By | Par Ilinca Cioaba

“Vaster than Empires and More Slow” is a short science fiction story by Ursula K. Le Guin in which the author depicts the sensibility of humanity. Set in the Hainish universe, the plot follows a team of misfits that, because they are all too different from normal beings to be able to integrate themselves in society, volunteer to explore unknown planets. Although all the characters are individualized, Odsen is particularly striking: being the group’s empath, he is abnormally perceptive of the emotions of every living being he encounters. By examining the influence of emotional expression, “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” demonstrates the power of interpersonal connections, while questioning what it truly means to be human.

© Ilinca Cioaba

Tout d’abord, Odsen est présenté très tôt dans le texte, comme ayant une réputation particulière même avant son apparition dans l’histoire. Dès le début, Odsen est caractérisé par l’impression désagréable qu’il a laissée sur les autres membres de l’équipage, tel que démontré par l’affirmation catégorique de Porlock, le membre de l’équipage qui s’occupe de sciences traditionnelles telles que la chimie, la physique ou l’astronomie: « I can’t stand him. » Le fait que Porlock soit le premier à exprimer son aversion envers Odsen est symbolique, car cela accentue la dimension émotionnelle de l’existence de l’empathe, une dimension qu’un personnage terre-à-terre comme Porlock ne peut pas entièrement comprendre. Ainsi, l’abîme entre Odsen et les autres est profond, avant même que le personnage n’entre en scène.

Afterwards, the text reveals that Odsen was an autistic child who, with the help of a doctor, not only overcame his social ineptitude but also developed an extreme sensitivity to others’ emotions. Interestingly, Odsen’s physical appearance seems to reflect this inner state. Unnaturally pale with visible muscles, ligaments, and bones, he resembles a chronically ill person whose disease has eaten him from the inside out. The character’s thin skin is symbolic, as it suggests that he is particularly sensitive. Odsen’s sickly appearance is likely caused by the negative effect that the constant influx of emotions has on him, an effect that is highlighted later in the story, when Odsen has an outburst explaining why he cannot stand to be near Eskwana, another member of the crew: “You could not possibly imagine what it’s like to experience Eskwana’s irrational terrors. To have to share his horrible cowardice, to have to cringe with him at everything!” This line is particularly revealing, as it provides insight into the reason why Odsen has such an insulting attitude towards the rest of the team. After all, for most of his life, he has been involuntarily exposed to and deeply harmed by the turbulent, often violent emotions of those around him.

Odsen a initialement été très mal reçu par les autres membres de son équipage. À cause de son empathie extraordinaire, il a senti toute l’énergie négative que les autres transmettaient, ce qui a contribué à son attitude horrible. Odsen est vraiment un personnage piégé: il est à la merci des sentiments des êtres physiquement proches de lui. S’il reçoit de la joie, il répond avec de la joie, alors que s’il reçoit de la haine, il n’a pas d’autre choix que de répondre avec de la haine en retour. Tout cela le piège dans un cercle vicieux. La haine qu’il reçoit des autres explorateurs génère encore plus de haine de sa part, et ainsi de suite. Il est facile de voir comment le personnage est coincé dans une situation sans issue; sans contrôle sur ses émotions, ce n’est pas certain s’il sera capable de différencier ses propres sentiments de ceux des autres.  

© Ilinca Cioaba

I believe that, by telling the story of a character who is profoundly affected by the emotions of those that surround him, Ursula K. Le Guin succeeds in creating a subtle study of human sensitivity under the guise of a deeply detailed science fiction story. Because he possesses an extreme case of empathy, the constant influx of emotions that Odsen receives is simply too much for him to bear. Odsen’s extreme internal pain seems to suggest that, during most of his life, he has been surrounded by mostly destructive emotions. Hate, jealousy, fear – all have deeply affected his overly sensitive nature and transformed him into the disagreeable person he is. Considering that Odsen is equally aware of positive emotions, his cynical attitude suggests that humans are considerably more affected by harmful thoughts and feelings than they are by pleasant ones. Since the character’s superhuman sensitivity functions as an exaggerated form of human empathy, “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” seems to imply that, on a smaller scale, everyone is unconsciously shaped by the feelings they receive from interpersonal interactions. Thus, Odsen’s story is a reminder of how sensitive humans really are, while also making us more aware of the tremendous impact our own emotions can have on others.

Révision : Jennifer Hua