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A word without a world: between Earth and elsewhere

Ursula K Le Guin’s Paradises Lost is the story of a starship, the journey spanning many generations. Honor Gavin retells its story

Ursula essy may

Ursula essy may

Ursula K Le Guin was an American novelist whose stories and poems depict alternative realities and fictional worlds. She sadly passed away at the beginning of this year. Notes refer to quotes from Le Guin’s Paradises Lost in the anthology The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. Illustration by Essy May

Somewhere between the planet Earth and somewhere else, there once was a world. Or some said it was a world. Some said it was something else, not a world but the needlessness of orientation or having a care or ever remembering where it was that you once were. Not a world but the needlessness of getting on in any old world. Not a world, therefore, said some. But still, a world, said others. A world for us! The discussions went on and on and so did the somewhere between planet Earth and somewhere else. The somewhere was pleasant to live inside but not necessarily pleasant enough.* For the time being, which some said was the entire time, or no, the entirety of time, there was nowhere to go other than somewhere that may or may not have been the world, so nobody there could perfectly understand what the words gone and away meant, but some still loved to press their nose to the stars. Others preferred tending to the surface of the somewhere, the side that wasn’t inside. It made them feel good, and gave them purpose. These people were mostly those who felt that where they were, was a world, and that the world, like themselves, had a destination.§ Everything was heading somewhere.**

*‘They had everything they needed, they had nothing they could keep’, p288

‘Lovers do not run away (where is away?)’, p305

‘Light-specks on a screen. We can’t reach them, we can’t get to them. Not us. Not in our lifetime’, p301

§‘Of course, they would “land” on some other dirtball, but that wasn’t going to happen till she was very old, nearly dead […]’, p250


The first to notice that there were more words in the world than things to which the words referred was not, funnily enough, the Librarian.†† It was everybody, because when anybody there said a word such as hill, or a word such as wind, there was nothing in the world that resembled the word, which was another reason why some felt there wasn’t a world, or that the world had somehow waned. Gone away, maybe. Words such as hill and wind came to seem fussy and butterfingered, but people still said them anyway because, when spoken among other words, their exorbitance was less. What was away about them ebbed. The Librarian nevertheless kept the aways of these words in a set of dictionaries that anybody could check at any time, but nobody did, because the Librarian could never figure out where, in the Library, the dictionaries of words such as hill and wind should themselves be kept. The Librarian could never decide whether the dictionaries of words resembling nothing in the world belonged in the aisle of FICTION or in the aisle of REALITY, so the dictionaries’ location changed constantly, and the Librarian was always going back and forth, and over time the dictionaries grew heavy.‡‡

††‘Honeymooning, it was called, a word that didn’t have many reverberations in this world without honey or bees to make it, without months or a Moon to make them. But a nice custom’, p311

‡‡‘By the Third and Fourth Generations the general content of Earth transmissions had become so arcane that only devotees followed them closely; most people paid no attention to them at all’, p302 

Even the dictionaries have begun to sigh, the Librarian said to a friend, and the friend had to ask what the word sigh meant. When you speak without saying anything, the Librarian said.§§ When you say nothing, you mean, replied the friend. No, said the Librarian tersely, I mean just what I said.

Left hand copy

Left hand copy

Illustration from the first edition of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969 and depicting the ambisexual people of a faraway planet

The first to say that everything was going nowhere and nothing meant anything was meanwhile Terry. Terry! Such a great name for an Angel. An Angel was what Terry became when Terry’s mother, the last of those who once upon another time had lived on the planet Earth, died. At her funeral, Terry gave an interesting speech about remembrance. Terry’s main point had to do with reciprocity. Is there really any such thing? Terry wondered. If nobody here remembers there, does anybody there remember here even if they do.*** Does a word need to refer to anything still to be a word? Does a word need to remember where it has been and where it will go and where it will have gone? Well, Terry did not say this exactly, but what he said nevertheless sang in the hearts of many of those onboard the somewhere between the planet Earth and somewhere else, because what Terry was basically saying was that everybody onboard was like, or not like, but actually the same as, a word without a world. A word without anywhere to go other than where the word already was.††† Had somebody said to Terry that he had his clouds, Terry would have agreed. Now you’re talking, Terry would have said. Now you understand.

§§‘… and never see the Moon’, p268

***‘Now that no living person in the world remembered the planet of origin, was there any reason to think anyone there remembered them?’ pp296-7

†††‘Nothing in the world soars,’ p251

We’re not going anywhere, said Terry the Angel, in other words. We’re simply gone, but not from anybody, and not from anywhere. We’re not gone on any terms. All we are is gone. Oh!‡‡‡

Now, Terry’s way of thinking was persuasive to many, but not to all. It soon grew words of its own, and some found those grown words to be at once secretive and loud.§§§ It was too much, to be nothing but a word. It was too much, never to be on your way. Others were OK with what Terry and the Angels said but just preferred to return and return to the Library, where as well as the undiscoverable dictionaries and theaways they contained, which some said you could sometimes sense, like a tickle from the nonexistent wind, there were books with screens with pictures of things with names, pictures of things from the planet Earth that did not know your name in turn, words for things that did not know to name you.


Ursula K LeGuin The Word for World is Forest

The 1980 edition of The Word for World is Forest, first published in 1972

A child once asked such a picture its name, but the picture did not reciprocate, and the child burst into tears. When the child got a little older she fell in love with a girl who was an Angel, but did not herself become one.**** Even though the Library had hurt her, she still preferred its words to those of the Angels. She preferred to live with the aways of words, to keep on losing the world over and over.†††† She became good friends with the Librarian, whom she once had to ask what the word sigh meant.‡‡‡‡

‡‡‡‘The great crowd sighed, a sound like wind in a forest, but they did not know that; they never heard the sound of wind in a forest; they had never heard any sigh, any voice but their own and the voices of machines’, p332

§§§‘But many people discussed the ideas and images Kim Terry had put into their minds, feeling that he had given them something they had craved without knowing it, or felt without being able to say it’, p295

****‘Reciprocity is a rare thing’, p250

††††‘The hole in the wall of the world had not been made by something from outside, a bit of dust or rock; when she saw it she knew, as one knows in a dream, that it had been there ever since the ship was made’, pp336-7

‡‡‡‡‘“Ahh”, sighed the forest leaves’, p333 

There were indeed many who fell in love with the concept of gone, but who did not become fully fledged Angels, followers of Terry. Perhaps those people were more onto what the Angels were getting at than the Angels. Perhaps the point was not to become.§§§§

The dispossessedursula k. le guin crop

Ursula K LeGuin The Disposessed

A 1976 edition of The Dispossessed, set in the same fictional universe as The Left Hand of Darkness

When eventually the destination came sooner than expected, not everybody went for a look.***** The Angels kept their heads firmly in the clouds. The Librarian, who was not an Angel, likewise remained onboard the somewhere that was now somewhere else and therefore either less the world it had never been or more a world than it ever was. Something like that. Arriving at the destination, which turned out to be a planet much like Earth, a planet that uncannily resembled Earth, confused everything. Or made sense of it. Why don’t you want to see the world?, the friend of the Librarian asked, when she heard the Librarian was staying aboard the somewhere world, forever suspended between FICTION and REALITY, forever destined to tread the Library’s sighing aisles. You’re not an Angel. No, said the Librarian, but I know enough of the world already. ††††† Even though I can’t say for certain whether I’ve ever been to the world, or anywhere other than the world, I know enough of the world already.‡‡‡‡‡  And I am done with going round in circles.§§§§§

§§§§‘This world hated you’, p353 

*****‘The great goal of our voyage, the destination for which the ship and its crew were intended from the very beginning of our voyage, is closer than we dreamed’, p337 

†††††‘I want to live my life in peace, doing no harm and receiving no harm. And judging by the films and the books, I think this may be the best place, in all the universe, to live such a life’, p346

‡‡‡‡‡‘Librarians are the masters of useful trivia’, p314


This piece is featured in the AR December 2018/January 2019 Book issue – click here to purchase your copy today