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Vale Ursula


“Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time, but in the great rapids and the winding shallows, no boat is safe.” – Ursula K Le Guin.

Even in 1972 twenty cents pocket money didn’t buy much. Sure, I could get enough lollies to make myself sick. Or a ‘minifare’ train ticket that would take me to Sydney and back – as long as I didn’t travel during peak hours. But it wasn’t enough for a movie or magazine much less a record or game. I knew where I could get something good with it though.

The used clothing shop in Ettalong had a closet sized room out back packed with second hand books. There was no order to them – you could find a Mills and Boon nudging a medical textbook – but they all had something in common. They cost twenty cents each. If you returned them in good condition you got a ten cent refund but I found I could often sell them to other second hand bookstores for more than that. What a bargain!

So most weeks I wove my way through elderly women fighting over cut price cardigans, the silver coin burning a hole in the pocket of my school uniform, to spend an hour or so rifling the shelves for science fiction; occasionally breaking off my quest to steal surreptitious glances at the soft core porn that sometimes turned up there (which was how I stumbled across Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, but that’s another story).

Twice the fruits of my foraging completely upended my idea of what science fiction was. The first was Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan; pulp sci-fi in format but subversive in nature and one of the funniest novels I’d ever read. The second was The Lathe of Heaven.

It was the boys’-own-adventures-in-spaceships style of Golden Age authors like Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein that first piqued my interest in science fiction but here was something completely new. Sure there were aliens (or were there?) but this story wasn’t from outer space but inner space. What’s more, the author was a woman. Unheard of! (I didn’t yet know James Tiptree Jr was also a woman.) By the time I’d devoured The Left Hand of Darkness and, a few years later, The Dispossessed I’d become a lifelong fan of Ursula Le Guin.

Over forty years on I’m unsure how much of ‘me’ is borrowed from her. Would I have become an anarchist had I not been primed by The Dispossessed? Is my skepticism of psychiatry built on foundations laid by The Lathe of Heaven? Was she the reason I found the Taoism of Zhuang Zhou so familiar and comfortable? Certainly she changed the way I assessed science fiction, rendering some of my once favoured authors puerile and superficial.

I’m glad I found you Ursula. In literary terms you were a mother to me. The best twenty cents I ever spent.

Ursula K Le Guin, October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018.

From → books

One Comment
  1. The Earthsea Books, Lathe of Heaven, and Left Hand of Darkness, I read early. She has also been like a literary mother to me. I also read a lot of Vonnegut. These writers do not provide easy answers for the future. They lead you into a land of where everything you are certain of is shown to be in transition or unstable. There are no easy ideas hidden among the great adventures. Just the revelations in Slaughter House Five and Left Hand of Darkness were revolutionary to my historical perspective when I was 15 years old. My mind did not catch up for while after reading their books, but I knew I was on to something interesting and meaningful.


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