Keep well; A brief note about books I’ve read; & Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65

Hope you are all well. Keep well.

Recent reading: Three novels — all richly imagined and immensely enjoyable:

  1. Adrian Tchaikovsky: “The Children of Time (c) 2015.

    Winner of the 30th anniversary Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel.

Epic space and time scale.  The paths of two civilizations converge.

A super-sentient species of spiders evolves, a civilization, on a planet terraformed by humans millennia ago.

The generation ark ship “Gilgamesh” carries the last of humanity from Earth. Through millennia, and across vast reaches of space, the Gilgamesh follows the ancient star maps of Earth’s Old Empire, maps that track the ancient astronauts’ exploration of potential bio-habitats in space.

  1. Victor LaValle: “The Changeling” (c) 2017.

    Multiple awards: including Locus Award for Best Horror Novel, British Fantasy Award for Best Horror Novel, World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

Apollo Kagwa’s search for his wife and baby son.
An excellent story of horror, immigrant legends, mythology, computer technology, and social media.
The entire story is set in NY city and its boroughs.

  1. Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias S. Buckell: “The Tangled Lands” (c) 2018.

    Winner of The World Fantasy Award For Best Collection

A collection of four fantasy stories, set in the city of Khaim and the surrounding lands.

Part 1: “The Alchemist” by Paolo Bacigalupi (copyright -2010)
Part 2: “The Executioness” by Tobias Buckell (copyright – 2010)
Part 3: “The Children of Khaim” by Paolo Bacigalupi (copyright 2018)
Part 4: “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” by Tobias Buckell (copyright 2018)

Wherever people practice magic, the bramble plant grows and spreads, destroying land and cities. An alchemist in Khaim discovers a way to destroy bramble by burning it with neem.
But the ruler of Khaim, the Jolly Mayor and his mage Majister Scacz use the alchemy to find and destroy those who practice magic. Burning neem turns into blue smoke in the presence of magic, and people who practice magic are easily identified by the clinging blue smoke. Still, people continue the practice of magic, and bramble continues to spread.

The four stories are of people who fight back against the stranglehold of Majister and bramble.


William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

Sonnet LXV.
“Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.”


“Shakespeare’s Sonnets by William Shakespeare”, edited by William J. Rolfe (1883)

This work is in the public domain.

Reading novels by Neal Stephenson, Paul McAuley, Neil Gaiman, Madeline Miller

Continuing to read

Neal Stephenson: “Quicksilver” (c) 2003
Sci Fi / Historical fiction. Three books: “Quicksilver”, “King of the Vagabonds” and “Odalisque”.


The story begins in 1713, in Massachusetts, and then through flashbacks, the story moves to England, France, and the United Provinces, from 1655-1673: A time of major changes in the development of science and mathematics, including the calculus feud between Leibniz and Newton.

Key fictional characters:

Daniel Waterhouse, natural philosopher; friend of Newton and Leibniz; prominent member of the Royal Society.
Enoch Root, an alchemist, member of the Royal Society. Enoch  first meets Waterhouse in Massachusetts. Knows prominent natural philosophers, mathematicians and scientists of the time.

Key historical characters: Newton and Leibniz.

More historical characters appear as the story unfolds, including the pirate “Blackbeard”!

Planning to read

Paul McAuley “Austral” (c) 2017

Eco-fiction novel: the story of Austral Morales Ferrado, her life and the history of her family  in the colonization of Antarctica, as sea levels rise, and the ice retreats.


Neil Gaiman: “Norse Mythology” (c) 2017


Madeline Miller: “The Song of Achilles” (c) 2012


white lined notebook on gray table
WordPress Free Photo library — Photo by Pixabay on








Robert Silverberg, editor: “Murasaki” (c) 1992

Robert Silverberg, editor: “Murasaki” (c) 1992

“Murasaki” is a sci fi novel in six parts by Poul Anderson, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Nancy Kress, and Fredrick Pohl, edited by Robert Silverberg.

 The novel is about three vastly different, intelligent alien races, on two closely revolving planets, Genji and Chujo, around the fictional star Murasaki.

The story becomes more complex when human space explorers set foot on the planets in the 23rd century. Various expeditions from Earth, Mars, and the Spacer habitats arrive – including Americans, Japanese, and British; and there are researchers and scientists, from various fields; and missionaries.

Mixed in with the excitement of discovery, there is the unsettling realization for the humans that the three alien races have their own cultures, histories and conflicts. The humans cannot apply directly Earth-based paradigms or methods or knowledge of cultures, societies or civilizations to the aliens they encounter.

Bio-engineered spaceships ? Ancient cities left by choice? Whales capable of receiving and sending light signals? What is clear to Chujoans and Genjians is a deep mystery to humans.

At the end of the novel, some of the humans feel that the role of humans is irrelevant on Murasaki and they choose to return to Earth. For others, the new knowledge and experiences they have acquired becomes an important challenge to learn even more, and they choose to remain on Genji and Chujo.  For Rilla Johnson, born on Genji, the Murasaki system is her home.

And the challenge to continue to explore space remains strong.  As the story ends, new arrivals from Earth arrive on the planets. And among these is a young man, Kevin Kammer-Washington, the son of Aaron Kammer and Nicole Washington, two members of the first expedition to the Murasaki system.


Background information

Robert Silverberg, the editor, provides an introduction to “Murasaki”: it is a “shared-world” anthology of stories , in which the authors explore the same set of ideas and characters, set in the same fictional world.

Naming the star and its planets:    “Murasaki” is the fictitious name of an actual star HD 36395 (in the constellation Orion).

In the novel, the star system was first explored by a Japanese interstellar probe, and is given the name “Murasaki”, after Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese novelist, poet and lady-in-waiting at the Japanese Imperial court in the 10th/11th century. The title of her best known novel is Genji Monogatari or “The Tale of Genji” ; in her novel Hikaru Genji is the name of the hero and To no Chujo is his close friend.
In the sci fi novel , the larger of the two planets is named Genji, and the smaller one is named Chujo.

As I read the novel, the story flowed well from one writer to the next. And at the end of the novel, an integrated picture emerged based on the histories, cultures, and evolution of the Genji and Chujo alien races, and the critical role that the carpet whales play in the survival of the two races.

Frederick Pohl and Poul Anderson set up the physical characteristics of the fictional Murasaki system in terms of the atmosphere, geology, chemistry, flora and fauna.
(Appendix A : “Design for two worlds” by Poul Anderson; and Appendix B: “Murasaki’s worlds” by Frederick Pohl).
The Murasaki system is about 20 light years from Earth, and in ships time that’s 11 years. The star itself is a red dwarf star with a yellowish tinge to its light.

The planets Genji and Chujo are close to each other, about 40% of the distance between Earth and the Moon. Both planets have oxygen-nitrogen atmospheres somewhat similar to Earth. However, the gravity and the atmospheric pressure of Genji, and of Chujo, are different enough from that of Earth, that humans must wear space suits with artificial decompression, or risk acute and chronic damage to the lungs.

In the novel  the story unfolds  in the following sequence:
Frederik Pohl : The Treasures of Chujo
David Brin : Genji
Poul Anderson : Language
Gregory Benford: World Vast, World Various
Greg Bear: A Plague of Conscience
Nancy Kress: Birthing Pool


The story is set in the 23rd century. The first Earth-based expedition is sent to the Murasaki system when a Japanese robot probe reports Earth-like planets and intelligent life in the system. The crew of the starship includes Spacers, from the asteroid habitats in Earth’s solar system and from Mars. The expedition is under orders to leave the Murasaki system when a Japanese expedition force arrives. The exploration teams quickly wind up their brief survey of the planets Genji and Chujo. Two crew members, Nicole Washington and Aaron Kammer are on Chujo; Kammer goes alone to explore the forested area, and does not return.  The starship leaves without Kammer, who is presumed to be dead.

The departing Spacer expedition shares with the Japanese their knowledge and experience from their expeditions to Chujo and Genji. The Japanese begin the work of establishing more permanent expedition bases. This includes building pressurized facilities for living and research purposes; power and fuel processing units; computing facilities; hydroponic units and facilities to produce food in artificial environments.

On Genji the side of the planet that constantly faces Chujo is called “Moonside” ; an ocean dominates the geographical features on this side of Genji. The Ihrdizu are Genji aliens who live in villages near the seashore. They are amphibian-like with torpedo-shaped bodies, and four telescoping eyes that give them an almost panoramic vision.

Minoru is a Japanese biologist. Using translator machines, he learns from the Ihrdizu villagers about their society, their culture and history. The Ihrdizu cultivate swamp farms in the forested hills, and have designed birthing pools that are flooded at high tide, leaving behind flora and fauna when the waters recede. The pools are used by Ihrdizu females after mating; the egg sacs containing embryos develop in the pools; the young hatch out in the pools. The males are farmers and tend to the young in their family, whereas the females are the warriors. The Ihrdizu believe that Chujo is the home of Angels.

As Minoru makes a closer study of the Genji ecosystem, and its geological history, he discovers flora and fauna fossils that indicate Genji has gone through devastating  ecological changes a number of times in the past. The mystery deepens when he comes across a  medallion with writing on it. This adds to findings by other Japanese teams that Genji has also gone through a rise and fall in the invention of metallurgy a number of times.

The himatids or carpet whales live in the vast ocean on Genji’s moonside. The Ihrdizu have a history of enslaving and hunting the carpet whales for food.

Over the years that follow, researchers from different countries come to the Murasaki system. On Genji an Exploration Corps is established for scientific research and xenological expeditions. One of their responsibilities is to assess and allocate resources to various research activities.

Rita Byrne, one of a very few humans born and raised on Genji, is a member of the Corps. She has flown from the mountainous starside of Genji, to the Moonside of Genji, to meet with Malchiel Holden, a reclusive biologist. The life-cycle, migratory habits and communications of the carpet-whale is of particular interest to Holden. His research shows that the carpet-whale has an intelligence different from the Ihrdizu, Chujoans, and humans. The carpet-whales have their own language of signals with complex semantics and structure.

In their biological development, himatid calves move from the tidewater near the shores to the more arctic-like open waters of the ocean, with migrating adult carpet whales, and mature into whales. When Rita is at Holden’s research outpost, Holden accompanies a himatid calf to the open sea to join with migrating whales. Rita tracks the carpet whales in her flyer, and witnesses a violent encounter. Holden has confronted two Ihrdizu whaling ships which have harpooned a carpet whale. Using explosives, he sinks one of the vessels, and kills three Ihrdizu as they try to board his schooner.

Rita confronts Holden as there are very stringent laws against killing any intelligent life forms or aliens. Holden defends his actions: The Ihrdizu think of himatids as animals, and have a history of hunting them for food. He is determined to protect the himatids because his research shows that the whales are intelligent and he believes the basis of their language is biological. Eventually Rita joins Holden in his research on the whales,  and they marry.

With jagged mountains, smaller seas, and a colder environment, Chujo is a different planet than Genji. The Japanese expeditions find a great deal of evidence of an ancient Chujoan civilization. Their abandoned cities still stand. The Chujoans are now a nomadic race, but at one time they were farmers: there are ancient irrigation channels in the valleys. Some of their grain fields still exist.  These and other observations suggest the Chujoans once had considerable technological  skills. However, all attempts to communicate directly with the Chujoans have failed.

Physically, the Chujoans have legs and arms but their large oval heads, and four-fingered hands with blue nails set them apart from the Ihrdizu and humans. Their most distinctive feature is the symbiotic living mat, or “snug” of microorganisms that covers their entire body.

It is only later on when closer contact occurs between the Chujoans and the humans, that more is learned about the Chujoans and their earlier biotechnological expertise and civilization. And that in fact the Chujoans and Ihrdizu are genetically related.

Miyuki is a geophysicist with a Japanese team of biologists and sociologists, on Chujo. She explores a large ruined, abandoned city, with its airy buildings and carved and fretted stonework. As in the other abandoned cities, there are mysterious wall paintings and engravings. There is a particular stone artwork that has shown up also in the other ruins. The art work is of a tiger eating its own tail. A figure of a Chujoan is twisted in the tail. Green teardrops fall from the sky.

Miyuki’s team also observes the Chujoans have a type of “library”, with cube-shaped objects stored in  cairns of stacked stones.

While the Japanese team is on Chujo, their robot space probes show the Chujoan tribes migrating towards the mountains. Miyuki and the team fly to the region. They land on a valley floor which is covered with an extensive mat of interconnected green algae and fibers. The giant mat begins to move  with the strength of earthquake-like tremblors.  The Japanese find themselves hurled off the mat as it rises off the valley floor. Some of the gathered Chujoans scramble across the mat as one edge of the giant algal mat rises into the air, leaps upwards, and merges with another rising edge of the algal mat, to form a balloon or “bioloon”.   Chujoans scramble into pockets in the bioloon.

Miyuki and her team watch as other bioloons rise into the sky . They are like the green teardrops in the artwork in the abandoned cities.  The “bioloons”  move up into the sky towards Genji,  but soon fall back to the ground, killing  the Chujoans in the bioloons.

The protection of the Ihrdizu and Chujo cultures and beliefs becomes significant when an American Christian group arrives on Genji. Their leader is Robert Carnot. He preaches a gospel based on “God the Physicist”, Jesus as the savior, and he talks of reuniting Genji and Chujo.

By this time, a Japanese expedition has discovered that Aaron Kammer from the first expedition to Murasaki is alive, on Chujo, and is being cared for by Chujoan shamans. Carnot meets with Kammer and claims that Kammer is a resurrection or an avatar of ancient Chujo spirituality.

Edward Philby, the First Planetfall co-ordinator, realizes that the Ihrdizu and Chujoans have their own way of thinking, their own language,. He sees the danger that Carnot poses to the cultures of Genji and Chujo. and  he convinces  Kammer  to help stop Carnot’s preaching.

Kammer arrives on the Genji seashores to meet with Carnot and Philby, in a meeting arranged by a Japanese scientific liaison Suzy Tatsumi. As Kammer walks along the shore he sees racks of himatid calf and carpet whale skins. He is furious at the sight of the destruction of the whales by the Ihrdizu. He has realized that the whales are critical to the survival of Genji and Chujo. A group of female Ihrdizu now surround Kammer and Carnot, and stone the two men to death.

About 30 years have passed since the first expeditions to Genji and Chujo. Jordan Dane is First Conciliator, to resolve conflicts among the different human groups. Dane is a librarian, and a specialist of Quantum Effect Devices (QED). These devices are used by the various researchers to receive data from the main computer at Okuma Base.

Jordan Dane and scientific liaison Suzy Tatsumi , and other researchers monitor the data flowing in from Chujo and Genji, and are transfixed by the  unfolding events.

On the valley floors of Chujo, the giant green mats are rising again, many years after the first observations of the “bioloons” by the early Japanese expedition. Chujoans are migrating to the valleys.

On Genji, the carpet-whales are all swimming to the mainland waters, towards the Ihrdizu seashores.

Bruce Johnson is a xenobiologist. As he watches the migrations of the whales, he wonders if an outside signal has triggered a genetically-coded behavior. Curious and excited,  Bruce uses a fuzzy-logic software, searching for correlations between seemingly unrelated events.

The whales arrive and remain stationary in the straits, at a point where Chujo is exactly overhead. The whales roll over to their ventral sides. Light from the star Murasaki strikes millions of light refractors embedded in the whales’ ventral sides. Light signals from the whales flash into the sky and focus the light on the green snug mats on Chujo.

On Chujo as the huge living mats rise and their edges merge, Chujoans scramble across them as before, and scramble into pockets in the mats. The rising  bioloons  change shape precisely  as simultaneously, the whales on Genji are observed to change the focus and intensity of light from their refractors. The whales continue to change their light signals and the shape of the bioloons flattens out as they move forward into space, and towards Genji.

As the bioloons enter the Genji atmosphere, a heat shield forms around them. Their  shapes change into giant parachutes.  As the bioloons drop into the sea, the whales guide them towards the seashore. The Ihrdizu welcome the Chujoans as they emerge from the bioloons.

The explanation for these events emerges from the etchings  (the “library”) that the Chujoans provide to the humans, breaking their silence of nearly three decades.

The Chujoans are the “Masters” of bio-engineering, and have used their skills to create a balanced ecology on Genji.  But from time to time, errors in their bio-engineering  devastate the Genji ecology and significantly, devastate the Ihrdizu birthing pools.  The whales exile the Chujoans to their own planet,  to create new bio-engineered green mats and to restore Genji’s ecological balance. The new bio-engineered mats arrive in Genji in the form of the bioloons, together with the Chujo Masters to help in the restoration work on Genji.

The whales are critical in keeping this link intact between the Genji Ihrdizu and Chujoans. When there are not enough  whales  to make the correct light  signals,  the bioloons fall back to the ground on Chujo and never make it to Genji.

With the successful journey  of the Chujo  Masters and the new bio-engineered bioloons to  Genji,  the work of  transforming Genji’s degraded  ecology begins.  And the Ihrdizu birthing pools once again provide a safe environment for the development of young Ihrdizu.

 Reserarchers like Bruce Johnson decide to remain  on Genji, rather return to Earth.  For Bruce,   there are many  new exciting scientific challenges, including more research into the origins of the whales, and the  bio-engineering  alteration of plankton, and of  land flora and fauna.

On the other hand, Jane Johnson, Bruce Johnson’s wife, returns to Earth.  She perceives the aliens to be  animal-like,  and  does not believe that humans have any  relevant role to play in the Murasaki system.

Their ten-year old daughter, Rilla, was born on Genji. She considers Genji as her home, and her decision to remain on Genji, with her father, is approved by the First Conciliator.

Even as some people return to Earth, the Murasaki system draws the curiosity and interest  of others.  Among the new arrivals  is a young man, Kevin Kammer-Washington, the son of Aaron Kammer and Nicole Washington, two members of the first expedition to the Murasaki system.



Chris Roberson: “The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small” (c) 2007.

Chris Roberson is a prolific American science fiction writer and publisher (MonkeyBrain Books).   He has written many novels and short stories, with alternate history as a frequent theme.

In 2009, he won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History for his novel “The Dragon’s Nine Sons.” The novel, together with other related novels and short stories in the Celestial Empire series, is based on China’s 15th century “Treasure Fleet” voyages.

The “Treasure Fleet” voyages, from 1405 until 1433, took place during the Ming Dynasty, and are unique in world history. These voyages extended China’s influence in Southeast Asia. Eventually the fleets reached India, the Middle East, and the east coast of Africa, before the 15th century voyages of Portuguese explorers via the Cape of Good Hope. The voyages ended as political, social and economic problems mounted.

In the Celestial Empire science fiction stories, the Imperial Chinese power continues to grow. A struggle for global power develops between the Chinese and the Mexica (with origins in the Aztec Empire). Eventually China becomes a space-faring superpower.

The short story, “The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small” is about Ling Xuan, who as a young scholar, was an observer and chronicler on a Treasure Fleet to the Mexica. The story is set many decades later. Ling Xuan has been a political prisoner for many years, in the dreaded imperial Chinese prison of the Eastern Depot Building in the Forbidden City.

What interested me most about this short story was how Roberson conveys through the character of Ling Xuan,  the seeking of  new knowledge and  of challenging accepted wisdom. Though Ling Xuan is imprisoned, his mind and spirit remain open to learning.  He learns a great deal about astronomy from another prisoner, Cui, the former head of the Directorate of Astronomy. Cui is in prison because he had challenged the notion that the wisdom of the ancient astronomers was sufficient.  Through Cui, Ling learns to think of knowledge as growing and changing, and of Earth as one of many worlds revolving around the sun, and of seeking new and different worlds, perhaps even in the stars.


Chris Roberson: “The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small”

Reprint source :
“The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection”, edited by Gardner Dozois, (c) 2008. (from sci fi stories published in 2007).

It is the twenty-eighth year of the Kangxi Emperor. Ling Xuan has been a political prisoner for many years, in the Eastern Depot Building, in the Forbidden City. The Eastern Depot consists of different areas for different types of prisoners.

The Outer Depot is for those prisoners who are thought not to be particularly dangerous. Some have been tried on treason or other charges, but still await sentencing or a reprieve. Others like Ling Xuan end up in the Outer Depot because they are unlikely to confess. The prison cells have doorways opening on to an open-air courtyard, where the prisoners, men and women, spend their days. Guards watch the prisoners from two towers atop the walls of the courtyard.

As a young man, Ling Xuan was a highly respected scholar and official in the Bright Dynasty of the Shunzhi Emperor. When the emperor died, the Manchu Clear Dynasty reasserted its power. The young Kangxi became the next emperor. His regent, Aobai, replaced all the officials of the former Bright Dynasty. Ling Xuan was charged with treason and imprisoned in the Eastern Depot Building. For a while, he was in the custody of the Emperor’s dreaded secret police, the “Bureau of Suppression and Soothing”. Ling Xuan was then transferred to the Outer Depot.

Cao Wen is an ambitious, junior official in the Ministry of War . He is given the responsibility of gathering information for a planned invasion of the Mexica. He searches the archives for information about the voyages to the Mexica, made during the earlier Bright Dynasty. In the list of titles of archived materials Cao finds reference to a narrative of a Treasure Fleet journey to the East, across the oceans, to the Mexica, to Khalifa, and Fusan. The author of the narrative is Ling Xuan. But the narrative, like a great deal of Bright Dynasty material, has been lost when the Clear Dynasty came to power.

Ling Xuan is now an old man, and spends his days in the courtyard, of the Outer Depot, seated quietly in the center, following the movement of the shadows cast by the watch towers, as the sun moves overhead, from morning to evening.

Ling has an excellent memory, but he does not reveal what he knows straightaway. For the first few interviews, whenever Cao Wen asks questions relating to the Treasure Fleet voyage, Ling talks of time, its measurement, about astronomers and observatories. He recalls his days as a young scholar in the Bright Dynasty.

When he was first imprisoned, Ling Xuan was in a dark cell, with no window, but a hole high up on one of the walls. The prisoner in the next cell was Cui, the former head of the Directory of Astronomy. Cui and Ling talked at night, through that hole. Ling absorbed everything that Cui told him about astronomy, and his observations of the stars using a telescope, a “Remote-Viewing Mirror” .

Ling talks now of how the Mexica believe that this world is the most current one in a series of worlds created by the gods. He remembers all of the journey to the Mexica, including an overland journey to the capital city. Ling had a basic knowledge of Nuhuatl, the language of the Mexica. His guide was Hummingbird Feather, an officer of the Mexican Army. Ling gathered information of the Mexica society, their beliefs and traditions, and their military. He saw steam-powered trolleys, and steam-powered automata.

Cao writes fast and furiously with his ink-brush. Then Ling asks to borrow the telescope that the astronomer Cui had talked about, before he will provide more information. Cao swallows his anger and pride, and goes through the necessary lengthy bureaucratic process, and gets the telescope. Ling continues to talk of the Mexica army, its organization, armament and defense.

From the small window in his prison cell, Ling has been able to observe some of the stars that Cui had talked about. Now with the telescope in hand, Ling spends one night in the courtyard, seeing more stars….

Next day, Cao Wen asks one final question – about the automatons. Ling replies that he will provide one vital piece of information if he can go out, for one night, outside the Eastern Depot, to view the entire sky with the telescope. Cao is very angry, but again he gets the necessary authorization, and this time the Emperor Kangxi himself approves it.

Cao and Agent Gu of the Emperor’s Guards escort Ling away from the lights and buildings, out to the open public square of the city, where the sky can be seen glittering with stars.

Ling tells Cao that Cui was imprisoned because he had questioned and challenged the wisdom of the ancient astronomers. Cui had come to believe that our world is not at the center of the universe. Our world is but one of many worlds that revolve around the sun. Perhaps some of the stars are suns themselves, and perhaps some of these suns have worlds circling around them, and perhaps some of these worlds have people living on them.

The Mexica understanding of the world and the stars is not founded on observations, but on ancient beliefs of unchanging worlds and history. Ling believes that China can conquer the entire Universe if it challenges accepted wisdom, and seeks new knowledge and understanding, beyond that which is known, to  new and different worlds.

That night, Ling dies in his sleep. His work is done. Cao writes up his report about Mexica, and attaches to it a report about the astronomer Cui.


Ursula K. Le Guin: “The Finder” (c) 2001

Ursula K. Le Guin: “The Finder”  from “Tales from Earthsea” (c) 2001. 

“The Finder” is the story of how Roke Island, in the Earthsea Archipelago, became the Isle of the Wise, how the Great House or School of mages was founded, in a time of chaos, when warlords, merchants and pirates ruled over the islands.

“The Finder” is Medra, a man with gifts of magery, of being able to locate people and places, and things that are lost or hidden, above or below the ground. He is also a shape-changer, being able to transform himself from his human form to other living creatures. He is known as Otter or Tern to most people, but Medra is his true name, which he must guard very carefully. To know the true name of a person or a thing is to control that person or thing.

As I read through the story, I realized that Medra’s gifts as a mage are not as great as those of the evil wizards he must fight. But his gift of Finding gives him the strength  to seek ways to defeat his enemies. And the story became more interesting when Medra is faced with life-threatening situations: there are two women mages who help him and change the direction of his life. Anieb is a slave woman in the Samory mines who helps him to defeat the wizard Gelluk, and in her dying moment, she tells him to seek the help of “the Women of the Hand” . Elehal (Ember) is one of the Women of the Hand on Roke Island and from her, Medra learns of the foundations of mage knowledge. They love each other, and live together the rest of their lives.

On Roke Island, Medra learns that the Women of the Hand have spread their knowledge far and wide, but indirectly, to protect themselves from warlords and their wizards. How can mage knowledge be shared more freely and openly? Ember suggests that  they can build a school, where the wise can come to learn from each other. She says that Roke’s freedom lies in offering others freedom. They talk of what the school would teach:
Masteries of Finding. Weatherworking, Changing, Healing, Summoning, Patterning, Naming.

Medra uses his gift as a Finder, and the sign of the Hand, to sail to other islands to seek out wise men and women, children with gifts of magery, and ancient books of magery lore and knowledge. In this way, the school begins, and it grows as more mages come to Roke to learn and to teach. Together, the women and men build a larger school, the Great House: The walls are of stone and wood, strengthened with magic and spells.

Medra sets out on one one last voyage from Roke. He sails to Havnor, to his home. However, he soon faces a struggle for survival as Havnor’s wizard, Early, begins a hunt for Medra or Otter. Roke itself is in grave danger as Early leads a fleet of ships to attack the island. But Early’s powers are no match for the powers of the Women of the Hand, and Early loses all his powers of wizardry.

Medra returns to Roke Isalnd. He and Elehal teach at the School for some years. When Elehal dies, Medra becomes the Doorkeeper, the ninth Master of Roke. As a Finder, he can find out if those who want to enter, really belong in the School.


more from “The Finder”:

 Medra, or Otter is the young son of a boatwright in Havnor Great Port, on the great island of Havnor. All of Earthsea’s trade, commerce and learning passes through Havnor. He grows up in the chaotic times when wizards fight each other, and work for the warlords using their magery skills for evil. All magic is seen as black magic. In the villages, where women had used the lore of magic for various village activities, it becomes dangerous to practice witchcraft.

Ordinary people, men and women, who have gifts of magery meet secretly to practice and teach each other. On one Earthsea island, wizards form a group, the Women of the Hand, to protect their knowledge and use their gifts to do good only. The Hand is a sign of trust, a fist opening with the palm up.

From an early age, Otter shows gifts of magery. Others who recognize his gifts teach him in secret the arts and crafts of magery. He learns to be careful, to hide those gifts.

Losen, the warlord of Havnor, keeps the local shipwrights busy, building ships for piracy and to loot and plunder other islands.   Otter is uneasy: the galley they are building will be manned by slaves, to bring back more slaves as cargo. His conscience knows he must use his skills only for good. Otter uses his carpentry skills to build the ship so that it will float and handle well, and as a wizard, he weaves a spell into the beams and hull, so that the ship dos not steer quite right.

The spell is soon detected by Losen’s wizards, Hound, and the more powerful wizard Gelluk. Otter is imprisoned and Hound tells him to work for Losen or be killed.

In the Samory mines: Otter and Anieb:

Gelluk has Otter drugged and taken inland, to the Samory mines near Mount Onn. The mines are rich in cinnabar, which releases quicksilver when roasted. In an ancient lore book of the wizards, Gelluk has read of the powers of quicksilver, or King Turres as it is called in wizard lore. He uses Otter to find the cinnabar ores deep beneath the earth of the valleys.

Gelluk takes him to the tower where the cinnabar is roasted. The fumes of quicksilver rise through a spiral of chambers, to be cooled and reheated and cooled, finally into liquid in the highest chamber. Slaves, men and women who work in the tower sicken and die from the poisonous fumes.

In the highest chamber, Gelluk shows Otter the drops of pure liqiud metal. A slave woman works here. The woman looks at Otter, moving her eyes only. That night in his cell, he sees her very clearly as if she is in the cell with him. He sees through her eyes, the lines of spell holding him, and a way out of the tangled lines: he is free for now. But Gelluk knows his true name, Medra. How can he escape from Gelluk?

Otter hears himself speaking in the voice of the woman slave. She is the key to his freedom. In his mind, Otter summons her and she appears as an apparition in the cell. He speaks his true name: Medra. And she speaks her true name: Anieb. She tells him that Gelluk’s true name is the key to their freedom. She can be with him, in spirit, when Otter and Gelluk are together. Medra makes a fist, and opens her hand palm up and then she is gone.

Otter has located a great lode of ore near Mount Onn. He senses  a ledge of mica, and underneath the ledge a cavern, and thin crimson beds of cinnabar. Gelluk is with him and  turns his mind to the location of the ore.   Otter calls to Anieb, and she is with him in his mind. She now speaks thru Otter, in his voice.

There is no entrance, and only the King’s true name can open the earth into the lode. Gelluk whispers, tense and trembling, “Turres” (the name for quicksilver). Nothing happens. He then cries out his own true name, Tinaral! The hillside opens and the ledge of mica splits apart, revealing the Cavern. Gelluk strides forward to the broken edge , hesitates, and in that moment, Anieb shouts out his true name Tinaral, and commands him to fall! Gelluk is doomed — he plunges into the cavern into the darkness.

Ottter pleads in the Old Language of the Making, to the earth to heal, and the broken ground closes. He goes to the roasting tower, and helps Anieb to walk away from the mines and towards the foothills of Mount Onn. She has no strength but she keeps walking towards her home. At dawn they see Mount Onn. In her dying moments, Anieb tells Otter to go to the Women of the Hand in her village.

A carter finds Medra, with Anieb in his arms. He takes them to Woodedge, Anieb’s village. Ayo, Anieb’s mother, is a wise woman. As Otter’s mind heals, he talks of Anieb, her great strength that gave them their freedom.

Ayo tells Otter to go south to Morred’s isle, where the Women of the Hand teach the old mage arts. Otter goes to the stream in Woodedge, and transformed into an otter, he slips into the stream. He emerges as a man on the shores of Great Bay of Havnor.

Roke Island: Otter and Elehal

Working on fishing boats, Otter makes his way west and then further south. Perhaps Morred’s Isle is there. On some of the islands, he finds people of the Hand and he learns from them: From mage Highdrake, he learns how all things are part of a pattern. A wealthy recluse, Crow, who loves books and the ancient lore, teaches him to read.

On one voyage, he has no choice but to sail on a slave galley.  He goes as a weatherworker .   The shipmaster tells the helmsman to avoid Roke Isle. Otter learns that Roke has been destroyed by sea pirates, and that strong spells surround the island.

Aboard the ship, Otter  senses a witchwind is approaching. He tells the shipmaster to get the sail down. The witchwind strikes , the ship pitches, rolls, and sinks. A white tern flies up from the waters, towards Roke Island. In the early morning the tern lights on a green hill and is transformed: It is Otter. He senses a magic greater than his own.

He makes his way from the hill into the town. Two wise women, Ember and Veil, greet him. Otter gives the sign of the Hand. The wizards are uncertain, they do not know how he has broken thru the spells around Roke. But they agree to teach him their arts and crafts of magery. On Roke Island he is called Tern.

He learns more of the history of Roke. Years ago a Roke wizard betrayed the island to the pirate lords of Wathort. The pirates destroyed villages and farmsteads. They carried off men, boys, young women. A few of the wise women of the Hand, their children and a few men survived. After that Roke sealed itself inside powerful spells  making the island  appear as a reef or a cloud.

All the teachers on Roke are women. Ember teaches him  about the foundations of mage knowledge.  The  Immanent Grove of trees are the oldest in the world,  the source and center of magic. Their roots are the roots of knowledge.

In summer, Ember lives in the Grove. One summer, Medra goes with  her. He camps nearby and goes with her when she walks far into the woods,  or sits for hours  under a tree in silence. He is unsure what he is to learn from the Grove.  When Ember’s sister Veil visits, he confides in her. And in that moment he realizes he is in love with Ember. He takes courage, and tells her his true name, Medra, and she tells him her true name: Elehal. And they learn to love each other and to live together.

Medra now knows that the Women of Hand have spread their knowledge far and wide, but in secret. Ember says they can build a school, where the wise can come to learn from each other. Roke’s freedom lies in offering others freedom.
The school would teach: Masteries of Finding, Weatherworking, Changing, Healing, Summoning, Patterning, Naming.

Medra builds a deep-sea boat, “Hopeful”. He sails out of Thwil Bay alone, and northward to Orrimy, where he had some years ago, met Crow, a member of the people of the hand. Wealthy recluse, no mage gifts, but a passion for books of lore and history. He had taught Medra to read. Crow is excited when he learns that Medra is on a search for ancient books of lore. They sail as peddlers from islet to islet and trade their wares for old books.

Medra uses his gift as a Finder, and the sign of the Hand, to seek out people and books. In Pody, a woman takes them to  an old house, once elegant, now very poor. The Mage Ath had lived there a very long time ago. A witch, who is a healer, lives there. She is dying, and she recognizes Medra as a mage. She tells him to take her daughter Dory to Roke, to learn magery.

In this way, the school at Roke acquires its first student, Dory, from another island. Crow becomes The school’s first Librarian. Wise men and women come to Roke to learn and to teach and send their children.

A larger school is built,  the  Great House. Medra senses water under the hill, and they dig down: Water springs forth as a fountain in the courtyard.

Medra sets out on one  last voyage from Roke. He sails to Havnor, to his home. It has been many years since he left Havnor.  He makes his way to his village of Endlane.

Losen the sea pirate still rules Havnor, but the real power is in the hands of his wizard, Early who was Gelluk’s assistant. Early craves power. When he hears of Roke Island and a school of mages, he tortures and kills men, women and children who appear to be connected to the school. He hears of a mage called Tern. Hound, who had worked for Gelluk, tells him that Tern is Otter, who had killed Gelluk. Hound says Tern is in Havnor.

Otter realizes that although he had not meant any harm in coming to Havnor, he has nevertheless caused innocent people to die. And Roke itself is now in grave danger. He plans to leave Havnor at once.  The wizard  Early, transformed into an eagle, appears in Endlane. He tries to bind Otter with spells, but Otter stops his spells, and is gone.  Early summons Hound to track Otter. Hound can sense Otter has gone to Samory.

Otter knows he is no match for Early’s powers as a wizard. At the hillside in Samory,  Otter falls to his knees and begs the earth to open to him. The earth opens. Otter hears an eagle. He falls into the darkness. The eagle searches, but to no avail.

Under the earth, Otter wakes up in darkness, in pain. He calls out to Anieb and he knows he must live.  He has injured his hand and hip. He struggles, stands up, and crosses the cavern slowly, step by slow step. When he sees a passage he calls for Anieb to guide him.

In Havnor, Early tells Losen to send his fleets south to Roke Island, to fight a great enemy.   Early himself leads the fleet towards Roke. He changes shape into a dragon and soaring high, he sights the hilltop. He screams to his men in the ships to sail on, while he flies as a dragon into Roke. The spells are transparent to him. He alights on the hilltop and finds himself in his own human form. A power greater than his own has changed him to his own form.

He watches a woman come up the hill, but he cannot stop her.   When she asks his name, he gives his true name: Teriel. She asks him why he had come. When he replies that he has come to destroy Roke, she says that only Segoy can unmake Roke.    Teriel  is terrified because his powers of wizardry are gone.He looks eastward for the ships. But there is only mist, thickening and darkening over the sea.

In the underground passages of the Samory mines, Medra walks on.   He knows Anieb is with him.  Medra sees a dim light ahead, air moves against his face. He is at the opening of the cavern, and he crawls through the space of the roots of an old oak tree growing at the entrance. He falls asleep. The wizard Hound finds him there, and puts his own jacket around Medra.

Hound tells Medra that he had always regretted giving him up to Gelluk. Hound finds a carter to carry them to Endlane.  He recovers slowly — his heart is in Roke and he fears for its fate. Hound goes into Havnor and returns with news of the ships that had returned from Roke. After Early flew off as a dragon, the men aboard the ships could not find or see Roke, and nobody knew what had happened to Early.

Medra cries. When Medra is well again, Medra and Hound sail to Roke aboard the “Hopeful”.

Over time, the School continues to attract mages, men and women, from other islands, and students go on to become mages.
When Elehal dies, Medra returns to the School. He asks to be made the Doorkeeper, and he becomes the ninth Master of Roke. As a Finder, he can find out if those who want to enter, really belong in the School.
The Garden Door comes to be known as Medra’s Gate, and the ninth Master of Roke is the Doorkeeper.