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"Old Music and the Slave Women" and "Semley's Necklace"
Two stories by Ursula K LeGuin: 35 years of Hainish future history.

I'm presently reading the Silverberg Far Horizons (1999) and Dozois Good Old Stuff (1998) anthologies (both are worthwhile, if of mixed quality, but I'm having more fun -- guilty pleasures? -- with the Dozois). So -- here we have two LeGuin stories, one from each anthology, written a third of a century apart -- let's ... "compare and contrast".

"Semley's Necklace" (1964, Cele Goldsmith's Amazing): we sometimes forget UKL got her start as a writer of planetary romances -- at the time she was sometimes called "the new Leigh Brackett". "Semley" is a good example, and a wonderfully romantic and haunting story:

Semley the Fair, Semley the Golden... the Clayfolk had bent to her will, and so had even the Starlords.... He slipped the necklace over her hair. It lay like a burning fuse along her golden-brown throat. She looked up from it with such pride, delight, and gratitude in her face that Rocannon stood wordless....

(Memo to self: it's time to reread more early LeGuin. And if you young'uns hadn't never, you should [note 1].)

"Old Music and the Slave Women" (1999) continues the unhappy history of Werel and Yeowe, begun in Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995). "Old Music" is the Ekumenical intelligence officer for the Embassy to Werel. Sick of being cooped-up -- the embassy was sealed early in the civil war -- he arranges a clandestine visit to the Liberation rebels, but is captured and imprisoned by a faction of the slaveholding Legitimate Government.... An exceptional story, not to be missed. Look for it on the 1999 award ballots.

UKL likes to play with skin colors (and sex roles, and stereotypes...) -- on Werel, the masters are black (but not African), the rebels and slaves white (but not European). Semley (back in 1964) has dark skin, golden hair and blue eyes. Her benefactor Rocannon (of Rocannon's World, 1966) is a hilfer, an ethnologist for the League of Worlds, a blurry sort of proto-Ekumen in LeGuin's Hainish future history -- which, she cheerfully admits, has accumulated some spectacular inconsistencies as it's accreted stories over the past 35-some years. Few SF writers can resist the lure of an over-arching future history for their work. Nor should they: this device provides for the growing richness and density of a well-crafted series, while avoiding the constrictions and exhaustion-of-interest that so often afflict late books in a long-running series. Plus, it has to be great fun to go back and play in the gardens of one's youth.... ["YOUTH -- it's wasted on the young."]

It's wonderful to see LeGuin coming home to her sfnal roots, after wandering in the wilderness of Shobies, Always Coming Home, and other swelled-head literary foolishness. Let's keep LeGuin in the gutter where she belongs!

Well. "Old Music" demonstrates -- if there remain any doubters -- that LeGuin is as good a story-teller as anyone working now, in or out of the SF gutter, er, genre. And a whole lot better than the lit'ry crowd she's wisely dumped. Her mastery of the craft of fiction has grown in the 35 years from Semley to Old Music, but she was very good even then -- "Semley's Necklace" remains one of the most haunting stories I've ever read.

Memo to UKL: now that you've wowed both fandom and academia, and can write (and sell) whatever you please, how about another tale set in the "Nine Lives" (1969) sector of your universe -- still your finest traditional-SF tale, and #1 on my personal list of "Best Novelettes Ever".

Please? Pretty-please? Pretty-please with Haagen-Dasz and strawberries?


1) I was going to say, read some Leigh Brackett too, but I can't think of anything to wholeheartedly recommend. No doubt some other Boring Old Fart will chime in here, whose recommendation you may treat with the same reverence as this one.

Stick to your own Golden Age (14), that's the ticket.... [...back to the main text]

Review by Peter D Tillman; More of Peter D Tillman's reviews can be found at: SF Site and Google "Peter D. Tillman" +review for many more!

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© Peter D Tillman 24 July 1999