Sunday, June 04, 2006

Book review: LeGuin, Voices

The estuarine city of Ansul was once the peaceful home of prosperous polytheistic tradespeople. A decade and a half ago, Ansul was conquered by the Alds, monotheistic desert nomads bent on holy war. The patriarchal Alds hate and fear books and writing, and Ansul's culture of learning and gender equality was swiftly eradicated or forced into hiding. As the story begins, the city stirs under the yoke of Ald occupation.

The UK edition of Ursula K. LeGuin's young adult novel Voices was distributed on advance order beginning in May. As befits a coming-of-age story, it has a teenage main protagonist who becomes central to a series of dramatic upheavals as she grows to find her place in the world. It's a story of books and the love of story, and equally an extended commentary on George Bush II and the Iraq war.
We had suffered much from Iddor's belief that he had been divinely sent to drive out demons and destroy evil, and we all felt now that with him imprisoned, disgraced, the power of that belief was broken. We had to deal with an enemy still, but a human enemy, not a demented god. (Ch. 13)
Voices is set in the same world as the previous book in the series, 2004's Gifts, but if that book was set in a fantasy Scotland (with kilts!), then this is Provence, and the action takes place about 20 years after the events in Gifts. Orrec and Gry from the preceding book return as supporting characters, a middle-aged celebrated poet and his animal-tamer wife. LeGuin's fans have met them many times in earlier books through the years. As the author says in an essay, she is fully aware of the troubled and frail yet ultimately strong male character that keeps appearing to her inner eye, be he named Orrec, Shevek or Ged. Myself, I suspect Mr LeGuin or perhaps Prof. Kroeber.

2006 finds LeGuin the Space Crone in fine shape, her prose as elegant and measured as ever. The only detail I caught where her stylistic sense has failed her is in the repeated use of the phrase "Iddor and the redhats" indicating the fundamentalist villain of the tale and his retinue. LeGuin was 25 when Bill Haley and the Comets had their first hit with "Shake, Rattle and Roll", 44 when Iggy and the Stooges released Raw Power, so her venerable age is no excuse.

As for the resolution of the story's main conflict, I only wish it could be that easy in the real world. The people of Ansul may be disgruntled with their oppressors, but they have “peace in their bones”. Would that the same could be said of the people of Iraq.

Voices is a fine novel that works well on its own, so it is a place as good as any to start discovering the humanistic, liberal joy that is Ursula K. LeGuin. I'll give it to my kids when that day comes – after they've been through the original Earthsea books, that is.

LeGuin, U.K. 2006. Voices. Orion Books. ISBN 9-781842-555071.
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really hope the concept of the book is more subtle than you make it seem in the brief description. :-)

I've seen all too many supposedly political SF novels that read like unintentional parodies ('Raising the Stones' by Sheri S. Tepper, anyone?)

But then, LeGuin rarely disappoints in that regard. I was extremely impressed when reading The Disposessed recently - it was far more complex than I had thought beforehand.


05 June, 2006 11:45  
Blogger Martin said...

Don't worry, LeGuin's book is nothing like Raising the Stones.

05 June, 2006 12:08  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, but it doesn't surprise me in the least.

I find it extra cringe-worthy when polytheism is among the obviously nice and right attributes of the good culture, but I'm totally giving LeGuin the benefit of a doubt here.


05 June, 2006 12:11  
Blogger Martha said...

I heard an interview with Ursula K. LeGuin a while back which really impressed me. What a remarkably intelligent thoughtful complex woman. I so appreciate writers who explore ambiguity, the grey areas. I read The Left Hand of Darkness and the Dispossessed many years back, and of course the Earthsea trilogy, though I didn't like that one as much. More recently I've read her short stories.

08 June, 2006 18:35  
Blogger Martin said...

Glad you like her too! Seems the latest LeGuin you've read is from the early 70s. She's kept up a constantly good output since then -- fantasy, sf, mainstream, essays, poetry -- so do give her another go!

09 June, 2006 07:47  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's pretty rare that a great SF writer manages to keep up a good quality as he (or rarely, she) grows older. Both Heinlein and Asimov (and, to some extent, Clarke - just so that we have all the Big Three covered) wrote some ghastly stuff in their later years.

All the more credit to LeGuin!


09 June, 2006 12:11  

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