This collection of seventeen short stories and novellas, all published before 1975, includes several that Le Guin considers “germinal”, that is, leading to two novel cycles. For instance, a minor character in one early story (“Semley’s Necklace”) stayed with Le Guin, demanding that she write his story: Rocannon, protagonist in the first novel of the Hainish Cycle.
Fans of Earthsea will recognize locations and themes in two other stories: “The Word of Unbinding,” partially set in the dry land, and “The Rule of Names,” which features a dragon called Yevaud and is set in the East Reach. Le Guin had already mapped Earthsea, and in these two stories she seems to be exploring this world.
There is humor in these tales. In the quirky “A Trip to the Head”, a gender-fluid couple play around with their relationship to each other and to the world, a sort of Adam and Eve considering ethics and philosophy. In another, “April in Paris,” Barry, a failed and lonely professor, sits in a “cold, shadowy garret” in Paris, April 2, 1961. In 1482, Jehan, a lonely alchemist sitting in the same garret, draws a pentagram on the floor, recites a spell, and expects the devil but gets Barry instead. It turns out well for both of them, and one night, after “two bottles of Montrachet 74”, they decide to improve their situation:
“Let’s invoke a woman, Jehan,” Barry said in a lascivious bass, grinning like a gargoyle.
“What if I raised a devil this time?”
“Is there really much difference?”
In time, they’ve invoked two women (a Roman slave and a 90th century Altairian archeologist who had been at an on-site dig) and a dog — evidently, any unhappy person or animal standing in the building’s footprint can be called to 15th century Paris. It almost makes me want to dabble in sorcery.
Each story comes with a brief intro, in which Le Guin explains its genesis. “Darkness Box” (about a world with no sun, no shadows or darkness, and no passing of time) was inspired by Le Guin’s daughter, who came to her one day with a box, the contents of which Le Guin was to guess.
I guessed caterpillars, mice, elephants, etc. She shook her head, smiled an unspeakably eldritch smile, opened the box slightly so that I could just see in, and said: “Darkness.”
Le Guin’s tales explore consequences: of imprisoning darkness, of life as a clone, of seeing the face of god, of sending ten “escapists, misfits … nuts” into space. This last situation arises in “Vaster than Empires and More Slow”. Interspace travel hasn’t been perfected, so only people “of unsound mind” are sent to explore the outer reaches of the universe. “What sane person, after all, would go out to collect information that would not be received for five or ten centuries?”
For anyone needing an introduction to Le Guin’s writing, this book is a good place to start. Both fantasy and science fiction are here, with wizards and scientists, travel across time and space, and enough ethical conundrums to keep you thinking for a long while after finishing the book.