Review: The Compass Rose

Ursula Le Guin’s The Compass Rose, a collection of short, mostly speculative stories written between 1974 and 1981, is organised into six sections: “Nadir”, “North”, “East”, “Zenith”, “West” and “South”.

“As a guide to sailors this book is not to be trusted,” Le Guin writes in her introduction to the book. In other words: I’m not going to pretend I understand what links the three or four stories in each section; what exactly a Calvino-esque memory of Venice (“The First Report of the Shipwrecked Foreigner to the Kadanh of Derb”) and a story about a dedicated democrat set to have his memory wiped (“The Diary of the Rose”) have in common; what is particularly southern about “Some Approaches to the Problem of the Shortage of Time”, a mock essay on exactly what the title says. You could spend all day devising contorted explanations and spotting weak thematic links, if you wanted to; it might even be interesting and revealing. I’m not sure that’s exactly the point, though; or, if it is, it’s the exercise itself that’s the point, not the answers you come to. The compass imagery asks us to rethink what we understand of the world and how it works. It asks that we readjust our worldview so that “South” can become a thesis statement instead of a direction.

And so: these stories, which are often just a few pages long, and often take unconventional forms: a description of a city, a scientific paper, a series of diary entries, a prose poem. These are deliberately not “mimetic”, “realistic” stories, inasmuch as we can apply those adjectives to any SFF text; they don’t necessarily exist to flesh out entire worlds, provide logical chains of cause and effect, satisfy our comfortable readerly notions of everything making some sort of rational, orderly sense. Instead, they ask us to re-evaluate our experience of the world, to imagine new and strange topographies of experience. Perhaps a team of women reached the South Pole before Ernest Shackleton ever did, and simply didn’t feel the need to shout about it (“Sur”). Perhaps one day we’ll study the writings of ants and the poetry of penguins (“’The Author of the Acacia Seeds’ and Other Extracts from the Journal of Therolinguistics”). Perhaps worlds are dreamed into being by spotty adolescents (“The Pathways of Desire”).

A trawl of the book’s Goodreads page (not exactly a high-quality source of literary criticism, but) suggests that a lot of readers find it frustrating: Le Guin’s not in the business of filling in the blanks where she doesn’t need to. I would say that’s its strength. The point of the book is process not product; it’s the readjustments of perspective it forces upon us and its characters. It poses possibilities, opens up new readings and new potentialities rather than closing them down. These stories demand response and engagement, not the easy, passive consumption that more comfortable and conventional genre works offer.

Which is not to say that all these stories are perfect – indeed, quite the opposite. Perfection implies there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to move, nothing to argue with. Still, The Compass Rose is, perhaps, a lesser achievement than The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness. But so are most things. And this little collection’s still worth reading – just maybe don’t make it your first foray into Le Guin’s work.

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