Monday, December 01, 2014

22. Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Which book blogger has read and posted about women authors in four of his last six reads? This guy!  Okay, that was bad, but I do give myself a small pat on the back for trying to expand my horizon out of my cozy nerdy boys' club of masculine genre fiction and succeeding somewhat (by reading cozy nerdy feminine genre fiction).  Tales of Earthsea is 5 longish stories that fill out either the history or some parts of the world set out in the original trilogy.  I didn't make an effort to place these stories into the overall context of that trilogy, since I had forgotten all those details, but as I read them, bits and pieces came back to me.  The stories here are nice because most of them are very local, going into characters and locations with the richness that LeGuin is good at and avoiding the more fable-like remote telling that made the third book in the trilogy, The Farthest Shore, unsatisfying for me.  There is also a history at the end, which I think the attuned reader would find invaluable.

An enjoyable read, but it was the forward that I found the most stimulating.  As is my practice, I went back and read it after I had finished the book and it is there that I was reminded of LeGuin's genius, not just as a fictional writer, but also as a very active and critical social thinker.  This little essay just rips apart the commodification of science fiction and fantasy.  She goes after the world of completists, collectors and the producers who churn stuff out because it satisfies a certain consumer need.  Her attacks are broad and structural, but I almost suspect that George Martin might have been one of the producers she had in mind here.

So people turn to fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.
And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity; an industry.
Commodified fantasy takes no risks; it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable and interchangeable.

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