While we read a novel, we are insane

Ursula K. Le Guin

If ideas and words pair up and dance, the outcome can be remarkable. This, however, rarely happens. Great ideas are usually lost on account of indifferent prose, and gorgeous language is often used to mask woolly thinking. Only a few writers have been adept at getting both to work miraculously together. One of them was Ursula K. Le Guin, who died last month.

Which of Le Guin's works has had the greatest impact on readers? Was it A Wizard of Earthsea, from which Harry Potter is undeniably derived? Or was it the The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel about gender-fluid aliens that is not just great science fiction but also exceptional literature, especially relevant today? It is impossible to answer this with any degree of conviction, and that, in itself, is telling.

My favourite, however, is "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas", a brilliant account of the impossibility and the importance of refusing to play a part in injustice. In the town of Omelas, there is joy everywhere. There is also a problem: the city can lead a life of bliss only because a child is locked up and tortured. The people of Omelas know this, and choose not to think about it. There is no way the reader will not feel uncomfortable: there is a lot more we could do for the less privileged, but we live with the devil's bargains we make in this difficult world. It takes a writer like Le Guin to hold up this mirror, and she rejects a happy ending for a complex one. The child suffers, and the people never pay.

Le Guin, however, winds up her fable with masterly simplicity - some people leave the city that holds a child captive. This is great science fiction: imagining a world that is not ours, and then showing the reader how alike the two worlds actually are. There are different paths, and everyone can decide which one to walk. Le Guin guides the reader towards a deeper understanding of why human beings are so often as terrible as they are, and encourages an aversion to not just cruel figures of authority but also the injustice wrought by us. Can there be a more important lesson in present times?

There have been several attempts to categorize Le Guin's work, but if there is one way to describe her with any degree of accuracy, it might be as a teller of stories. "While we read a novel, we are insane," she wrote. "We believe in the existence of people who aren't there... Sanity returns... when the book is closed. Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?" She may be gone, but it is in our best interests to keep her ideas alive. By delving into her worlds and imagining a more just future, maybe we can keep the 'sanity' she fought off at bay.


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