“Then he set off with his new master through the steep slanting forests of the mountain isle, through the leaves and the shadows of bright autumn”. So ends the first chapter of ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ by Ursula K. Le Guin. The young boy Ged sets off to learn to be a wizard and so fulfil his destiny and his world opens up in front of him with all its light and all its darkness. I was saddened to learn of the death of Le Guin at the age of 88 and it is hard to think that there will be no more books from her far reaching imagination. She was one of the many writers I started to read in my late teens and twenties as I was hoovering up science fiction like the nerd I have always been. For classic space opera it was Robert Heinlein and James Blish, Thomas Disch, Philip K. Dick and Samuel Delany’s novel ‘Dhalgren’ provided the experimental stuff but for sheer poetry it was always Ray Bradbury and UKLG.
My trends in reading have come and gone, and my tastes have changed but Le Guin’s stories have always entranced me. I think of the world of Winter that she created for her novel ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, with its ambisexual inhabitants who only assume a gender in order to reproduce, the horror of totalitarianism and the striking love story at the heart of the book. Then there is her chilling allegory for environmental degradation and the Vietnam War ‘The Word for World is Forest’, and ‘The Dispossessed’ (subtitled ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’), a marvellous political story about science, community and the ways that very different societies interact. Or there are her short stories she recently collected in two volumes (‘The Unreal and the Real’). It really is difficult to choose which books to recommend because her vision is so deep and so rich. My copy of the novella ‘Forest’ is included in Harlan Ellison’s ground-breaking 1976 anthology ‘Again, Dangerous Visions’ and Ellison’s affectionate foreword to the story refers to Le Guin’s kindness to her fellow writers and her fearlessness as a female writer in a (mainly) masculine world. The musician Sting once recounted meeting the great Gil Evans and singing with his orchestra in a small New York club – he said it was a bit like meeting a wise and benevolent being from Star Trek. I think of Le Guin a bit like that, her poise and imagination contains a wisdom that is both here and also beyond.
I also remember an interview she gave to the writer China Mieville on BBC Radio 4 on the occasion of her 80th birthday where she was revealed as gracious and witty and someone whose vision remained vital and undimmed by age. I taped the programme when it first came out and hearing of her death I was digging through my shoe-boxes to find the tape and enjoy it again. Out of the many stories she wrote Le Guin knew above all that science fiction could be a way to tell a good story and reflect of issues of race, gender and technology and as Margaret Atwood recently observed “Science fiction is always really about now. What else could it be about?”
Another of my favourite writers passed away recently; in the overcrowded world of crime fiction Sue Grafton is known principally for her series of ‘alphabet’ novels featuring the private investigator Kinsey Millhone. Ms Millhone is an individual and determinedly independent detective who takes no prisoners in her scrupulous investigations. A series with continuing characters can be prone to routine and formula but because Sue Grafton set these books just as determinedly in the pre- internet and mobile age so Kinsey has to solve her cases the old fashioned way, this perspective makes these stories individual and compelling because the reader has to enter that almost forgotten time before technology ruled our lives. Given a cast of a characters and a sympathetic heroine you have a near perfect formula.
In my opinion Kinsey is as near to an old fashioned gumshoe as you can get since the age of Chandler and Hammett. She doggedly follows every lead and works hard to bring justice to her clients. Every book from ‘A is for Alibi’ to ‘Y is for Yesterday’ has its fair share of thrills and spills and the darkness that inevitably comes with dealing with crime. But now the series is over, and the saddest words I read in the statement made by Sue Grafton’s family were that, apart from the passing of a great writer, in her case, the alphabet would end with ‘Y’ as nobody else would finish the sequence!
Two voices stilled, but the books remain. Rest in peace.