URSULA K. LE GUIN established her reputation as the best living writer of science fiction with The Left Hand of Darkness and "Nine Lives" in 1969 and confirmed it with The Dispossessed in 1974. (Each of the novels won both Hugo and Nebula prizes, awarded by sf fans and writers respectively; and the story is one of the most widely admired and reprinted of all sf stories.) In 1972 the last volume of her Earthsea trilogy won a National Book Award. She has, then, full title to speak as queen of the realm of fantasy, which she describes thus: "Those who refuse to listen to dragons are probably doomed to spend their lives acting out the nightmares of politicians. We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of night."
Unlike real queens, however, Le Guin has no interest in maintaining borders or increasing her territories at the expense of other states. Instead, she dedicates herself to getting sf out of its self-created ghetto and fantasy out of the nursery, and naturalizing both in the Republic of Letters.
The Language of the Night moves toward this goal. It is a part of the book's attractiveness that Le Guin does not presume to present herself as critic; instead she has allowed Susan Wood (whose editing is devoted and very intelligent) to assemble the book from addresses, reviews, introductions and essays written over the past decade. Partly because of this variety and unpretentiousness, partly because of the candor, seriousness and penetration with which Le Guin speaks of her own work, but mainly because of the pleasure of seeing a first-rate at work on these matters, I should say that this is the most attractive introduction to science fiction yet to appear.
There are, of course, good histories by Brian Aldiss and James Gunn, and plenty of textbooks; the audience I am thinking of consists of mature and sophisticated readers. Many such readers, I suspect, are convinced that sf can appeal only to the immature, the semi-literate and the weird; this book explains and demonstrates better than any other the attractions the genre may have for a civilized and humane mind. Sf buffs, on the other hand, the compulsive and often exclusive readers of the genre, should respond to her plea for a breaking down of the walls to let in the wider world of fiction. For both groups, the book should be a civilizing and ecumenical influence, strengthening the sense of common humanity.
Although Le Guin is suspicious of definitions and boundaries in the world of fiction, she makes the necessary demarcations well. Whereas the mainstream or "absolute" novel (as she prefers to call it) presents reality "as expressed and transfigured through art," sf or fantasy presents "a personal variation on reality; a scene less real than the world around us, a partial view of reality." But "by that partiality, that independence, that distancing from the shared experience, it will be new; a revelation. It will be a vision, a more or less powerful or haunting dream. A view in, not out. A space-voyage through somebody else's psychic abysses. It will fall short of tragedy, because tragedy is the truth, and truth is what the very great artists, the absolute novelists, tell. It will not be truth, but it will be imagination." Sf she calls "a modern, intellectualized, extroverted form of fantasy." The "unique aesthetic delight of sf," she says, lies "in the entense, coherent, following-through of the implications of an idea, whether it's a bit of far-out technology . . . a satirical projection of current social trends, or a whole world created by extrapolating from biology and ethnology." Hence the criterion of intellectual coherence and scientific plausibility applies in sf with special rigor; the only other criterion is that shared with all fiction -- stylistic competence.
Le Guin is very good on bad sf which escapes "from a complex, uncertain, frightening world of death and taxes into a nice simply cozy place where heroes don't have to pay taxes, where death happens only to villains, where Science, plus Free Enterprise, plus the Galactic Fleet . . . can solve all problems, where human suffering is something that can be cured . . . . This doesn't take us in the direction of the great myths and legends, which is always toward an intensification of the mystery of the real. This takes us the other way, toward a rejection of reality, in fact toward madness: infantile regression, or paranoid delusion, or schizoid insulation." On the other hand, "the work of people from Zamyatin to Lem has shown that when science fiction uses its limitless range of symbol and metaphor novelistically, with the subject at the center, it can show us who we are, and where we are, and what choices face us, with unsurpassed clarity, and with a great and troubling beauty."
Malafrena , in this context, is puzzling. The jacket blurb calling it a "breakthrough, mainstream novel" is certainly misleading. It is not sf or fantasy, but neither is it mainstream or "absolute"; and it is definitely not a breakthrough. It is more like a historical novel than anything else, but it has neither the superficial attractions of the genre (adventure, sex, duels, picturesque language and manners) nor the more profound ones of interpreting historical characters and events.
A young man, Itale, leaves his home, Malfrena (in the imaginary duchy of Orsinia), to take part in the nationalistic revolutionary movement of the 1820s; he is eventually imprisoned, released after great suffering, and returns home to his childhood sweetheart, Piera. The central interest is in a sense historical: what would it feel like to be a young man in the 1820s willing to risk a secure and comfortable future for the sake of freedom and justice, and what was it like to be a young woman of the period? But these questions are muffled and absorbed in the universal questions of what it is like to grow up at any time. History is scrupulously not violated; but it is not really used.
Why would Le Guin write such a novel now? My guess is that she did not -- that this is early work. Describing her career in The Language of the Night , she says that she wrote four novels set in Orsinia before she began writing science fiction, and all have remained unpublished. My reason for thinking that this is one of them is two-fold: the Orsinian Tales , also dating from this early period, use the same method of precise location in time in the same imaginary country; and Malafrena reads like early or apprentice work, five-finger exercises. It is emphatically not hack-work or juvenilia, but it has something of the feeling of a task well done. Le Guin is never less than competent, intelligent, decent; but in this novel she is not much more.
Malafrena notwithstanding, what makes Le Guin a great science fiction writer is that this genre allows her to combine her serious and passionate interest in ideas with her ability to create real and believable characters. She understands this, and says, "Meanwhile, people keep predicting that I will bolt science fiction and fling myself madly into the mainstream. I don't know why. The limits, and the great spaces of fantasy and science fiction are precisely what my imagination needs. Outer Space, and the Inner Lands, are still, and always will be, my country."