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I had not read about her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in November until I came across it online in a British newspaper yesterday morning. The 85-year-old author of many notable science fiction novels and short stories, Ursula K. Le Guin, used her barely five-minute speech to thank a few people before launching into a withering blast against the literary establishment for its ghettoization of fantasy and science fiction writers, the corporatization of book publishing, the acquiescence of authors in the selling of their works as commodities, along with some fierce jabs at Amazon for its attempt to dominate book publishing and her own publishers for their corporate greed.

Most readers of mainstream fiction will not necessarily know Le Guin, unless they came across her EarthSea trilogy when they were young or encountered her short story “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” in a high school literature anthology. That story alone reserves her a lasting place in the hearts and troubled conscience of past and future generations of intelligent adolescents. The parable tells of a kind and peaceful city whose inhabitants’ happiness is based on the suffering of a single child, locked up in a mop closet, terrified, alone in the dark, and those few, rare children and adults who, ashamed, walk away from the city into the forests and the mountains. Omelas, the students are always intrigued to discover when they turn the letters of its name around, is not a foreign fantasy realm, but our own hometown.

It is the writers of imaginary futures that will help our increasingly fearful and corporately ruled society imagine a way out of our technology dominated present, Le Guin told an audience that probably consisted of none or few of the science fiction and fantasy writers she lauded and many of the publishers and so-called realist writers she disdained. They were fierce words from a frail woman writer of genre fiction, one of the few who had ever set foot outside the literary ghetto.

Science fiction’s origins in the pulp magazines of the thirties and forties, with paper-thin plots and penny a word payments to authors, was like a mark of shame that was carried into the third and fourth generations, long after many brilliant practitioners had raised the standards for imagination and skill to a high level. I came into a great inheritance of books from science fiction’s Golden Age, the period that began roughly post-World War Two and included Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke. In my teens I encountered the New Wave and a group of experimental and literary writers like Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel R. Delany. There were the brilliant eccentrics, among them the strange and ceaselessly imaginative R.A. Lafferty, the perfectly beautiful Cordwainer Smith and the endlessly mined- for-movies Philip K. Dick.

Many of these marginalized writers were complete masters of many fields of science or engineering. In their spare time they studied history, philosophy and religion, wrote books on architecture and astronomy, Shakespeare and James Joyce. They were, I would wager, more widely read and broadly educated than their mainstream counterparts. And they brought their interests into their readers’ imaginations and opened them up to a rich cultural experience beyond the small towns where we lay in our silent bedrooms with a stack of magazines and a pile of books, imbibing worlds, yes, and galaxies.

Ursula Le Guin created some of those worlds — complex, grown-up imaginings that tested our small-town mores and conventions and made us more questioning citizens of the society we found ourselves stranded in, the city we could not walk away from.

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This summer we are planning our trip to England. In some ways we have been planning it since our daughters were old enough to read and fell in love with all the books that take place there. First it was the Harry Potter books. Then they moved on to Jane Austen. Lately we have been steeped in the time travel novels of Connie Willis about the Blitz, the German air raids on London in World War Two.

I’ve read and enjoyed those authors as well, but my favorite novel about England is The Good Companions, the story of a troupe of traveling entertainers between the world wars, as they crisscross the English countryside having romance and adventures. It is a tremendously entertaining picaresque, middle-brow novel by J.B. Priestley, a popular London playwright and novelist of the mid-twentieth century who is not often read anymore.

Then we’ve also been listening in the car to a series of lectures on CD called “London: A Short History of the Greatest City in the Western World,” which at 24 lectures is not exactly short, but it is fascinating. We may not be able to navigate the underground, but we should be pretty up on the Great Plague of 1665.

We have booked seats on the Irish airlines Aer Lingus and will be touching down for a few hours at Shannon airport going and coming, so I will be able to step outside and breathe the air where James Joyce and William Butler Yeats forged the uncreated conscience of their race. When we first booked the flight it looked like we would have a day to wander around Dublin, like Joyce’s hero in Ulysses, but the agent called back to say that flight was full. Now we will probably spend the time buying souvenirs in the airport gift shop.
We’re going to pick up a rental car at Heathrow and drive across England to the Lake District, where Wordsworth and Coleridge wandered the fields and hills, composing Lyrical Ballads (1798) in their heads, or so I imagine. Before we do that, I will have to practice driving around the car park with the steering wheel on the wrong side and a gear shifter in my left hand. Extra car insurance might be in order.

We have rented a little cottage in the Lake District for a week –”where peace comes dropping slow” as Yeats once wrote about another quiet place in another country. We haven’t given a lot of planning to this part of the trip, mostly hiking and sightseeing and maybe a day trip by train to Scotland. It has been a busy year, and I wouldn’t mind a little peace before the next part.
Then we take our time driving back across England to what is advertised as a quiet flat in North London. We will be there for a week, mostly going to things that are free, like the museums and the street markets. We will definitely take the river cruise on the Thames, which comes highly recommended, and visit the Charles Dickens Museum, which was once the author’s home. I’ve lived in three or four biographies of Dickens. In fact, all of my family has lived in England for most of our lives, in a literary way. We are just going home for a visit.

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