Tag Archives: Ursula K Le Guin

Roadside Picnic

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Roadside Picnic [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky, trans Olena Bormashenko, foreword Ursula K Le Guin.

Strugatsky Roadside Picnic

I had encountered enough references to Roadside Picnic for it to have been on my wishlist for years. It was clearly an influence on some of my favorite 21st-century sf, notably VanderMeer’s Annihilation and Harrison’s Nova Swing.

The version I read was the 2012 “new translation” which freed the original Russian text from hostile Soviet publisher’s edits. An afterword by Boris Strugatsky provides a partial account of the authors’ struggle with publishing authorities. It wasn’t Soviet political ideology they ran afoul of. LeGuin in her 2012 foreword (drawing on a 1977 review) calls the story “indifferent to ideology” (vi), and it is in fact rather hostile to liberal economics and bourgeois morality. Surprisingly, it was a blinkered escapist editorial aesthetic that interfered with the Strugatskys’ work in the publishing environment of 1970s Soviet sf.

On the whole, I read the book’s philosophy to be one of cosmic indifferentism verging on existentialism. The “stalker” protagonist Red isn’t really an anti-hero, although he is a criminal without revolutionary aspirations. A “stalker” in this book is a freelance looter of artifacts resulting from a Visit by some inscrutable extraterrestrial power.

The book is short and reads quickly, with a prologue for some background and four longish chapters set over a twelve-year span in the town of Harmont, which has been partly absorbed by one of the Zones of alien effects and residues.

I haven’t seen the Tartovsky film Stalker (1979) based on this book, but I am now curious to do so. To no small degree, the story strikes me as what you’d get if Eugene O’Neill wrote a science fiction novel.

These reactionaries preserved their moral purity (as reactionaries so often do) by not reading, so they didn’t have to see that Soviet writers had been using science fiction for years to write with at least relative freedom from Party ideology about politics, society, and the future of mankind.

Ursula K Le Guin introducing Arkady Strugatsky & Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Le Guin Strugatsky Roadside Picnic reactionaries preserved moral purity not reading soviet writers using science fiction for years write relative freedom ideology

Hard Words

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Hard Words, and Other Poems [Amazon, Abebooks] by Ursula K Le Guin

LeGuin Hard Words

The poems of Hard Words are grouped into five sections. The first of them, “Wordhoard,” is principally poems about writing poetry, which is a genre I’m not so drawn to; still she has a couple there that are pretty excellent. I have in mind particularly “The Mind is Still” and “More Useful Truths.” This first section also includes the title poem of the volume. 

The second section “The Dancing at Tillai” is named after the last of its poems, and gravitates around themes drawn from East Indian myths and cults. A couple of these, “Carmagnole of the Thirtieth of June” and “A Semi-Centenary Celebration” put me in mind of some of Ishmael Reed’s incantatory Hoodoo verse.

The pivotal group “Line Drawings” include a lot of dedications of individual poems, and all the poems of this section seem to be rooted in Le Guin’s personal history, to the extent that their sense sometimes seems a little opaque to this reader. But some of them, construed as observation of a natural scene or event, seem almost too bare.

“Walking in Cornwall” is a set of three poems about archaeological excursions in the English landscape. These are some of the longer poems of the book, and taken together they read like a set of dreamy journal entries from the author’s travels. 

The last section “Simple Hill” uses brevity, singsong patterns, and borderline paradoxes to set up a sense of wonder and profundity. All of its poems are short, except for the triptych “The Well of Baln,” which still shares the mood of the others, although fleshing it out from contemplative nursery rhyme to fairy tale.

All told, there is a lot of variety here. The poetry is not avant-gardist; it uses natural images, rhyme and meter, and other very conventional elements. But the use of these conventions here gives evidence of an active and original mind that delights in language–while knowing of its dangers.

Tao Te Ching

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way is a rendition by Ursula K Le Guin from many sources of the classic wisdom text about the Tao.

Le Guin’s rendition makes some aspects of the poems much more approachable. For example, she avoids use of the term “empire” or masculine-exclusive language in her version, which she intends to be for a wider audience. She provides extensive end notes about the rendition and a list of her sources ranked in order of utility, and many poems have personal commentary about her thoughts on specific poems in the collection. It’s a personal project. It’s also a fine model of how one might organize one’s own similar project, if one were into that, for this or another source material.

However, there’s still places for me where I’m totally into it one part, for just one example, the anti-capitalist sentiments, and completely repulsed the next, especially in places where I become uncomfortable or disagree with the ideas of what Lao Tzu thinks is good government, involving, for example, keeping the population in the dark about their true conditions and about the tools used by those in power to manipulate them.

On the whole, it just isn’t for me, in spite of a few bright spots. Le Guin’s rendition of Tao Te Ching is okay and interesting, but it’s not astounding or amazing to me. The intentionality in making the text more approachable is laudable. I think a lot of my issue is with my perception of a weakness of the source material, which just isn’t my path or sense of things, though there are a few place where there are hints worth the time to cross the ages and approach the work of Lao Tze as it is, for what it is. It has value, but it doesn’t speak to me in a voice with authority or accuracy per se, so have a hard time recommending it for others. But, if you’re going to approach this material, this seems like is a fine-enough way to do it.

I made 58 highlights.

Originally posted over on my personal blog at Tao Te Ching