The literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
Joy is not something we feel in a vacuum; joy relates us to things, anchors us, unmoors us and sends us off on long voyages. Joy connects and energizes, ensorcels and inspires. It is the result of a powerful instance of interaction; a moment of encounter kindles a feeling of happiness, wonderment, and rejoicing. I can think of many joys I’ve encountered in reading fantastic literature: authors who have invigorated me; ideas that have provoked me; and works that have shattered me. But for persistent joy, for great moments of ecstasy and small moments of guidance, and for a deep feeling of satisfaction, Ursula K. Le Guin remains a primary source. And what makes that joy so special, what often makes the joy I find in fantastika so dynamic, is that it gives me hope.
I first encountered Le Guin in high school (1983 or thereabouts) via my favorite teacher. Her writing was tough going for me at first, but the more I read, the more I felt something . . . odd. Sword-and-sorcery and space opera gave me pleasure and diversion, but there was so much more in Le Guin’s writing. “[S]he was the first author who profoundly shook me up.” This may not sounds like a joyous thing, but when I finished “The Word for World is Forest,” I felt exhilarated, awakened, and strengthened. This writing was quite different than what I had read before, both in the language and its intentions.
To question reality with the fantastic creates an opportunity for joy. It may not always be complex or completely believable (like the gender-switching of The Left Hand of Darkness) but it encourages you to take chances with your thinking. Imagine a world where “the way things are” is different. Seek out the unfamiliar; engage what makes you uncertain or uncomfortable. Feel the difficulties of understanding, open yourself to them. Be thrilled when you find those chances, and be jubilant when they touch something in you. And maybe you will suddenly put some pieces together and feel the joy of something new, unexpected, and eye-opening flourishing within you. That joy-as-hope is what Le Guin gave me, and I will always be grateful for it.
John E. O. Stevens is a writer and bookseller living in Ithaca, NY. He is a columnist for SF Signal, is one-third of the Three Hoarsemen podcast, and is working on a novel and a book on the ontological resonances of reading fantastika.