Posted Thursday evening, March 1, 2018.
Got a birthday card from my new writer friend yesterday.
You knew yesterday was my birthday, right? Yep. Thank you. I know. I don’t look it, do I? Not a day over 365 days from last year. Anyway…
My new writer friend sneaked a birthday message to into her last book. I mean her last book. She won’t be writing any more. My new writer friend is a dead writer. And I don’t mean I recently lost a friend. I mean we didn’t become friends until after she was dead. Ursula Le Guin.
When she died in January, I decided it was time for me to catch up and read her work I hadn’t read when she was alive. Which turned out to be nearly all of it.
I’ve never been a fan of science fiction.
As a genre.
I’ve enjoyed individual novels, stories, movies and TV shows that happen to fall into the genre. I tend not to think of them as science fiction, though, even though that’s what they are. At any rate, science fiction isn’t a thing itself I seek out. Just the opposite sometimes. I’ve actively avoided something that’s come to my notice as science fiction.
This isn’t snobbery. I don’t dismiss science fiction as a lesser form. I don’t think of the science fiction I’ve enjoyed as being good despite their being science fiction. It’s simply a matter of preference. I prefer “literary” fiction. I prefer mysteries. I prefer non-fiction, history, journalism, and biography. There are only so many books you can read in a lifetime, and time is growing short. But even when I had more time ahead of me, I avoided science fiction, mostly out of habit and, like I said, preference. In libraries and bookstores, I drifted towards familiar sections and aisles. It might also have been a matter of association. Science fiction will always be associated in my head with buying a copy of Robert Silverberg’s “Tower of Glass” from the rotating metal rack of the sad grocery store in the sad town on Lake George where for a brief time Mom and Pop Mannion owned a summer home they really couldn’t afford and none of us Mannion kids liked. Mom Mannion had mixed feelings about the place too. Pop loved it for its big front porch where he liked to sit in a rocker all day and take in the panoramic view of the lake. I liked it best---I only liked it---at night when Pop and I would sit inside by one of the two fireplaces and read, each with his own choice of reading material. The previous owner had left behind a bookcase full of Book of the Month Club main selections and that’s how I first came to read writers like John Cheever, David Halberstam, and Kurt Vonnegut. But I must have had them all read when I found myself in that sad grocery store with ninety-five cents burning a hole in my pocket and Silverberg’s book with its icy blue and black cover staring me in the eye.
I knew something about it ahead of buying it. My best friend Sandy was a science fiction fan and he’d read it and told me the highlights. The plot revolved around a secret religion invented by a race of androids who were themselves invented to serve as slaves to the richest man in history who was using them to build a giant communications tower in the Arctic from which he intends to make contact with intelligent life in another galaxy. The female androids had ruby red skin and spent most if not all their time naked. I bought it for the religious symbolism and biblical allusions, of course.
I was fourteen.
It wasn’t as sexy a story as I expected. It was kind of creepy, actually. I expected the sex to be romantic, physically joyful, and mutually satisfying. I was a naive kid and didn’t know much about sex other than than biological basics, but I believed adult lovers finished their lovemaking in love. I hadn’t read “For Whom the Bell Tolls” yet, so I didn’t imagine them asking each other “Did the earth move for you?” but I thought lovers were considerate of each other’s feelings and they’d ask each other something like it and were happily relieved when they each answered “Yes!” Which of course they would. Android-human sex seemed weirdly dispassionate and twisted by self-loathing. I was too young to understand what it meant that the androids were slaves. I finished “Tower of Glass” feeling confused and alienated. From then on, science fiction was all versions of “Tower of Glass” and forever associated with adolescent loneliness, longing, and disappointment. If I was John Updike there’d be a short story in that.
So this is how it happened that although she was already famous when I first heard of her---although it probably wasn’t because she was famous that I heard of her. Either Sandy or some other friend likely called her to my notice.---and she was diligently and prolifically at work my entire adult reading life, growing increasingly famous and more and more highly regarded as a writer, a poet, and a thinker as time wore on---she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997!--- I managed to read very little of her work and what I did read didn’t include Earthsea, not even “A Wizard of Earthsea”. I might have read “The Left Hand of Darkness”. Back when I worked in a bookstore in Boston I was in charge of our fiction sections, including the science fiction section, and I made a conscientious effort to read the new releases and Hugo and Nebula Award winners and classics so I wouldn’t come across as a complete idiot to customers. I may have read it then but if I did I have no recollection of it. And it explains why now that I’ve set out to read as much of what I didn’t read in the time I have left I’ve started with her non-fiction. And it’s the reason I now think of her as a friend. I’ve grown fond of the person she come across as in the essays and blog posts collected in her newest and last book, “No Time to Spare”.
Of course she had a blog. She was also on Twitter. Le Guin was old-fashioned and conservative in certain ways---I should say in certain of her ways---but she was progressive and forward-thinking in many others, something you might expect of a science fiction writer but is not universally the case. Think of Robert Heinlein. Think of Orson Scott Card. Then again, save yourself the headache and don’t.
Of course I’m aware that the person I’m think I’m chums with is a “person.” A persona. A character Le Guin created for herself to pass off as herself to her readers and audiences when she lectured and read in public. In other words, she is a “she” and as a “she” she's a work of art---a figment of Le Guin’s imagination. “Ursula Le Guin” is somebody Ursula Le Guin made up. That’s what writers do. They make things up. She once said novelists are in the business of lying. She didn’t specify that they only lied when the wrote fiction. So it’s possible I’m pals in my head with a lie. But I have a feeling “she’s” awfully close to the real McCoy or a least “Le Guin” and Le Guin have a whole lot in common. I hope so. Whichever or whoever, I like her. She seems like she’d have been the older, wiser, wryer colleague and friend I wanted and needed when I was a young teacher and ambitious but clueless wannabe writer.
Presumptuous of me to think she’d have wanted me for a friend. But there it is.
Since she wrote the essay in which she sneaked in my birthday card when she was eighty-three, I’m imagining she really meant it for my octogenarian self and expects me to deliver it when I meet the geezer in a couple more decades. I’m not looking forward to meeting him. In fact, I’d rather not meet him. But as Le Guin herself says, “Consider the alternative.” I don’t like considering the alternative or what it will be like when we do meet. I don’t want to think we’ll have anything in common. Lately, though, I have felt some sympathy for the old coot. Things are signs we already have stuff to talk about. Anyway. Here’s Le Guin’s birthday greetings to him via me. It’s from the essay I quoted the other day, “The Diminished Thing”:
A lot of younger people, seeing the reality of old age as entirely negative, see acceptance of age as negative. Wanting to to deal with old people in a positive spirit, they’re led to deny old people their reality.
With all good intentions, people say to me, “Oh, you’re not old!”
And the pope isn’t Catholic.
“You’re only as old as you think you are!”
Now, you don’t honestly think having lived eighty-three years is a matter of opinion…
Old age isn’t a state of mind. It’s an existential situation…
I think the tradition of respecting old age in itself has some justification. Just coping with daily life, doing stuff that was always so easy you didn’t notice it, gets harder in old age, till it may take real courage to do it at all. Old age generally involves pain and danger and inevitably ends in death. The acceptance of that takes courage. Courage deserves respect…
…diminishment isn’t all there is to aging. Far from it…
If memory remains sound and the thinking mind retains its vigor, an old intelligence may have extraordinary breadth and depth of understanding. It’s had more time to gather knowledge and more practice in comparison and judgment. No matter if the knowledge is intellectual or practical or emotional., if it concerns alpine ecosystems or the Buddha nature or how to reassure a frightened child: when you meet an old person with that kind of knowledge, if you have the sense of a bean sprout you know you’re in a rare and irreproducible presence.
Same goes for old people who keep their skill at any craft or art they’ve worked at for all those years. Practice does make perfect. They know how, they know it all, and beauty flows effortlessly from what they do.
But all such existential enlargements brought by living long are under threat from the lessening of strength and stamina. However well compensated for by intelligent coping mechanisms, small or large breakdowns in one bit of the body or another begin to restrict activity, while the memory is dealing with overload and slippage. Existence in old age is progressively diminished by each of these losses and restrictions. It’s no use saying it isn’t so, because it is so.
It’s no use making a fuss about it, or being afraid of it, either, because nobody can change it…
Hmm. She left off the “Happy Birthday!”
Recommended related Mannion re-run: Why I don't like Science Fiction even when I do and vice versa.