The Le Guin Binary. The Nivenette.
The Literary Shortcuts of Le Guin & Niven
by Jack Windeyer
The catalog of literary devices is vast. How can anyone remember them all? Especially with names like litote, polysyndeton, and zeugma. I can’t keep them all straight, but when I run across an unfamiliar device that deserves a highlight, I give it a temporary name, something that will help me remember why I enjoyed it.
Le Guin Binary
The work of Ursula Le Guin is a treasure trove of brilliant ideas and inventive language.
New Tahiti was mostly water, warm shallow seas broken here and there by reefs, islets, archipelagoes, and the five big Lands that lay in a 2500-kilo arc across the Northwest Quarter-sphere. And all those flecks and blobs of land were covered with trees. Ocean: forest. That was your choice on New Tahiti. Water and sunlight, or darkness and leaves.
—The Word for World is Forest - Ursula Le Guin
Le Guin starts with a soft contrast between land and sea. Then she boils that contrast down to two words separated by a colon. It captures the reader’s attention; primes them for the explicit comparison that follows. It’s not something I had ever encountered before, but it seems perfectly natural.
Larry Niven may be best known for his novels, but his short-story chops earned him a place in the famed anthology Dangerous Visions. In the category of brevity:
“Stupidity. Stupidity’s always been a capital crime. If you had to get yourself executed, why not for something important? See the kid on the other side of youp”
“Sure,” Lew said without looking.
“He’s an organlegger.” Lew felt the shock freezing in his face. He braced himself for another look into the next cell— and every nerve in his body jumped. The kid was looking at him. With his dull dark eyes barely visible under his mop of hair, he regarded Lew as a butcher might consider a badly aged side of beef. Lew edged closer to the bars between his cell and the old man’s.
His voice was a hoarse whisper. “How many did he kill?”
“He was the snatch man. He’d find someone out alone at night, drug the prospect and take him home to the doc that ran the ring. It was the doc that did all the killing. If Bernie’d brought home a dead prospect, the doc would have skinned him down.”
—The Jigsaw Man - Larry Niven
Niven cuts an entire dialogue section down to one character! Almost like a parenthetical in a screenplay. It’s difficult not to imagine that question mark translated into a facial expression. And it proves that Niven is a master of the short-story shortcut.