Non-Fiction Reviews

Dreams Must Explain Themselves
and Other Essays 1972–2004

(2018) Ursula K. Le Guin, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, vi + 389pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20594-9


In the foreword to this collection, the late Ursula Le Guin describes the writing as a ‘carrier bag of ideas’ and there is probably no better way to sum it up. Dreams Must Explain Themselves is a collection of speeches and essays from Le Guin that cover a vast array of subjects around the topic of writing.

Gollancz have been publishing an array of Le Guin’s short works in recent years and this is a very welcome assembly of her non-fiction. The essays are in chronological order and outline her developing thoughts on the craft of writing, specifically, the craft of writing fantasy and science fiction.

There is something inherently accessible about Le Guin’s writing. Readers looking for an instruction manual or guide on how to improve their own work will not find an organised primer or set of sweeping statements on how everything has to be done. Instead, Le Guin considers each subject that occurs to her and develops her thinking through each line and sentence. Nothing is wasted, nothing is obscure or difficult to understand. There are moments when she considers specific writing techniques and does so with examples drawn from an array of writing influences, illustrating her points with clear and direct comparisons.

Le Guin’s early writing in the 1970s is particularly informative, taking to task, the systemisers and the meticulous world builders of the genre who reduce their narratives to manuals and transplanted mainstream fiction. Much as there are some moments when these articles feel like they are of their time in the ways they provide examples and reflect on the writing of that period, the lessons are still incredibly relevant. From Elfland to Poughkeepsie is particularly instructive and would make a good companion to Moorcock’s Epic Pooh, whereas the titular essay, Dreams Must Explain Themselves is advice in keeping ideas fresh from the writer’s discovery of them, to the moment the reader discovers them.

The essays move on through the years and decades. In each, Le Guin remains current to the time, drawing examples from a variety of popular and literary sources. Writing about Italo Calvino sits alongside deliberations on Star Wars, Doris Lessing and Harry Potter.

As the book moves into the twenty-first century, Le Guin’s observations turn towards the rise in popularity of fantasy in film and television. There is a clear identification (by her) of formulaic fantasy and the dangers of replicating the same components that were first created by giants in the genre. She warns of the dangers of the escape into the unreal becoming another well-trodden path, rendered boring and bland by the repetition of what has already been done, and urges new writers to find and embrace new writing that communicates new ideas.

The collection concludes with Le Guin’s short acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in 2014, a call to arms for writers and artists to remain visionary and ‘imagine other ways of being’ despite the gathering fears of the present. Le Guin’s identification of the issue at the time seems prescient given what has transpired since, and her words are brought into much sharper focus in the political climate of 2018.

Dreams Must Explain Themselves is an excellent collection of Ursula Le Guin’s writing and a great addition to the library of any science fiction and fantasy reader and Le Guin fan.

Allen Stroud

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