A Tribute to “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else”

The cover of "Very Far Away from Anywhere Else"

Ursula K. LeGuin died this week.

I met Ursula K. LeGuin once when she visited my local library. I did not talk to her individually, but I was in the same room with her, and I heard her speak. I was quite young at the time, and though I had already the Earthsea books and the Catwing books (cats! with wings! I’m not sure why the Catwing books are not more popular), I think at the time it had been more meaningful for my father, who had been reading her novels long before I was born.

Later, when I was in high school, I read some of the Hainish Cycle books, as well as The Lathe of Heaven. I was awed and impressed by The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed and The Lathe of Heaven, and I also enjoyed Planet of Exile (City of Illusion was a DNF for me).

When I was eighteen years old, I moved out of my parents’ home for the first time and lived in Mountain View. There is an awesome used bookstore there (I hope they are still there), and on a whim I picked up “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else” by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Unlike Ursula K. LeGuin’s most famous works, “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else” is not speculative fiction. It’s a contemporary story (contemporary to the 1970s, that is). It’s about a teenage boy who meets a teenage girl, and they get along better with each other than they do with anyone else they know. Nope, it’s not an original plot. However, what really stood out to me was all of the subtlety put into the story, especially how they were navigating the social expectations placed upon them, and trying to figure out what they actually wanted rather than following social scripts which did not necessarily work for them.

A moment which I remember especially sharply is when Natalie’s father, who is a conservative and very religious Christian, is assuming that Owen and Natalie ~must~ be having sex, and how his conservative Christian mindset actually encouraged him to fixate on sex.

When I was eighteen, I did not consciously identify as ace or aro, but I was already aware that I was different in some way. I think graduating from high school and living away from my parents raised my awareness of this difference, since I was obviously mature and independent enough to be a girlfriend and it was becoming increasingly improbable that I was ‘just a late bloomer’, yet I wasn’t interested in being a girlfriend.

And that’s when I read this novella.

That was more than ten years ago, and I’ve become fuzzy on the details, so I looked for summaries on the internet to jog my memory (I remember how I felt while reading the story much better than I remember the story itself). That is how I discovered this personal reflection.

I will be the first one to say that The Dispossessed is probably Ursula K. LeGuin’s greatest literary work (not that I’ve read all of her novels, but it’s the best of the ones I’ve read, and a lot of other people seem to point to that one as being the best as well). But reflecting back on my experiences of reading LeGuin’s work in the light of her death, my mind goes back to “Far Away from Anywhere Else” as meaning the most to me. It relates more to how I try to navigate my life than The Dispossessed does.

Though I cannot guarantee that anyone will like “Very Far from Anywhere Else” I definitely recommend it to anyone who reads this blog. I especially recommend it to anyone who is wondering about why people make such a fuss about Ursula K. LeGuin yet do not like reading speculative fiction.

6 thoughts on “A Tribute to “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else”

  1. Very weird question: is the awesome used bookstore in Mountain View you are thinking of Book Buyers, by any chance? (If so, I believe it’s gone now, but I spent a truly ridiculous amount of time there in my teens.)

    • Yes, it was. It’s sad that they closed – I have been to MANY used bookstores in my life, and BookBuyers was one of the very best.

      And I had no idea that you were in the South Bay in your teens. We may even have both been living in that area at the same time.

      • I grew up a little farther north on the Peninsula but was down in Mountain View a fair amount! (The Mountain View public library is definitely one of the best in the area and you can get a library card even if you live outside of the town.)

      • Strangely, even though I lived in Mountain View for about a year, I never visited the Mountain View library 😦 I suppose between having borrowing privilege at the Foothill College library (I was a student there) and going back to San Francisco 2-3 times a month (which was frequent enough to borrow and return books on my San Francisco Public Library card) I never felt the need. I did sometimes spend time at the Los Altos library, but that was mainly because it was a very pleasant space and it was near some of my habitual routes – I never felt inclined to try to get a Los Altos Library card.

        I know Ily spent some of her teenage years in Redwood City … hmmmm.

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