Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word of Unbinding is a perfect short story

 

Le Guin’s first Earthsea tale is one of her best

I just read one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s first short stories, and it was so perfect it completely derailed my original plans for this post. I have to write this love letter to my favorite author. No one alive comes close to her flawless creation of whole worlds from a handful of sentences, and no one has a deeper speculative-anthropological interest in what humanity is and should be.

You can get the story here for two bucks:
https://www.amazon.com/Word-Unbinding-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01N6G07B8/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1489863570&sr=8-2&keywords=the+word+of+unbinding

I don’t remember the first time I read one of her books — it happened in that post-high-school flurry of absolutely unbound devouring, where you’re no longer reading what you feel you “have to” to be taken seriously, but what you want to — the rubber-band snapping of freedom is disorienting, but it’s wonderful to no longer have to pretend you understand Gravity’s Rainbow at 17 years old.

In that frenzy of consumption, something of hers was tossed in, but where she really grabbed me and never let go was with The Dispossessed. A piece of Science Fiction so perfectly balanced, so perfectly human, serious without confusing being serious with being boring and grim, that I have never forgotten it. It fairly and clearly represents the benefits and flaws of a capitalist and anarchist society (two different planets locked in co-orbital positions, one desert-anarchist, the other lush-capitalist). Capitalism is not all subjugation of the poor (although that is an unavoidable side-effect, if not a planned feature), and anarchism is not all lighting fires and throwing stones — all anarchy means is the absence of hierarchical power structures. UKL shows there’s beauty and flaws in both systems because both systems are run by inherently fallible people.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin at the 2014 National Book Awards

She’s a bona fide hero. If you need proof, here’s her speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, where she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters:

In a room filled with book publishers, at an event sponsored by Amazon, she took the industry to task for “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant” and said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable, but so did the divine right of kings.”

That was UKL the doyenne of American SF. This story is from Ursula K. Le Guin, the barely-published writer, and she already had the magic.

 

The Word of Unbinding: a ten-minute story packed with everything Ursula K. Le Guin would become

In The Word of Unbinding, we already see all the elements that make UKL who she is as an author. Language as simple and clear as a forest stream. The ability to plant twenty words, step back, and watch them grow into an entire vivid world. A focus on the importance of balance, acceptance, and doing the right, the human thing. Before going further, please read the story. It’s two dollars and will take you ten minutes. It is without a doubt the most worthwhile thing you will do today — doubtless more worthwhile than reading this blog.

The Word of Unbinding is an exceedingly simple story. A wizard is trapped in a dark well, guarded by strange creatures and magics, and he tries and fails to escape until there is only one way out. Like all of UKL’s writing, it is simple and straightforward, but so incredibly dense. Not in the James Joyce/Thomas Pynchon sense, but in the sense that each word is so carefully chosen and placed it’s like setting stone on stone. Here’s the first line:

Where was he? The floor was hard and slimy, the air black and stinking, and that was all there was.

She accomplishes everything she needs to in twenty words. The protagonist is lost and confused, something bad has happened to him, bad air, hard floor, and that’s it. Before there’s any chance of remotely understanding what’s going on, there’s a rock-solid sense of where the story is. Next step is explaining who the protagonist, Festin, is:

Lately, in these lone years in the middle of his life, he had been burdened with a sense of waste, of unspent strength; so, needing to learn patience, he had left the villages and gone to converse with trees, especially oaks, chestnuts, and the grey alders whose roots are in profound communication with running water. It had been six months since he had spoken to a human being. He had been busy with essentials, casting no spells and bothering no one.

UKL’s conception of how magic works and what its practitioners should be is the most compelling in all of literature. This isn’t clear from the excerpt, but her system is almost entirely based on naming. Everything in existence has a True Name, and innate power wedded to study and discovery of these names gives a wizard their abilities: just like a writer, they use language to call forth miracles, to change the reality around them. What is clear from the excerpt is what a wizard should be: Festin has not cast a spell in half a year. Magic is not about fireballs and parlor tricks, but about balance. Each and every wizard has a responsibility to maintain and protect that balance — that is what makes them a wizard. The upsetting of that balance is the source of evil, in this story as elsewhere in Earthsea (UKL’s fantasy territory).

 

burgwald_025
Le Guin describes herself as “the most arboreal science fiction writer.” She’s not wrong. Credit: Nikanos | CC BY-SA 2.5

A wizard reaver named Voll goes from island to island, destroying towns and enslaving people, disrupting the natural order. He seals the protagonist in a dark well-tomb. Festin, confident in his power, attempts to escape repeatedly. First as a creeping mist, then as simple air, then as a falcon, then as a trout. He is successively foiled with a blast of hot air, a storm wind, an arrow, and a fisherman’s net. Broken, cold, and kept on the edge of death, he begins wondering why his enemy will not kill him. After due consideration, he takes the last path out of his situation — the word of unbinding:

So Festin made his choice. His last thought was, If I am wrong, men will think I was a coward. But he did not linger on this thought. Turning his head a little to the side, he closed his eyes, took a last deep breath, and whispered the word of unbinding, which is only spoken once.

Festin, seeing his situation and a possible way to restore balance, makes the human (in its least cynical definition) decision and accepts the change required to set things right. Once in the land of the dead, a land of hard obsidian lava flows, black grass, and unmoving stars, he discovers Voll is long dead but has somehow returned to the world. He chases his enemy back to his corpse, forces him to re-enter it, and then sits vigil at the point of origin for the imbalance, guarding against further upset.

Festin saves the world through acceptance of the most human fact there is: all will die and turn to dust. If he had attempted to avoid what must be, he would have remained trapped and ineffective, unable to bring battle to Voll on any plane that mattered.

Cultivating imbalance for personal gain unerringly leads to evil and is set right through courageous acceptance of what must be.

This story floored me not simply because it was so perfect, so small yet so powerful, but because this is one of the first things UKL ever published, and she was already a master. She further developed her talent over a decades-long career, but everything she needed was already there: the power and clarity of her language, the strength of her perception of the world she’s creating, and the strong philosophical attachment to balance. Not to mention it’s a super fun wizard adventure story, written 53 years ago and still wonderful and fresh today.

Logan is a great balance of comic book movie action and painful emotional tragedy

And by great balance, I mean both aspects are set to 11 in Hugh Jackman’s last X-Men film

Logan gives Wolverine, one of the most popular comic book movie stars, a great sendoff. I suppose Wolverine himself won’t be leaving, but Hugh Jackman, the main reason the character is so popular, will be, and apparently he’s taking Patrick Stewart with him. The movie is a bit like Driving Miss Daisy, if Morgan Freeman were an alcoholic who just couldn’t seem to stop manufacturing amputees and Miss Daisy were an extremely dangerous telepath. The movie takes place years in the future. Charles Xavier has some type of degenerative brain disease, and whenever he has a seizure, he paralyzes everyone within a certain radius (including their lungs), so he’s living in a hole in the middle of nowhere. Logan is supporting him by driving a limo, apparently. All the other X-Men are dead. New mutants are not being born. Something is killing Logan slowly and painfully, and he’s drinking a lot and finally looking old (he was born in the 1880s). He’s aging, covered in scars, and limping, so his healing factor is ominously not working so well anymore. Add to this the sudden arrival of Wolverine’s murderous daughter clone Laura, who is on the run from the people who trained her as an assassin, and we’re off to the races! Spoilers follow. I guess they preceded too, but they really follow.

Logan is realistic, for a given value of realistic

The first thing that stands out about this film and sets it apart from other entries in the franchise, that makes it memorable (the only thing I remember of X-Men Apocalypse is an angry blue man and a collapsing pyramid) is its unstinting realism. If you replaced Logan’s claws with guns and his on-the-fritz healing factor with some good old-fashioned plot armor, John Wick style (ok John, maybe you have a bulletproof suit, but there’s a finite number of times people can shoot at you before one gets lucky and hits you in the face), and this could be a grim, gritty thriller movie about a grizzled ex-warrior who just wants to save his daughter.

Reality is the backbone of this superhero movie, which sounds weird when you get into the secret corporate labs, the kids with superpowers, and the man with giant claws. I’ll try to explain. The Hangover was just a movie about a group of guys going to Vegas, gambling, and getting drunk, nothing supernatural at all, but the underlying feel of it was completely unrealistic. It goes the opposite way in Logan. It’s a movie about a 150-year-old with a clone daughter and a telepath father figure all being hunted by a transhuman mercenary force, but underneath the superhero trappings is a story about age, and death, and loss. This is where the acting chops of Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman really come through. Those two men have carried most X-Men movies (with some help from Ian McKellen), and they are at the top of their form in this one. Stewart plays a feeble, confused, half-crazy Professor X perfectly — every line of his body radiates weakness, his voice cracks, he’s so frustrated at his helplessness he curses at Logan (yes, Professor X drops an F-bomb in this movie). Every single time you see Hugh Jackman’s face, decades of loss and disappointment hit you like a truck. His every movement, grunt, and word shows a man who is done with life, waiting to die. Their acting makes the movie work, and it’s so wrenching to watch this performance realizing you’ll never see them in these roles again.

Wolverine on a rock
20th Century Fox has every image of Wolverine extremely copyrighted, so here’s this one. Credit: Jonathan Othén | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s not just those two characters that make this grim. The entire world they live in is terrible — the X-Men are all dead (most likely killed by Xavier when he first started having these attacks), the anti-mutant corporations are ascendant and hunting down anyone who is left, and one of the most beloved characters of the franchise is contemplating suicide. Everything is awful, nothing is good. 20th Century Fox brings you in with a promise of X-Men action, and you find yourself trying to eat popcorn to a Sartre play. Again, that’s part of what makes this movie so refreshing compared to the others, and it’s not like they don’t also deliver the action goods.

If you think Wolverine is violent, you should meet his daughter

This movie is not as action-packed as others in the franchise, but the little it does have really delivers. After a brief intro fight, Logan spends a lot of time just driving around, getting drunk, and taking care of Professor X. He meets his clone daughter and still nothing cool happens. She just sits in their hideout eating cereal. Just as you despair of seeing an X-Men movie at all, the mercenaries show up to take her back. They easily subdue Wolverine and send a couple men into the building to get her. You hear some screams, and she comes out and throws a SEVERED HEAD at the leader, then throws herself on the enemy with a viciousness paralleling only that of Wolverine himself. Her fighting style is acrobatic, and involves a lot of evasion, landing on people’s shoulders, and neck-stabbing. Whoever choreographed it should get a medal. It’s a joy to watch, and the incongruousness of a ten-year-old girl effortlessly murdering beefy, lumbering soldiers gives you a sensation that lands somewhere between hilarity and extreme discomfort.

Wolverine’s fighting style is more labored — less balletic but just as bloody. Laura (the clone daughter) fights like someone holding a samurai sword, and Logan fights like a guy holding a bat with nails in. He’s old, and he’s slow, and he can’t shrug off damage like he used to, but he’s still got the killer instinct. He struggles for every inch he gets, and that makes the fights more fun to watch. Too often in superhero movies, it’s hard to see how hard someone is working. Mutants with energy-based or telekinetic powers are fighting for their lives, and, oh boy, it’s time for them to really turn it up, and all they do is…grunt a little more and squinch up their face. Logan does not have that problem — he is no longer an elite fighter, but he just does not stop, and you see his determination in every muscle flex, every enemy punch deflected, and every bodyblow absorbed. It really means something when he finally sinks his claws in someone. Speaking of sinking claws in people, they actually show it. It never made sense in the other X-Men movies when Wolverine would stab someone and the guy would just bloodlessly hit the ground. Well, Logan is rated R, and holy hell it shows. His fights involve multiple amputations, buckets of gore, and lots of realistic stabbing. When he puts his claws into someone’s skull, you see them come out the other side covered in brain matter. It’s so graphic it’s uncomfortable, but it’s better than the touch football version of fighting he was using in previous movies.

Let’s talk about Logan’s feelings

I spent so much time talking about the action scenes because that’s how you approach an X-Men movie, right? How cool the fighting is, how much fun it is to watch people use their powers, etc. There’s another level to this movie though: actual character development and a real focus on the human side of things. These are people, not superheroes. Many of the previous X-Men films tried to carry the whole emotional arc of the movie on the back of the old tension between Magneto and Professor X. It gets stale. In Logan, a half-feral mute falls in love with her genetic father and learns that murdering everyone all the time is maybe problematic. A man who was one of the most powerful and respected mutants of all time is now feeble and dying, desperately trying to advise his last surviving pupil (Wolverine) to do something that really matters. An old, cynical loner who is convinced the last thing left for him to do in this world is leave it finds something to care about. That last one sounds corny, and I suppose it is, but the difference with Logan and other “heart of gold” stories is that Logan absolutely does not have a heart of gold. He’s an old, angry Canadian, and his heart is full of bitters and blue ruin, full stop. By the end of the movie, he has a heart that is maybe a bit shiny if you catch it in the right light, but that’s it.

Maple syrup on a table, only thing better from Canada is Wolverine
Maple syrup, the best thing America has imported from Canada after Wolverine. Credit: Miguel Andrade

Another good human touch to this movie is the humor. There’s not much, god knows, but it is there. Xavier and Logan bicker like an old married couple. The girl does not understand that violence doesn’t solve everything (mostly because it does solve everything). For example, they are at a gas station and she’s riding a little mechanical rocking horse. When it stops, she flies into a rage and is about to murder the coinbox to get more money when Logan just hands her a quarter and gives her a look. Another thing I found funny (and I’m not sure if this is intentional) is that almost every single mercenary chasing Laura has at least one robotic arm, which you absolutely would need if you spent your days raising a baby Wolverine. These small, almost non-existent touches of humor are pleasant in this film, and in a more general sense are what makes the Marvel (not actually the same studio as this one, but whatever) movies more successful than the DC ones — they have a sense of humor. The recent Batman/Superman movie was so terrified of looking goofy that it ended up looking like a steaming pile of gloomy, humorless garbage. There’s got to be a little humor, no matter how serious the movie, because there’s always a little humor in people, no matter how serious the person.

Logan: the rest is silence

There are plenty of scenes of mutant-fueled carnage in this film, more than enough to satisfy the moviegoer who just wants to see Hugh Jackman kill stuff, but the real focus of the movie is an assemblage of deeply broken people taking action to do something that matters, regardless of how much the sharp edges of their shattered pasts grind together within them with every step they take. The beginning, middle, and end of the movie are exercises in unremitting tragedy, which a.) might be overkill but b.) some people’s lives really are that bad. I definitely got something different than what I was expecting, but most of the unexpected was great.

In the climax of the movie, old, almost-dead Logan takes an injection of a serum that supercharges his powers. He’s finally back in form, ready to tear apart a legion of soldiers without breaking a sweat. Wolverine finally achieving full strength was extremely gratifying to the part of me that watched X-Men cartoons as a kid, but the gritty emotional realism comes through here as well. He’s not just back physically, but emotionally as well, finally ready to fight for the person he loves. In the climax, the two focuses of this movie — serious emotional piece and action-packed superhero film — come together like hydrogen and oxygen, in a way that entirely satisfies the part of me that will always love any movie that involves Arnold Schwarzenegger + guns and the part of me that makes a point of watching whichever film won the Oscar that year. I left the theater not sure if I liked the movie or not, not sure exactly what I had watched, and that is a result of the director taking a risk with this film, which is almost always better than doing a retread of a successful formula. After a week’s reflection, it’s clear that any movie that can successfully blend well-done action escapism with emotional catharsis is a great achievement.

 

 

Rick and Morty is what happens when Dan Harmon gets carte blanche

I am extraordinarily late to this party, but Rick and Morty is the best currently-running cartoon on television. It’s also currently available for free on the Adult Swim website. It is endlessly inventive, does not shy away from complexity, and does a surprisingly good job on exploring character traits for a 23-minute show. It’s the baby of Dan Harmon, so if you liked the absolute absurdity of some of Community’s plotlines, you’ll appreciate the same style. The absurdity coupled with the effectively limitless conceptual space of the SF setting results in a show that is constantly entertaining because it’s constantly new. Think about all the times Community got ridiculous — the Halloween zombie episode, the paintball episode, etc. — and then think about what would happen if you moved that aesthetic from a show about community college to a show about a dimension-jumping intergalactic mad scientist with no moral compass. I’m getting ahead of myself. This show is about a dimension-jumping intergalactic mad scientist with no moral compass, a cynical, alcoholic 60-year-old who is probably the smartest being in existence. He’s a man who built a robot at the breakfast table because he needed something to pass him the butter. He built a butter-passing robot in like two minutes because he was lazy.

The eponymous pair of the show is this super-genius, Rick and his rather stupid grandson, Morty. Rick has returned to the family after years of absence, and his daughter Beth has abandonment issues and is terrified he’ll leave again. This creates tension with her husband, Jerry, who does not like Rick because he makes him feel stupid (he is) and has a bad influence on his son. There’s also Morty’s sister, Summer, who is mostly interesting because she’s a normal teenage girl — she’s the only character who is not dysfunctional. The relationship of these characters is one hint of the greatness of this show. It’s a zany sci-fi hijinks cartoon that also addresses the reality of human interaction. For example, the failing marriage between Morty’s mom and dad, two deeply hurt and codependent people, is an ongoing topic across all episodes.

The main draw of the show is its sheer inventiveness. In one episode, Jerry is annoyed that the family dog is so stupid. He pesters Rick until he solves the problem by putting an intelligence helmet on the dog. The dog spends a little while fetching slippers, using the toilet, etc. Then he achieves self-awareness, modifies his helmet to bestow super-intelligence, enslaves the family, and starts building an enhanced dog army. In another episode, Rick gives the family a Mr. Meeseeks box. The box is alien tech. When the user hits a button, a humanoid Mr. Meeseeks pops into existence, solves a problem you set for it, and then de-manifests. The dad, Jerry, asks for help getting two strokes off his golf game, but he’s so bad at everything that the Meeseeks can’t help him, gets distraught, and hits the Meeseeks button itself, asking a second Meeseeks to help it help Jerry. This process repeats until there are dozens of Mr. Meeseeks all experiencing an existential crisis. The only way to stop a homicidal rampage is for Jerry to actually improve his golf game. There’s the one where aliens place Rick and Morty (and accidentally Jerry) in a simulation of their normal lives, hoping to trick Rick into giving them one of his technological secrets. The problem is, the simulation is really low-rent, and the only person dumb enough not to notice anything wrong (people walking through trees, his wife responding to him robotically and using the exact same words, seeing the same three people over and over again throughout the town due to the limits of the simulation’s processing power) is Jerry, and as a result, the poor dumb bastard has the best day of his life. Every episode has some high-concept core around which all the wackiness happens. The cardinal sin of bad art in any medium is to be boring, and this constant renewal of ideas puts Rick and Morty on the opposite side of that spectrum.

The interactions between Rick and Morty also add to the show’s appeal. On one side, you have a sociopathic genius who once built an entire pocket universe, filled with beings to whom he was a god, just to use as a car battery. On the other, there’s a kid who isn’t that smart, but also thinks that maybe doing whatever you want with no regard for destruction, mayhem, or morals maybe isn’t the best path. For example:

This is a pretty good encapsulation of what the show is all about. Rick sells a gun to an assassin to get enough money to go to a galactic Dave and Buster’s. Morty, horrified at his callous disregard for life, refuses to have a good time. This has all the other elements of a Rick and Morty show: the weirdness of them going to a galactic arcade, the variety of all the background aliens there, the high-concept of one of the arcade games taking the player through an entire life from childhood through death, the cynicism of Rick saying “55 years, not bad!” while Morty, still confused from the virtual reality, desperately asks “Where’s my wife?!”

The key element that ties everything else together is Rick himself. The character is so compelling because of the dynamic tension between wanting to root for the smartest guy in the room and being horrified by what a complete asshole he is. He can out-think anyone, build the coolest machines, and take his grandson on eye-opening adventures of breathtaking scope. On the other hand, he abandoned his daughter, is a galactic criminal, and seems literally not to care about anyone’s life, human, alien, or otherwise. He embodies the Darth Vader/Walter White effect, in which individuals of extraordinary competence, no matter how morally repugnant, appeal to audiences. Also, although he is completely unrepentant, he does have one single redeeming factor that the show buries deep: whenever he has to choose between the safety of his family and himself, he sacrifices himself. That one tiny spot of humanity colors the rest of his character and elevates him (just barely) to good-guy status. Well, not a “good” guy, but you get the picture.

The last episode of this show came out a year and a half ago, after a hell of a cliffhanger. Legions of fans have been painfully awaiting its return, and now I join their ranks. However long it takes for season three to premiere, it will be worth the wait. I’ll leave you with one more clip that will probably serve as a better indication of whether you should invest in this show than anything I’ve said. It’s the cold open for one of the episodes. If it makes you laugh, watch the show. If it’s too weird and off-putting for you, don’t watch the show.