Cardinal Directions: Contemporary Fantasy vs. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Compass Rose”

Ursula K. Le Guin portrait alongside his book, The Compass Rose

[Photo of “The Compass Rose” author, Ursula K. Le Guin, in May 2009, courtesy of Marian Wood Kolisch]

Fantasy is an easy genre to write in, but a tricky one to get right.

I’d wager that most children first catch the bug of obsessive reading with a book that can, however loosely, be shelved under “Fantasy”. After all, it’s perfectly primed for such budding minds: vast, imaginary landscapes, wacky characters with wacky names, surreal events, sweeping adventures, and so on. For a reader like myself, whose love for literature first developed out of a need for whimsical escapism, it’s difficult to shake the genre’s influence on the mind even when one’s taste diversifies outside of the market, and especially when one gets to writing books instead of just reading them. Its allure is undeniable: the author is not straightjacketed by realism, nor is she indebted to any kind of historical accuracy – why, when she can create her reality’s rules, and its past, ex nihilo? This is writing, when in its infancy, borrowed mostly from myths and legends, where fantastical thinking was required to describe and explain away strange phenomena, or to simply make shit up, sans the sort of demarcations our contemporary understanding of literature requires writers to adhere to.

Of course, the moment when one starts waxing poetic about fantasy, cliches start snapping shut around one’s feet. Before I feel the urge to pinpoint what, exactly, “Fantasy” is, or to differentiate its sub-genres and practitioners, I’ll do my best to keep any talk of the genre strictly in terms of craft and leave the rest to scholars. Suffice it to say that writing fantasy is no more or less imaginative than science fiction, horror, mystery, crime, thrillers, and “literary fiction” (a rather bland label for books we’re expected to take seriously, as distinct from the previously mentioned categories), the only real differences being that of flavor, style, and aesthetics – imagining oneself into 19th century Indonesia, or writing about blue-collar workers in Alberta, or writing a free-verse sonnet from the perspective of a government bureaucrat are about as extraordinary a set of acts as creating a dragon, in my view. To write anything in a fictional mode is to fantasize, to morph the world into one’s desired image, and even the most outlandish tales require some mooring to reality. Isn’t anything set in Narnia or Prydain or Discworld or the caverns of Mars essentially set on the most familiar ground of all: the human mind? Even if the characters portrayed resemble none of the organic life on Earth?

In any case, much is said about fantasy, much of it silly, much of it repetitive, and much of it not very helpful, especially when it comes to writing it, and writing it well, to boot, since writing well is an activity not limited to the same divisions the marketplace advertises. As the novelist and philosopher Charles Johnson so often states: “Writing well is thinking well.” Not “writing about the contemporary political arena well,” nor “checking off a list of appropriate world-building mechanics well,” but “thinking well.” What should this mean, then, for the fantasy writer?

To begin with, it doesn’t mean trapping oneself into over-trodden tropes, an all-too easy mistake for the novice. One of my many problems with contemporary fantasy is how small, pedestrian and copy-cat it is, especially for a genre with such reality-bending capabilities. Open up any swords-and-sorcery type novel (a staple of the genre, and its most popular manifestation) and even a cursory look should reveal cliché after cliché, whether through character, plot, or on the syntactic level. Take, for instance, this from Steven Erikson, in the very beginning of his acclaimed Malazan Book of the Fallen series:

The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had been bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.

Don’t get me wrong, Erikson certainly isn’t the worst offender, by far, and his books are quite fun for the avid fantasy reader. The passage has a nice flow to it, but look at the equation of rust with blood, the over-modification, the “leering grin” and “squealing protest.” And all this in the first paragraph. Simple choices like these “grease the wheel”, so to speak, for the average reader’s experience, but fail to heighten its quality as literature. What makes it even more worrying is that Erikson is considered a Master in the genre, by his peers and fans alike.

How about this, from Jim Butcher, in Changes, the tenth book in his bestselling urban fantasy The Dresden Files:

From the street came a wheezy little beep-beep! The Blue Beetle came slowly down the street and stopped in front of the building. Molly was behind the wheel, waving at me frantically.

I hurried down the street and got in before the mismatched color scheme of my car sent the obsessive-compulsive federal personnel in the building behind me into a conniption. As Molly pulled away, I buckled up, then got a sloppy kiss on the face from Mouse, who sat in the backseat, his tail going thump-thump-thump against the back of the driver’s seat.

For a series marketed to adults, one feels like a child being read to, what with the onomatopoeia. The Dresden Files is full of this, and worse, and I’d know, since it happens to be my favorite book series, regardless of genre.

Now, these aren’t stellar passages, to say the least, but they’re not exactly fantasy-specific, you might point out. Open up a James Patterson novel, or a harlequin romance, and odds are you’d get similar results.

I’ll quote part of a sequence that takes up several passages from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, for an example of the sort of writing you’ll get in popular fantasy:

Kelsier continued to burn iron, Pulling himself toward the keep at a tremendous speed. Some rumors claimed that Misborn could fly, but that was a wistful exaggeration. Pulling and Pushing against metals usually felt less like flying than it did like falling – only in the wrong direction. An Allomancer had to Pull hard in order to get the proper momentum, and this sent him hurtling toward his anchor at daunting speeds.

Kelsier shot toward the keep, mists curling around him. He easily cleared the protective wall surrounding the keep’s grounds, but his body dropped slightly toward the ground as he moved. It was his pesky weight again; it tugged him down. Even the swiftest of arrows angled slightly toward the ground as it flew.

The drag of his weight meant that instead of shooting right up to the roof, he swung in an arc. He approached the keep wall several dozen feet below the rooftop, still traveling at a terrible speed.

Taking a deep breath, Kelsier burned pewter, using it to enhance his physical strength much in the same way that tin enhanced his senses. He turned himself in the air, hitting the stone wall feet-first. Even his strengthened muscles protested at the treatment, but he stopped without breaking any bones. He immediately released his hold on the roof, dropping a coin and Pushing against it even as he began to fall. He reached out, selecting a source of metal above him – one of the wire housings of a stained-glass window – and Pulled on it.

The coin hit the ground below and was suddenly able to support his weight. Kelsier launched himself upward, Pushing on the coin and Pulling on the window at the same time. Then, extinguishing both metals, he let momentum carry him the last few feet up through the dark mists. Cloak flapping quietly, he crested the lip of the keep’s upper service walkway, flipped himself up over the stone railing, and landed quietly on the ledge.

Alright, so what you see here is one of the many obligatory action scenes in a fantasy novel in which one of the characters demonstrates the author’s carefully devised magic system. This is either during an action sequence or in a lesson, which is less popular since this involves more “telling” than “showing”, as the dreaded writing workshop canard goes. Usually, the more complex the system, the more physics (or some other real-world science) is employed to confirm its complexity. You’ll get reams of this in fantasy, not just in Sanderson, because part of what fantasy is, nowadays, is building one’s Fantasy World™ according to certain expectations of what it should contain: a magic system (which one: hard or soft?), character classes (is your protagonist a Paladin or Rogue? Chaotic Good or Lawful Evil?), a vast compendium of lore (Tolkien started it, and now every fantasy writer’s adding in little ditties, scraps of poems, and faux languages/histories to beef up their paracosms), and so forth.

The quoted passage is fun, to a certain extent, but more so for a reader already well-acquainted with the genre. It’s action-packed and Sanderson is well-known for his rigorously consistent magic systems – hell, he practically invented most hardcore fantasy readers’ conception of magic in fantasy, himself. But it also reeks of the aforementioned Writing Workshop “show, don’t tell” nostrum, how every movement is described (down to Kelsier’s cloak flapping about) as if we were reading a movie as opposed to absorbing literature. I was surprised at how laborious the act of transcribing the scene was – for such a brief moment in the book, there’s a lot that could’ve been trimmed. How many times does the speed at which he’s moving need to be qualified, for instance? Surely in three tiny paragraphs, “tremendous”, “daunting” and “terrible” aren’t too distinct from one another.

The more character-driven aspects of fantasy don’t perform well, either. It’s been said before, but how many Chosen One storylines do we need before the trope collapses under the weight of so many prophecies? How many times must we subvert the trope to (unsuccessfully) prove our daring? How many assassins must be dark-eyed and lithe and slow to speak, and how many thieves must be roguish, insouciant and quick-tongued? All those classes and sub-classes might make for a fun Dungeons & Dragons campaign, but is a complex human being reducible to stock traits and values? If so, why stick to the basics, then? Why not go deeper? I’m afraid that Fantasy (and this applies to the Young Adult subcategory, as well, which is an even more noxious brew of cliché and melodrama), has been consumed by an impulse to deepen the World – to flesh out its innumerable particulars – but not, necessarily, to deepen the soul. I don’t mean that in a precious way, because remember, I don’t valorize fantasy’s ability to create compelling stories any more than other genres. Yet every time I return to a fantasy book, of all things, I am drawn in by the careful detail of the author’s world but run into the same types of basic heroes, the same onerous pronouncements by hooded figures, the same nerdy wit and humor from bardic scalawags, and the same simplistic struggles that, even on an epic scale, wear thin on an experienced reader.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, this is just endemic to the genre. If fantasy was borne out of mythmaking, then all that crude, raw conception of what makes a person a person was there at the beginning. Archetypes, or, at worst, stereotypes, fare better in myth, and they certainly come in handy when you’re busy making sure those Fire Cantrips are working properly for your battlemage.

A young Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Compass Rose

I’m not the first person to complain about modern fantasy, and I certainly won’t be the last. And yes, I’m well aware that two of the prose examples I cited are well over a decade old, with the other being part of a series begun in 2000. Fantasy has moved on since then, with a much more diverse set of writers at the helm. However, as I mentioned briefly, all three writers are hailed as the best in the genre, and many up-and-comers look to their works for inspiration – thus perpetuating many of their idols’ defects.

It’s one thing to complain, though, and another to suggest solutions. Are there any examples of high-quality works in the genre? I would say so, particularly among the classics, but even there, like with (ugh) literary fiction, some of them are praised as masterpieces but read like anything but.

This past year, in the midst of the pandemic, I actually went on a brief nostalgic binge through some childhood favorites of mine, particularly in fantasy. A lot of juvenile stuff, some urban fantasy, a couple epic tomes; however, despite enjoying some of the feelings multiple re-readings conjured out of the past, I found myself disappointed more and more by all the problems I outlined earlier. Things my childhood could forgive, but as a more experienced reader (and writer), no longer.

One book I did return to, time and again, without any considerable lag of interest, was a book I read not as a kid, but only a few years ago, well into adulthood. In a way, despite being old enough to buy alcohol, I was still a child – this was during the nascency of what I call my literary maturity, for lack of a better term. Simply put, when I actually started giving a fuck about what I was reading rather than doing it for pure pleasure.

I encountered Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1982 short story collection The Compass Rose at a used bookstore, as a college student. It was a battered, mass-market paperback I bought because it, admittedly, looked cooler than the rest of the Le Guin selection they sold. It also had a nice title and, to be fair, the blurb on the back of the book (reproduced below) promised a work more curious in the genre than something like Patrick Rothfuss’s infamously incomplete The Kingkiller Chronicles, which were fun books but ones I’d blown through in a few days, not long before reading Le Guin’s collection. Certainly this was distinguishable from swords-and-sorcery:

THE MANY POINTS OF WONDER

From dream worlds to nightmare planets, through mazes of madness to tiny time holes in space, down Pathways of Desire to a New Atlantis, Ursula K. Le Guin’s THE COMPASS ROSE points the way to the wonder-filled mind-country of a remarkable writer.

I was familiar with Ursula K. Le Guin mainly through Dan Schneider of Cosmoetica.com, who, in a few essays, praised her book The Lathe of Heaven. Of course, I’d heard of her Earthsea growing up (of all her books, it has the most truck with the epic fantasy genre I’ve been critiquing), but they never stuck out enough for me to pick them up as a kid. I had started The Lathe of Heaven and was amazed by the opening passage with the jellyfish metaphor, but never got past the fourth or fifth chapter, due to laziness more than anything.

I eventually read that book, but from the get-go, The Compass Rose was different. It was a fresh discovery, for one, and thus not burdened by the expectations of a glowing recommendation. It is also a book of short stories, which offers a more lax approach to its completion, as opposed to the more long-term commitment of finishing a novel.

The book is divided in six directions: Nadir, North, East, Zenith, West, South. Ursula K. Le Guin explains herself in the brief but intriguing Preface thusly:

By calling this book The Compass Rose I hoped to suggest that some pattern or coherence may be perceived in it, while indicating that the stories it contains tend to go off each in its own direction. They take place all over the map, including the margins. It is not even clear to me what the map is a map of. A mind, no doubt; presumably the author’s. But I expect there is more to it than that. One’s mind is never simply one’s own, even at birth, and ever less so as one lives, learns, loses, etc.

The four directions, NESW, of the Rose of the Winds, our magnetic compass, converge into or arise out of an unspoken fifth direction, the center, the corolla of the rose.

Many of the American peoples who were dispossessed by the compass-guided invaders from the East structured their world upon the four wind directions (or half-directions) and two more, Above and Below, also radial to the center/self/here and now, and thus the Universe. This is the compass in four dimensions, spatial and temporal, material and spiritual, the Rose of the New World.

As a guide to sailors, this book is not to be trusted. Perhaps it is too sensitive to local magnetic fields.

The world Ursula K. Le Guin builds is not the heavily detailed pseudo-cosmos of the modern high fantasy writer, but a world fleshed out of the more puzzling interiors of mind and soul. Its coherence rises out of the brief connections between tales (connections more emotional/thematic, rather than plot-related) and the compass metaphor. The stories have vast range, from the intergalactic down to the levels of an ant colony; some are quite quirky and humorous, while others are melancholy and dramatic. Most of the stories generally classify as fantasy, with a few stabs at sci-fi and even pure realism along the lines of standard literary fiction. In truth, however, the book dispenses of such easy categorizations and sticks to what’s essential in quality storytelling, e.g. character depth, emotional and intellectual sophistication, and flat-out good prose.

In “The New Atlantis”, perhaps my favorite story of The Compass Rose, a woman endures through a futuristic dystopia in which marriage is outlawed and the state is overrun by corporatism and thought policing. Her husband, a scientist, has just returned from Rehabilitation Camp and is in danger of being sent back due to his flirtations with democracy. The story details their relationship, and throws in keen political insights, but its main attraction is a curious side-plot regarding the rising of an old continent on which is perched the lost city of Atlantis. As Belle (the protagonist) cares for her husband, practices viola, and contemplates her world, the narrative is interspersed with the ruminations of what are, ostensibly, the newly awakened inhabitants of Atlantis. Here is the major part of their first passage:

It was dark for so long, so very long. We were all blind. And there was the cold, a vast, unmoving, heavy cold. We could not move at all. We did not move. We did not speak. Our mouths were cold, pressed shut by the cold and by the weight. Our eyes were pressed shut. Our limbs were held still. Our minds were held still. For how long? There was no length of time; how long is death? And is one dead only after living, or before life as well? Certainly we thought, if we thought anything, that we were dead; but if we had ever been alive, we had forgotten it.

There was a change. It must have been the pressure that changed first, although we did not know it. The eyelids are sensitive to touch. They must have been weary of being shut. When the pressure upon them weakened a little, they opened. But there was no way for us to know that. It was too cold for us to feel anything. There was nothing to be seen. There was black.

But then— “then,” for the event created time, created before and after, near and far, now and then— “then” there was the light. One light. One small, strange light that passed slowly, at what distance we could not tell. A small, greenish-white, slightly blurred point of radiance, passing.

Our eyes were certainly open, “then,” for we saw it. We saw the moment. 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.

It did not occur to us that there might be another moment. There was no reason to assume that there might be more than one. One was marvel enough: that in all the field of the dark, in the cold, heavy, dense, moveless, timeless, placeless, boundless black, there should have occurred, once, a small, slightly blurred, moving light! Time need be created only once, we thought.

Seven lights in a row, proceeding fairly rapidly, with a darting movement, from left to right. Proceeding less rapidly from right to left, two dimmer, greenish lights. Two-lights halt, blink, reverse course, proceed hastily and in a wavering manner from left to right. Seven-lights increase speed, and catch up. Two-lights flash desperately, flicker, and are gone.

Seven-lights hang still for some while, then merge gradually into one streak, veering away, and little by little vanish into the immensity of the dark.

But in the dark now are growing other lights, many of them: lamps, dots, rows, scintillations; some near at hand, some far. Like the stars, yes, but not stars. It is not the great Existences we are seeing, but only the little lives.

A few more of these interspersions occur, all as strangely visual and philosophical as the last. While one can certainly picture this as the actual city of Atlantis rising (the imagery gets more specific, near the end), with its time-locked citizens rushing into awareness, one can also equate this with Belle’s rising political consciousness, especially when her husband and his bohemian-scientist peers start experimenting with a device that can harness sunlight, thus robbing the government of its monopoly on energy.

Another favorite from The Compass Rose, and an effective mood piece that shows off Ursula K. Le Guin’s skill at description, is “The First Report of the Shipwrecked Foreigner to the Kadanh of Derb”, in East. Here, a Terran is caught in the presence of some alien authority and must relate to it information of his/her home world, a la Scheherazade. Put off by the difficulty of the task, the foreigner settles on a description of Venice, which begins thusly:

“Once upon a time there was a city. All other cities of all times and places were alike in many ways. This city was unlike them all, in many ways; and yet it manifested more fully than any of the others the Idea of a city. It was populated by birds, cats, people, and winged lions, in roughly equal proportions. The lions were all literate. Seldom did one see a lion without a book in its paw. The cats were illiterate, but highly civilized. Observing a large family group at ease in the shrubbery of a shady garden fenced from all intrusion, or a ritual confrontation of toms on the moonlit stones of a city square, or the leisurely progress from roof to roof of a silken and silvery maiden, one might well conclude not only that the city had been built for, but that the art of living in it had been brought to perfection by, the cats. But as soon as one looked at a lion one would have to question this; for, with all their resemblances to the cats in form and feature, the complete tranquility of the lions, their universal expression of benevolent pride and conscious mastery, surely indicated a state of mind transcending mere happiness, approaching joy. You might see the corpse of a cat floating under a bridge along with soft-drink bottles and rotten oranges, but looking up from that sorry sight you would see by the steps of the bridge a lion frowning beatifically through his mane, his stone wings folded; for what better place could he ever fly to?”

Each story in The Compass Rose contains themes/ideas that connect, even if just metaphorically, to its ascribed direction. For instance, the Nadir and Sur stories are linked to the idea of depth, a downward motion, or a depletion of some sort. The very last story, in the Sur category, and so titled, takes place in Antarctica, and the two heavily physics-related stories (“Schrodinger’s Cat” and “Some Approaches to the Problem of the Shortage of Time”) are in Nadir and Sur, respectively. They imagine our universe malformed at the fundamental level, and are humorous, in an academic sense, with “Schrodinger’s Cat” leaning into intense surrealism.

North deals with ideas of the afterlife, geographic north, and a character who functions as a kind of North Star for the protagonist until things go terribly awry. Zenith is similarly themed, with the majority of the stories being set in outer space. East is concerned with the exotic, or more cogently the Other, and how the presence of the Other affects one’s continuity. West features ideas of progress or betterment, and how its characters deal with the need to improve or fix some essential brokenness in themselves.

It isn’t an altogether clean divide, of course. Many of the themes bleed across the different sections, and some stories like “Two Delays on the Northern Line” (North) and “The Water is Wide” (West) have a stronger connection despite their differing placement. “Mazes” (Zenith) portrays failed communication between two species alienated by appearance, language and custom, and to fatal detriment, and could easily be in East. The book does not suffer, though, as this reinforces the fundamental coherence of the book, and lends credence to Le Guin’s claim that her compass navigates the reader through a map of mind – not necessarily hers, but perhaps the reader’s as well.

Is The Compass Rose a great book? I wouldn’t say so, although many of the stories are quite good, and display far better writing than the majority of contemporary fantasy. Ursula K. Le Guin is at her best when dealing with emotion, and the emotional connections between people, like in “The Diary of the Rose” and “Malheur Country” (the most straightforwardly realistic tale). Here, the fantastical elements are built around a solid human core, rather than being the end-all-be-all of the tale. Her prose can be somewhat workaday, not always stellar, but the quality rises more out of the interactions between characters and the philosophical contemplations Le Guin is so deft at. The worst stories are not bad at all, simply funny oddities with no real weight to them. However, it is a book that dares much despite its size, and is the very essence of what fantasy is and should be. Its landscapes feel more real than the most painstakingly built Fantasy World™ because they are freely imaginative but grounded. “Malheur Country” acts as a sort of anchor, in this way, returning the reader to the comparatively quotidian (here, a widow comforts her recently widowed son-in-law, and must come to terms with her essential loneliness in the world. It is a sad tale, and perhaps the best of the bunch) while staying true to the spirit of the book. Unfortunately, fantasy nowadays has more to do with elves and goblins (or just any weird fantastical race) and/or constructing grand paracosms than challenging the reader’s expectations with the unexpected turns and dives in the imagination that The Compass Rose contains.

I hope fantasy writers somehow get ahold of a book like this to get a taste of a more creative approach to the genre, and to learn what good writing is, first, before delving into the minutiae that their peers might obsess over. Those writers treat writing as simply a vehicle for plot and see immersion as an overwhelm of detail, oftentimes material, rather than it being realized through character explored from the inside out. This is not easy, and improvement takes time and effort – in any genre. However, once this is understood, the responsible writer begins to sacrifice such extraneous material in exchange for depth. Depth might not be the prerogative of the Fantasy Writer™, but for any serious practitioner of the craft, it’s what one strives for, at one’s best.

Many fantasy books begin with a map of their imagined world’s terrains and nations. This mainstay inclusion serves to show off the author’s carefully thought-out preparation before they unfurl their vast panorama of dramatis personae, conlangs, and plots within plots. The Compass Rose does not include a map, despite the temptation of its title. It doesn’t need one, for it lets the reader do their own navigating; its terrain does not restrict the traveler to the bounds of a preset location, but instead leaps across time and space and even further into the more mystifying dimensions of the soul. Ursula K. Le Guin offers no spectacular battles or grand quests in her tales but what the characters (and, in turn, the readers) experience is far richer than any spell-wrought MacGuffin. No, The Compass Rose might not be at the pinnacle of the best literature can offer, but in fantasy, where so much of what should be free and daring has ossified into sameness, its example illumines, nonetheless, and sets the course.

* * *

If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include an interview with singer Eva Schubert on writing good songs, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion of photography from Alfred Stieglitz to Fan Ho and Vivian Maier.

More from Ezekiel Yu: Realism vs. Magic: On John Sayles’s “Men with Guns” (1997), Where David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” (2021) Fails, Dual Doldrums: “Office Space” (1999) vs. “Clockwatchers” (1997)