Posted by: Mish | August 21, 2009

the Compass Rose

The Compass Rose is a mixed bag of twenty short stories by Ursula Le Guin, who warns in the preface that the stories “tend to go off each in its own direction”. Grouped into six sectioned directions, they vary from family matters to the sciences and from serious to humorous. The anthology contains fiction, science-fiction, fantasy, speculation, and academia. Similarly, the writing varies from data to prose, while “Intracom” is a script. On one hand, this shows how versatile a writer Le Guin is, but on the other, some may feel deterred by the inconsistency. It should be noted that these stories, summarized below, were previously printed in magazines and books before being compiled under one binding.

I liked the Compass Rose well-enough, but found it best to read slowly. I read one or two stories in a day, if I had the energy and picked the book up at all. Some stories were more difficult to comprehend or get through than others. “Schrödinger’s Cat” reminded me why I didn’t go into science, but the anthology shows off Le Guin’s academic range. One of my two favorites is “the Author of the Acacia Seeds” with its look at languages. Most of the stories ranked a 3 or 4 out of 5.

I’m glad a friend handed me the anthology because it gave me the opportunity to explore more of Le Guin’s writing, which I generally really like. I do not recommend it as an introduction to Le Guin’s writing or sci-fi. The Lathe of Heaven or the Left Hand of Darkness would better serve those purposes. If one likes fantasy and young adult, I suggest the Earthsea series. The Compass Rose isn’t for everyone, but then tastes and perception of literature are relative.

Counting towards a short story reading challenge, twenty shots…

“The Author of the Acacia Seeds”:
Linguists’ papers about the difficulties in translating and transcribing Ant texts and Penguin dialects and the possibility of understanding Plant and Rock. What are language and art? 5/5

“Like all kinetic literatures, (Penguin poetry) is silent; unlike other kinetic literatures, it is all but immobile, ineffably subtle.”

“The New Atlantis”:
A tyrannical bureaucracy gets undone as the sea’s sleeping inhabitants, intellectuals, and artists rise in this exploration of dreams and space. The two narrations and the flow make it a bit confusing at first. 4/5

“The moment is a point of light. Whether in darkness or in the field of all light, the moment is small, and moves, but not quickly. And ‘then’ it is gone.”

“Sound is local, as sight is not. Sound is delimited by silence; and it does not rise out of the silence unless it is fairly close, both in space and time.”

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely. But that’s true only when there’s a price on power.”

“Schrödinger’s Cat”:
One won’t know if the cat is in the box or not until one opens the lid in this (thankfully) brief short about quantum theory and physics. 2/5

“Where’s here?”
“Here’s now.”

“Two Delays on the Northern Line”:
Two men ponder relatives’ deaths with different results in this short about family, life, and lonliness. 3/5

“Days were punctuated by these dashes, not periods but breaks, empty spaces in which he stopped himself from finishing the thought, or from trying to finish the thought which no longer had an end.”

A secretary recollects how Dr. Speakie’s standardized mental health test changed the utopian/dystopian world. It goes to show that sanity is relative. 4/5

“What they called freedom might well be a delusional system with no contact with reality.”

“Small Change”:
I think it’s about death, the afterlife, and how loved ones remain with us. I liked the story, even if I found it confusing, if that makes any sense. 3/5

“The First Report of the Shipwrecked Foreigner to the Kadanh of Derb”:
Through describing inhabitants and a city’s life and downfall a report about Earth is made. 4/5

“How can one describe a world? One may indeed use a small pencil to describe a large circle, but if the circle is so large that one cannot make out the curve of it even from the top of a tower, why then the pencil will wear out before it has fairly begun its task.”

“If you are listening to the silences between the sentences, you will hear the truth. As in music, when one has caught the rhythm, the pattern of the sounds and silences, then one hears the tune.”

“One reason why life is so strong there is that you can hear it.”

“The Diary of the Rose”:
A lab technician whose job it is to probe mental patients’ minds in an autocratic, dystopian society keeps a journal. 4/5

“If there is nothing wrong with him what am I supposed to cure?”

“The White Donkey”:
A young Indian woman who has befriended a donkey is saddened to know her betrothel means the end of their visits. It’s a mix of Indian and unicorn mythology that ends a bit too abruptly. 2.5/5

“The Phoenix”:
After saving a librarian from his burning stacks, a woman argues about his political views in their dystopian society. 3/5

In this slapstick script, a spaceship’s incompetent crew attempt to deal with a stowaway alien while trying to deliver their cargo to a distant galaxy on time. 2.5/5

“The Eye Altering”:
On an austere planet called New Zion, an artistic and sickly colonist shows that beauty, perception, and reality are in the eye of the beholder and the beheld. 4/5

“You have to look until you see the pattern, till it makes sense, and then you have to get that in your hand too.”

“Anybody who asks a painter a question in words deserves what they get.”

An intelligent creature narrates the humiliation and annoyances of being a lab rat and the frustration of not being able to verbally communicate with the alien scientist. 3/5

“The best maze is the mind.”

“There were no words, yet there was communication.”

“The Pathways of Desire”:
Anthropologists study a distant world’s society where there’s barely a culture and few myths, but whose language seems to be based on English. It’s about perception, reality, dreams, creation, and exploration. 3/5

“People cannot hear their native language.”

“Everything is in the head. Nothing is wood, nothing is stone, nothing is water, nothing is blood, nothing is bone.”

“When words are wanted, needed, people have to make them. It ‘happens’ like a bird singing, but it’s also ‘work,’ like Mozart writing music.”

“There is room. There is time. All the galaxies. All the universes. That is infinity. There is room. Room for all the dreams, all the desires. No end to it. Worlds without end.”

“Gwilan’s Harp”:
The destruction of a musician’s perfect harp leads to a meditation on life and aging. 5/5

“One day is the day for moving on, and overnight, the next day, there is no more good in moving on, because you have come where you are going to.”

“Thirty years, how can you say how long that is, and yet no longer than the saying of it: thirty years. How can you say how heavy the weight of thirty years is, and yet you can hold all of them together in your hand lighter than a bit of ash, briefer than a laugh in the dark.”

“Malheur County”:
Having moved in with his deceased wife’s mother, Edward re-enters life and the dating game. 3/5

“The Water is Wide”:
After behaving irrationally during his Ethics in Science lecture, a theoretical physicist is institutionalized and asks his sister to help him go. 3/5

“It comes out much the same. Fission, fusion. The human race is one great Nuclear Family.”

“The Wife’s Story”:
In four pages that lead to an unexpected twist, a wife is concerned by her husband’s oddly changing behavior. 4/5

“Some Approaches to the Problems of the Shortage of Time”:
Three scientific essays consider the advance and loss of the fuel called time. 3/5

“We have- all of us- almost entirely wasted our time. If we do not save it, we are lost. There is not much time left.”

A member of an all-women expedition recounts in her journal how they secretly became the first to visit the South Pole in 1909. 3/5



  1. I haven’t read any Ursula le Guin, which always rather puzzles me (That I haven’t red any, I mean.) I used to read mainly sci-fi/fantasy and I can’t quite understand how I managed to miss her out.

    I take your point about starting somewhere else, so I had better check out your other Ursula le Guin reviews but, ironically, this excelllent review makes me want to read the short stories!

  2. There’s so much I want to read that at times it’s mind-boggling. Writers and books tend to slip through the cracks.

    Thanks. You might like the shorts better or you may not. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts if you read it.

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