A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, Ursula K Le Guin (1994)
Review by Ian Sales
In a career stretching, so far, over five decades, Ursula K Le Guin has written several science fiction novels that are considered to be classics of the genre. She has also written a huge number of short stories – nine collections’ worth to date, in fact. A Fisherman of the Island Sea is her fifth collection, and contains eight stories originally published between 1990 and 1994, with one outlier from 1983, in a variety of genre magazines. Le Guin also provides a long introduction, in which she discusses science fiction, ‘On not reading science fiction’, and the stories contained in the collection, ‘On the stories in this book’. Of the eight stories in A Fisherman of the Island Sea, five are not linked. The final three, however, are set in the same universe and are predicated on the use of the same device, the “churten”.
Much of Le Guin’s science fiction is set in the Ekumen, a loose polity of planets colonised by humans. Earth, however, is not humanity’s home world, a world called Hain is. And travel between the planets is only possible at sub-light speeds, or NAFAL (Nearly As Fast As Light). Le Guin explains how, in a couple of early stories, she had inadvertently, and counter to the universe she had built, implied that some robotic ships could travel faster than light. She chose to explore this further:
“Which is it that keeps the manned ship from going faster than light – is it life, is it intelligence, is it intention? what if I invent a new technology that allows human beings to go faster than light? Then what?”
“As the new fake technology was as implausible as the ansible, and counter-intuitional as well, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time fake-explaining it. i just named it: churten theory.” (p 9)
The three churten novelettes are ‘The Shobies’ Story’, Dancing to Ganam’ and ‘Another Story’ (AKA ‘A Fisherman of the Inland Sea’). Le Guin’s decision to refuse to explain her churten theory unfortunately results in sentences like, “‘Because the field is to be conceived as the virtual field, in which the unreal interval becomes virtually effective through the mediary coherence – don’t you see?’” (p 85). Er, no, I don’t see. Sentences such as this don’t so much gloss over the unexplainable as they make understanding of it inaccessible. In truth, churten travel, as described in ‘The Shobies’ Story’ reminds me a great deal of FTL in Gwyneth Jones Spirit and Buonarotti stories. Which fits with its intended role – as outlined by Le Guin in her introduction – as a metaphor for narration. Each of the crew of the Shoby experiences something different on the first ever churten flight, and afterwards no two of them can agree on what actually happened. The ship’s instruments prove equally unreliable. In ‘Dancing to Ganam’, a second flight, organised to mitigate the effects encountered during the flight of the Shoby, arrives at an inhabited world, and each member of the crew finds themselves part of a different story in that same setting during their weeks-long stay there. I’m not entirely convinced that the churten metaphor is truly necessary, however, given that it’s a first contact whose plot is built on a profound misunderstanding of the culture being contacted. Linguistic confusion alone is sufficient to lead to the story’s unfortunate ending. ‘Another Story’, however, does not even mention the churten until halfway through. It begins, knowingly, with a line Le Guin has used before, “I shall make my report as if I told a story”, but ‘Another Story’ opens on the world of O, not Gethen. A young man travels NAFAL to Hain to study to be a Mobile for the Ekumen, but stays there to research churten theory. He visits O ten years after he departed home, but time dilation means his family are eighteen years older. So for his next visit home he travels by churten, but something goes wrong and he arrives on the day he first left for Hain…
Of the unconnected stories in A Fisherman of the Inland Sea… ‘The First Contact with the Gorgonids’ is a mildly amusing Americans-abroad-meeting-aliens story. ‘Newton’s Sleep’ is set aboard a large space station orbiting an Earth slowly destroying itself. Despite being originally published in 1991, it reads like something from several decades prior to that. ‘The Ascent of the North Face’ is presented as the journal of a climber, but the locations mentioned in it are all parts of a house. Both ‘The Rock That Changed Things’ and ‘The Kerastion’ are the sort of anthropological sf for which Le Guin has become best known. In the first, a rock of a particular colour causes a “nur” to question her world; the title of the second refers to an instrument played only at funerals, and the story tells whose funeral it is and why. Though short, both pack a considerable punch.
I opened this review by mentioning the introduction to A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, but I’ve chosen to save the argument it outlines until last. Le Guin suggests that people who do not read science fiction imagine that, as its name implies, it is dominated by science. Giving examples from her own fiction, she demonstrates that such an attitude is mistaken. There is some truth, I think, in what Le Guin writes – especially:
“People who don’t read science fiction, but who have at least given it a fair shot, often say they’ve found it inhuman, elitist, and escapist. Since its characters, they say, are both conventionalized and and extraordinary, all geniuses, space heroes, superhackers, androgynous aliens, it evades what ordinary people really have to deal with in life, and so fails an essential function of fiction.” (p 3)
While I think it still holds true twenty years later that most sf often “fails an essential function of fiction”, I would have blamed that on its prioritising of escapism. Le Guin points out the days of clunky prose, cardboard-cutout characters and blithe authorial hand-waving as a substitute for research are long gone, and argues that science fiction, “with its tremendous freedom of metaphor”, has made of the genre something more essentially functional than non-sf. I don’t completely buy her argument – for a start, she’s using her own oeuvre as typical of the genre, when it is far from that. Much sf is still escapist and populated by extraordinary people performing extraordinary deeds rather than, as it really ought to be, ordinary people in extraordinary situations (extraordinary, that is, to the reader). The bulk of the genre has yet to transcend its pulp origins.
“As for elitism, the problem may be scientism: technological edge mistaken for moral superiority. The imperialism of high technocracy equals the old racist imperialism in its arrogance; to the technophile, people who aren’t in the know/in the net, who don’t have the right artifacts, don’t count. They’re proles, masses, faceless entities.” (p 4)
Her argument here also seems a little shaky. Do people still believe all that “fans are slans” nonsense? I was under the impression it had died out fifty years ago. And science fiction has become noticeably less technophilic over the past four decades, never mind the last two. Le Guin may skate over the meaningless babble she uses to “explain” her churten (see earlier), but it’s a technique as old as the genre and one that has been used so often sf texts are now building on the technobabble of earlier genre works. There are, for example, sf novels by diverse hands which have made use of Le Guin’s own invention, the ansible. But in many sf stories, the technology is used as either an enabler or an equaliser, and it’s only in some less-frequented corners of the genre where technology-for-technology’s sake is a focus of the narrative. In fact, in recent years it seems disguising the technology in a story’s invented world has become a preferred technique.
Science fiction is a genre in which readers demand worlds to be navigated just as much as, if not more than, they want narratives to be followed. Le Guin’s fiction has always been notable for the clarity of her prose, but she is also a meticulous documenter of her worlds – the opening pages of ‘Another Story’ describes in depth the social arrangements on the world of O, for example. ‘The Kerastion’ too is for much of its length a description of the society, which explains why the situation alluded to in its opening paragraph has come about. At that node where exploration and narrative intersect – the churten stories notwithstanding – some of the best science fiction has been written. And it is a node Le Guin has managed throughout her career to hit with impressive frequency.
Fans of science fiction should not need to be told to read stories written by Ursula K Le Guin, they should know they ought to do it. And there is nothing in A Fisherman of the Inland Sea to suggest otherwise.