Ursula K. Le Guin: Our Lodestar
A while ago, I wrote an obituary on Le Guin for Overland magazine, which is available here.
Here’s the article:
‘The King was pregnant.’
So wrote Ursula K Le Guin in her 1969 classic The Left Hand of Darkness – one of the greatest of science fiction novels. The populace of Gethen were androgynous. During their sexual life cycle, they entered a phase were they could become either male or female. Thus the King can be pregnant. When I visited her some years ago at her home in Portland, Oregon, she explained to me that her ‘first intention for that book was simply to write about people who didn’t have war. The whole gender thing came in through the side door. “Hey, these people are much more interesting than I realised!”’
The Left Hand of Darkness quickly garnered a number of awards and became a classic of feminist science fiction – a meditation on gender, war and state formation. In the novel, many of Le Guin’s interests came into focus. She was a leftist, a feminist, a Taoist. If the intersection of these three positions helps explain many of her narratives, her science fiction also showed the influence of her anthropologist parents. Her fiction was interested in culture and the way it forms and limits our perspectives.
By introducing such themes, Le Guin was part of a wave of science fiction writers who transformed the field from the stereotypical images of it as obsessed with technology, as the province of egg-head scientists or men of action (represented most clearly in US science fiction by the work of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein). These new writers were interested in race, class, gender, sexuality, psychology, mass media, altered states of consciousness, eastern mysticism and other alternative philosophies. Le Guin’s contemporaries included the feminist writers Joanna Russ and James Tiptree Jr (Alice Sheldon), Vonda Macintyre and Suzy McKee Charnas, African-American gay writer Samuel R Delany, New Leftists such as Norman Spinrad or Harlan Ellison, anarchist Michael Moorcock, and that producer of bizarre fabulations, JG Ballard. Many of them introduced the techniques of modernism, breaking apart typical narrative structures and introducing ambitious experiments in form and style.
Though Le Guin stood on the more formally conservative side of this movement, she was much influenced by the classics of realism and modernism, in particular Virginia Woolf. In an early essay she suggested that the ‘reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd’ and proposed that the ‘proper, fitting shape for a novel might be that of a sack, a bag.’ This is not the kind of thing you’d get away with in Hollywood nowadays, or in commercial writing for that matter (see for example Donald Maas’s Writing The Breakout Novel for the opposite opinion), but in Le Guin’s eyes, this allowed her to introduce the ‘poor, the uneducated, the faceless masses, and all the women’ into her fiction.
In their own ways, these 1960s writers reflected the radical movements of their time. When I visited her, Le Guin explained to me that during this period, we [Le Guin and her husband Charles] ‘were doing civil rights marches, then … the whole resistance to Vietnam was building up. And that I was involved in right from the start, for years. Out here, it wasn’t until late in the [civil rights] movement, when the [anti-Vietnam] war movement was beginning to mix with it, that the great marches took place. Those we were on.’ Le Guin, however, was ‘not an organiser. I carry signs around. There was a lot of marching. In the seventies, the whole feminist thing came up. Then the marches were for abortion rights … So it did seem like for years I was walking round downtown with some kind of sign.’
Given her later triumphs, it’s ironic that Le Guin’s career began inauspiciously. She started late, in her thirties, and didn’t need to earn her crust ‘slumming it in the pulps’ as scholar George Slusser once described it. Her first novel, Rocannon’s World, was an awkward mix of science fiction and fantasy, which she later described as a mixture of colours that didn’t quite go together. During the sixties it was still possible to produce several midlist novels and maintain a career. This gave Le Guin breathing space not afforded nowadays. One wonders what might have happened if the current algorithms of the publishing industry were in place at the time. Would Le Guin have survived her first tentative efforts? An intriguing question, but one suspects her talent would have seen her through.
In the mid-sixties, Le Guin entered a period of incredible fertility. For a decade between the mid 1960s and the mid 1970s she produced a group of novels of visionary intensity. She started with the first of her Earthsea novels. The Left Hand of Darkness established her as a science fiction writer of the first rank. Some years later she wrote The Dispossessed, in which she placed three societies side by side: a struggling anarchist utopia on a barren moon, a capitalist society resembling our own, and a bureaucratic state much like the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe. In that novel, Le Guin’s Taoism helps to resolve the narrative questions thrown up when an anarchist physicist moves from his home to the capitalist world.
For those of us seeking to write politically conscious fiction it should be clear just how important Le Guin is. This was what drew me to make the pilgrimage to Portland a little over fifteen years ago as I was researching my PhD. Le Guin suggested a hotel for me to stay at and I took a bus out from the city to find her house with ‘the red door’ as she described it to me. When we sat down to speak in the lounge room of her house (which was as graceful and tasteful as her work), I asked her the way that she conceived of the relationship of politics to art. How does one include politics and not betray the art, since art is not a political document or essay? Le Guin agreed that it had always been:
a major question for me, from college on – the question of what does an artist do with her politics? How directly can they be expressed in art? Do they belong there at all? Or, as I believe, to say that one is not a political person is to kid oneself. All writing is political, the more conscious you are of it, the better, but that still doesn’t mean that you have to preach. As a disciple of Virginia Woolf, I don’t like didactic writing. I don’t like art that preaches at you.
Elsewhere, she wrote that art is best thought of as a ‘thought experiment’.
Le Guin’s work was not immune to criticism. For some feminists, her use of male protagonists tended to give her narratives a too traditional cast. Her fantasy world of Earthsea seemed – in the first three books – to be a traditional patriarchal society in which only men can be wizards (though its protagonist is black-skinned). Other radical critics saw her resolution in The Dispossessed as based on the interdependence of the three societies as lacking radical edge. In The Left Hand of Darkness she used the pronoun ‘he’ for her androgynous species (thus allowing a line like ‘The King was pregnant’) and so coloured them, in the reader’s mind, as male. Of course, Le Guin faced such problems precisely because she investigated these subjects first. Such is the fate of innovators.
In any case, she responded to these criticisms, entering into the dialogue of which all writing is a part. She wrote a wonderful essay (later revised) approaching the problem of feminism and pronouns in The Left Hand of Darkness. On the book’s 25th anniversary, Le Guin published a new version that included a chapter at the end of the book using genderless pronouns instead.
Her fourth book of the Earthsea series, Tehanu, was a brilliant feminist recasting of the series, in which we discover our first female wizard (though her final Earthsea novel, The Other Wind, sits more uncomfortably). Her essays show her to be an astute intelligence, conscious of the problems she is wrestling with. She takes her work seriously, and even though she bristled at the appellation of science fiction writer (according to all accounts she could be prickly and occasionally precious about her words – but what serious writer isn’t?) she defended the genre in essays such as ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’ with a force unequalled.
Le Guin’s later works continued with her characteristic themes and built on the worlds she had invented. Some were more successful than others – my own favourites include her meditation on slavery and revolution, Four Ways to Forgiveness and Lavinia, her rewriting of Virgil’s Aenead – but they all showed her characteristic grace and thoughtfulness. She kept leftist and feminist fires burning in the long decline of radical politics from the 1980s onwards. Indeed, in more recent times, she gave a number of broadsides against capitalism in general and in particular against the way in which it has distorted the publishing industry. Her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards is essential reading, in which she argues that:
Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.
We have lost a giant of literature and a model for what science fiction should try to do. Literary influence is notoriously difficult to trace but there can be little doubt that Le Guin influenced an entire generation of writers who came after her. For me, she has always been a standard to strive for, someone to emulate, a literary hero so to speak (dangerous though it is, to have heroes at all). It’s a sign of the disdain that the literary establishment has for speculative fiction that Le Guin wasn’t awarded a Nobel prize. I can’t think of a writer more worthy. For those of us who love her work and the things she stood for, we can only do our best to follow in her footsteps. She is the lodestar that should guide our literary ships, even if she has crossed the ocean now and reached the farthest shore.