The Compass Rose by Ursula K. Le Guin

compass rose

Published: 1982 by Harper and Row (Perennial reissue 2005)
My copy: bought secondhand

Memorable quote: “But what is life without grumbling, and the occasional opportunity to say, “I told you so”? How could one bear housework, or looking after babies, let alone the rigors of sledge-hauling in Antarctica, without grumbling?”

I’d be surprised if this collection of short stories from the marvellous Le Guin has garnered too many unequivocal five star reviews over the years. It’s not the quality of the tales that is at fault, but the sheer range of genres and styles presented here: these tales are simply too diverse to consistently satisfy any one person. The very loose unifying principle in this collection is that of compass points and the stories are grouped according to different directions. It is a very loose theme. The tales in The Compass Rose range from exploratory sci-fi, through dystopias that would make Orwell wince, to some pseudo-academic reports, a comedic space opera about an incompetent star-ship crew, and some Indian mythology – oh, there’s also some fairly straight literary fiction. Each tale is beautifully written and persuasive in its genre but the whole collection holds jarringly together and at times made me feel like I must have been missing something along the way.

That said, this is well worth a read. The tales I particularly relished were “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” (about the languages of other plants and animals), “The Diary of the Rose” (the secret journal of a scientist who probes the imagery of mental patients’ minds) and above all, the short that inspired me to buy the collection in the first place, and absolutely didn’t disappoint, “Sur.” The final tale in the book is a truly wonderful piece of feminist literary fiction about the nine Chilean housewives who secretly beat Amundsen and Scott to the pole. Le Guin combines the usually masculine genre of historic polar survival with the very different challenges of busy women’s typical daily lives in a tone that is both affectionate and critical -a tone that probably only Le Guin could pull off with such success.

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