Expanding to Embrace the Universe: Two Anthologies by Ursula K. LeGuin.
Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences. New York: Plume Press (Penguin), 1987, $6.95, 200 pp. (PB).
Dancing at the Edge of the World. New York, Grove Press, 1989, $17.95, 320 pp.
Like Virginia Woolf, Ursula Kroeber LeGuin is a Foremother. Starting as a writer of adolescent fantasy and a cautious feminist, she has consistently extended both her subject matter and ideology. At this point, she is one of the most articulate voices not only in science fiction, but also in literature and women's issues (which include global political and environmental concerns). In short, she is a fully fledged Wise Crone.
To really understand her contribution to science fiction, one must realize that even ten years ago, the field was dominated by what is known in the jargon as "hardware" -- namely, stories which hinged exclusively on gadgetry, with conventional plots and characters mere mouthpieces. It was heaven and haven for teenage boys. However, women have been increasingly dominant in the field (see accompanying blurb) and its character has changed radically.
Feminists tend to be hostile to science/technology, because they believe (and often rightly so) that it perpetuates linear, rigid ways of thinking, supports the patriarchal status quo and is very much a double-edged weapon in its applications. Nevertheless, since technology is ubiquitous in our lives, if we do not comprehend it, it will become our overseer. Thus, the newer generation of women science fiction writers know their science -- but now the stories have strong social relevance and the characters and their interactions are complex and credible. There are some men who also write such science fiction, most notably Harlan Ellison, but, as in the mainstream, they tend to stress alienation and malaise, whereas the women explore alternative solutions.
Practically none of this would have happened if pioneers had not broken the stony soil; foremost among them were Alice Sheldon (pen name James Tiptree) and Ursula K. LeGuin. LeGuin's first novels -- The Earthsea Trilogy, City of Illusions, Rocannon's World -- were beautifully written and already unusual, but relatively conventional in terms of the universes (social and personal) portrayed therein. Then came a spate of amazing novels -- The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest -- two wondrous story collections -- The Wind's Twelve Quarters, The Compass Rose -- and some outstanding criticism in The Language of the Night.
LeGuin's writing is a continuum that bridges fantasy, science fiction, mainstream prose, poetry and essays. Her stories are enriched by her unostentatious but impressive knowledge of science, literature and history, that transcends the prescribed canons. Her people are real, her ideas of alternative worlds refreshingly original and her mythmaking contains essential ingredients often omitted due to lack of courage -- defeat, loss and pain. Two of her strongest characteristics are unusual humaneness and acceptance of diversity. Her evolution as a writer and a citizen of the world has been continuous, which brings us to the collections to be reviewed here.
Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences is precisely what the title says -- eleven loose groups of stories and poems about the essential oneness of nature and the error of considering one's self separate from and superior to the Other, whether that is woman, animal or environment. Many of the stories have appeared in other collections; this book is decidedly uneven, especially the poems (Hard Words was more consistent in tone and quality). It contains, in my opinion, three gems: "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come out Tonight", a marvellous intertwining of real world and Indian myth (the beguiling Coyote, the Trickster, plays a central role), "Vaster than Empires and More Slow", an inner/outer space exploration (illuminating the connection between fear and hate), and "She Unnames Them", a neat twist and coda to the Garden of Eden story.
This is a very enjoyable collection for LeGuin readers, although slightly redundant. For newcomers to her writing, one of the other collections mentioned before (The Wind's Twelve Quarters, The Compass Rose) would be a better and more representative introduction, because they demonstrate her range and contain uniformly excellent stories.
Dancing at the Edge of the World is even more heterogeneous and, perhaps because of that, more interesting. It is a grabbag of essays, stories, poems, revisions, speeches, criticisms... we can "hear" the author thinking. And what a wide variety of thoughts: Integration ("reclaiming the dark" in its widest implications -- in one's self, actions and creations); power and the mother tongue; the writer's creative process; responsibility for society and the environment. But all these are not neatly categorized in pigeon holes. They are, both in LeGuin's heart/mind and in the real world, inextricably intertwined. The kinship with Virginia Woolf is unmistakable, especially since LeGuin uses a modified version of "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" in the first story of this collection, "The Space Crone".
This book is definitely for people who know and like LeGuin. It is untidy, sprawling, generous -- but also urgent. It is to be savored and dipped into, a visit to a dear friend who is always unpredictable and fascinating. Ms. LeGuin has been progressively moving away from science fiction and into the mainstream, but I, for one, would wish for more tales from the Hainish universe. May she put many more starships into eccentric orbit.
Copyright © 1998 Athena Andreadis
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