Paradises Lost

by Ursula Le Guin

We had a moment of confusion in class about how old Hsing and Luis are at the end of the story. I thought maybe late 20s/early 30s; Nico thought 60s. I just reread the end and realized the answer to this question is ambiguous. The final segments aren’t dated. One clue is Hsing saying, ‘Alejo went fishing with the children’—so we know Hsing’s baby is no longer a baby, but is he a toddler (as I’d thought), or an adult with his own children? Luis’ hair is described as a ‘silver nimbus,’ but is that the hair color or the reflected sunlight? Luis is described as ‘both old and damaged’ and Hsing’s knees are ‘not so good these days,’ but is this due to normal aging over decades, or premature aging from the stress and trauma of the new planet?

Through most of the book, we know exactly when we are (the date is given in each section heading), but not where we are (navigation is off-limits to us as well as the characters). At the end, we’re finally grounded somewhere, but ‘time is not measured as it was’ (348); ‘time [is] not the same here’ (p. 353).  

Were you surprised by how similar Shindichew is to Earth? Usually a sci-fi story about space travel will reward us with some cool/weird difference: the new planet has two suns! little green men! constant subzero climate! etc. Le Guin doesn’t give us any of that: Shindichew  has one sun, changing seasons, brown dirt, trees, bacteria, tiny crawling invertebrates, water, wind, rain, grass, hills, rivers. It could be Earth. I didn’t even notice this as anticlimactic, which I think is the point (and brilliant of Le Guin): we’re seeing the planet through these characters’ eyes, and for them it is all new and weird and different.

We talked about the role of language and words in this story. Luis and Hsing both have an odd, fraught relationship with words. As Dani noted, they believe that the physical, acoustic qualities of words are meaningful: they want to replace ‘dinky’-sounding penis (high front vowels, voiceless consonants) with grander-sounding gowbondo (low back vowels, voiced consonants, additional syllable). They’re also fascinated with abstract meanings: they puzzle over superficial (p. 255), discovery (p. 270), nature (p. 276), belief vs. hope (p. 299), bliss vs. delight (p. 361), and of course freedom (p. 278). For Luis, words are ‘dark stars, some small and dark and solid, some immense, complex, subtle, with a powerful gravity-field that attracted infinite meanings to them.’ (pp. 278-279) Remember, Hsing means ‘star’ and Luis’ last name is Nova

Hsing and Luis are drawn to physical things more generally, as we noted. Hsing refuses contraceptive shots, hates the kitten video and gets claustrophobic in the VR, and enjoys solving the navigation problem herself, without computers. Luis obsessively runs through every option in the ‘Jungle’ VR and leaves unsatisfied—he wants reality, with its unlimited, unpredictable options. His asthma means that he never has enough air on the ship; when he’s distressed he wants to go ‘outside.’  

When they finally do go outside for the first time, the experience is catastrophic: ‘to lose understanding, to go mad… to be translated into a language where no word—ground, air—transgress, affirm—act, do—made sense. A world without words. Without meaning. A universe undefined.’ (p. 348)

It matters that Hsing and Luis spent so much of their time on the ship in silence: ‘They were each other’s privacy.’ (307) It matters that Hsing gave Luis a physical book to write his thoughts in, and that she called it ‘A Box to Hold Luis’ Mind’ (p. 321).

The final scene—Luis and Hsing slow-dancing barefoot on the dirt—is utterly gorgeous and reminds me of Adam and Eve at the very end of Paradise Lost:

Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Those lines kill me, every time.

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