In the late 70s I was living in Wichita Falls, Texas, a small city on the Oklahoma border about 283 miles due north of Austin. When I took the job that sent me there, I told my friends, “Well, at least it’s not Abilene.” However, despite all the efforts of the local boosters — all boring places have boosters who swear they wouldn’t live anywhere else — I never came to love the town. My novella Changeling, which is set there, expresses how I feel about the place.
I was bored. I was lonely. And I couldn’t find anything to read. All the literary fiction seemed to be about divorced people living in the Hamptons or editorial assistants in Manhattan having affairs with their bosses. The mainstream books were vapid. And I found most mysteries sadly lacking when compared to the work of Sayers, Hammett, and Chandler.
“Why don’t you read some science fiction?” my friend and co-worker Jeron Edward Hocker suggested.
Now I had always read some SF (and fantasy). Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, the Foundation trilogy, and, of course, The Lord of the Rings were on everyone’s reading list when I was in college. I didn’t have anything against SF; I just hadn’t thought about it.
So I went over to B. Dalton Booksellers in Sikes Senter (yes, that’s spelled right) Mall, which, as far as I knew, was the only bookstore in town. And it was in the SF section of that little shop — this is in the days before the Borders and Barnes and Noble superstores — that I first came across the work of Ursula K. Le Guin
I can no longer remember which of her works I found first. I have a stack of Le Guin dating back to that time. But I do remember which one I loved the most: The Dispossessed. I think that was because I’d spent a lot of years doing co-ops, and the people of Anarres evoked both the good and the bad of my co-op experience, while the politics and sexism of Urras gave me a new perspective on the modern world.
It was a book inhabited by rich, complex characters as well as one about politics and physics. It not only did what every serious reader wants fiction to do — transported me to another world for awhile — but it gave me much to think about.
I caught up on Le Guin while in Wichita Falls — Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, Rocannon’s World — and continued reading pretty much everything she wrote even after I made my escape for Washington, D.C. I’ve been sorting books lately, and noticed that I have most of her books.
She wasn’t the only good SF writer I found in that B. Dalton. My friend Hocker had touted me on C.J. Cherryh and I also stumbled across Samuel R. Delany back then. For some reason, I didn’t go back and read more Heinlein or Herbert or Asimov. Later on, after I moved to D.C., which had better bookstores, I found myself reading Tiptree and Russ as well.
Of course, the SF choices I made gave me a skewed view of the genre. I was always amazed when anyone dissed SF and I tended to refer to Le Guin and Delany together — very different writers, but both good at providing complex ideas and characters along with great story — as the heart of SF.
Here’s another wonderful thing about Le Guin: I’m still reading her today — and not just re-reading her earlier books. She’s still publishing new ones, great ones. (I love it that she won her first Nebula in 1969 and her most recent in 2008.)
My favorite among her more recent books is The Telling. There is something very compelling about a story centered on storytelling. Also, as with The Dispossessed, the lines between good and bad are a little fuzzy. Le Guin has always been clear-eyed about the flaws in Utopia.
OK, so Le Guin didn’t actually save my life. But reading her saved me not just from boredom, but from living in a world of simplistic ideas. She broadened my horizons before I ever got out of Wichita Falls.