Wind — Science Fiction for Adults, a Drama of the Human Heart and Mind rather than Light-Sabers
Ursula Le Guin, the Modern Female Conscience of Science Fiction
Ursula Le Guin is one of the most highly respected authors of fantasy and science fiction of the 20th century. The award-winning Le Guin has long been praised for combining traditional elements of literary fiction, science fiction; with philosophical and ethical speculations on ways humans have experimented with alternative societies and philosophies as well as technology. Thus, Le Guin writes from a subjective humanist perspective, usually avoiding technical sciences as physics and chemistry in favor of cultural anthropology, political science, and psychology. This made her write ‘against the grain’ of other of her fellow contemporary science fiction authors when she began to gain fame in the 1960’s. Her multifaceted focus has enabled her to remain popular today, long after the technological obsessions of travel to Mars and the Moon have become dated. Her fiction makes use of psychic phenomena, including telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition, and commonly incorporates the philosophies of Taoism and Zen, resulting in themes of reciprocity, unity, and holism. By presenting complex, often paradoxical symbols, images, and allusions, Le Guin stresses the need for individuals and societies to balance such dualities as order with chaos and harmony with rebellion to achieve wholeness. “The social sciences inform Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasies with far more earthly substance than the usual imaginary space flight, and her hypothetical futures have strong flavor of familiar history.” (Updike, 275) Her books thus function as science fiction for adults, dealing with individual characters and internal struggles. The action take place within the souls of the protagonists, rather than revolving around grand battles, and often have dark overtone, dealing with very adult themes of the balance of nature, life after death, love and ambition.
The Plot of The Other Wind — The Dead and the Living, the Dragons and the Humans
Le Guin’s greatest work is undoubtedly her Earthsea Cycle. The last book of the Earthsea Cycle is entitled The Other Wind. The Other Wind tells the tale of Alder, an ordinary conjurer of the land who specializes in fixing the broken pots and repairing the fence lines of Earthsea. When Alder’s wife, Lily, dies and he cannot mend his beloved spouse’s health or, ultimately her life, he begins to dream of the wall between the land of the living and the land of the dead being dismantled. He both hopes and fears this means the dead will invade Earthsea, as their spirits beg Alder to ‘set us free.’ Thus, the book, although a work of science fiction set in land where magicians are as common as electricians and plumbers, they are still concerned with such ordinary aspects of life as death, life, and grief, and how these aspects of individual life are mirrored in larger societal conflicts. “If there were a central metaphor to describe Le Guin’s life and work, it might be the interplay of individual and society.” (Sanders, entry on “Ursula Le Guin,” The St. James’ Encyclopedia of Pop Culture, 2002)
As the narrative of The Other Sea progresses, the reader is introduced one of the great heroes of Earthsea, named Ged, once Archmage of Earthsea. He sends the troubled Alder to King Lebannen. The protagonists also learn that dragons of Earthsea, which for centuries have kept their promise to abide in their western lands, have suddenly begun moving east, burning farms and cropland. Alder and King Lebannen learn they must join with one of the women burned by these attacks, a wizard of forbidden lore, and a being that is woman and dragon both to save Earthsea in a spirit of mutual cooperation.
From leading restful, almost ordinary lives, the King and Alder are thrust into conflict that tears them apart, inside and out. The conflict of the book addresses their relationships with the dead, as well as living beings with one another and the natural environment. The book’s title come from an oft-repeated song, “Farther west than west, / Beyond the land, / My people are dancing / On the other wind.”
Characterizations: Alder and Ged
In the person of Alder, the book takes an ordinary man and gives him the power to engage in important work for his land. He is already proficient in magic, but the death of his wife infuses what in Earthsea is merely ordinary conjuring power of mending with a new vitality and strength. This gives Alder access to the world of the dead and infuses his mending power with a spiritual new force. It also gives him the ability to understand the plight of the dragons, the people with whom earth has sundered their covenant.
Yet in the form of Ged, the book takes a magical character of great power and makes him into an ordinary person, a man who has given up his formerly great powers, because he now believes they are futile. Thus, although it takes place in a magical world, the characters that should be heroic in conventional mythical tales, like the husband retrieving his wife from the dead, the noble king, and the warrior Ged, are often full of self-reflection and doubt about the nature of their powers. Ged doubts the nobility of the wizardly path and value of magical power itself. Even Alder’s ability to access new levels of power comes not from wizardly lore, but from an ordinary life event, the death of a loved one.
The book hinges upon an unbalance that has occurred between two people, and natures and humans. For instance, Orm Irian, the dragon that is also a woman, speaks of her people’s anger against humans, whom they believe have stolen a part of the dragons’ realm. This relates to human impingement upon the environmental world. The breaking of the covenant between two species creates a larger unbalancing of all of the different creatures of the world, and thus severs the proper connections of the world of the dead and the living. Although this covenant may be magical in the book, it may be extrapolated to a real-live severance of humans and the environment.
The motifs of division between the dead and the living, and two living beings are thus both intertwined in the almost-forgotten agreement by which dragons and humans, once a single people, divided themselves in two. Only when the two come together again can the world become one.
Ethics have always been a central concern in Le Guin’s writing. “While avoiding ‘moralizing’ and preaching simple solutions to serious moral problems,”writes Tony Burns, “Le Guin writes as a ‘moralist’: as someone who -in the manner of the ancient Greeks, the young Marx and anarchists such as Kropotkin-considers humans as being by nature ethical animals, and who, as a result, has an overriding interest in the ethical dimension of human existence. Le Guin wishes to stimulate and encourage her readers to think in ethical terms even if, in the end, it should transpire that they make substantive ethical judgements that are different from her own.” Thus, Le Guin uses the fantastic to highlight moral and ethical issues of today, not the potential advances of technology. (Burns, p.1)
Burns, Tony. “Marxism and science fiction: A celebration of the work of Ursula K.
Le Guin.” Capital & Class. Winter 2004.1-3.
Le Guin, Ursula. The Other Wind. New York: Arc Books, 2001.
Saunders, Joe Sutliff. “Ursula K. Le Guin.” St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture. New York: The Gale Group, 2002.
Updike, John. “Imagining Things.” From The New Yorker in Contemporary Literary
Criticism. Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale Publishers, 1980. 275.
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