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Brain Food for SF fans
on March 5, 2001
Every story in *The Wind's Twelve Quarters* is memorable, which makes it one of my favorite collections of Ursula Le Guin's short stories. They are arranged chronologically by order of publication, so you can see the maturation of the artist in these pages.
"Semley's Necklace" was the germ of the later novel *Rocanon's World.* In this story, Rocanon was a minor character who just wouldn't "sink obediently into obscurity" as the author says in her introduction, and "you really can't argue with these people."
"April in Paris" is an entertaining time travel story in which characters from past and future travel to 1463 to join a literature professor from our time in his quest to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the poet Francois Villon.
"The Masters" is, in the author's words, her first "genuine authentic real virgin wool SF story." But it's also a psychomyth, set in a future time when math had become one of the "black arts" and its rediscovery becomes most costly for the hero.
"Darkness Box" is a magical tale set in no-time - a sort of fable - one of Le Guin's fortes.
"The Word of Unbinding," like "Semley's Necklace" later grew into a book - four actually - *The Earthsea Trilogy* and a sequel. It lays the groundwork for the most consistent essential element of how magic works in Earthsea.
"The Rule of Names" is a sword and sorcery tale, but with an interesting little twist.
"Winter's King" is another seminal story, the beginning idea for Le Guin's masterpiece, *The Left Hand of Darkness.* Since the novel came out, she has written another short story (in a Dozois collection) about the planet Winter, Karhide, and the androgynous Gethenians. I hope she writes more of these.
"The Good Trip" is a whimsical psychological tale, set in the '60s, of a trip that never happened - except that it did.
"Nine Lives" is one of the best clone stories I've ever read. It's right up there with Kate Wilhelm's excellent *Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.*
"Things" is another parable-like tale of the strangeness and daring of human ingenuity.
"A Trip to the Head" reminds me of the episode in *Alice in Wonderland* when Alice found herself in a wood where there were no names - for anything.
"Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" (based on the Hainish series) is hard science fiction with strong psychological observations, and here you can see the maturation of the writer. In the exploration of another planet, astrophysics, biology and human and alien psychology come into play with a peculiarly satisfying ending.
What happens to the creative mind (in this case, an astronomer) when it is driven underground? The next story, "The Stars Below" answers that question.
"The Field of Vision" is another true nuts-and-bolts SF story about the exploration of an alien planet, but with the author's usual psychological depth and insights, this time about the nature of human perception.
"Direction of the Road" is also about perception, of humans and - trees (there are an uncommon number of trees in Le Guin's stories, not only in her excellent *The Word for World is Forest* but also in her short stories).
"The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" should have been, in my opinion, the last story in the book because it is a parable, or a psychomyth if you will, on the theme of sacrifice (although I don't believe the word "sacrifice" is ever used in the story) and would have been a more fitting ending to the collection. "This is the treason of the artist:" says Le Guin, "a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain."
However, I do understand the author's reasoning in putting "The Day Before the Revolution" last because the heroine of this story is one of those who walked away from Omelas. This one is a spinoff from her story about the planet of *The Dispossessed* which is a novel about anarchism. Real anarchism. "Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with; not the social-Darwinist economic 'libertarianism' of the far right; but anarchism as prefigured in early Taoist thought...its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid)."
This is a fine collection and its author, in my opinion, is one of the most influential writers of the genre responsible for bringing science fiction up to the caliber of true literature.