life work." This collection of 17 stories rather provides readers with a rough chronological survey of her short stories of the first ten years after she broke into print. Readers should also note that this retrospective was first published in 1975. What's interesting about The Wind's Twelve Quarters (and Ursula Le Guin mentions this in her foreword to the book) is that the stories appear in the collection in more or less the same order in which they were written in her early days as a writer. Readers, who are fascinated with such things, will find that it is possible to trace and understand Le Guin's development as a writer.

It is of course possible to read and appreciate each of the stories as a self-contained unit in itself. But the foreword and the thought-provoking introductions to each of the stories invariably draw the reader to make an attempt at understanding the inspiration behind these stories and the development of Le Guin's oeuvre. For me it is this aspect of the collection that made it additionally absorbing. Le Guin's introductions also enable us to see the links between the stories and her other books. For instance, a minor character in the first story in the collection, Semley's Necklace, became the protagonist of her later novel Rocannon's World. And for me it was easy to see that The Word of Unbinding and The Rule of Names belong to The Earthsea Cycle.

The tales in this collection are an arresting and curious blend of fantasy and science fiction and taken to together a reader can engage with the major and the most common themes in Le Guin's world.

The first few stories are what Le Guin calls "genre pieces" — stories that are recognizably fantasy or science fiction. Semley's Necklace is in the romantic strain and tells the story of young Semley, the wife of the poor lord Durhal of Hallan, who undertakes a long journey to find and bring back a beautiful legendary necklace — the eye of the sea — that was lost long ago. In the course of journey Semley meets people from different cultures: the midmen or the Fiia, the clayfolk or the Gdemiar. A later Le Guin would probably have explored the cultures and lives and the impact of each people on the other. The story however is more concerned with the effects of time dilation in traveling across worlds and galaxies.

April in Paris is also about time travel though in a more playful and whimsical tone. A disgruntled scholar in the mediaeval era uses a summoning spell from one of his books and finds that he has managed to summon a dissatisfied professor who is living in the same garret in 1961. The two however get along famously till they realize that what they are missing in their lives is love. Both men then decide to use the summoning spell to find true love.

The Masters is a dark tale of a community of science and math luddites. Le Guin mentions in her introduction to the story that The Masters was her first published "genuine authentic real virgin-wool science fiction story." By this she means a story in which "the existence and accomplishments of science are, in some way, essential." The story opens with Ganil being appointed a master of the lodge. The appointment as a master confirms that Ganil knows all that there is to know about his craft. Any attempt to learn more, to further the boundaries of the knowledge that has been passed from generation to generation is considered a heresy and is a capital crime. Ganil, however, is fascinated with numbers and can't keep himself from thinking about them. He also wonders about other things like: What is the sun? What makes the sun traverse across the sky? He is befriended by Mede, another master, who covertly seeks to know more about things that have to be learned and who introduces Ganil to multiplication and a number that stands for nothing. Mede is finally found out by the powers that be, putting Ganil in danger too. It has one excellent sentence, probably the best in the book. Mede is arrested for trying to measure the distance of the sun from earth. His accusation reads: "He had been trying to measure the distance between the Earth and God." This is one of the most brilliant stories in the collection and the one that I liked the most.

Darkness Box is very eldritch in theme and tone. It is a good story but one of those that don't shine as brightly as the brilliant ones in the collection.

Two later stories in the collection also are more easily identified as genre pieces. In fact Le Guin coins a term: "wiring-diagram science fiction" to describe these two stories which are the most "hard-core" sci-fi tales in the collection. These stories are the "working out of a theme directly extrapolated from contemporary work in one of the quantitative sciences — a what-if story." The Field of Vision is one of the stories that considers alternative ways of looking at and perceiving things. The other tale, Nine Lives, is a fine, touching and thought-provoking delineation of cloning. Martin and Pugh arrive on the planet Libra, which is a seismic hotbed, to set up a mining operation. The working team that follows them consist of 10 people, five males and five females, all cloned from the same person - John Chow. Being clones of the same block the ten work, think and live like one. “Think of it,” Owen murmurs to Martin, “to be oneself ten times over. Nine seconds for every motion, nine ayes on every vote.” During a mining operation Libra experiences one of its most violent quakes. Owen and Martin are able to save only one of the clones. The survivor Kaph Chow is racked with horrible "nightmares" as he literally suffers the deaths of his nine clones. At the end of it and even bigger nightmare awaits Kaph — for the first time he has to learn how to be alone without nine similar selves around him. This is one of the most hard-hitting and thought-provoking stories in the collection.

The Word of Unbinding and The Rule of Names are reportedly Le Guin's first explorations of the magical world of Earthsea. In The Word of Unbinding the wizard Festin wakes up to find himself imprisoned in a cell by a evil wizard called Voll. Festin attempts numerous escapes by transforming himself, but is caught by Voll every time. Finally Festin decides to use the word of unbinding to end his life. He then summons Voll to the world of the dead and defeats him there. The Word of Unbinding augurs The Farthest Shore from the Earthsea stories which has Ged the Archmage and Prince Lebannen crossing into the world of dead to defeat the wizard Cob. The description of the dry land of the dead is also evoked again in the final book of Earthsea, The Other Wind.

The Rule of Names is perhaps the first story that explored the essential characteristic of how magic works and is controlled in Earthsea — through the knowledge of the "true name" of everything. The story is about the quest of the present Sealord of Pendor to find the wealth that was plundered and carried away by a dragon many years ago. During his quest he finds that somebody killed the dragon and made off with the treasure. The Sealord finally comes to Sattins Island suspecting that its bumbling wizard Mr. Underhill now has the treasure. The Sealord is confident of defeating Underhill as he knows the true name of the wizard who defeated the dragon and got away with the treasure. He uses the true name to summon and bind Underhill only to meet the most unpleasant surprise in his life. After April in Paris, The Rule of Names is the next most amusing story in the collection.

Winter's King is a remarkable exploration of a world that is populated by androgynous beings and tells the story of Argaven XVII, the king of Karhide on the cold world of Gethen. Argaven is kidnapped and her mind tampered with so that subconsciously, she will rule the Karhide in a manner that will favor those who had kidnapped her. Argaven cleverly manages to thwart her kidnappers and goes to the planet Ollul, to have her mind restored. She leaves her infant behind to eventually ascend the throne in her absence. 60 years later a still young Argaven (time dilation due to traveling at nearly the speed of light) returns to Gethen to find that her heir is an incompetent ruler who has lost most of the kingdom. She unites the Karhide and goes to war against her child. This is a tale with a strong feminist overtone. The story is also remarkable for the detailed anthropological background that Le Guin has created to allow her ideas to unfold.

The most notable stories in the collection are the ones that explore "psychomyths" as Le Guin calls them. For Le Guin, psychomyths are stories "outside of real time" (or in other words, stories with archetypal themes). These deal with themes, ideas, and concerns in a more "universal" way. Here the exploration of an idea or a theme assumes the prime importance and while the story is still science fiction or fantasy, these elements are stripped down to the bare essentials. The psychomyths thus are not bogged down by story specifics such as time and locale but are more fundamental, allegorical, and archetypal.

Direction of the Road is an enchanting and quaint monologue of an old oak tree maintain the "order of things." Being next to a road this means maintaining the illusion of a relativist world. This means steadily growing and looming as someone approaches and then diminishing again as the observer fades into the distance. With the coming of the motorized vehicle the life of Oak has become very frenetic. Now it often has vehicles and people passing in either directions at the same time and has to neatly manage both growing and diminishing at the same time. A Lovely story.

The finest of these psychomyths is The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas. It explores a very cruel dilemma: How should people act if they realize that their utopia is in existence because a single child suffers for them all and terribly. What would decent people do — let the child suffer for the good of the greater number or do something about it? Some people of Omelas however resolve this differently and quietly. These people walk away from Omelas for "a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness."

Le Guin's note on the genesis of The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas. offers a charming insight into how and where imaginative writers find their stories:
I sat down and started a story, just because I felt like it, with nothing but the word "Omelas" in mind. It came from a road sign: Salem (Oregon) backwards. Don't you read road signs backwards? POTS. WOLS nerdlihc. Ocsicnarf Nas . . . Salem equals schelomo equals salaa, equal Peace. Melas. O melas.

Le guin received the Hugo award for The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas.

The Day Before the Revolution is the other award-winning story in the collection. It picked up a Nebula award. This is a story about Laia Aseio Odo who is now very old but whose writings of many years ago are bringing about a revolution of ideas on her world. While a revolution is sweeping her world, the old Laia is trying her best to make sense of her past and to get through a very mundane day. It is conveyed to the readers that this is the last day of Laia's life. The story's greatness lies in the adept juxtaposition of a character's grand contribution in the past (with her world-changing ideas) to her present day preoccupations about her own personal infirmities and ordinariness. The Day Before the Revolution reads like a moving elegy in prose.

The characteristics that mark Le Guin's best known writing are seen in this collection of short stories as well. Le Guin particularly loves to explore the conflict and tension between various cultures that are "foreign" to each other. This fascination with other worlds and other cultures is seen in stories like Semley's Necklace, Winter's King, and Vaster Than Empires and More Slow (conflict between humans and a massive interconnected biosphere of vegetation).

Le Guin's writings, though apparently simple, are also very cerebral. It is her style that's simple, the ideas and the themes examined are always deep. Le Guin, in her writings, likes to explore different ideas and she loves to see what would happen when her tales follow an idea to its logical conclusion. Her psychomyths are stories that allow Le Guin to crack open and examine archetypes.

For me what marks Le Guin's writing is her skillful characterization. Strong and sympathetic characterization are seen in all her stories: be it the amusing April in Paris or the dark The Masters, from the anthropologically detailed Winter's king to Laia Odo in the psychomyth The Day Before the Revolution. I have often, while discussing Le Guin, with my friends said that one might forget the plot details of her stories, but her characters always leave a lasting impression. The Wind's Twelve Quarters serves to strengthen this thesis.

The Wind's Twelve Quarters is a collection of wondrous tales that will please every variety of reader. There's something in it for fans of science fiction and there's something in it for those who prefer fantasy. Many like me would love this collection for the unique insight it offers into a writer's mind and evolution of a writer's craft. Others who would rather not be bothered with classifications and who would simply prefer reading good stories will find many tales here that will be of delight to them. A good story is a good story notwithstanding which genre it happens to fall in or when it was written. The Wind's Twelve Quarters should appeal to anyone who loves a good read.

You'll find my review of Le Guin's Tales From Earthsea here.
You can read my review of Le Guin's The Other Wind here.

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Anonymous said...

The title is:

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

mandar talvekar said...

Anonymous -- thank you for pointing that out.
Have corrected the post.