Unconscious Inertia


I recently read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan. This was technically a reread for me, but the last time I read it, the century had not yet turned—and in any case, I remembered nothing about it, other than something about a cave or tunnels.

The Tombs of Atuan is quite good, but I see why it is, perhaps, less popular than some of Le Guin’s other works. It’s a sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea, but where Earthsea is practically a fairy tale in tone, stylized and sonorous (which is an endorsement, not a criticism, by the way), Atuan is more directly a “fantasy novel.” It is not, however, a comforting one, not one where all the pieces fall together nicely, everybody’s problem is solved, the main characters fall in love, and so forth.

It is a story of beginnings, I think: first of the protagonist’s life as Arha, and then, the re-beginning—or perhaps better said, the resumption of the beginning—of it as Tenar. The quest which is completed, for the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, is Ged’s quest, not Tenar’s; and as such is mentioned only in passing, only enough as needed to satisfy plotting, since this is her story, not Ged’s. She escapes: with his help, she sees through the lies and shackles laid upon her as Arha, and so she sails with Ged to his own lands, where he has promised he will make a place for her, first, temporarily, with the “princes and rich lords” and eventually, more permanently, with his own master and teacher, the wise mage Ogion, none of whom she has ever known. The book ends as they have sailed into the harbor with the Ring, whose magic promises peace and order:

Tenar sat in the stern, erect, in her ragged cloak of black. She looked at the ring about her wrist, then at the crowded, many-colored shore and the palaces and the high towers. She lifted up her right hand, and sunlight flashed on the silver of the ring. A cheer went up, faint and joyous on the wind, over the restless water. Ged brought the boat in. A hundred hands reached to catch the rope he flung up to the mooring. He leapt up onto the pier and turned, holding out his hand to her. ‘Come!’ he said smiling, and she rose, and came. Gravely she walked beside him up the white streets of Havnor, holding his hand, like a child coming home.

She may be like a child coming home, in the sense that, having begun her new reassumed life, she must trust him, and he leads her, but the irony is that however much like that child she may be, she cannot go home, for at this point in the story she has no home. Nor do any of those purportedly “joyous” actually know her; they only see what the ring she wears represents. All that she had is gone, and even Ogion’s wisdom is only a promise for the future. For her, however gravely (and bravely) she faces it, there is no indication here of what happens next—her quest has just begun.

Compare it to the ending of A Wizard of Earthsea, where Ged, having sought and defeated the “shadow” with the help of his friend Estarriol, returns to the latter’s home island, where his sister waits for them.

[T]he voyage to Iffish was not long. They came in to Ismay harbor on a still, dark evening before snow. They tied up the boat Lookfar that had borne them to the coasts of death’s kingdom and back, and went up through the narrow streets to the wizard’s house. Their hearts were very light as they entered into the firelight and warmth under that roof; and Yarrow ran to meet them, crying with joy.

This is the end of the arc, not the beginning. It’s a quieter but more real homecoming, to hearth and family and the promise of belonging. The contrast to the end of Tenar’s story could not be more striking. She has only possibility, and hope.

Besides what I’ve noted above, there is another aspect to the book’s realism, too, which Le Guin herself notes in the afterward in the edition I have.

Some people have read the story as supporting the idea that a woman needs a man in order to do anything at all (some nodded approvingly, others growled and hissed). Certainly Arha/Tenar would better satisfy feminist idealists if she did everything all by herself. But the truth as I saw it, and as I established it in the novel, was that she couldn't. My imagination wouldn't provide a scenario where she could, because my heart told me incontrovertibly that neither gender could go far without the other. So, in my story, neither the woman nor the man can get free without the other…. Each has to ask for the other's help and learn to trust and depend on the other. A large lesson, a new knowledge for both these strong, willful, lonely souls.

Not really in line with the sort of individualistic ethos which held sway when Le Guin was writing, and still holds most of society in its grip today.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, my point is that The Tombs of Atuan disappoints, potentially, both those who loved A Wizard of Earthsea and wanted more, not something different, as well as those—though surely the groups aren’t mutually exclusive—who want escapism, not realism, out of their fantasy. (Not that Earthsea is escapist in that sense either.) But even if those describe you, I still think you should read Atuan. Just know what you’re getting into.


#100DaysToOffload #reviews #books

A few days ago, I had a conversation with my older kids—who, like me, are fairly voracious readers—about books, and one of the things that came up was how to think about the relative ranking of what we read. I can see myself using some of these posts to review or talk about things I’ve read, so before I do that, I want to give some context.

My contention is that the measure of a good book is how well it rewards rereading. Sudden plot twists and excitement are all well and good, but when rereading I often find they are, actually, cover and distraction for suboptimal writing or plotting. And it works! “Why didn't I notice this plot hole the first time I read this!?” has come out of my mouth more times than I like admitting. But a good book, I think, should be enjoyable on the third or fifth or twelfth read as well as the first—perhaps not quite in the same way, of course. But then, on the twelfth read, you’re probably not quite the same reader, either.

A corollary to this is that—contrary to what the Internet at large appears to believe—spoilers are good, actually. I don’t necessarily suggest that you go around telling the endings of things to people who don’t want to hear them, to be clear. That seems impolite. But a not-terrible heuristic for whether to keep reading a book is “Would I still read this if I already knew the plot?”

So, for what it’s worth, and in the hope that it would be useful to anyone else considering the media they consume, here is the rating scheme I use—and I’ve concentrated on books above, but (though I rarely watch anything) the same applies to movies, mutatis mutandis, though with movies the concerns are also more multifaceted. It is perfectly reasonable to, for example, thoroughly dislike the plot of a movie, yet still find it worth watching, and even rewatching,because of the acting, or the cinematography, or the sound design, and so forth. Substitute “watch” for “read” as appropriate.

  • ⭐️: I either did not finish this, or could tell without beginning it that I would not like it.
  • ⭐️⭐️: I finished this, but in some measure I regret doing so. It is unlikely I will ever read it again.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️: I finished this, and do not regret it. It is unlikely I will ever read it again.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: I finished this, and will probably read it again if the opportunity presents itself.
  • ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: I finished this, and will definitely read it again. I want to own this, so I can read it whenever the mood strikes me.

Interestingly, I rarely find myself classifying something in the last category on the initial read: it’s much more often that I rank something as 4 stars—and then realize on the third or fourth read that it was actually 5 stars all along. Likely that says something about my self-awareness.

#100DaysToOffload #books #movies

Some things that came across my desk this week:

#links #drinks #books #programming #scholarship

When I was a kid, the Eudora Welty Library in downtown Jackson was like the holy grail. It had two floors of books! The size of the children’s section was practically the size of my whole local library. When I searched our card catalogue, more than half the time it listed a book’s location as “WELTY.” It was the one library in the system that opened on Sundays.

So it’s quite sad to see that it’s now going to be torn down due to, in essence, mismanagement and a failure of political nerve.

#politics #libraries #books

From Amazon, I’ve acquired a copy of The Multics System: An Examination of Its Structure by Elliott I. Organick. It arrived today. Published in 1972, this particular copy was withdrawn from the Fenwick Library at George Mason University (I guess even university libraries have to prune occasionally), but it’s in extremely good condition. It even has a sheet of paper inserted at p. 228 to note an erratum.

I have, briefly, run and logged into Multics. You can do this now, albeit on a simulator (the last real Multics site went dark in 2000). I didn’t do much other than poke around, though I was amused to see that Emacs worked just dandy on it—Emacs is everywhere. Still, Tom Van Vleck, who runs the Multicians site dedicated to collecting information and stories associated with Multics, reviewed the book in 2002, cautioning that it “describes Multics as it was planned in the late 1960s, before it had been released to users…. Multics became a commercial product…and continued to evolve for 20 years….” Very well, I am forewarned.

I vaguely recall being told that one of the criticisms of Multics at the time was that it was big and bloated; and indeed, in the forward (which is by Fernando J. Corbató) I read that “Today the Multics system is by most standards a large one involving about 1500 modules each averaging 200 typewritten lines; the full system compiles into about a million lines of code.” Granted, fifty years have elapsed since the book was published, but for context, by one report the Linux kernel had a bit shy of 28 million lines in 2020. I don’t imagine it’s shrunk in the last two years.

Anyway, really looking forward to diving into this treatise on a historic project, and if I have any further observations, I’ll put them here on the blog.

#Multics #books