Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Compass Rose

by Ursula Le Guin


It's a fine line between subtle genius and pretentious, impenetrable guff. In this collection of short stories Ursula Le Guin seems to waver between the two extremes, never settling on a definite direction. The stories are very loosely themed on the points of the compass, which is one way of saying they're all over the place in style and subject matter. They were first published during the 70s and early 80s, and it's as if the author has simply taken a jumble of left-over stories and stuck them together, rather than creating something with a planned theme.

The New Atlantis has an austere, repressed and absurd feel to it, rather like 1984 meets Brazil. There are suggestions of a new continent rising, whilst the current civilisation sinks under the weight of shortages, brutal politics, and some very strange rules about the way people can live. It's as though common sense has been upended. But at night the characters experience a totally different reality through their dreams. This is an odd tale full of interesting social commentary.

Two Delays on the Northern Line tells the story of two men both named Eduard, who are travelling in opposite directions on the train. They're both about to experience life-changing events. However there's a disconnectedness about these characters. Perhaps there's a point to this story, but I couldn't see it and I didn't care enough about the characters or events to keep trying to understand it.

SQ is a far more satisfying story, fortunately. Like The New Atlantis it's set in a repressive regime, this time one in which sanity testing is compulsory and absolute. The entire society revolves around curing the insane, and committing people to asylums if they fail Dr Speakie's "infallible" test. The way the narrator's voice is always so upbeat is very engaging.

The Diary of the Rose takes the same theme of mental illness controlled for political ends, and gives it a much more sinister slant. A medic uses an instrument to observe what people are thinking about as they have the thoughts. Her job is dealing with people with mental illnesses and assessing them. Then she encounters a man who has been badly beaten, although he insists he isn't sick at all. It's not too difficult to anticipate where this is going, but it's still quite a powerful story. And it's prescient when you consider the advances in modern-day brain scan technology.

Intracom is a much more light-hearted story, set on a spaceship with a barmy crew suffering from a surfeit of oestrogen. This is a bit like the love child of Star Trek and Red Dwarf, only with more women. It's followed by another upbeat science fiction tale, The Eye Altering. This takes place on an alien world colonised by a new generation. But the young people born there don't seem to be thriving under the alien sun. I liked the way the theme of seeing things differently recurs throughout this well-constructed narrative.

Another successful science fiction story is The Pathways of Desire, which is also the longest one in the collection. It features three ethnographers who are studying a tribe on an alien moon. The native Ndif tribe seem friendly, but there's something unsettling about them. This is one of the more peculiar stories, with an unexpected and enjoyable conclusion.

The stories in the West section are less engaging. The pointless Gwilan's Harp, the disappointing Malheur Country and the rambling The Water is Wide are all preoccupied with grief, but they're more bemusing than sad and I don't think that was the author's intent. The stories in South are more likely to raise a smile, however. They culminate in Sur, a subtle one about an extraordinarily self-effacing Antarctic expedition party.

This is really a very varied collection. It's brimming with ideas and invention in places, with witty and stimulating stories. But almost as frequently the stories seem to lose the plot, or they lack a personal touch that would bring them alive, so they don't seem to be going anywhere worth following.

1st March 2011

Book Details

Decade: 1980s

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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Review © Ros Jackson