Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review of A Fisherman of the Inland Sea by Ursula Le Guin

I first encountered the work of Ursula Le Guin seeking a topic for my Master’s Degree.  Eventually going on to write the thesis on the Earthsea cycle, in the process I became familiar with a wider swathe of her fiction, from the early Planet of Exile, through The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, to the later The Telling, as well as her non-fiction—Dancing at the Edge of the World and The Language of the Night among them.  Still a number of her novels and collections I’ve yet to read, upon hearing of her passing in January this year, I decided to pull A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, a short story collection from 1994, off the shelf and read as tribute.

Collecting eight stories and one essay, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea is short fiction representing what I would call the middle, or transition period of Le Guin’s oeuvre.  Le Guin looking to revise her earlier approaches to theme, Tehanu, the Earthsea novel intended to entirely revision the original Earthsea trilogy, was published just a couple years prior as a strong starting point.  Busy developing greater emphasis on feminism, racism, and other social justice topics, in Fisherman one can find the fruits of this new perspective in short fiction form.  Whether or not there is synthesis between theme and the remaining of building blocks of fiction, however, depends on the story.

The collection opens on one of its strongest entries, “The First Contact with the Gorgonids”.  A work of satire, the tale begins in realist mode.  Featuring American tourists traveling in the Australian outback, things take a non-realist turn when the tourists encounter a people they think are Aboriginals, but who may not be.  Working with the idea that even if humanity escapes Earth it cannot escape itself, “Newton's Sleep” tells of a generation starship and the… interesting (psychedelic?) changes onboard that occur with time.  Seeming to have been written off premise alone, the story’s other aspects are less developed.

A not-so-subtle title for a not-so-subtle story, “The Rock That Changed Things” tells of a planet where the primitive natives have been cajoled into helping space-faring off-worlders with an anthropology project involving the people’s history and geology.  A better developed setting than executed story, it ends on a rather trite note that nevertheless upholds Le Guin’s anti-slavery message.  (The Word for World is Forest, while itself not the most subtle of stories, does this type of tale better.)  Ostensibly a climbing journal of a mountaineer, “The Ascent of the North Face” quickly reveals itself to be something else, eventually proving to be a light, ruminative piece with basic substance once the gig is up.  A couple-page affair, “The Kerastion” tells of a cultural tradition wherein a flute is made from the mummified skin of dead female to be played for the next generation’s deceased.  More an idea than a story, Le Guin nevertheless retains focus on perennial wisdom in effective fashion.

Utilizing the subjectivity of perception, in “The Shobies’ Story” Le Guin realizes the metaphor in the form of perceptual differences among a space ship crew traveling FTL, and how the crew handled said differences.  Linked to “The Shobies’ Story” is “Dancing to Ganam” which tells of the crew who attempt to follow up and make sense of the Shobie’s discovery.  Landing on an inhabited planet undergoing the industrial age, each of the crew find themselves part of one of the individual narratives happening there, leading to a tragic conclusion.  The final story in the collection is an anti-Rip van Winkle tale told via science fiction (after passing through Japanese legend).  “Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” tells of a young man who, upon traveling the galaxy for a decade at FTL speed, returns to his home to discover no time has passed.

Mention should also be given to the essay opening the collection: “On Not Reading Science Fiction”. Though a bit erratic, it highlights the fact that Le Guin’s non-fiction may be her greatest strength.  While I disagree with the opinions given in some cases (for example, Le Guin looking to her own brand of sf as the norm is either a bit too modest or outright wrong: mainstream sf is a different beast than Le Guin’s oeuvre), I find her broader opinions to genre to be valid in the context of literature at large, particularly the non-existence of perceived barriers.

In the end, there are a few solid stories, but overall A Fisherman of the Inland Sea is not the best of Le Guin’s lengthy oeuvre. Tending toward the overt and obvious rather than subtle and sophisticated, it captures Le Guin’s intentions of highlighting cultural awareness, subjectivity, and human rights, just not in refined fashion.  Some of the stories are tightly constructed and executed, while others feel only partially focused and disjointed.  Those with subjectivity as their theme could be argued to be intentionally disjointed—a narrative technique, as it were.  But it remains possible the pieces could have been better balanced and distinguished without losing effect, perhaps even gaining some.  As much as I hate to say it, there is a part of me that believes Le Guin hit her peak in the 60s and 70s given her later work enters the realm of hit or miss—something which this collection captures at a smaller scale.  Regardless, thank you Ursula Le Guin for all the great stories and insight you brought to science fiction, literature, and life.  Your intelligence and awareness live on in your works, and I look forward to reading and re-reading your books.

The following are the eight stories collected in A Fisherman of the Inland Sea:

The First Contact with the Gorgonids
Newton's Sleep
The Ascent of the North Face
The Rock That Changed Things
The Kerastion
The Shobies' Story
Dancing to Ganam
Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea

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