The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin

The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin, Illustrated by Charles Vess

“There’s this whole difference between the circle and the spiral. We say the Earth has a circular orbit around the Sun, but of course it doesn’t. The sun moves too. You never come back to the same place, you just come back to the same point on the spiral.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Last Interview p. 165.

In early 2010, aged 24, unemployed and applying for my doctoral degree, I picked up my brother’s copy of the first four Earthsea books and read them for the first time. The only Ursula K Le Guin novel I had previously read was Gifts, the first of the Annals of the Western Shore, which did not impress me much. But A Wizard of Earthsea, well, that was another story.

While I remember the book, I do not remember much about reading Wizard. It was with The Tombs of Atuan that I fell in love with this series. I read it mostly on a trip to Oxford, researching for my DPhil, sitting in various Cafés Nero with a mocha, between visits to the History of Science Museum. Tombs was like no fantasy novel I had ever read before, and it completely changed my perspective on the genre. I soon read The Farthest Shore and Tehanu, the latter keeping me up late several nights because, while I didn’t quite get the novel at that age, I still wanted to just keep on reading it.

My brother didn’t have Tales from Earthsea so I had to borrow it from the library; once finished, though, I immediately bought myself a copy (which I have never actually read). The Other Wind, though, I just didn’t get, and very little of it stuck in my memory, maybe in part because I had a job by then. At some point in all this I ordered The Wind’s Twelve Quarters from the National Library of Wales to read “The Rule of Names” and “The Word of Unbinding”. In my notebook I wrote that Earthsea seemed unlimited as a world, which I now think means well developed, established as a place that makes sense. I was really into Earthsea in the first four months of 2010, before the Hainish/Ekumen books completely overrode them in my affections and through her blog and non-fiction Ursula K Le Guin became more of a person I admired and respected, overall.

It has been said that the golden age of science fiction is twelve, in that it is what you read at this age that defines your relationship to the genre. While what I was watching (Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and reading (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) at twelve undoubtedly had an impact on my tastes, I find this aphorism the same kind of nonsense that describing your high school/secondary school years as the best of your life. I learned so much from Earthsea, about what people as well as fiction can be, even though I read it in my mid-twenties.

I was a little intimidated, coming back to Earthsea a decade later, not least because of the monumental size of The Books of Earthsea. In her later years, Le Guin commented that she didn’t read big books because she liked to rest them on her stomach and she couldn’t take the weight any more. I imagine that this could be the only way in which The Books of Earthsea disappointed her. Certainly, toward the end of this volume, its size became an issue. But re-reading these books, especially the latter three, and the two newer stories I had not previously read, made me realise anew that it is never too late to read something that can shape your perspective on the world, and on what imaginative literature can be.

A Wizard of Earthsea

(Read 23/09/2019-02/10/2019)

My abiding impression of A Wizard of Earthsea has always been about how it explores the world in which it is set through Ged’s travels and experiences. Born on Gont, where he was called Duny at first, Ged’s power as a wizard is recognized by his dead mother’s sister who gives him his first lessons in magic. After being given his secret true name by mage Ogion the Silent, Ged, impatient to learn, unleashes something dangerous and must travel to wizard school on Roke to learn his craft. But the danger continues, with fatal results, and after many travels Ged, now known as Sparrowhawk, must ultimately face what he has set free.

I think Wizard is a great fantasy novel that sets up its world and its protagonist for the future adventures. I also think that it is probably my least favourite of the books here collected. Its position at the beginning means that it does not have the strong themes that the series establishes later, and I do not think Le Guin was yet at her full skill as a novelist when she wrote Wizard.

That being said, Le Guin is a fine writer even when she is not at her best. Ogion and Vetch are great supporting characters; setting up that world is tremendous work, and I don’t think I would love the subsequent novels quite so much without the groundwork established by Wizard. It’s also a lot funnier than I realised – the jokes about Gont being so full of wizards that rainclouds were battered about the island until they were over the sea and wouldn’t rain on anyone is great.

The Tombs of Atuan

(Read 5-17/11/2019)

On first reading, The Tombs of Atuan blew me away. Following on from the expansive world of Wizard, Le Guin went in a completely different direction with the sequel. Arha, the Eaten One, is said to be the reincarnation of the priestess of the Tombs of Atuan. Taken from her home, where she was called Tenar, she lives her life in isolation among the tombs, separate from the other priestesses and fundamentally alone. The story takes place almost entirely within the Place of the Tombs of Atuan, focusing on the roles and rituals led by Arha until the arrival of a wizard from the archipelago leads her to question her role in the world.

Perhaps because my memory of loving it was so clear, of the unusual circumstances of the first time in which I read it, The Tombs of Atuan left less of an impression on me on this re-read. I still think that it is magnificent, and different, and it really changes the scope of Earthsea after the first novel. But it is only the start of Tenar’s story and the best was yet to come.

The Farthest Shore

(Read 07-20/12/2019)

The Farthest Shore title page, illustrated by Charles Vess

The Farthest Shore, as I remembered it, resumed some of the aspects of Wizard but on a more epic scale. Young Arren, heir to the Prince of Enlad, comes to Roke to seek the counsel of the Archmage, Lord Sparrowhawk. Magic has been losing its power across the archipelago, and so together they set out to discover who is causing it, travelling far and wide, encountering raft people, dragons, and the walking dead.

I had completely forgotten the theme of the restoration of the monarchy of Earthsea, that the problems are put down to a lack of (good) governance throughout the archipelago, and Ged sees himself as restoring a lost coherence to the world. In “Earthsea Revisioned”, Le Guin talks about themes that are there, but are not intentional, and for me, especially in the light of later books, these themes can be read as the mis-management of Earth under capitalism, as humans seek only to serve their own ends. Certainly, it is here that we start to see how many factors are necessary to restore the world: repair the ring; find the king; and more, much more to come.

Whether it is the novel itself, or that I was warming to my re-read by this point, Farthest Shore is the first Earthsea book on which I took extensive notes, writing out mini-essays on its themes as I understood them, about the nature of evil, capitalism, Christianity, eternal life. Looking back on these notes having finished the novel I think that there is much that is positive in Farthest Shore’s themes that is developed in interesting ways as the story continues in the second trilogy.

My general sense of this first trilogy, though, is that it serves as essential background for what the second trilogy looks back on, reconsiders, recontextualises. Farthest Shore is for Arren/Lebannen what Wizard is for Ged and Tombs is for Tenar: backstory, set up, establishment so that when this story comes to its full fruition in the later books, it has solid roots beneath it.


(Read 18-25/04/2020)

I can no longer access my feelings about Tehanu before this re-read. My view of it as part of Earthsea has irrevocably changed as it changes Earthsea, makes it more complete, more whole.

Tenar of the Ring now lives on Gont, where she is known as Goha, widow of Farmer Flint. She rescued a girl, whom she calls Therru, from a gang that were abusing her and ultimately threw her into a fire to die, but die she did not. While looking after this girl, Tenar must attend to the dying Ogion, look after the powerless Ged on his return from the Dry Land, and even meets the new king.

Tehanu does some serious recontextualizing of the preceding Earthsea novels. We move from grand themes of heroic wizards or wizards-to-be, from priestesses and the Old Powers of the Earth, to a farmwife, a girl who is a burn survivor, and a man who has been stripped of his power. The new king in Havnor does nothing for Therru, at this stage – restoring the monarchy does not solve the personal problems of those suffering in the archipelago. Change is slow and cannot come from the top – it takes a farmwife, a woman on Gont.

Le Guin is often considered a children’s writer, something she accepted as a necessity of marketing, but in general pushed back against in the way she defied genre generally. In Tehanu, published eighteen years after Farthest Shore, she pushes back against it by inserting adult material into the narrative – household management, confronting harsh truths and trying to protect one’s children from them, and sex, both consensual and rape. But it also feels like a novel in which the narrative matures, grows more complex, on top of the young adult narrative that preceded it – much as the readers of these novels grow older, too. As the essay later in this volume attests, Tehanu revisions Earthsea, but in doing so it relies most heavily on the whole narrative, on being part of a series, so that it can alter our perspective. In this way, it feels most surprising to me that Le Guin ever thought Tehanu could be The Last Book of Earthsea.

Tales from Earthsea

(Read 22/05/2020-11/06/2020)

The first time I finished reading Tales from Earthsea, which I had ordered from the library, I immediately bought my own copy. This second time, I was similarly entranced with the volume upon finishing it. This, I suspect, is largely to do with its final story, “Dragonfly”. But there is also something to the whole of the book that adds a great deal to Earthsea as a whole.

There are five stories in Tales. “The Finder” is about a young sorcerer in Earthsea’s “Dark Time”, who is tricked and mistreated, but eventually finds his way to Roke and helps the women there to establish the school. “Darkrose and Diamond” is a love story about the choices we are forced to make between power and personal fulfilment; but also shows how the Rule of Roke has changed since the opening story. “The Bones of the Earth” tells of the earthquake on Gont prevented by Ogion – and his master, Heleth – but is also about other sources of knowledge, other sources of power, that many ignore or despise. “On the High Marsh” follows a wizard, confused and anxious about his power, and is about what power makes us lose. And “Dragonfly” is about a woman of power who comes to Roke, and the reactions of those there to this threat to their ideas about Equilibrium.

Three of these stories are essentially prequels, in that they are set prior to Wizard, although it is only “The Finder” and “The Bones of the Earth” that fill in narrative information. “The Finder” can be read as showing how institutions that we consider eternal have, in fact, deep origins and that what we believe about their history and meaning is relevant more to our current context than to what actually happened: Roke, when founded, looks very different to how Ged finds it. “The Bones of the Earth” fleshes out the reasons why Ogion may have been different to other wizards, and why training with him prepared Ged to look differently at the world when it mattered. “Darkrose and Diamond”, then, is more a thematic contribution to the story: the events do not directly build up the narrative of Earthsea as a whole, but rather show the effects of the social structures implicit in the story, and how those impact the lives of those living in it.

“On the High Marsh” fits in somewhere just before Farthest Shore, and contributes to the idea explicit in that novel that something is wrong in the world that requires fixing. Then we have the only sequel of the collection, “Dragonfly”, which is a great story about the dilemma of major change and how we face it.

Wizard and Farthest Shore offer whistle-stop tours of large swaths of Earthsea, but the stories on each of the islands are partial, hinting at a wider world rather than showing it. This is very effective. Tales goes one step further, exploring more of the islands as the lives of the people there. It shows the potential for storytelling within this word beyond the familiar characters, and while the degree to which Le Guin explored that potential herself is limited it allows readers to imagine more for themselves. It also adds detail to the history of Earthsea, looking back so that the way forward is clearer. It’s another stone on the path out of the “Dark Times”, as well as, through “The Finder”, a look back to how long that path has already been.

Tales from Earthsea title page, illustrated by Charles Vess

The Other Wind


I recalled The Other Wind being somewhat different to its predecessors, largely I think because it is structured into so few chapters. This difference is not really the case: I have some sense of how Le Guin developed as a writer, but for the most part this story works alongside the others. It is just that it is much more directly engaging with the story threads that will lead to the conclusion of this story – at least for the most part.

Alder is a sorcerer, a minor wizard, who fell in love with a woman, Lily, who died. This was not, however, the last they were to see of one another, and Alder finds himself travelling in his dreams to the Wall between the living and the dead, where he sees those he has lost. Seeking answers, he heads first to Roke and then to Gont, to see the retired Archmage Sparrowhawk, and then on to Havnor and the court of King Lebannen. The king has also summoned Tenar and Therru to the court to deal with duel problems his faces: invading dragons and a Kargish proposal. Alder’s mysteries may be the key to both, bringing great change over the whole of Earthsea.

The Other Wind deftly draws together characters, plotlines, and themes from its predecessors into what I find an immensely satisfying conclusion to the overall arc of Earthsea. If I have a complaint it is that, for much of the second and third chapters, Alder’s story is sidelined in favour of that of the dragons and the Kargs, which is only a problem insofar as it means that part of the story doesn’t develop much beyond what we get in the first and fifth chapters. This complaint is minor – the dragon and Karg stories are great, especially Seserakh. Overall, I find The Other Wind a masterclass in drawing together storylines not intended to build to a conclusion and making them work.

All the rest


In the foreword the Tales from Earthsea, in which it first appeared, Le Guin says of “A Description of Earthsea”:

“Because this kind of fictional fact, like maps of imaginary realms, is of real interest to some readers, I included the description after the stories.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, Foreword to Tales from Earthsea,in The Books of Earthsea, p. 558

I am, sad to say, no longer a reader who finds such fictional facts of much interest beyond the contexts of the stories in which they appear. There are a couple of funny comments I liked, though, so it was fine.

I have mixed feelings about the positions of “The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names” in this collection. On the one hand, they absolutely must be included to show the genesis of Earthsea, the original sketches of the world that would become much elaborated and much changed already by A Wizard of Earthsea four years later. On the other, placed here, after the novels but before the later short stories, they feel a little out-of-place, obviously earlier works after which Le Guin’s craft matured. Part of me thinks that they should be the first things in the collection, but that wouldn’t work, either. So here is the best place for them.

“The Daughter of Odren” is very much Ursula K Le Guin’s Euripides’ Elektra, although Le Guin’s love of Homer also influenced the telling. I find the story interesting in concept as much as in execution, in that it feels much more like the Hainish/Ekumen stories, which are more of a shared universe than a continuous narrative, than Earthsea, where almost every other story contributes to the whole. I do not yet know the place “Daughter of Odren” has in the whole for me; it feels like simply another story within Earthsea. As I’ve said, this is a fully realised world, and here’s evidence of it, Le Guin’s exploration of the potential scope of that world; it just feels strange because it’s pretty much unique among the stories here.

The final Earthsea story, “Firelight”, offers a kind of closure to the volume and to Le Guin’s life and work as a whole. In the afterword to The Other Wind, presumably written prior to “Firelight”, Le Guin wrote:

“I was writing my main characters through my own life and their lives, and they were long, rich lives. I am grateful to my readers for living those lives with them.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, Afterword to The Other Wind, in The Books of Earthsea, p. 893

To this reader, “Firelight” felt like a kind of closure at the end of that life, a statement that Le Guin could look back on what she had done and be fearless of what lay ahead. I find myself, reading it, concerned for Tenar and where she will go next – but I also understand that this concern reflects my own fears of my untimely death, and what my partner would do following that, than the fictional character who is well established within her community, and growing old herself.

I am ambivalent about the decision to conclude the entire volume with “Earthsea Revisioned”. The essay itself is mainly concerned with the relationship between Tehanu and the preceding three novels at a time when it was The Last Book of Earthsea. I found myself wishing for a volume that was both Earthsea and Le Guin’s non-fiction concerning Earthsea – or, perhaps more simply, critical essays on Earthsea. When I was reading The Books of Earthsea I was also reading The Last Interview, and really, that is the solution to this feeling: pairing The Books of Earthsea with Le Guin’s non-fiction for those interested, rather than overloading a collection of fiction with non-fiction.

Tehanu is, however, my favourite of the Earthsea novels, and – I would argue – the lynchpin to the series, the story that invests the others with their significance. Therefore, an essay focused on Le Guin’s aims and intentions with this novel, and thus, the scope of Earthsea as a whole, as it ended up, feels like a good conclusion. More than the excellent afterwords, it fills in how Le Guin approached Earthsea differently as she aged, how her ideas about what the world could be became more complete.

The Earthsea Spiral

“I’m not interested in talking about who I was. I’m much more interested in finding out who I am.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, “Song of Herself”, in The Last Interview, p. 134.

Looking back over the Earthsea novels, the notes I took on them over a year of working through this volume, on and off, it seems to me that I could start reading A Wizard of Earthsea again now and have a lot more to say, new insights, based on having re-read the whole series, having gone back to the start. Just as I saw them anew a decade after I first read them. You don’t come back to the same place, just the same point on the spiral.

While I was reading The Books of Earthsea, I also read The Last Interview, a collection of interviews with Le Guin over the course of fifty years or so, culminating in her final conversations with David Streitfeld. I found, at the time, that the interviews were much more interesting read alongside the books. Reading “Earthsea Revisioned”, I found myself thinking about how interesting it was to read Le Guin’s non-fiction about her own work alongside that work, especially this evocation of what she was doing with Tehanu. When you’re reading The Books of Earthsea, I strongly recommend finding some of her non-fiction to complement it.

Otherwise, The Books of Earthsea is a finely put together, if hefty, masterwork of literature. I love having all of these stories together, as a whole, as Le Guin herself came to envision them. I also find myself thinking not of an Earthsea cycle, coming around again, but an Earthsea spiral, coming around in a different place.

The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin, Illustrated by Charles Vess

Nina Allan, The Race (Titan Books: 2014)

A little over a year ago I read The Race by Nina Allan, science fiction writer and critic. I found the book interesting, reviewed it on Goodreads, and wrote a little about it in my notebook. Then, apparently, I forgot about it so much that I was looking at it in the shelf trying to remember when, exactly, I’d read it. Looking back at my notes, this is a real shame – the novel (story suite?) is thoroughly interesting.

Now that Pod Bay One is defunct (RIP) I’m looking at my notebooks and thinking that I really should get back into writing this blog again. So I’m going to write up my notes on The Race for you, whomever is reading this, with some additional notes that I discovered about the paperback version of the book after I wrote my review/these notes.

The Race

I was not expecting The Race to be anything other than a normal, ‘mundane’ science fiction novel. I use ‘mundane’ in the sense of the literary movement – Earth-bound, ‘hard’ science fiction, no extraterrestrials or interstellar flight. Throughout the whole of Jenna’s story I was expecting this narrative thread to continue, with Marce’s part, number 4, being about the missing Lumey. Well, I was half right. It took a bit of Christy’s narrative for me to realise that this was not the same world, not the past, but another reality in which Jenna and Lumey’s stories were written by Christy Peller. It took even longer for me to realise that ‘Brock Island; by Christy Peller was not an unannounced novella by another author, but part of this novel. But really, it’s that inclusion that really complicates what’s going on in The Race.

The Race is not exactly a story-suite. While the stories are thematically linked, they also tell a consistent, on-going narrative that means they don’t fully work disconnected. While it might be possible to say that Jenna and Marce are fictional characters created by Christy, a little more reflection reminds us that Christy, too, is fictional – the creation of Nina Allan. Well, we might think, so what? The conceit is still that Christy created Sapphire, Jenna, and Lumey/Marce. But the inclusion of “Brock Island” complicates that. In the story attributed to Christy, we read a thrid-person narrative of Marce’s middle age. The chapters/sections “Jenna” and “Marce” are both first person. Christy writes them, we might suppose, but they ‘exist’, really, as much as she does. It complicates the readers relationship to their fictional narratives, realistic and science fictional. What is real? we might ask. What is realism and why/how is it different to the unreal narratives of science fiction?

An additional question follows: Why is Alex’s narrative told in the third person? Because he’s male? Or, like “Brock Island”, because this story is an invention of Christy’s, a kind of consoling narrative she tells herself because she cannot face investigating Linda’s disappearance herself?

Beyond this statement about the significance of science fiction as a literary genre, there’s also a narrative function behind these shifting narratives. Christy, like the character Laura Christy in her “Brock Island”, has an experience where she ‘sees’ another world, through a mirror, which is like-but-unlike her own. Another life, somewhere different. We are given the impression that Jenna and Marce’s lives, presented to us both as Christy’s fictional narratives and through their own thoughts (also fictional narratives of Nina Allan), are not so much Christy’s creations as her hearing messages from this other world.


After I’d written the version of this blog that I wrote last Decemeber in my notebook, I started looking into other people’s readings of this novel. In doing so, I discovered that Allan had written “Brock Island” separately to be added to the Titan edition of The Race and that it was not supposed to be understood as a ‘new ending’ to the novel. Well, oops.

I don’t really think that this undermines my reading of the novel – I didn’t have the information at the time, and who are authors to control how I, the reader, understand a text just because they wrote it?! In all seriousness, in the event that I re-read this novel (which I’m keen to do, but I’m more inclined to get my hands on Allan’s other novels first) this information probably will affect my understanding of the novel and how these worlds interact. But maybe it won’t. After all, for a year this reading was just for me, and even on this blog it’s unlikely to be read by more than 2-3 people.

I am glad to have had this reading, though, because in investigating Emily St John Mandel’s follow-up to Station Eleven (Knopf: 2014), The Glass Hotel (Picador: 2020) I discovered that advanced readers were confused about the novel’s relationship to Station Eleven. One reader speculated that the plague of Station Eleven was in the imagination of one of the characters who appears in both novels. But The Race, and the conversation in Station Eleven about parallel universes, suggest otherwise: these are different, parallel, fictional narratives that invite us to question how we receive fictional stories.

Where can I get a haircut on Alpha Centauri?

I’ve recently been watching the Netflix reboot of Lost in Space, based in part on Josho’s recommendation. In this iteration of the show, the Robinson family are part of a mission from Earth to colonize a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, allowing certain members of the human race to escape the worsening effects of climate change on Earth and see blue skies again in another part of the galaxy.

In order to become part of this mission, applicants had to pass a series of tests designed to ensure that they were both physically capable, emotionally resilient, and generally useful enough to contribute to the colony. Not everyone became part of the mission by following the rules; and there seems to be some value given to artistry, as Penny Robinson’s place on the trip seems to be based on her desire to one day write a novel (unless the decision-makers recognized the invaluable contribution her snark makes to the mission and the show). Nevertheless, the aim was for the colony to represent the best of the best of the best.

The people of the planet Golgafrincham in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had almost the opposite idea for their space colonization mission – or rather, their mission to rid themselves of a third of their population whom they believed to be useless. Having divided their people into the Thinkers – scientists, artists, and other high achievers – the Doers – people who made things – and everyone else – middle men, such as lawyers, hairdressers, and telephone sanitizers – the Golgafrinchans convinced the middlemen that their world was doomed, and sent them all off in an Arc Ship to crash-land onto a distant planet in the unfashionable western spiral arm of the galaxy.

The remaining Golgafrinchams stayed behind, their tales of doom a fiction concocted by the descendants of the Great Circling Poets of Arium. They lived rich, full, and happy lives until their actual doom came from a disease contracted from a dirty telephone – if this is one of the occasions on which The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is accurate.

The story of Golgafrincham reminds us that sometimes we don’t know who is going to be important, and we don’t really know that “the best of the best” will be all that good. In “Eulogy”, episode 6 of Lost in Space season one, Don West points out to Judy Robinson that while his cash-grabbing antics might come across as mercenary, his skill as a mechanic isn’t enough to get him a place in the colony. When the Resolute reaches the colony, all he will get is a ticket back to the dying Earth. And yet, his assistance in the survival of the stranded colonists is paramount, largely down to his practical experience of mechanics.

While the recent history of Earth suggests that telephone sanitizers might not have been as vital as they ended up being on Golgafrincham, over the longer term I would argue that hairdressers have played a substantial role. Throughout history, hair has been a vital way in which people have shaped their culture and their identity, from the “warrior’s beauty” of Bronze Age burials containing tweezers, razors, and mirrors alongside weapons to more recent trends in era defining hairstyles.

But how many hairdressers will have made it through the rigorous tests and training required to become part of the colonization mission in Lost in Space? If the value of a mechanic like Don West isn’t appreciated, would the artistry of hairdressing? Put simply: where could I get a haircut on Alpha Centauri?

A commentary on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 5: Part 4 – The Maquis

Toward the end of season 5, the most interesting, if not the best, episode is “Blaze of Glory” (5X23). This episode saw the final return of Michael Eddington, former DS9 security officer who defected from the Federation to the Maquis – the freedom fighters/terrorists who fought against the Cardassians when their homes were on the Cardassian side of the boarder post-treaty with the Federation.

The Maquis in the Alpha Quadrant were largely annihilated off-screen in the episode “By Inferno’s Light” (5X15), when the Cardassians officially became part of the Dominion. In “Blaze of Glory” we see them struggling on, caring not for the fragile peace in the Alpha Quadrant by launching a missile attack on Cardassia Prime – or so it appears. The plan turns out to be a ruse to reunite Eddington with his wife and compatriots who have survived the Dominion attack. Eddington, ultimately, is killed fighting the Jem’Hadar while allowing his people to escape. And with that, the Maquis exit DS9.

In some ways this conclusion is deeply disappointing, as the Maquis provided the most interesting moral grey area in DS9. For all the interesting possibilities of the Dominion, they essentially serve just as an enemy big enough to threaten the Federation – there’s no nuanced or deep moral or philosophical difference at play. The Maquis represent the real losers in the peaceful resolutions in which the Federation trades, and their appeal to Ro Lauren in the Next Generation episode “Preemptive Strike” (7X24) shows that they should have been a bright warning light to Bajor about the Federation.

The Maquis, unlike most of the enemies of the Federation, are sympathetic because of their political stance, not because of the charisma of the actors playing their most prominent figures (I’m looking at you, Marc Alaimo/Gul Dukat). This sympathy pokes the most holes in the Federation’s status as an optimistic utopia, without turning it into a dark and gritty dystopia as in later incarnations.

On the other hand, the idea that a small group of rebels might get crushed between the machinations of major powers also seems appropriate. Their association with Native American groups through characters like Chakotay in Voyager and suggested by the TNG episode “Journey’s End” (7X20) is significant. They are the group that no North American progressives can ignore if they want to create a reasonable approximation of an optimistic utopia, but they are also the one that they have the most difficulty respecting and incorporating into their visions of the future.

Their claims are reasonable – that their relationship to their land be respected and prioritised – but their lack of representation among the decision makers means that their concerns are derided or ignored. As other concerns crop up they are sidelined and, in the case of the Maquis, crushed because the ‘good guys’ didn’t listen to them. It’s a shame that, in DS9, they’re mainly played by White actors after Bernie Casey/Commander Calvin Hudson, although in Voyager this is less of an issue.

One of the problems with the Maquis in season 5 of DS9 has been the inconsistency of how they are portrayed. In “Rapture” (5X10) Sisko forgives Kasidy Yates for her involvement with the Maquis immediately (why? She’s needed for a different plot!); he doesn’t get over Eddington’s “betrayal” until he goes out in his “Blaze of Glory”, and does terrible things in the episode “For the Uniform” (5X13) in order to persuade Eddington to turn himself over to the Federation. But in that episode the Maquis also go further than ever before, creating biological weapons to drive the Cardassians from the worlds that they have occupied – it doesn’t seem to fit their (ill-defined, as most political things in ’90s science-fictional television) philosophy.

I couldn’t see Voyager’s Chakotay going along with it, for example; although B’Elanna Torres might be more enthusiastic. It also seems designed to kill the audience sympathy with these beleaguered freedom fighters. The show suggests that these bio-weapons move slowly enough to allow people to escape unscathed, which also seems like a cop-out. I am glad that “Blaze of Glory” happened to get the Maquis (and DS9) beyond “For the Uniform”. It would have been an unfortunate ending for them, otherwise.

A commentary on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season 5: Part 3 – Bajor and the Federation

The episode “The Darkness and the Light” (5X11) – Bryan Fuller’s first Star Trek credit – complicates our understanding of the Bajoran resistance to the Cardassian occupation. In this episode, we learn of a bomb used by Kira Nerys to assassinate a brutal Cardassian leader which took the lives of twenty-three individuals, including civilians.

I don’t have much to say about this episode – it wasn’t terribly surprising to learn that resistance to a violent occupation led to some unfortunate casualties. As Kira argues, the Cardassians were occupying Bajor – anyone there was complicit. I remain fully sympathetic to the Bajoran resistance. But that sympathy is one of the reasons I find myself struggling to support Bajor’s petition to join the Federation, set to be decided in the previous episode, “Rapture” (5X10).

Some background: my home country, the United Kingdom, is in the process of leaving an economic and political federation, the European Union. I voted to remain in the EU in 2016, and would do so again in the event of a second referendum. But having spent a lot of time in Greece I can also see how EU countries have been treated badly by other member states, having economic austerity thrust upon them when it is not in the best interests of their people. For a small state with a strong identity and a long history, including occupation, entering into a political union may end up being more trouble than it is worth.

There are two key exchanges in “Rapture” that made me realise these complications. The first is when Kai Winn tells Major Kira that Bajor has had only five years of “freedom” between the Cardassian occupation and joining the Federation. Kira notes that Bajor will still be free as a member of the Federation, but seems oblivious to the fact that people like Kai Winn will be able to easily spin Federation membership as un-freedom and the cause of any continuing blight on the planet. The Federation will need to make damn sure its benefit to the people of Bajor is clear, if indeed membership of the Federation is in their best interests.

The second exchange is between Captain Benjamin Sisko and Federation Admiral Whatly about what’s next for Bajor after joining the Federation. There’s choosing Federation Council Members (note that the word “electing” is not used); but I found myself surprisingly troubled by the next step: “The Bajoran militia has to be absorbed into Starfleet.” Now, I never thought that I was particularly bothered by the persistent rumours that the EU might integrate the armies of its member states – the whole point was to stop them going to war with one another anyway.

But something about that line disturbed me. Perhaps it was the emphasis on Starfleet as a military organization rather than an exploratory one. Or perhaps that at an interstellar level and integrated army seems like a bad idea (protecting planets seems easier to me than protecting solar systems). I think the core idea that bothers me, though, is that I’ve come to recognise that the government becomes less trustworthy the further away it is. Local government is hated for being ineffective, not distant; when the government is far away in Brussels, or Ottawa, or Washington, or San Francisco, it is easier to view it as distant and uncaring.

In trying to think about how the Federation might combat this perspective, I found myself thinking back to 2015, when we were watching The Next Generation and I was reading Ursula K Le Guin’s A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994). The Ekumen of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle is similar to the Federation, although there is little disparity between the species of each planet (all are descended from the Hain) and no scope for interstellar conflict, after the early novel City of Illusions (1967).

In the Hainish Cycle, interstellar travel is just so difficult that the kind of crisis that the Federation encounters with the Dominion is impossible, and thus space exploration cannot help but be mutually beneficial, explorative, co-operative. The Ekumen is more of a loose association than a political union. I think that it offers a more hopeful future than the Federation, but it is a future where interplanetary migration is long, difficult, and requires leaving your entire life behind. Should it be more hopeful that these planets remain so isolated from one another?