Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Ursula K. Le Guin

In your introduction to “The Stars Below,” you talk about the evolution of the story from being about science to being about art, and then finally to being about the mind. What then do you think the story says about the mind? 

The introduction in the 1975 edition was written in 1975, and the story was written two years before that. About forty years ago. I read that introduction, now, and to some extent I read the story, almost as if somebody else wrote them—because I am and am not the person who wrote them. Eighty-three ain’t forty-three. (I imagine if some of you were asked to think who you were forty years ago, you’d come up with an egg? Or may even only a possibility?) So, anyhow, I don’t entirely agree with the person who wrote my introduction. I think the story really is about science—the tragedy of dogmatic/fundamentalist religions making science into their enemy, when if they would only see it, all the discoveries of science only give their god a greater universe to rule.

I don’t think the story says much about the mind. It offers a metaphor: mind as mine. The dangers, the treasures, the limitless depths.

You talked about how, as the story evolved, “symbols you thought were simple equivalences, signs, come alive and take on meanings you did not intend and cannot explain.” Can you talk a little bit more about where this happened in the story?

It always happens in any story that’s any good. But no, I can’t say exactly where it happens, because the happening is the story.

Save for the passing mention of someone’s wife, the story is striking in that it is entirely populated by male or ungendered characters (e.g., “the villagers”). What was it about the story that you felt needed such a strongly filtered viewpoint?

SNRRRK!

My child, your Elder will now tell you of a time long, long before you were born, an age of darkness, in which our People of the Sci-fi had no women. Among the People were only men. The men did all things well and bravely. They went where no man had gone before.

But women they knew not, except as depicted upon the covers of their magazines, having large breasts and screaming.

Yet it was even as they feared: Actual women crept among them, hidden by initials and false names, and also there were certain men of the People, such as the Great Sturgeon, and the Cordwainer, and little by little these brought a new knowledge unto the Scifi: There are two genders!

In 1973, that was still news, and bad news, to a lot of the SF market. Believe me, it wasn’t me that felt the story “needed such a strongly filtered viewpoint.”

But consider, also, that I wanted the story set in 16th-century Europe, for the science-religion clash: and in 16th-century Europe what was the chance of a woman being either an astronomer or a silver miner?

Guennar is a man whose study of the stars is, for him, a study of his god’s handiwork. Why did you choose to make Guennar a religious man devoted to scientific study who nonetheless sees the burning of his home and observatory as punishment from his god? 

Because he was a 16th-century European. I don’t like wishful-thinking fiction that puts people with completely modern ideas into a past age (where they prance around showing people how wrong and stupid they are).

Also, I wanted him to be able to talk about seeing the endless stars his telescope revealed to him as shining with God’s glory. He’s saying the more you know the more there is to praise. Science enlarges the universe—why should that diminish God?

As well as I can understand, that’s the way Galileo saw it.

Guennar prays to his god to let him continue his study of the stars: “I will not speak, Lord, only let me see!” He then later reconstructs a telescope and uses it to discover “the stars below.” Was his prayer answered?

Or did he just go a little crazier?

Or . . . ?

The story is the question, not an answer.

Why was it important to show that Guennar really could find hidden silver with his telescope before he disappeared, rather than leaving it as him saying he could see the “stars beneath the rock” and the miners at once observing his growing madness but believing in the truth of what he was saying?

I don’t know that it was “important,” but it’s a kind of fulfillment. Just to send him staggering off into the caves seems a weak ending. His “discovery,” however he made it, gives the whole story shape and balance. It also gives a hope that the old miners will be able to have some pigs and beer again.

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Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin

Jude Griffin is an envirogeek, writer, and photographer. She trained llamas at the Bronx Zoo; was a volunteer EMT, firefighter, and HAZMAT responder; worked as a guide and translator for journalists covering combat in Central America; lived in a haunted village in Thailand; ran an international frog monitoring network; and loves happy endings. Bonus points for frolicking dogs and kisses backlit by a shimmering full moon.