You know how some authors can completely immerse the reader in a story with only a few paragraphs, sometimes even just a few words? How they can give you a complete world in a short story of only a couple of pages? It’s an amazing and rare ability, and sadly, one that Ursula LeGuin does not have.
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea is a short story collection with a lot of good ideas. Some of the stories are funny, like First Contact With the Gorgonids about a couple’s run-in with aliens who just landed on Earth. It tells the reader a lot about the couple and very little about the aliens. Some are interesting ideas, like Newton’s Sleep and The Rock that Changed Things, exploring human nature and what pushes us to change. One, Ascent of the North Face, is written as excerpts from a journal and really didn’t have enough to it for me to judge (it barely even made sense). They are entertaining, but they just aren’t full stories. They are good in the way that early pen and ink sketches of an idea for a statue by a gifted sculptor are good, because you can see the potential in them, but they don’t compare to the finished work. The Kerastion was the only one of the shorts that felt like a complete world. It gives a glimpse of an alien culture seen through an unusual funereal practice, and (to continue my metaphor) is more like a full color portrait than a rough pen and ink.
The three stories at the end of the book are much longer, and they build on the universe LeGuin visits most often, with the Hainish Ekumen of Worlds and the ansible. She takes her technology to the next level in these books, exploring the idea of ‘transilience’ – instantaneous transmission of objects and people from one place to another – and how it might work (or not work, in some cases). The first, The Shobies, describes the first human attempt at faster than light travel, which is complicated by the differing personalities of the crew. Dancing to Ganam uses the technology but isn’t really about it. It focuses instead on the characters, one of whom seriously misunderstands a new culture, leading to disaster. The title story is the last and best of the book, centering on the emotional development of a powerful main character. These three stories are more fleshed out and have the quality work I am used to from LeGuin.
Overall, I’m not sorry I read the book, but in the future I will stick to her novels.