Note the Le Guin-like way that sensory repetition pulls us through, a progression from sights to smells to sounds. It’s descriptive writing of uncommon loveliness and liveliness, whatever the genre. Then, the reveal: The perfection is predicated on pain. Not a lone tortured child, in this case, but something far more unexpected. Anyone who indulges unjust thoughts in Um-Helat, this society of happy equality and easy-access tamarind, is eliminated.
Jemisin has been dismissed, by a minority of reactionary detractors, as a “social justice warrior,” whose work advances an un-nuanced progressive politics. Is that what this is? A society that murders its intolerant citizens, orphans their young children? The tale practically explodes with complexity, with confusion. (Except, perhaps, when Jemisin states, rather than shows, social woes, resorting to the verbal fashions of the moment—but even that may be read in the context of commentary.) She could’ve issued a dutiful, activist-minded critique of Le Guin, in which true Omelasian/Um-Helatian progressives stay and fight. Instead, she twists it, resisting simplification. Le Guin stands both corrected and honored.
One likes to think the master would have approved. Le Guin never took the easy way; she pushed on every assumption. That meant she could even—a foreign concept in the modern era—change her mind. Earlier this year, PBS released a note-perfect little documentary about Le Guin’s life, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. There’s old black-and-white footage of a science-fiction meetup, where a middle-aged Le Guin is asked why one of the female characters in Tombs of Atuan, the second Earthsea book, doesn’t exactly “emerge as a liberated woman.” Le Guin responds with moving candor: “The Earthsea books as feminist literature are a total complete bust. From my own archetypes and from my own cultural upbringing, I couldn’t go down deep and come up with a woman wizard. Maybe I’ll learn to eventually, but when I wrote those I couldn’t do it. I wish I could have.”
She would indeed learn. Much of Le Guin’s later work unwrites what came before, just as Jemisin would come along to push us further, in the process confronting her own regressions. Thus the genre renews itself, bending toward progress. “Prize juries commonly short-list books by both men and women, but give the award to a man,” Le Guin complained in an essay written at the beginning of this decade. As it comes to a close, she’s finally being proved—for once—wrong. Jemisin won an unprecedented trio of Hugos for a series, Broken Earth, that centered on women wizards: a formidable mother and a fearless daughter, who could control mountains with their minds. Seven of the Hugo Awards for Best Novel in the 2010s, in fact, have gone to women, the most in the history of the prize. The stories reflect the shift, a hyperspace jump to new regions. “What do we learn from women?” Le Guin once asked. “My first huge generalization is that we learn how to be human.”
In The Fifth Season, the first book in Broken Earth and the best book of this decade, the main character has to make a horrific, unbearably human choice. One struggles to imagine a man writing it. Le Guin could have, but she didn’t. There, Jemisin is talking to another one of her literary heroes, Toni Morrison, and her novel Beloved. Morrison, who never exactly wrote science fiction but certainly imbued her stories with flashes of magic, was one of the very few other writers named a living legend by the Library of Congress. Le Guin’s spirit might not be winking down on us from the stars—the stars whose paths she so intricately charted over her singular, guiding career—but she’d twinkle at the cosmic coincidence. Morrison, too, passed away this decade, a year after Le Guin, at the immortal age of 88.
Best Fiction of the Decade:
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin