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The Wind's Twelve Quarters
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Bantam, 1976
ISBN 055302907X (paperback), 277 pp.

Review date: July, 2015

Let me begin by saying that I absolutely adore Ursula K. Le Guin's writing, but no author is always at the top of her game, and even Le Guin occasionally produces a piece of work that doesn't live up to a reader's expectations. In her 1975 short story collection, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, that unfortunate circumstance is evident—but, then again, the amazing quality of her best work is also evident. Such is often the way with single-author collections like this one, but as with so many of my favorite authors' collections, the sheer pleasure of coming across the great pieces in the work makes reading through a handful of mediocre ones well worth it. Le Guin herself states that this collection of seventeen fantasy and science fiction tales is “a retrospective”; that is, it contains a fairly representative work over a period of years—twelve years, to be exact: 1962–1974. And they are presented in roughly chronological order, so that the reader is given a decent sense of the progression of her style and skill over the course of those dozen years, so the book is certainly a good one for any fan of science fiction and fantasy in general, but perhaps a better one for Le Guin aficionados who are specifically interested in the earliest years of the author's career.

The collection opens not with the earliest of the stories but with a slightly later one: 1964's ‘Semley's Necklace’. According to Le Guin's introduction, this is her eighth published short story, and she chooses it as the opening work because it is “the most characteristic” of her early pieces, best representing her style and themes of that first dozen years of her career. First published in Amazing under the title ‘The Dowry of the Angyar’, fans of Le Guin's longer work will likely recognize it from her first novel, Rocannon's World, to which she affixed it as the prologue when it was published in 1966. An excellent piece of science fantasy—the kind that reached a great level of popularity in the '60s and '70s—it is also the first published work set in the fictional universe known informally as 'the Hainish Cycle'. Part myth or legend, part sociological study, the piece is somewhat prosaic as Le Guin herself admits (referring to its “candor and simplicity”), but it is nevertheless a good choice to open the collection, being well written, entertaining, thoughtful, and indeed representative of the author's early work; in fact, it still holds up, I think, as some of her best work even after all the intervening decades since this collection's publication. Similar works, all part of the Hainish Cycle, appear later in the book: 1969's ’Winter's King“, which introduces the world of Winter, featured in the author's novel The Left Hand of Darkness (the story has been revised for this edition, to adhere to the fact, established in the later novel, that the planet's inhabitants are androgynous), and 1974's ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ (a prequel to that same year's novel, The Dispossessed), in which Le Guin delicately balances the broader tale of sweeping political turmoil with a narrow, emotional, focus on one particular individual involved in these events. Slightly different, but still considered a part of the Hainish Cycle, is 1971's ‘Vaster Than Empires and More Slow’, which is just as enjoyable as the others, although much more a ‘hard’ sf story, albeit with a somewhat mystical quality pervading it, reminiscent of some more liberal interpretations of the Gaia Hypothesis.

Just as there are stories set in the ‘Hainish’ universe, there are also a couple set in her other popular fictional world, Earthsea: ‘The Word of Unbinding’ and ‘The Rule of Names’ were both published in the magazine Fantastic, in 1964, four years before the first Earthsea novel. They are the earliest tales set in the world that Le Guin would later revisit beginning with the trilogy, and as such they provide some insight into the author's early conception of that world, as she sowed the seeds that would later sprout into important pieces of Earthsea and its happenings: the realm of the dead, the importance of true names, wizards, magic, dragons, etc. While not as good as later works set in the universe, they are nonetheless fairly well written and entertaining, as well as interesting for those who have already read the later, more well known works, despite the fact that these stories feature only one character from the novels—and a secondary one at that.

Eleven other stories fill out the collection, ranging, like the aforementioned ones, the range of fantasy and science fiction subtypes. ‘April in Paris’, the author's second published story and first fiction sale, is a lighthearted tale of alchemy and time travel. Other somewhat lighthearted tales include ‘The Good Trip’, a story examining the perceived necessity for psychogenic drugs in the quest for mind-expansion, ‘A Trip to the Head’, a similarly off-the-wall examination of mental states and identity, and ‘The Direction of the Road’, which examines relativity by describing the passage of years as viewed by a tree.

On the more serious side, ‘The Masters’ and ‘The Stars Below’ both stand out as fantastic tales about the danger posed by anti-scientific attitudes; the latter, with its symbolism of the underground/hell/subconscious is particularly striking. The brief ‘Darkness Box’ is a beautiful fantasy told almost like a myth or fairy tale, as is ‘Things’. Also included is the oft-anthologized, Hugo-winning ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, a fairly plotless but nonetheless engaging and resonant ‘psychomyth’ (as Le Guin herself calls this type of tale) in the vein of Dunsany and Lovecraft.

For those who enjoy harder science fiction, there are also to be found within the pages of The Wind's Twelve Quarters an interesting space opera examining the familial bond of clones (‘Nine Lives’) and Le Guin's own contribution to the science fiction of Mars and its impact upon the human psyche (‘The Field of Vision’), written somewhat in the vein of Stranger in a Strange Land touching on philosophical/mystical/religious themes.

Altogether, the seventeen tales of The Wind's Twelve Quarters make up a collection that is more often enjoyable than not, although I definitely felt that certain stories were better than others. With such a wide range of styles, genres, subjects, and themes, though, I believe that most readers will find stories to suit their particular tastes. I recommend the book both to fans of Le Guin and to those who have never read her fiction, or only sampled a little; it really is, as the author herself says, a representative (and enjoyable!) selection of her work.

——————————

Rating:

3 stars: It was good. Technical, conventional, and other errors are rare or nonexistent, and the work stands out among others of its kind. I would be likely to recommend the work to others. Equivalent to a 'B', or above average, grade. ( )
  tokidokizenzen | Jul 6, 2015 |
started in london. scifi is not my cup of tea so i have trouble concentrating. ( )
  mahallett | Jul 3, 2014 |
Contents :
Foreword
Semley's Necklace
April in Paris
The Masters
Darkness Box
The Word of Unbinding
The Rule of Names
Winter's King
The Good Trip
Nine Lives
Things
A Trip to the Head
Vaster than Empires and More Slow
The Stars Below
The Field of Vision
Direction of the Road
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
The Day Before the Revolution ( )
  SChant | May 9, 2014 |
I love most of Le Guin's writing, but short stories aren't my thing. It was surprising, then, that this short story collection hooked me. My favourite story from it was probably "Things", particularly for the ending: "Hold on, he said softly to the woman, and they took the last step." ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 9, 2013 |
Probably my favorite Le Guin short story collection. The Darkness Box and most especially The Direction of the Road which had a profound effect on me in my youth. ( )
  satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
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Epigraph
From far, from eve and morning
And you twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither; here am I.

Now--for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart--
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

A. E. Housman: A Shropshire Lad
Dedication
First words
FOREWORD

This collection is what painters call a retrospective; it gives a roughly chronological survey of my short stories during the first ten years after I broke into print, belated but undaunted, at the age of thirty-two.
How can you tell the legend from the fact on those worlds that lie so many years away?—planets without names, called by their people simply The World, planets without history, where the past is the matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his own doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god.
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"He had been trying to measure the distance between the earth and God."
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Contains:

# Semley's Necklace

# April in Paris

# The Masters

# Darkness Box

# The Word of Unbinding

# The Rule of Names

# Winter's King

# The Good Trip

# Nine Lives

# Things

# A Trip to the Head

# Vaster Than Empires and More Slow

# The Stars Below

# The Field of Vision

# Direction of the Road

# The Ones Who Walks Away from Omelas

# The Day Before the Revolution
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060914343, Paperback)

The recipient of numerous literary prizes, including the National Book Award, the Kafka Award, and the Pushcart Prize, Ursula K. Le Guin is renowned for her lyrical writing, rich characters, and diverse worlds. The Wind's Twelve Quarters collects seventeen powerful stories, each with an introduction by the author, ranging from fantasy to intriguing scientific concepts, from medieval settings to the future.

Including an insightful foreword by Le Guin, describing her experience, her inspirations, and her approach to writing, this stunning collection explores human values, relationships, and survival, and showcases the myriad talents of one of the most provocative writers of our time.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:43 -0400)

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