Blackness, history & love · Books · Colonisation

a blade of grass

The Lathe of HeavenThe Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I don’t know. Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I know know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”

There was a slight pause, and when Haber answered his tone was no longer genial, reassuring or encouraging. It was quite neutral and verged, just detectably, on contempt.

“You’re of a peculiarly passive outlook for a man brought up in the Judaeo-Christian-Rationalist West. A sort of natural Buddhist. Have you ever studied the Eastern mysticisms, George?” The last question, with its obvious answer, was an open sneer.

Many white men have written science fiction that ahistorically imagines a better world – one without war, prejudice, blahblahblah. This book wonders what would happen if a liberal white USian man was empowered with a subtle means of effecting magical changes (of making dreams true), and suggests that all this I-Know-Besting might actually be how we got to where we are. De-colonial, ableism-indicting sci fi, where have you been all my life?

The idea that one mind can’t fix everything is a difficult one for a fiction author to present, for obvious reasons, but Le Guin does it. Most books, I think, create a we-understand-each-other intimacy between author and reader that usually extends to the protagonist. But George Orr isn’t like us. He is so direct that sometimes he speaks in formulae, sharing his thought process. I want to call this mode unpolitician.

He never spoke with any bitterness at all, no matter how awful the things he said. Are there really people without resentment, without hate, she wondered. People who never go cross-grained to the universe? Who recognise evil, and resist evil, yet are utterly unaffected by it?

Of course there are. Countless, the living and the dead. Those who have returned in pure compassion to the wheel, those who follow the way that cannot be followed without knowing they follow it, the sharecropper’s wife in Alabama and the lama in Tibet and the entomologist in Peru and the millworker in Odessa and the greengrocer in London and the goatherd in Nigeria and the old, old man sharpening a stick by a dry streambed somewhere in Australia, and all the othes. There are enough of them, enough to keep us going. Perhaps.

He brushes off the mantle of heroism, not because he is in need of encouragement, but because he knows the quest is vain vanity. The female protagonist, more forceful and vivacious, vanishes when ‘the race problem’ is ‘solved’ by making everybody grey. As with the other changes, Le Guin shows us that the removal of inconvenient bodies is always a genocide, even if some sleight of hand makes it appear non violent and ‘progressive’. (If you ever find yourself complaining about overpopulation, read this book before you go on.)

But now, never to have known a woman with brown skin and wiry black hair cut very short so that the elegant line of the skull showed like the curve of a bronze vase – no, that was wrong. That was intolerable. That every soul on earth should have a body the colour of a battleship!

That’s why she’s not here, he thought. She could not have been born grey. Her colour, her colour of brown, was an essential part of her, not an accident. Her anger, timidity, brashness, gentleness, all were elements of her mixed being, her mixed nature, dark and clear right through, like Baltic amber. She could not exist in the grey people’s world.

I was rapt from the moment I began reading to the last page, held by a spell of poetry that was unbroken. For me the story’s music reached the zenith of beauty when the Alien came into Orr’s dream offering help. Sometimes hampered communication manages to be the most eloquent: we have said too much already.

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