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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin: Empathy and Big Ideas

I recently read a couple of wonderful books by Ursula K. Le Guin that reminded me once again what a gifted and skillful writer she is. Le Guin is a master of the art of letting the reader see through the eyes of another. Through her words, we don't just see, we feel and, perhaps, we begin to understand.

Buffalo Gals and other Animal Presences is a collection of short fiction and poetry. In the title novella a child survives a plane crash and lives in the Dream Time world of animal myths, befriended by the Coyote and other creatures. It's a tale that is both dreamlike and sharp, a look at our world through eyes that aren't really alien, but rather native eyes that see (and make us see) our alienation from the natural world.

Le Guin is a master of the alternate perspective. In various stories and poems in Buffalo Gals we see the world through the eyes of a wolf, a lab rat, and even rocks and trees. Le Guin's sense of empathy is strong and she transmits that empathy to the reader. Reading Le Guin expands not just the mind, but the heart and soul.

In The Dispossessed, Le Guin builds not just one, but two worlds. Set on the twin worlds of Anarres and Urras, Le Guin gradually reveals two societies. Anarres is a harsh, barren moon settled by anarchic, collectivist utopians. Urras is the mother world, lush and green, with both great wealth and poverty, capitalism writ large.

We see these worlds through the eyes of Shevek, a physicist of great intellect and compassion. Shevek dreams not just of understanding the universe but uniting the worlds. The timeline and narrative switch back and forth between the two worlds. The Dispossessed is not a book to be rushed through, it is dense in ideas, long and deep in thought. It is what-if Science Fiction of the grandest sort, using alien worlds to help us better understand and live in our own.

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