The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Found and the Lost is the companion volume to The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, a hefty 816-page book or 34-hour audiobook collection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novellas. It contains most of the stories that make up Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995) a set of linked stories in her HAINISH CYCLE about the two worlds of Werel and Yeowe, and explores the themes of slavery, oppression, revolution, and redemption. It also contains several stories set in her EARTHSEA CYCLE from Tales from Earthsea (2001). One of my other favorites was “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” about communications with alien intelligence somewhat reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris (1970). “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” makes pointed social critiques of modern society from the viewpoint of Native American animal deities. Overall the collection is excellent and provides a broad overview of her favorite themes, and should be a perfect way for fans to revisit her stories or for new readers to discover one of the greats of the genre. Here are reviews of my favorite stories, which got much longer than I planned because each story has so much worth mentioning.
Vaster than Empires and More Slow: This is one of my favorite early Le Guin stories set in the HAINISH universe. It tells the tale of a scientific expedition sent to explore and catalog unknown planets in the galaxy. Because they travel at near light speed, expedition members know they will never see their loved ones again. Therefore, they choose neurotic personalities willing to tolerate long spaceflight. Their most difficult member is Osden, a former autistic who has been “fully cured” but is now hypersensitive to the thoughts of all sentient living things in range. This proves to be a massive liability for him, because he can acutely sense every thought of all his neurotic crew-members. His response is to be insulting, combative, and vitriolic. This feeds into a negative loop, creating a very toxic environment among the crew.
When they finally reach their destination, they discover a very green planet covered with fauna, concentrated into just a small number of species. As they explore, they sense a feeling of foreboding and fear. Ogden is particularly sensitive to it, and strange things begin to happen. It’s almost as if the forest itself were exuding the fear.
The crew frequently debate the merits of their mission, exposing hidden jealousies, rivalries, the limits of empathy, and how much we hide our true emotions in order to coexist. Even Ogden gives his side of things, complaining “I agree that even autistic withdrawal might be preferable to the smog of cheap secondhand emotions with which you people surround me.” His reaction is both self-defensive and vindictive, but he himself is a victim of his “gift” and the story’s denouement presents him with a surprising opportunity for redemption.
Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight: This takes a very creative approach to the Native American mythos of the trickster Coyote and a menagerie of animals in the American Southwest. A little girl is involved in an airplane crash and finds herself taken in by talking animals who don’t make a distinction between various “people,” whether human or animal. Coyote is constantly telling stories and boasting, but shows a rough kindness and takes her to her village. There she meets many animals of different persuasions like Bluejay and Grandma Spider, who don’t seem to mind her presence. As she gets to know them, she learns about their lives and history and how they have had their territories encroached upon by the “new people,” namely humans. And yet they don’t seem to hold a grudge.
Their open acceptance is contrasted with the crass behavior of humans in their towns and hunters with their guns who treat the natural world with contempt. This story has a playful tone, but beneath the surface is a condemnation of what humans have given up in favor of technology and modernization, and the dignity and resignation of the “old people” in the face of this. By telling the story through the eyes of an innocent child, Le Guin strips all the layers of the adult civilized world away to reveal the essential spiritual wasteland of the modern world.
The Matter of Seggri: This was one of the highlights of this collection. It is a brilliantly developed study of a society in which women are dominant in the economy, politics, education, and all practical professions. That leaves the men with just two roles, isolated in their castles — sports and breeding (siring children and serving as sex workers). In fact, women pay them for their services. While this may seem at first like an enviable position for men, Le Guin meticulously shows us their utter powerlessness. They are reduced to prized breeders and are given no other outlets or means of self-fulfillment except macho displays via violent sports.
Switching around familiar gender roles forces the reader to confront all the biases and rigid social barriers that form the basis for men and women’s roles in societies throughout human history, and brings home just how soul-crushing a position women have been frequently subjected to, even in this day and age. In particular, the cruel behavior towards men who are not prized as breeders parallels the intolerant treatment of women who cannot bear children. Towards the end of the story, we also see the vicious in-fighting among the men themselves. There is even the equivalent of an Equal Rights Movement, and it is bittersweet to see the men struggle to gain respect even after they are granted the right to higher education and other roles in society. I think this story is a real eye opener for younger readers in the West who have benefitted from far greater sexual equality than prior generations.
Another Story or a Fisherman of the Inland Sea: An inventive story that takes the ancient Japanese fable of Urashima Taro, the fisherman who rescues a turtle and is granted a visit to the undersea kingdom of the dragon god, and though he spends only three days by his reckoning, he discovers upon his return that three centuries have passed in his village.
It is the perfect framing story for this exploration of instantaneous space travel. It’s an idea also explored in two other Le Guin stories not included here, “The Shobies’ Story” and “Dancing to Ganam.” What better way to illustrate the idea of time/space relativity than with a young man growing up on the world of O, who desires to visit humanity’s home planet of Hain to study temporal physics. He knows that nearly-as-fast-as-light-travel (NAFAL) means that if he chooses to return to O, his family members will have aged far more than him.
Hideo devotes himself to studying Churnten theory, spending 10 years to experiment in instantaneously transporting objects across space. When he finally returns home as a promising young researcher, 18 years have passed. He reestablishes his relationships with his family (which is a complex arrangement of four parents and various children separated into Day and Night groupings), but eager to further his knowledge, he decides to transport himself via transilience to a different location instantaneously, which goes fine, but when he transports himself back there is a “fold” or “wrinkle” in the Churn field, and Hideo finds himself in a very unexpected place and time. I won’t spoil the details, but if you recall the name of the story you might imagine what happens. It’s a very profound and understated crisis that he faces in a mature but bittersweet way.
Forgiveness Day: Here Le Guin introduces a pair of worlds named Werel and Yeowe. Werel has a firmly entrenched system of slavery, and the shock of encountering the Ekumen prompts the Werelians to colonize the planet of Yeowe using an-all male population of slaves (which they label “assets”). Later on, these slaves of Yeowe stage a revolution and throw out their Werelian owners. Forgiveness Day is the story of Ekumen envoy Solly, a brash young female agent assigned to the small kingdom of Gatay. She feels confident that she understands the rigid two-class social structure of Werel, in which owners are real people and bondspeople are slaves and not human at all.
Solly is assigned a taciturn guard from Voe Deo named Teyeo. He is offended by her overt sexuality and boldness in dealing with the conservative men of Gatay, and her naïveté towards the complex political situation is alarming. Voe Deo is the more powerful nation but is stinging from defeat in the slave revolution on Yeowe, which is where Teyeo served as a soldier on the losing side. He developed a reluctant respect for the Yeowen slaves he fought, but cannot break out of the owner-slave mentality.
Events take a sudden turn when Solly attends a festival called Forgiveness Day, but is attacked and kidnapped by anti-Ekumen nativist forces in Gatay, who are opposed to their government’s efforts to be accepted into the Ekumen. They fear the social upheaval of having their two-tiered hierarchy of slavery and the subordination of women threatened by alien Ekumenical ideas of equality among races and men & women.
Solly and Teyeo find themselves imprisoned in a cell, and gradually get to know each other’s ways and beliefs. It’s a handy opportunity for Le Guin to debate the conflicting views of the different societies and to examine the characters’ own biases.
A Man of the People: Le Guin’s HAINISH stories frequently feature envoys from the Ekumen, the alliance of worlds that were seeded by the Hainish people. She likes to use the objective lens of the ancient and sophisticated Ekumen as she explores the more exotic and primitive human societies as a means to analyze our deeply-ingrained social beliefs and assumptions.
However, it is quite rare to actually get a glimpse of life on Hain itself. With three million years of history, the legacy of the past weighs heavily on Hain. In a small pueblo called Stse, a young man named Havzhiva grows up in a quiet agrarian society, indifferent to the greater world or the weight of history. We get intriguing details on the complex social hierarchies and religious beliefs of Stse. However, Havzhiva is drawn to the teachings of the local temple, and yearns to study with the other major social group on Hain, the Historians.
Finally Havzhiva is sent to Yeowe as a historian. His job is to assist the newly-emerged society in leaving behind its brutal legacy of slavery and reinvent itself. He learns from his nurse that the women of Werel remain powerless and slave-like in status despite the successful rebellion against the owners. Despite their efforts to support the resistance, they remain voiceless. She asks him to assist in empowering them with the assistance of the Ekumen, triggering major consequences.
Havzhiva is exposed to some truly stomach-churning coming-of-age ceremonies that demonstrate the brutality ingrained in the former slave hierarchies of the men, and the even more abysmal position of women in this new post-liberation society. Le Guin doesn’t hold back in showing us how vicious and cruel practices do not go away easily. Though he is horrified by what he sees, he comes to following realization:
You can’t change anything from outside it. Standing apart, looking down, taking the overview, you see the pattern. What’s wrong, what’s missing. You want to fix it. But you can’t patch it. You have to be in it, weaving it. You have to be part of the weaving.
A Woman’s Liberation: This is a companion piece to the previous two stories, this time from the perspective of a young female slave (“asset”) named Rakam who grows up on the planet Werel. It follows her life as we see the brutal slavery of the Shomeke family in the land of Voe Deo (where Teyeo from “Forgiveness Day” comes from), a powerful nation that originally colonized Yeowe with slave labor. This allows Le Guin to show us the inner workings of a slave-owning ruler class and their bondswomen and bondmen. It is a harsh and cruel system, which should come as no surprise to anyone, but she certainly pulls no punches. Slaves are disposable objects that can be treated like garbage or killed with impunity.
When the slave revolt on Yeowe is successful, this has repercussions for the slaves of Werel as the owners fear the same will happen in their world. Rakam is caught up in the rebellion and finds herself and the other slaves “freed” by their lord. However, society is chaotic in the aftermath as the power vacuum is contested by various factions. We see how difficult it is eradicate owner-slave modes of thinking, even when the institutions crumble.
Rakam shows a penchant for study and eventually finds a teaching position thanks to capturing the attention of an Ekumen officer named Esdardon Aya, originally from Hain, whose nickname is “Old Music.” Rakam begins publishing writings about liberation and government and we see the birthing pains of a new society through her eyes. When things become dangerous for her, she finds a way to escape to Yeowe, the planet of freed slaves.
But she again discovers that freedom there only extends to men and not women. Her knowledge and teaching skills are not welcomed at first. She must battle for recognition against the forces of ingrained prejudices against women. There are interesting contrasts and parallels with “The Matter of Seggri.” She becomes a leader among the women of Yeowe, sharing teachings from Werel and the Ekumen and assisting in the building of a more equitable society. The closing lines are wonderful:
What is one man’s and one woman’s love and desire, against the history of two worlds, the great revolutions of our lifetimes, the hope, the unending cruelty of our species? A little thing. But a key is a little thing, next to the door it opens. If you lose the key, the door may never be unlocked. It is in our bodies that we lose or begin our freedom, in our bodies that we accept or end our slavery. So I wrote this book for my friend, with whom I have lived and will die free.
Old Music and the Slave Women: Though this story was not part of the four stories collected in Four Ways to Forgiveness, it is another story of Werel and Yeowe, this time centered on the Ekumen Special Envoy known as “Old Music,” who plays minor roles in the other stories.
Like “A Man of the People,” this is also a story of an Ekumenical officer, this time to Werel. In fact it is Esdardan Aya, also known as “Old Music.” He is stationed at the Ekumenical Embassy on Werel as Chief Intelligence Officer. Though Yeowe has thrown off the shackles of slavery from the owners of Werel, there remains a bitter struggle among different chieftains and warlords to seize control, a subject also covered in “A Women’s Liberation.” When “Old Music” is careless in venturing outside the compound he is captured by insurgents and ill-treated. He gets embroiled in different sides hoping to utilize him as a bargaining chip with the Ekumen. He strikes up a friendship with some of the slave women trapped amid the factional fighting, as helpless as he is.
It’s not exactly clear to me why Le Guin chose to write another story about Werel and Yeowe using similar themes and perspectives. We see the same cruelties and prejudices and in-fighting that come when one form of government is overthrown and new forms struggle for supremacy. “Old Music” is a wiser and more world-weary observer of this from previous characters, so perhaps the Le Guin wanted to further refine some of her ideas about the gap between ideals and reality amid a revolution. “Old Music” muses on this with more than a trace of bitterness:
Since the Uprising, the Liberation is an army, a political body, a great number of people and leaders and would-be leaders, ambitions and greed clogging hopes and strength, a clumsy amateur semi-government lurching from violence to compromise, ever more complicated, never again to know the beautiful simplicity of the ideal, the pure idea of liberty. And that’s what I wanted, what I worked for, all these years. To muddle the nobly simple structure of the hierarchy of caste by infecting it with the idea of justice. And then to confuse the nobly simple structure of the ideal of human equality by trying to make it real. The monolithic lie frays out into a thousand incompatible truths, and that’s what I wanted. But I am caught in the insanity, the stupidity, the meaningless brutality of the event.
The Finder: This is the first of three stories from Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea (2001) contained in the collection, and tells the early history of Earthsea set several centuries before the events of the main EARTHSEA TRILOGY. While the reader would benefit from having read that series first, it certainly stands on its own. It’s a lengthy tale of the events leading to the founding of the School of Magic on the Island of Roke, but it’s much more than that.
The story centers on a young boy named Otter (his “use” name, not his “true” name) who grows up as an apprentice ship-builder to his father, who works for the local pirate-king. The boy shows a talent for magic, but in these times magic is a dangerous thing because most wizards and sorcerers are in the service of the warring lords and pirates of the Archipelago, and such attention could result in being put into servitude. When Otter casts a spell on a ship to interfere with its slave-trading, a Finder named Hound sniffs out the origin of this magic and senses the raw talent of the boy. Otter finds himself enslaved to the chief mage Gelluk, a power-hungry man who runs a massive mining operation that seeks various ores but in particular “water-metal,” the “King of Metals.” Gelluk believes gathering this will give him power above all the other wizards of Earthsea, and has no qualms about sacrificing hundreds of slaves to achieve this goal, since the fumes from the smelter kill them within a year or two.
After much hardship, Otter meets a slave girl (only women work the mines due to their smaller bodies) named Anieb, who is dying from the cruel conditions of the mine, but who still harbors some power of her own and seeks to aid Otter. Eventually, they find a way to escape the mines but at a great cost.
Otter knows he is not safe remaining on the island and hears rumors of a legendary island “where the rule of justice is kept as it was under the Kings” and a secret society known as the “Women of the Hand.” So he roams throughout Earthsea in search of this place. Eventually he learns the island’s name is Roke, but even when he learns of its general location, it is protected by mists and powerful enchantments that prevent the outside world from intruding.
I will not reveal any further plot details, but we learn much about the inner workings of Roke, its origins in the magic underlying the creation of Earthsea, the role of women’s magic in the world, and how the school of magic came to be created. It is a fantastic story, told with exquisite writing, economy of language, strong characterization, and a sense of ancient legend and history. Having not read the EARTHSEA TRILOGY since I was in junior high, I now have a burning desire to revisit that series for the first time in three decades.
On the High Marsh: This is another tale of Earthsea, somewhat shorter, about a mysterious animal healer who shows up in the marshes on the Island of Semel. He is clearly more than he lets on, but his abilities to heal diseased cattle are undeniable, so the villagers seek his aid. He takes shelter in the house of a widowed woman named Gift, and provides several names though they are obviously untrue. He establishes himself as a mysterious but reliable healer, and one day a new stranger shows up on Gift’s doorstop, seeking after the healer. Without giving anything away, both the healer and his visitor are of far greater stature and share a more complicated relationship than Gift could ever have imagined. Readers will also appreciate the story more if they have read the EARTHSEA TRILOGY.
Dragonfly: This is an EARTHSEA story that takes place immediately after the events of Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990), the fourth book in the EARTHSEA series after an 18-year hiatus (and it turned out to not be the last book in the series, which is why you should never put that in a title!).
In any case, I think this story probably requires you to have read Tehanu beforehand, since many off the plot details toward the end were unfamiliar to me. It also is apparently meant as a bridge story linking Tehanu and the final EARTHSEA book, The Other Wind (2001). So while it is a good stand-alone story, you will get more from it if you know the larger story background.
Dragonfly is a girl who grows up on an isolated property with an embittered, alcoholic father. Her mother died at childbirth, so she is forced to spend her time trying to maintain things. When her father refuses to grant her a true name ceremony, she goes to the village witch Rose and asks for it anyway. The witch grants it to her, but it is not the one she wanted, though true names are not something people can choose.
Meanwhile, her more successful uncle hires a wizard from Roke for his household. He receives a young man named Ivory, who is still inexperienced and seems to bear a grudge against the masters of the school of magic at Roke. When Ivory discovers Dragonfly living not far off, he is intrigued by her headstrong character and beauty. She also shows some talent for magic, which grabs his attention. When he tells her stories of Roke, she is eager to learn more and vows that she will enter the school of magic and become a mage herself. The only catch is… women have not been admitted to the magic school at Roke for centuries. Though the origins of this rule are unclear, it is not questioned by many except Ivory. He would love to disrupt the arrogant masters of Roke by infiltrating a woman their ranks to learn the ways of power.
So Ivory sets about to conceal Dragonfly’s identity and sneak her into the school of magic on Roke and shake up the power structure. What proceeds is a story about how Dragonfly seeks to discover her true identity and destiny among the mages of Roke, and depicts the struggles of a woman to gain recognition in a male hierarchy. This story is a continuation of the feminist examination of gender politics and power structures that drives the novel Tehanu, and while I have heard that book is very dark and somewhat depressing (I haven’t read it since 1990 and don’t remember much other than not liking it), Dragonfly is a more spirited young woman with a strong will that refuses to be put in her place. When she confronts the Masters of Roke and demands to be admitted, it is quite funny to see how flustered they become. When she finally discovers her true identity, it is very surprising indeed.
Paradises Lost: This is the final story in the collection, and takes on a SF staple, the generational starship. The ship Discovery is sent from Earth on a mission to explore and report back on a potentially-habitable planet many light years away. Because there is no cryogenic technology, this will be a multi-generational journey in which only the later generations of ship-inhabitants are likely to see the destination. Unlike many such scenarios, the Earth has not been destroyed through nuclear annihilation or a giant meteor strike or alien attack, so the mission planners have enough time to prepare carefully for the mission, and the people aboard ship are well taken-care of.
There are multiple ethnic groups and a host of unique social structures adapted to space-born societies which distinguish this story from many other similar ones, and which allow Le Guin to again play with social, sexual, and governmental norms as she depicts with great realism how different generations might adapt to this mission.
The most dramatic development is the “rebirth” of religion in the form of the Bliss movement, which emerges after the death of the most senior zero generation member. It seems to spontaneously arise among many of the inhabitants, and slowly evolves over time, at first celebrating a general spirituality that binds together people, much like a friendly but harmless cult. Over time, however, it starts to infiltrate the power structures of the ship, and its belief systems shift to celebrate the sanctity of the eternal journey through space rather than the ostensible destination of the original mission. This takes on a sinister tone as the Bliss members show a profound lack of interest in actually arriving anywhere — they liken the outside of the ship to non-existence and worship only the journey.
When the ship finally approaches its destination, the ship inhabitants are split between “voyagers” and “settlers.” The settlers are woefully unprepared to actually make a life on a new world after a lifetime of ease within the ship’s confines, and they are taken aback at alien things like wind, cold, shelters, shoes, food supplies, dirt, plants, and everything else on the new planet. The conclusion of the story is ambiguous and somewhat melancholy, as the settlers are unlikely to survival on their new home, whereas the voyagers are lost in a haze of religious fervor. All in all, it is very open-ended story that lets the reader draw their own conclusions.