Scholar, poet, translator, essayist, teacher, and fantasist Ursula K. Le Guin was working right up until her death in Portland, Oregon, last week at the age of 88. 2017 saw the release of her latest book of nonfiction essays, and she had recently finished collaborating on a crowdfunded film and an authorized biography, when mortality snuck up and shocked her fans with her premature departure. As a writer, a teacher, and a role model, she will be missed.
In schools where they teach both Ursula K. Le Guin and horror-fantasist Shirley Jackson as canon-worthy American authors of fiction, they sometimes compare Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery” with Le Guin’s 1973 fable, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The shocking conclusion of “The Lottery” is more straightforward — and brutal — than the ending of “Omelas,” although both tales make similar points about humanity’s willingness to abuse a scapegoat to protect the “greater good.” But Le Guin’s softer, gentler presentation of both a problem and its possible solution is characteristic of her signature style. At her best she can subtly persuade readers to develop more complex and compassionate moral judgments.
Short stories are traditionally where the best ideas in science fiction and fantasy begin — along with publishing careers and fandoms for specific authors. Le Guin, like many authors who profited from the progressive and highly collegial community of writers and editors that coalesced around a trend called “New Wave SF” in the 1960s and ’70s, was a breathtaking author of short and novella-length stories. Her early submissions to trendsetting anthologies edited by Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison won her awards and star status among a very competitive field of new and established talent.
If we recognize that the genre category of fantasy fiction includes Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost, we can’t make the same mistake as even a well-meaning critic like Harold Bloom and say that individual writers like Ursula K. Le Guin elevate the stature of fantasy “into high literature.” Despite the lingering prejudices of some “mainstream” pundits, fantastic, allegorical, and speculative forms of storytelling were born in the realm of “high literature,” even if not everyone who attempts to write fantasy gets there.
Le Guin understood this. In a field of speculative narrative that was predominantly male until the latter half of the twentieth century, there was always something particularly special about the prose of Ursula Le Guin. She wrote about Big Ideas and ethical challenges like most of her peers, but she stopped short at grinding any obvious ax. She never beat you over the head with her personal political or moral stance. Whether imagining a society without fixed genders, or genocidal threats of ecological imbalance, she left the parameters and conclusions of each scenario open, deliberately vague, the better to allow readers to internalize and contemplate multiple possibilities. Le Guin clearly wrote pedagogical tales, but her lessons were never shrill or didactic. She simply felt that everyone should be as concerned about the future of humanity as she was. But she knew better than to try to browbeat her audience into submission.
In The Found and the Lost (Saga Press, 2016), a re-collected and reissued compilation of her favorite novellas, the author briefly explains the context, origins, or significance of each selection. In her introduction to 1971’s “Vaster Than Empires, and More Slow” she writes:
“[T]his is not a psychomyth but a regular science fiction story, developed not for action/adventure, but psychologically. Unless physical action reflects psychic action, unless the deeds express the person, I get very bored with adventure stories; often it seems that the more action there is, the less happens. Obviously my interest is in what goes on inside [emphasis mine].”
If you knew no more about Le Guin’s attitude toward professional storytelling than the above quote, you would know enough. As one might expect from a graduate of Radcliffe and Columbia who earned degrees in French and Italian literature, Le Guin was obsessed by the nuances of language, and how words — as imprecise expressions of thought and perception — can shape the beliefs and behavior of entire civilizations. As the daughter of Alfred L. Kroeber — a professor who founded the department of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley in 1901, and spent his career studying the state’s indigenous peoples — Le Guin may have come by her anthropological interest in language, civilization, and its discontents quite naturally. However, a lecture she was asked to deliver in 1991 to her father’s department, and rewrote for publication in her 2004 essay collection titled The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Shambhala), reveals a certain professional ambivalence she and her father shared:
The two Indian friends of my father’s that I can say something about — because as a child I really did relate to them — are the Papago Juan Dolores and the Yurok Robert Spott. But here I run into the moral problem we storytellers share with you anthropologists: the exploitation of real people. People should not use other people. My memories of these two Native American friends are hedged with caution and thorned with fear. What, after all, did I, or do I, understand about them?
She then indeed goes on to describe getting to know these non-white friends (and scientific collaborators) of her father’s while growing up. Le Guin points out how discovering significant differences between Western and Indian cultural perspectives during this informal exposure to “the other” helped her develop an instinctive understanding of cultural relativism that would later manifest in her fiction. One example of this ability to think outside one’s native point of view is a description offered by a human character in “Vaster Than Empires, and More Slow,” of the alien nature of plant sentience: “Sentience without senses. Blind, deaf, nerveless, moveless. Some irritability, response to touch. Response to sun, to light, to water, and chemicals in the earth around the roots. Nothing comprehensible to an animal mind.”
The concept of absolute cognitive difference was as real to Le Guin as the psychological concept of the unconscious. If consciousness emerged from the unconscious, then the fact that we may have no conscious experience (or knowledge) of something right now does not mean we can never become conscious of it under the right future circumstances. While writing twenty novels and over a hundred short stories, Le Guin was always able to imagine (and evoke) states of mind and soul that were not her own. For her, the unknown was not a vacuum. It was full of the potential for new knowledge. In her speech to the Berkeley anthropologists, she told of sensing an intimidating moral authority in Robert Spott, who’d been trained in ancestral Yurok lore and religious practices by his shaman mother. This vivid memory could easily have inspired the scenes in Le Guin’s first Earthsea novel (published in 1968), wherein the young protagonist is taught shamanic magic by his maternal aunt.
The psychological aspect of Le Guin’s stylistic approach is sometimes ignored by critics who are distracted by her exotic settings, fantastic plots, or seductive mastery of English prose. Embracing Carl Jung’s theory of a dynamic, self-regulating psyche, she always expected her readers to respond to the subliminal motifs and potent archetypal patterns embedded in her work, whether her ideas were delivered by fantastic or realistic plots. If she wrote a series of books about an imaginary pre-technological culture in which words are magical tools that change reality, about summer vacations in Napa Valley, or about space travel to a world on which modified humans develop the ability to shift physiological gender at will, you can be sure Le Guin wanted readers to imagine themselves fully experiencing these scenarios. Nor did she limit her wish to ideologically engage people’s hearts and minds to novels and short fables. She also published a wealth of nonfiction essays — including instructional writing advice, literary criticism, sociological observations — and expressed her more metaphorical impulses via translating the work of others and publishing multiple books of poetry.
But although Le Guin was writing in more mainstream styles while still in college, her first published novel was a splice of Cold War–influenced space opera and heroic fantasy titled Rocannon’s World that in 1966 paved the way for a series of novels set in an imagined universe wherein Earth was just one of a number of worlds on which human life was intentionally seeded by inhabitants of a planet called Hain. This Hainish “empire” is so far-flung in time and space that each isolated planetary population was able to evolve social, technological, and genetic differences that can only be bridged by very slow diplomatic attempts at contact and communication by emissaries from other Hainish colonies. Le Guin was making up this cosmology as she went along, adapting it to serve the needs of different story arcs, so she admits that attempting to draw coherent chronological connections between each book can be dicey.
Yet what does connect such different novels as Rocannon’s World, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Lathe of Heaven (1971), and the multi-award-winning The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) is a deft interweaving of contemporary political concerns, scientific inquiry, and resonant mythological elements. That Le Guin could move so effortlessly from an anti-war allegory, to a Pandora’s box allusion, to an unorthodox interrogation of gender, to a blend of Taoism and Jungian psychology, to an instructive juxtaposition of capitalism and anarcho-syndicalism is remarkable enough. But it is her sympathetic character development that strengthens each of these thought experiments, as the interpersonal relationships and ethical consequences of people’s actions become the emotional linchpin of every Le Guin story.
Through the Eighties and Nineties Le Guin would periodically return to the Hainish universe or to the fantasy archipelago of Earthsea with fresh tales to tell, always a benefit of ambitious world-building. But these later decades also found Le Guin shifting her attention to more playful titles aimed at younger readers, like the Catwings picture book series. I tend to think that Le Guin’s eloquent brand of utopian speculation was somewhat eclipsed in the 1980s by the downbeat neorealism of dystopian cyberpunk, a genre where computer-mediated reality made more traditional science fiction and fantasy seem a bit quaint. In the post–Harry Potter 2000s, Le Guin launched another YA series known collectively as the Annals of the Western Shore. The third book in the series won the 2008 Nebula Award for Best Novel, putting Le Guin once more on the leading edge of genre fiction.
British academic Farah Mendelsohn notes in her 2009 critical anthology On Joanna Russ that Ursula K. Le Guin racked up a formidable list of “firsts” for a female SF author when she published her sly gender-bending novel The Left Hand of Darkness. In 1970 it won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel — the first time voters gave either annual prize to a woman. This, plus the increasing appearances of Le Guin’s meticulously crafted short fiction in major anthologies through the early Seventies (writing for New Directions in 1971 and 1974, and for Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972) made Le Guin something of a target as “the woman writer to beat,” when typically liberal to leftist SF fandom began using intragroup fanzines to discuss the contributions of women to science fiction. Male and female readers of SF also began using fannish publications and convention panels to debate feminist agendas for the first time, holding writers’ feet to the fire in a confrontational way that was almost as controversial as the issues of representation and parity being raised.
In 1975 the fanzine Khatru organized and published an all-star symposium titled “Women in Science Fiction” (still available via Google Books) composed of written letters solicited from prominent writers in the field. Ursula Le Guin was one of the invited contributors. In these wide-ranging broadsides that argue for actual and representational gender equality, you come to know Le Guin’s take on the stylistic evolutions of SF, and on what her specific contributions should be. Her critique of “golden age” SF was that all characters, both male and female, were deliberately rendered two-dimensional, the better to foreground Big Idea technologies and adventure-laden plots. Asked if she thought men and women could write believable characters of the opposite sex, she first cited Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, then Jane Austen, then Carl Jung’s theory that all women also possess an archetypal masculine personality, and that every man harbors an emotionally authentic inner female.
As a working wife and mother whose rate of cultural production outstripped that of many career women with fewer claims on their time, it would seem Le Guin should not have had to defend her qualifications as a feminist. But when hard questions were asked, and her published work was scrutinized, Le Guin never shrank from a debate. As a result, we can learn as much from the Khatru and post-Khatru texts as we do from her fiction.
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