There is just no denying it: Ursula le Guin is one of the greatest writers of the last 50 years (at least), and I firmly believe that the only reason she does not get more recognition for her commentary on race, politics, and – especially – gender – is because she sets much of that discussion off world. But, as I’ve mentioned before, this makes the discussion both easier to read – it’s not my society being critiqued! – and harder-hitting, because when we see our faults in aliens… it hurts more, somehow. Or maybe that’s just le Guin’s genius.
So. Here we have four interconnected short stories (although if we’re being technical I think the last two are probably closer to novellas). We have two planets, Werel and Yeowe. Yeowe was uninhabited until the Owners on Werel decided to start mining and farming it, for which they used the labour of their assets. Yes, Werel is a slave-owning society, and a capitalist one (I see what you did there, le Guin – very nice indeed – Marx needs a little chastising sometimes). And within the hierarchy of owner/owned there’s a gender hierarchy as well, with women being firmly the lowest section of each caste. Sounding familiar? Well yes, except that here lovely onyx skin is the most prized, and the paler you are – the more ‘dusty’ – the more obvious your slave status.
Me, I’m one of the palest of the pale whitefellas around. No way can I presume to comment on how people of colour would react to this inversion. For myself, I’ll admit that reading the derogatory term ‘dusty’ did not at first make sense (I thought it was referring to them living in the dirt and dust); and while it was uncomfortable in the context of slave/free, it’s awesome to read stories wherein black is desirable and beautiful… and it’s not a big deal.
The four stories all deal with the same basic issue and time: the consequences of a revolt of the ‘assets’ on Yeowe against the Corporation who owned them: consequences for the Owners and the assets, for men and women, and for the alien Ekumen observers (this fits into le Guin’s Hainish cycle). For me, while revolutions are interesting and all, it’s the aftermath that’s really the meat of history. What difference does it actually make? How long do changes take and how long do they hang around? Changing the world is one thing; changing attitudes and desires and beliefs quite another.
The first story, “Betrayals,” is set some time after the Liberation, in a nowhere town on Yeowe. It’s the story that has least to do with the Liberation itself, although it comes about as a result of it. It’s a tale of two old people – and how refreshing is that? – dealing with being old, and the changes in their world, and how frustrating the world can be when you’re not able or allowed to make big changes yourself any more… but you can still make small ones, that do make a difference. Bitterness and growth and love. Also gossip, and the downfall of heroes.
“Forgiveness Day” comes first from the perspective of a ‘space brat’ – a worldly (hmm, or not; she doesn’t really have a world) woman of the Ekumen sent to Werel to act as an observer there. Being an observer on tight-knit, inward-facing and closed-mouth Werel was always going to be a difficult task, but having a woman in that position – going out, rather than staying in the beza (woman’s side); her own property, rather than a man’s; speaking to men as their equal – is yet another kettle of proverbial. Solly deals with it rather bullishly, which is perfectly fair and understandable. What puts le Guin at the pinnacle is that she writes Solly completely sympathetically for maybe a quarter? of the story, and then relates the next section from the perspective of Teyeo, her bodyguard, of whom Solly has a very dim view but who again comes across as immensely sympathetic, and casts some shade on Solly; and then the rest is the two of them in rather a pickle. It’s a commanding story of attitudes and cultural perspectives, and change in the face of necessity. It also starts opening up Werel society to the reader, giving hints and clues about how and why it works, which while not making it likeable begins to make it comprehensible.
“A Man of the People” begins on Hain, with a young boy growing up in a sheltered, insular pueblo… who eventually gets impatient with the local knowledge available and longs for something bigger. Nearly half of the story takes place on Hain as Havzhida learns about universal knowledge and eventually becomes a member of the Hainish delegation to Yeowe. While the previous story showed Werel from an outsider’s perspective, seeing Yeowe post-Liberation from such a view is revealing too, not least because the gender hierarchy has been replicated. The rhetoric of freedom, of liberation, is a complex one, and le Guin makes some offerings on how to understand it in this and the next story in particular. I think this story is my favourite, at least partly because it shows how power doesn’t have to come from violence, and subversion doesn’t have to involve deceit. And the characters are wonderful and varied, and Havzhida is a willing observer – not insistent on participation where that might not be appropriate. Which is something that some activists might do well to understand.
Finally, “A Woman’s Liberation” is probably the most difficult to read of the lot. The first is post-Liberation Yeowe, so at least the theory of freedom is present; the second is Werel, where there is no freedom for ‘assets’ but Solly and Teyeo move freely (mostly); the third is post-Liberation Yeowe too, with Havzhida moving freely and women beginning to do so. “A Woman’s Liberation,” though, is from the perspective of a bondswoman – an asset – on Werel. She is thus doubly bonded, doubly enslaved, both to her Owner and to the men of her caste. This makes for a sometimes-painful reading experience – not gratuitous, not unnecessary, but painful nonetheless. Things do change, as the name suggests, but le Guin does not hide the fact that changing official status is difficult, and indeed is only one step in losing the ‘slave-mind’. Rakam is a glorious character who grows and struggles and is unrelentingly honest with the reader. She’s inspirational.
These stories are complex and challenging and absorbing and frustrating because they do not fill in all of the gaps. By the end a general sweep of the history and society of Werel and Yeowe has been revealed, but there is so much more that could be written! This is one of the peculiar gifts of le Guin, I think – she does not tell us everything. Only what we need to know. Which is about liberation, and freedom, and individuality, and community, and love.