Study Questions for "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin's story, part of what many call her Hainish Cycle, is set on World 4470, a planet previously mapped by a Cetian member of the League of Planets but not yet explored. In this early Hainish story, crews are sent on missions to investigate known planets knowing that they will return to their home planets hundreds of years later because of the time dilation involved in near light speed travel. As a result, the crews are typically comprised of misfits who have no desire to continue life under their current circumstances. This situation, of course, results in tense relationships among the surveyors comprising the crew of the spaceship Gum, especially since one of the crew, Osden, has been cured of infantile autism, a condition that he developed in defense against his empathic ability. As an empath, Osden cannot escape feeling the emotions of everyone around him, causing him to become embittered and angry and to desire an escape from human society. Since Le Guin's story includes a complicated cast of ten characters, I am providing a list of characters and their races and identities.

Terrans:

Haito Tomiko, the Coordinator and, therefore, ostensibly in charge of the mission.

Porlock, the Hard Scientist of the crew, who despises Osden.

Ander Eskwana, the Engineer, who is a slight empath and becomes drowsy when near Osden for too long.

Jenny Chong, Bio and Tech.

Osden, the Sensor, an empath recently cured of infantile autism.

Hainish:

Harfax, the Biologist

Mannon, the Soft Scientist.

Cetians:

Asnanifoil, the Mathematician/Navigator.

Poswet To, a musician subject to periodic epileptic fits.

Beldenian: Olleroo, the Assistant Hard Scientist from a garden planet [Beldene] that "had never discovered chastity" [101].

While the plot is motivated primarily by the dissention among the crew and their personality conflicts, mostly centered on virtually everyone's disdain for Osden, Le Guin's motive seems at least in part to be to create an inconceivably alien entity. Consider the following two issues as you read the story:

  1. Osden is initially represented as an insufferably rude crew member, despised by all and perhaps even by readers. Does your attitude toward Osden change over the course of the story? If so, what events and situations motivate any changes in your perception of the character?
  2. How exactly would you characterize the alien entity discovered on World 4470?