Awesome. Wonderful. Confounding. Clever. Brilliant.
A coworker handed me her copy of this great Ursula K. Le Guin novel when she heard that I hadn’t read it yet. The book requires attention, and it wasn’t until I had long stretches of time was I able to get into it. New names. New places. Conflicts between people for reasons that aren’t clear at first. It is a testament to Le Guin’s world-building — the completeness a reader can feel of the places she creates on the planet Urras and the moon Annares — that I and I’m sure many other readers enjoy the process of moving through the novel and learning what things mentioned earlier mean.
That said, it wasn’t until deep in the novel, page 221 in the paperback copy I have, that I really felt like things were truly happening. By that point, I understood enough about the main character, Shevek, to comprehend his desires: he left the moon (its names is Annares and it is populated by the descendants of anarchists who were forced to leave the “home” planet Urras and who live a hard-scrabble life that tries to live up to the founders’ ideals, but has its own versions of corruption) so he could explore a freer and wider-ranging discourse on his specialty — Physics — with humans not only on the planet the anarchists were exiled from (the lusher and wealthier “home” planet of Urras), but also other planets. There, too, Shevek finds corruption.
This passage is where the book came even more alive for me, where Shevek explains issues of physics, time and morality to a guest at a party (an overbearing businessman):
“Well, we think that time ‘passes,’ flows past us, but what if it is we who move forward, from past to future, always discovering the new? It would be a little like reading a book, you see. The book is all there, all at once, between the covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forwards, always is order. So the universe would be a very great book, and we would be very small readers.”
I like this passage for multiple reasons: theories of time are attractive to me, in general; the metaphor to the book is clever and fitting; a writing teaching once said to me that if you want to get on the good side of a reader, or to signal to the reader that a character deserves their sympathy, then have that character read a book; having a character explain something via a metaphor of a book is a great way to capture the attention of a reader (that is, a person who is already invested in and has shown value for books by reading one); and the passage isn’t afraid to go big, the big picture, a metaphor for the entire universe and our place in it.
That, I think, it was great science fiction can do — find new ways for us “small readers” to think about our relationship to the universe.
That said, I’m not sure I’m totally convinced by the structure of the book. The 13 chapters alternate between place and time — from Shevek’s life as an adult going to and living on the planet Urras, and from earlier (the earliest moments in his life), from a child and student to a young man and then full adult on the moon Annares who is deciding to leave for the planet. I found it a bit confusing, considering some of the early chapters are very long. By the time I went from one chapter to the other, I had lost the thread of how the new chapter was tied to the earlier chapter. Like it said, it really wasn’t until 200 or so pages into that I felt like things were really going, and the chapter structure was working for me.
Maybe my reading of the structure has to do with only having time to 2-3 pages a night for a few weeks, before I was able to have the luxury of long stretches of reading time. Or maybe the structure of the novel is a product of the time the novel was written, the early 1970s, when that kind of experimentation with time and structure was perhaps more common.
How does Shevek’s description of time square with Le Guin’s structure, when starting at the beginning of her novel doesn’t necessarily mean going from past to future, when it really means going from past to future back to a deeper past that never catches up to the first past, even as you read it as if you were going toward the future?