The Found and the Lost is a collection of novellas by Ursula Le Guin, the founding mother of fantasy and SF as we know today. It’s a perfect book for both die-hard fans and for those who have never had the pleasure of reading anything by Le Guin before. A doorstop of a book at 600 pages in my digital copy and 816 pages in hardcover, it contains 13 novellas written in the period between 1971 (Vaster Than Empires and More Slow) to 2002 (Paradises Lost). The collection is presented mostly in a chronological order, but another categorization rule readily comes to mind while reading as the novellas can be divided into three main groups: Earthsea, Hainish cycle and “other”.
The first novella, Vaster Than Empires and More Slow is a typical old-fashioned SF with a psychological twist, owning an inspiration to none other than Roger Zelazny :). Themes of otherness, identity and personality and time fill this short novella to bursting, leaving a lot for the reader to ponder on. And from this very first novella on we are faced with a trait uniquely Le Guin-ean in the field of fantasy/SF – a very strong psycho-socio-economical skew, an enormous amount of readily used anthropological knowledge (it definitely pays off to have Alfred Kroeber as a father ;)) and curiosity bound with compassion. This novella has some Hainish references, but is completely self-contained, related more closely to Lem’s Solaris than anything else. And it beautifully interacts with the last novella of the collection, Paradises Lost.
Paradises Lost is a story of a generation ship traveling to a distant, potentially habitable planet. It’s a stand-alone story, not linked in any way to Hain or Earthsea, yet all the vital themes of Le Guin’s prose are there – from the life-cycle of an individual, their growth and development and personality changes, through themes of belief and institutionalized religion, to the all-encompassing issues of freedom of choice, rationality, fate and the workings of human mind, both on the individual and social level. Paradises Lost is very long and seemingly almost devoid of traditional action – yet it was the most gripping tale of all 13 of this tome. Le Guin is an expert in psychological landscapes, an accomplished scholar of complex social patterns and behaviors, and a true master of language, subtle and cunning, compassionate but never maudlin, knowledgeable but never showing off. For me the most important feature of her writing is the respect that she always has for her characters; always striving to understand them – not forgive them, but understand – to find a place where we can become the Other, at least for a fraction of second, for one line of text, a blink of an eye.
Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight is an intriguing view on our modern culture from the perspective of old Native American deities. I really appreciate the fact that Le Guin didn’t try to make the deities more relatable or understandable to us – they are what they are, crude and simple and yet full of ancient knowledge. And I especially liked the Coyote as a woman ;).
Hernes is the only realistic novella of the compilation: it tells the story of three generations of Western settlers seen through the eyes of the women. The story is interwoven with a retelling of Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, which serves as a counterpoint to the women’s story. But my strongest association of this novella comes from a completely different direction – the British apparition Herne The Hunter, the ghost or god of hunt and wild forests, a probable incarnation of Celtic god Cernunnos.
The forests and wilderness – and antlered animals 😉 – play an important role in Le Guin’s story, which is a special sort of paean to the long-gone Western frontier. There are bits of Le Guin’s own biography in the story, and it’s a poignant, slow, melancholy tale.
Next come six typical Hainish stories, four of which are very closely linked, forming one story told from several perspectives. Forgiveness Day, A Man of the People, A Woman’s Liberation and Old Music and the Slave Women together create a very realistic, bitter social commentary on slavery and ownership, on the place of women in traditional patriarchal societies and the cost of inequality. They are, frankly speaking, pretty depressing. Despite Le Guin’s subtlety and distance, those stories exuded anger and kind of resignation I found difficult to accept. Not that I found them unrealistic – on the contrary, they read like a in-depth report from today’s South Sudan or Ethiopia or Eritrea or hundreds other places on Earth. They tackle some pervasive – and unfortunately universal – mechanisms of human psychology, and they speak of war from the perspective of its victims. And as Le Guin puts it,
In war everybody is a prisoner, the historian Henennemores had written.
Of all the Hainish stories I enjoyed Another Story or a Fisherman of the Inland Sea the most. It’s a poignant story of choice and loss and how we cope with it, but also about time travel and teleportation and being given second chances. Le Guin builds the story on a myth from Japan, queerly similar to a tale from Ireland (at least at its core, not the accoutrements ;)), in which a fisherman is taken for a visit to an underwater dragon’s kingdom – and when he emerges after three days, he realizes that in his village centuries had gone past.
The Matter of Seggri is a curious little piece showing a world upside-down, where men are few and far between, precious and completely bereft of free will and any kind of agency. They are the male peacocks and studs of our world, their only task to shine and breed and bring pleasure to the women providing for them. It’s a story compiled from fragments, showing a slew of perspectives on the social situation – from the Hainish mobiles sent to observe, through some of the women, sisters or keepers of the rare men, to men themselves. Donald Trumps of this world should definitely read this one, but I fear they wouldn’t understand it.
Of the Earthsea stories Dragonfly was the only one I had read before, as it’s a short story complimenting Tehanu. A nice tale, typical of Earthsea with its themes of gender inequality, questions of power and tradition and otherness, and, above all, openness of mind, but, at least for me, it’s rather conventional. The big surprise is clearly presaged much in advance, so in the end the readers know it much earlier than anyone in the story, which is a bit frustrating. On The High Marsh, on the other hand, is surprisingly short and sweet in its own way, with a cameo from Ged between his main voyages. I must confess that I’m fond of stories about older people. There seems to be so few of them that each new one is something I look forward to. And this one doesn’t disappoint. Still, it is not as powerful as The Finder. I enjoyed The Finder immensely, both because it shows the ancient history of Earthsea and reveals some secrets of Roke, but also because it gives us a glimpse of a world that could be (strangely similar to our own in some aspects – a little jab at cultural relativism here, from a diehard advocate and believer in universal values ;)) – not perfect by any means, but at least going in the right direction.
All in all, The Found and the Lost is a must-read for every fantasy/SF fan. Le Guin deserves to be read and discussed – especially in our crazy times of distrust and elitism, rising nationalisms and walls appearing in place of bridges. She, and not many others, has the skill and the guts to put the mirror to our faces and ask some very pointed questions.