This mini-site serves as companion to Moonbound, the new novel by Robin Sloan, coming from MCD×FSG in June 2024.

A challenge to herself

The great one, her greatest critic

There’s too much to say about Ursula K. Le Guin, and it’s too scary to say it: her spirit was so vital, her intellect so formidable, that the suspicion grows … if your consid­er­a­tion doesn’t rise to her standard, that spirit will surely rise and chide you for being dull.

Anyway, the compe­ti­tion is too stiff, because the foremost critic of Ursula K. Le Guin was: Ursula K. Le Guin. I have the beautiful doorstop compi­la­tion titled The Books of Earthsea

The Books of Earthsea

—in which each novel is bracketed by her intro­duc­tion and/or afterword, and these framing pieces read as engross­ingly as the narrative chapters. There’s also a bonus critical essay, Earthsea Revisioned, in which she considers the saga as a whole.

Even her novels are, in a sense, commen­tary on her novels. The books of Earthsea grow in subtlety and wisdom, one to the next: The Tombs of Atuan a correction to A Wizard of Earthsea, Tehanu a correc­tion to the whole fantasy genre. (Tehanu also boasts, I have to add, the best climax I have ever read in any novel, of any genre. In every climax, we should encounter the protagonist’s best efforts, and something extra: the breath of the gods. In Tehanu’s climax, the breath is STRONG.)

I have the sense, sometimes, of Ursula K. Le Guin writing novels simply so that Ursula K. Le Guin will have something worthy of her consid­er­a­tion.

There’s too much to say, and it’s too scary to say it.

There is one thing I can prise out of the tombs; one thing that might not rouse the slum­bering intellect; one thing small but/and mean­ingful to me, and to Moonbound.

It is a line at the conclu­sion of A Wizard of Earthsea — a stirring glimpse of what lies ahead for the book’s young protagonist, beyond the final page:

In the Deed of Ged nothing is told of that voyage nor of Ged’s meeting with the shadow, before ever he sailed the Dragons’ Run unscathed, or brought back the Ring of Erreth-Akbe from the Tombs of Atuan to Havnor, or came at last to Roke once more, as Archmage of all the islands of the world.

That reads a bit dense, perhaps, if you haven’t just followed Ged for many chapters; but let me assure you that, if you have — if you now feel the book’s pages dwindling perilously in the grip of your right hand — it is absolutely fabulous. Every proper noun an enticement. You want to know it all, yet it doesn’t matter that you don’t.

Show me richer world­building in fewer words.

In her intro­duc­tion to The Tombs of Atuan, the next book in the series, the author addresses this:

So when I wrote the last words of the [A Wizard of Earthsea]—[the words you just read, up above]—what was in my mind was not a teaser for a sequel, but only the resounding, echoing closure of a story told.

However … 

A writer sometimes writes a message for herself, to be read when she begins to under­stand it.

Let’s be clear: at the time she added that line to A Wizard of Earthsea’s conclu­sion, Ursula K. Le Guin had no idea why a person would “sail the Dragons’ Run”. What did she know? She knew a great line. She knew a charis­matic phrase. “The Tombs of Atuan” rings with such a clear tone that it became the title of the next book in the series. “The Ring of Erreth-Akbe” is so delicious that it set the plot in motion.

So! I stole from her this technique, consciously, entirely. To Moonbound, I have added lines that ring, even if I don’t yet under­stand them. I have issued assign­ments to my future self. I have laid traps.

I work without the benefit of innocence, of course; I know what I am attempting, in a way Ursula K. Le Guin did not, at least not in that first book. I truly don’t under­stand what all of it means … not yet. I have simply aimed for evoca­tions as irresistible — assign­ments as welcome — as “brought back the Ring of Erreth-Akbe from the Tombs of Atuan”.

The Books of Earthsea is as beautiful an omnibus edition as you’ll ever find. It offers a capti­vating sequence of stories, AND, I am telling you, in these collected commentaries, the intro­duc­tions and afterwords, there is lurking a whole course on fiction writing, partic­u­larly writing over time, the way it can correct and compound.

One more thing, before I flee to safety.

There are dragons in Moonbound. They are not the dragons of Westeros, or of Middle-earth, or any other kind you have read about. Devising my dragons, I had in mind Ursula K. Le Guin’s assess­ment of her own:

Dragons are archetypes, yes; mind forms, a way of knowing. But [the dragons of Earthsea] aren’t St. George’s earthy worm, nor are they the emperor of China’s airy servant. I am not European, I am not Asian, and I am not a man. These are the dragons of a new world, America, and the visionary forms of an old woman’s mind. The mythopo­et­i­cists err, I think, in using the archetype as a rigid, filled mold. If we see it only as a vital potentiality, it becomes a guide into mystery. Fullness is a fine thing, but emptiness is the secret of it, as Lao Tze said. The dragons of Earthsea remain myste­rious me.

Following along, the dragons of Moonbound are the dragons of an even newer world. They are the dragons of California, and the internet.

And, yes, they remain myste­rious to me, too.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech accepting an award in 2014 is immortal. If you have already seen it: watch it again. Here is the clarion call. It makes me cry every time.

“Realists of a larger reality”!

First published: April 2024
Last updated:  June 2024