The Wind's Twelve Quarters
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Le Guin's first story collection consists of seventeen tales plus the author's short introductory comments. Quite a few won or were nominated for awards, and the collection itself won a Locus Award for Best Single Author Collection. The quality varies of course, but in this case the range is generally from good to excellent, with only one I can't recommend. From the time period covered, 1962 (when she was thirty-three) to 1974, only two other published stories are not included, although she had been writing many years prior to that. It's possible only scholars will ever see the scores of rejected stories that preceded 1961. Instead of following this collection in order, I'll group my comments according to their connectedness, beginning with four that are definitely part of the Hainish Cycle.
"Semley's Necklace" opens the book, even though it was the eighth of her stories published. In her introduction, Le Guin says she felt it was the most representative of her early, more romanticized style. It originally appeared as "The Dowry of Angyar" in the September '64 issue of Amazing, and was later presented as the prologue to her first novel, Rocannon's World. It is definitely science fiction, but reads like a fairy tale, with Semley taking a long journey to retrieve a family heirloom which should have been presented to her groom as dowry. The lyrical quality of the prose belies the inherent tragedy, as Semley learns the pitfalls of interstellar travel. The protagonist of "Winter's King" experiences a similar time dilation. Even though written before the novel The Left Hand of Darkness, it is set several generations later. The names of the kings of Karhide alternate generations, from Argaven to Emran. In the novel it was King Argaven XV, in this story it is Argaven XVII, who is succeeded by his progeny Emran. Inhabitants of Gethen (named Winter by the Hainish) are androgynous, consciously selecting their gender during the monthly cycle of kemmer. Argaven XVII bore his/her child Emran while in female mode, which is how royal succession is determined. A rogue faction of Argaven's advisors plot against him, forcing him to flee the planet with the aid of the Hainish ambassador. When he returns, what for him has been just a few months has been decades on his homeworld, and Emran is now a corrupt ruler of a smaller nation, having relinguished much territory to the rival country of Orgoreyn. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, and is also complicated by the vagueness of Gethenian biology, which Le Guin says wasn't fully established until she began writing the novel, after this story had been published. She made alterations for the reprint to change personal pronouns in hopes of making it clearer. "Winter's King" received a Hugo nomination in 1970, the same year the novel won both the Hugo and Nebula.
Another of the Hainish stories has no connection, as far as I know, to any other story or novel. A Hugo and Locus nominee, "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" first appeared in New Dimensions 1, edited by Robert Silverberg. He had suggested a different title, arguing that it would be less likely to telegraph the plot, but Le Guin refused. He was probably right, but I still love the title. The Hainish had claimed responsibility for settling all known worlds in millennia past, but they had not ventured beyond a radius of 120 light years from Hain. This story concerns an expedition that ranges much farther than that, in an attempt to discover a world with a sentient lifeform that had evolved separately from Hainish influence. Whether or not they are successful is subject to interpretation. Aside from that question, one of the more interesting concepts involves a crew member who had originally been autistic, unable to connect emotionally with others, but following therapy he becomes a highly receptive empath. That was not necessarily an improvement, since he then had no defense against the onslaught of emotions he sensed from everyone around him. It is not really a spoiler to reveal that he remained on the planet when the rest of the expedition departs. The fourth Hainish story is "The Day Before the Revolution," a Hugo nominee, and winner of the Nebula, Locus and Jupiter. The latter award is no longer extant, but for four years in the mid-'70s it was presented by the Instructors of Science Fiction in Higher Education. The main character is Odo, mentioned in the novel The Dispossessed. She was the writer and political activist who inspired the revolution that created the anarchist state on the moon Anarres. The only negative thing I can say is that it's entirely too brief, since it only covers one day in her life. Her story deserved a novel length examination.
The remainder of the stories are a mix of science fiction and fantasy, with a few that could be considered either, or both. Some of the SF might possibly be set within the Hainish series, but it's not clear since neither Hain or any of the other identified planets are mentioned. One of the best is probably neither, but rather a psychological tale. "The Good Trip" concerns a man suffering from anxiety for himself and his wife who has recently been confined to a mental hospital. Several of his friends are high on drugs, while he takes his own 'trip' in his own imagination, without benefit of psychotropics. It is one of the best written, and most poignant, of the collection. I'm not going to detail every story, just concentrate on the highlights that remain. Both "The Word of Unbinding" and "The Rule of Names" are part of the Earthsea series, and I will be concentrating on it at a later date since one of the novels won a Nebula. [UPDATE: I've started on that, click here - Earthsea] Two others are similar in concept, both dealing with the persecution of scientific thought. The setting of "The Masters" is vague, possibly ancient Egypt. Several scholars defy law and tradition by incorporating new mathematical principles, including Arabic numerals and the concept of 'zero', to their study of the heavenly bodies. "The Stars Below" is set sometime around the era of Galileo. The protagonist has built his own telescopes, but must go into hiding when his work is deemed sacreligious. He inadvertently also develops one of the first microscopes during his exile.
The last two stories I'll mention are (with the possible exception of "The Good Trip") the best of the lot. "Nine Lives," a Nebula nominee, is about a scientific expedition utilizing clones as crew members. Five males and five females are all cloned from the same person, and they all bear his name, John Chow, although each has a distinct middle name. Ten 'individuals' that are essentially identical, working together as a harmonious whole. But what happens when nine of them are killed in a mine accident? Can the lone survivor cope in a world devoid of the companionship he has known his entire life? Can he ever hope to relate to other, non-cloned, humans? And last, possibly Le Guin's most highly regarded story (even if not the most awarded) is "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." It did win a Hugo, and was nominated for Locus and Jupiter awards. The seemingly perfect town of Omelas harbors a dark secret, one that supposedly guarantees and perpetuates its idyllic existence. Some of the inhabitants cannot accept the situation, are not willing to reconcile the horror with their own conscience. Instead of challenging the status quo, they feel their only option is to walk away. Anyone who can read this story without tearing up is emotionally dead.
I have no idea of the quality of stories Le Guin wrote in her younger days. She wrote her first story at the age of nine, and submitted her first SF story to a professional magazine (Astounding) at eleven. She wrote five novels between 1951-61, all of which were rejected. Even when she was able to get published, it is likely she wrote many other stories that never saw print. We can only judge by what was published, by what has been reprinted and anthologized since. Based on that, Le Guin has to be considered one of the most consistently creative and successful writers in genre history. Her work is poetic without being maudlin, intellectual without being pedantic. A testament to her popularity is that very few of her novels or collections have ever been out of print for long, and I feel confident that will continue to be the case. Her reputation will shine for many years to come, and this will not be the last I will write about her work.
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