Stories on the edge of familiarity

Monthly Archives: April 2011

Earthsea, Genderless Humans, and Learning From One Fantastic Author

(I apologize in advance to all formatting nazis… I haven’t figured out how to get my website-making program to make only some words italic. This means that, sadly, all book titles will be encompassed by punctuation marks. The English geek within me grieves deeply.)

Lately, I found the website of Ursula Le Guin, one of the most distinguished science fiction and fantasy authors of all time, and one of my favourite authors. If you have never read anything by her or have never even heard of her I want you to immediately stop what you’re doing, go to the nearest bookstore, find one of her books and buy it (trust me, there will be at least one there), then read the whole thing. You can come back to this when you’re done.

The first book I read by Ursula was “The Farthest Shore”, which is the third book of her series set in Earthsea, a world that consists mainly of islands (as far as the map shows). Yes, I read the third book first. I didn’t care. It had the coolest dragons I have ever encountered in fantasy, a wizard who treated magic and its effect on the world so seriously that he barely used it, and a voyage to the land of the dead. I then proceeded to read the fourth book second, the second book third and the first book fourth. By then, I discovered the real order to the series, read them all properly and concluded with the fifth book. I have never, before or since, mangled the order of a series so much, but I have never, aside from Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet, loved a series more. You heard me. I like it better than the Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Foundation books, the whole Dune series, the Dark is Rising series… what is it with speculative fiction and series, anyways? But I have a point. I will continue towards it.

A few years before finishing reading the Earthsea Cycle, I found among my dad’s collection of books one of her most famous science fiction books: “The Left Hand of Darkness”.  It’s about a man named Genly Ai from what is kind of like a league of worlds, who has come to the planet Gethen to ask them to join this league. Want to know what’s so interesting about the inhabitants of this planet? They have no gender. Once a month, they enter what is called kemmer, where they can become either male or female but, otherwise, they are androgynous. And the way in which the planet and the society is presented is so realistic and so well thought out that I am almost convinced that someday we will discover Gethen and the people who live on it in some nearby galaxy, if not our own.

I have since read more of her stories, and have enjoyed them all, so you can imagine how happy I was to find her website, as well as all the articles and interviews on it that included her thoughts on writing! The fact that I had three assignments due that week nearly got pushed out of the way in my excitement (nearly, but not completely. I did get them all done and handed in on time, despite how much I wanted to read all these new things -it was like being a kid in a candy store. Or mostly anyone in a candy store), and I read almost as if my life depended on it. The experience proved very enlightening, and I got to see some of her books in a new light, so I thought I’d share some of the things I learned, not only from her website, but also from her books:

1) Build your world as if it’s real. If you take your writing seriously, it shows. Part of what made reading the Earthsea books and “The Left Hand of Darkness” so immersive for me was how Ursula treated the worlds the stories took place in. They may only exist in our imaginations, but they really exist for the characters who live in them, so to patronize these characters and not to treat the worlds they live in seriously is a crime to them and to the reader. Unless, of course, you’re writing a parody. Then you’re allowed to make fun of whatever you wish.

2) The story structure we learned in school is not the be-all and end-all. The idea of having a beginning, middle and end, or the whole rising action-climax-falling action thing isn’t the only idea of how a story works. It’s just a Western one. In one of the articles on her website, Ursula suggests the idea of a story as a house. You bring the reader through the front door, and then either lead them through or let them wander through, or both. She even makes a reference to “The Yellow Wallpaper”, one of the most deliciously creepy short stories I’ve ever read.

3) The point of writing a story is not to give a message; to preach. The point of writing a story is to write a story. Perhaps our stories grapple with issues that we haven’t yet figured out, or perhaps we just wanted to know what might happen if (fill in the blank). A story can be an exploration of who we are, or a romp through implausibility for the sheer fun of it. Story is not sermon.

4) “Write what you know” includes fantasy. Obviously, Tolkien never went to Middle Earth and C.S. Lewis never visited Narnia, at least, not physically. But they are the experts of those worlds simply because they made them up. It’s part of what impressed me so much with “The Left Hand of Darkness”. Ursula knew exactly what she was talking about. She knows what the culture on Gethen looks like, makes the people there so different. Why? She made it up. We are the experts of the worlds that come out of our own heads. When we write about them, we write about what we know. And if we want to make them more plausible, we can do research on how our planet works and apply those rules to the worlds we have created. Even if what we write is set in our own world, in places we’ve never been or we’ve never experienced, just because we don’t know something now doesn’t mean we are forever barred from that knowledge. I guess some people have taken “write what you know” to mean that they can’t write about what they’ve never experienced. I’ve always taken it to mean: “if you haven’t experienced it, do your research well enough so that you can pretend you’ve experienced it. Made-up worlds need not necessarily apply.”

I don’t like all of Ursula’s books, but I love a lot of them, and I’ve learned from all of them. If you do hop by her website, be sure to read her extremely entertaining blog entry for March 9th, but be warned that it’s not exactly for everyone.

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