The opening Ursula Le Guin essay in The Language of the Night is a piece from 1973 entitled A Citizen of Mondath. The title comes from an early example of fantasy writing that Le Guin remembers as having a profound impact on her, a book by the Irish writer, Lord Dunsany, called A Dreamer’s Tales.
Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea… To the south they are bound by magic, to the west by a mountain.
She goes on to explore the impact of discovering that people were still in the process of making myth; that it was seen as an acceptable thing for an adult to do. She had, she says discovered my native country.
Fantasy has always been, if not my native country, then certainly one in which I have felt comfortably at home, from the world of Narnia, through Le Guin herself, to my more mature enjoyment of Katharine Kerr and Robin Hobb. And, of course, there was the teenager’s delight of discovering that I actually live in The Shire. As someone actively involved in teaching children’s literature the wealth of excellent fantasy from the pens of writers like Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones has been readily available to me and I have delighted in more recent years in engaging with newer authors working in this genre such as Stuart Hill, Alison Croggon and Trudi Canavan. I love the way in which fantasy allows a writer to explore the mores, social, political and spiritual, of their created world in a manner that encourages us as readers to transfer that exploration to our own.
However, Le Guin is not just considering the Inner Lands in this essay, she is also concerned with Outer Space, with the world of science fiction.
I have, in the past, read science fiction. After all, as a ten year old I was going to be Astronomer Royal and I still remember the delight at discovering in our class library two sci-fi series by Patrick Moore, one about the daring adventures of astronauts setting up scientific bases on the Moon and the other about even more daring adventurers making their way to Mars. I was also (and still am) an avid fan of television sci-fi. I will admit to being an ardent trekkie and The Bears and I are at present working our way through all the episodes of Stargate and Stargate Atlantis (yet again!). But, these days I don’t read science fiction and Le Guin’s essay made me ask why.
The reason may lie in what Le Guin has to say about critical attitudes to the genre. Commenting on her early attempts at science fiction, some of which she considers should not have been published, she says that she was getting vain and hasty and that this is a real danger for science fiction writers.
There is so little real criticism, that despite the very delightful and heartening feedback from and connection with the fans, the writer is almost her only critic. Second rate stuff will be bought just as fast, maybe faster sometimes, by the publishers, and the fans will buy it because it is science fiction. Only the writer’s conscience remains to insist that she try not to be second rate. Nobody else seems much to care… In science fiction, sometimes it seems that so long as it’s science fiction at all, the fans will love it – briefly; therefore the publishers will put it in print – briefly; therefore the writer is likely to settle for doing much less than her best. The mediocre and the excellent are praised alike by aficionados, and ignored alike by outsiders.
I’m not in any position to know if this is still the case. I haven’t pursued an interest in the genre for many years. What I do know is that 1973, the publication date for this essay, would just about coincide with the time when I stopped reading science fiction intended for adults, and maybe the question of quality was influential (albeit subconsciously) in that decision. There has been some excellent writing for children in recent years. I would encourage anyone who enjoys sci-fi to try Philip Reeve’s Predator Cities series, beginning with Mortal Engines or Rhiannon Lassiter’s Hex books and from a slightly earlier generation John Christopher can’t be bettered. However, whether or not there is now the equivalent available in the world of adult writing I don’t know.
So, this is something of a plea for assistance. Those of you who do know about these things, would you say that Le Guin’s criticism is still valid and if not, who from the current crop of science fiction writers would you recommend? I’m happy to try most sub-genres with the exception of vampires. I am definitely vampired out, I think. Are there writers who do insist that [they] not be second rate? And has the critical appreciation of the field improved at all? I would be glad of any suggestions you might offer.