Ursula K. Le Guin, profile

Issue no3
June / July 2019
Brussels / Bruxelles

At Ursula K. Le Guin’s acceptance speech for the 2014 National Book Awards distinguished contribution to American letters, Ursula K. Le Guin spoke of the need for writers to create hope and alternative realities to world we now live in, “writers who remember freedom.” Half a scolding of the publishing industry and half a clarion call to a younger generation of writers coming of age in an era marked by income inequality, cleaving technological attachments and political instability, the author offered hope, saying “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

Le Guin’s dig at capitalism struck a nerve and her speech went viral. Months later, the lifestyle publication Vice published a popular excerpt of her preface to a collection of essays by anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin. The preface praises Bookchin’s opposition of grow-or-die capitalism and his hope of confronting climate change as a way to restructure the hierarchies of gender, race, class and government. As a pioneer of speculative fiction whose reputation rests on pushing boundaries within science fiction and fantasy, Le Guin has been an outspoken activist committed to social change.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Le Guin is the daughter of anthropologists Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, most well known for their work with Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe. She studied French and Italian literature at Radcliffe and Columbia, later moving to Paris on a Fulbright where she met her husband Charles Le Guin, a historian. They settled in Portland, Oregon and had three children.

Writing science fiction and fantasy from a young age, much of Le Guin’s first published work falls more into the realm of realism. Her profuse output includes seven books of poetry, 22 novels, 11 short story collections, four collections of essays, 12 books for children, and four volumes of translation. Her fiction can be roughly broken down into three categories – realism, fantasy and science fiction – but Le Guin could hardly be classified as a genre purist. Her influence, especially within the particular and, at the time limited world of science fiction, lies in her ability to blend and expand artificially rigid genres and tropes by creating radically new and imaginative worlds.

Le Guin is a quiet activist. In making new worlds, she envisions them as she wants them to be. In the 1960s, science fiction and fantasy were largely the domain of straight white men living in eurocentric worlds with strict ideas of good and evil. Her wildly successful young adult fantasy series Earthsea evolves from a fairly traditional fantasy vantage point. It follows a young untrained wizard of great potential from his childhood in a small medieval fishing village to his education at a great wizarding school, and onward in his quests understanding his power and bringing good to the world. In what Le Guin describes as her “evil activist plot,”[1] after the reader has already been sufficiently introduced to and identifies with young wizard Ged, she casually mentions his red-brown skin color.

The first novel in that series, A Wizard of Earthsea, was published in 1968 and aimed at white American and European audiences as fantasy and science fiction readership was erstwhile overwhelmingly white. Protagonists were unequivocally white males, and following Christian colonialist logic, the bad guys were almost always dark people, monsters, aliens. Earthsea flipped the script without being obvious, making motions to subvert prejudice while also opening up fantasy to young readers of color who had never seen themselves having a place in such a world.

Creating new cultures and worlds from scratch allows Le Guin to avoid erasure or the presumption of speaking for already marginalized cultures while still creating a place for people of color to have agency. But her subtlety has not meant that her actions have been performed quietly. Earthsea has been adapted for television in the US and made into an anime film by the celebrated Studio Ghibli, and in both cases Le Guin loudly registered her frustration with their obvious whitewashing. While the racial politics of anime are thorny and complex, the SyFy Channel’s miniseries adaptation featured a blond haired, blue-eyed white boy as Ged, with whites making up a majority of the cast that was supposed to depict a majority non-white civilization. Le Guin went off, writing for Slate shortly after the initial broadcast, “I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill... Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?”[2]

The second Earthsea novel, The Tombs of Atuan, features a female protagonist--again, a deliberate choice aimed at redressing a void within fantasy at the time. Tenar is the youngest child of a peasant family, raised by a cult as a reincarnated goddess with ultimate dominion over her subjects yet utterly trapped in an archaic temple hierarchy. In the afterword of the novel’s 2012 reprint, Le Guin reflects on the two types of power: power over, and power to do and create. She recognizes that Tenar, at least while in her godhead role, completely lacks power to create, and uses this to reflect on the limitations of fantasy:

In such a world, I could put a girl at the heart of my story, but I couldn’t give her a man’s freedom, or chances equal to a man’s chances. She couldn’t be a hero in the hero-tale sense. Not even in a fantasy? No. Because to me, fantasy isn’t wishful thinking, but a way of reflecting, and reflecting on reality.

The Earthsea world includes six novels and several short stories – including a new story to be published in an upcoming 50th anniversary compilation – and is the most tightly contained of Le Guin’s literary universes. Her realist fiction is largely set in the fictional country of Orsinia, loosely placed in Central Europe, and despite being more firmly rooted in historical reality, shares a speculative quality that is thread throughout Le Guin’s work. And finally, there is the science fiction Hainish cycle, which is not a strict literary saga like Earthsea where works share plot threads and characters, but rather a universe in which novels and stories have a shared history and logic.

Comprised of short stories and novels written over the course of four decades, The Hainish cycle encompasses human civilizations scattered across dozens of planets, including Earth, that have been colonized and seeded by the Hain, ur-humans whose society has long since collapsed. Distance, time, evolution and possible genetic engineering have allowed for wildly diverse societies and biologies, and many of the Hainish stories follow the pursuit of re-establishing a connection and confederacy with the various planets.

The Hainish stories are ostensibly science fiction as there are aliens and interstellar space travel, but they often read like anthropological studies or political allegories. And because many of the lost worlds are home to more primitive societies with rudimentary technology (and occasionally magic), the universe can feel more rooted in fantasy. Indeed, science fiction purists take issue with classifying Le Guin as a science fiction author because she takes little interest in science. Though Le Guin importantly distinguishes “high tech” from the quotidian, so-mundane-as-invisible technology that gives shape to societies. In response to a sci-fi purist attacking her lack of interest in science – which needless to say comes off as suspiciously gender-motivated – she wrote, “Its technology is how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are (animal? human? water? wind? electricity? other?) what they build with and what they build, their medicine–and so on and on. Perhaps very ethereal people aren't interested in these mundane, bodily matters, but I'm fascinated by them, and I think most of my readers are too. Technology is the active human interface with the material world.”[3]

The Left Hand of Darkness, which won the prestigious science fiction Hugo and Nebula awards in 1970, is Le Guin’s most celebrated novel, widely praised for its imaginative, complex and emotional re-envisioning of human gender and sexuality. Set on an icy planet called Gethen, the novel follows a Hainish representative from Earth, a black man named Genly Ai, who has been living on the planet for some time in an attempt to convince the Gethens to join the Hainish confederacy Ekumen. Thought to be the result of ancient Hainish genetic experimentation, the Gethenians are biologically sexually androgynous most of the time, with sexual difference developing only during a monthly “kemmer” period. During kemmer, people sequester themselves in kemmer houses. Gethenians can manifest as either male or female in kemmer and are attracted to and sleep with both sexes, and are rarely predisposed towards a single sex.

Moving from race to gender and now sexuality, Le Guin conjures a rich image of a society without gender or sexual orientation. Though Gethen is not a utopia entirely free of conflict – in fact the plot hinges around a long-standing dispute between the planet’s two largest countries – it is a society in which rape and violence are extremely rare and social hierarchies are negligible, or built more around force of character rather than along gender roles.

The Left Hand of Darkness is among the first Western books to truly engage with gender construction and alternatives that doesn’t simply reverse conventional gender roles. Gender is neutralized, except during kemmer, when it compartmentalized and restrained to sexual relationships. The presence of Genly Ai, who is very much a heterosexual man, allows midcentury American sexism to creep in, despite the claim that Hainish civilization has sexual equality. Le Guin has said this was done on purpose, because while she could imagine a world without racism (accomplished, of course, only through massive historical amnesia), she imagined sexual difference a harder barrier to erase.

Genly spends 80 days crossing crossing barren ice with the one Gethenian he has managed to forge a relationship with, a diplomat named Estraven. Genly genders all Gethenians not in kemmer as male, using male pronouns. During their journey, Genly sees Estraven go into kemmer for the first time and remarks:

And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality.... I had not wanted to give my trust, my friendship to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man.

Le Guin has commented on many occasions about the choice to use the male pronoun as the default pronoun for the asexual Gethenians, lamenting her decision to use what she had erstwhile considered gender neutral. In the 1994 afterword to the novel, she enters into a thoughtful discussion about gendered pronouns and the bind that English usage put her in when writing the book. She dismissed made-up pronouns as too distracting, and “they” as too plural (a position she no longer takes, and has been outspoken about the rigidness of grammarians[4]) but ultimately ends with “The book stands. I stand with it, and with its many, many readers, who have not allowed the obstinacy of pronouns to keep them from a vision of genderless justice or the dream of two as one, . . . life and death, lying together like lovers in kemmer, like hands joined together, like the end and the way.”

But Le Guin’s guiding principle in all her work, underlying her commitments to racial and gender equality, is her belief in anarchism as the mechanism of a just and equal society. Anarchism is addressed most straightforwardly in The Dispossessed, which takes place in a system with two inhabited planets, one of which is governed by a form of capitalism familiar to American readers, replete with excess and inequality, with the other planet as a home to a fledgling rebel anarchist society which reads as a something close to a combination of the USSR and Israeli kibbutzim.

The Hainish governing body, the Ekumen, is a loose confederacy of societies that makes a point of celebrating differences while maintaining a commitment to equality. Somewhat akin to the Prime Directive of Star Trek – whereby Starfleet is prohibited from imposing their own values on alien civilizations, the Ekumen is closely aligned with the political philosophies of the foundational anarchist Peter Kropotkin, as well as Bookchin’s outlines of democratic confederalism.

Working across genres and media – her oeuvre includes novels, short stories, poetry, a translation of Taoist work, children’s books, and music – Le Guin creates nebulous worlds across time and space. Earthsea is the most contained of those worlds, with plottable maps and lineages, while the Hainish universe purposefully focuses on the post-colonial planets of the sundered Hainish empire, with stories scattered across the galaxy and time as well. Notably, Le Guin never lays down a strict origin story or genealogy for the Hainish universe, which allows for more variables and possible worlds.

Most telling, Le Guin has never been one to focus on plot development. Ironically, her anarchic The Dispossessed may be her most compelling drama with the tightest plot structure, but most of her short stories are vignettes that give glimpse into the lives of possible people inhabiting possible worlds. By focusing on the lives of her characters and their struggles to understand the tapestry of the civilizations they inhabit, Le Guin gives space to a potential of anyone finding their way in the world they live in.


[1] http://www.newyorker.com/books/book-club/first-contact-a-talk-with-ursula-k-le-guin

[2] http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2004/12/a_whitewashed_earthsea.html

[3] http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Note-Technology.html

[4] http://www.wired.com/2012/07/geeks-guide-ursula-k-le-guin/

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