It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope. -Ursula K Le Guin
Ursula K Le Guin has been one of my favorite authors for more than 40 years, ever since the first time I read a Wizard of Earthsea as a young teenager. I’ve read it, and all five of its sequels, many times since then. Of course I’ve read many of her other books as well, though she was so prolific that I’ve never managed to read everything.
Ursula died this week at the age of 88, her mind still sharp and her pen still flowing right up until the end. She’s given me, as a person, a woman, and a reader, so much that I’m having a hard time putting into words how much I feel the loss, just knowing that she’s not in the world any more.
Her books have been friends to me throughout my entire life, providing stimulating conversations, a new outlook that I might never have considered, characters with heart and soul when people in the real world seemed heartless, comforting worlds to revisit when I needed to get away, and women in science fiction and fantasy stories that were more than just love interests or the occasional villain. She was a female science fiction and fantasy writer when there were very few, and paved the way for others. She wrote science fiction stories filled with deep emotions and strong relationships between characters, where the characters were what mattered. Even today, her feel for character and world building that’s more than physical attributes or basic characteristics is hard to replace in science fiction. Her stories come alive in a way that only the truly great authors can manage.
Perhaps that’s why so few have tried to translate her works to film or television, and almost all have failed. Very few commercial filmmakers are willing to immerse their hearts and egos deeply enough into someone else’s fictional world in order to truly understand source material like The Left Hand of Darkness or The Earthsea Sequence. They tend to see, and film, a surface layer, usually not even the one written in the book, since filmmakers want to put their own spin on stories. It would take a true fan of the work, like Peter Jackson was with The Lord of the Rings, to do any of Ursula’s stories justice.
The one novel of hers that was made into a film that she approved is also the only one that I’ve ever liked, the version of The Lathe of Heaven produced by PBS in 1979. It’s hard to find now, but the whole movie is currently up on Youtube. (Let me know in the comments if it’s taken down.)
Book Review: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin * Format: Paperback Book * 1971
😸😸😸😸😸 Rated 5/5 happy lap cats
The novel The Lathe of Heaven isn’t getting mentioned as often as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed in articles this week, but it’s one of my favorites. So much recent science fiction owes a debt to this story, originally published in 1971, nominated for Hugo and Nebula awards, and winner of the Locus Award for Best Novel. The novel explores alternate realities and timelines while also exploring the human mind and condition. It tells the story of a man, George Orr, whose dreams come true, but not in the usual way, or even a good way. When he has what he calls “effective dreams” while he’s asleep, the world will have changed to match his dreams when he wakes up. No one but George remembers the old, pre-dream world. For everyone else, the world has always been the way the dream made it, until the next dream changes reality again. George abuses drugs in order to suppress the dreams, and is eventually forced into therapy in order to avoid institutionalization.
George’s therapist, psychiatrist and sleep/dream researcher William Haber, realizes that George is telling the truth about his dreams and figures out a way to direct and control the dreams. But the dreams have a Monkey’s Paw, “be care what you wish for” quality to them. Haber uses the dreams for both personal gain and to attempt to save the dystopian world of the novel, but the harder he tries to redirect events, the more disastrous the results.
The book is as relevant today as when it was written, maybe more. We still struggle with global catastrophes, both natural and man-made, and the possibility that our own actions will bring about planet wide extinctions, or even just our own individual self-destruction. The story brings up questions of the nature of reality, how much we can trust our own senses, who is qualified to make decisions about the political direction of the country and the world, and the ever-present question for mankind, how much is enough? When is it time to stop?
There have been many great articles published about Ursula K Le Guin. Here are some of my favorites.
Ursula K Le Guin by Margaret Atwood
A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books.
By Ursula K. Le Guin (This is from 2004, but it’s essential reading.)