Ursula Le Guin (2007)
I love Ursula Le Guin. I’ve interviewed her twice, and spoken with her via email a few times. She is one of the towering intellects of SF and Fantasy fiction, as at home within the skin of a man or a woman when creating characters. Her works are so balanced, so rich and evocative, so full of meaning, that each one is a joyous education. There are few people that make me feel humble without also making me feel envious, she is one. She’s one of the few writers in the genre who produces novels that are as effective as high literature as they are genre fiction. I have often said, and maintain to this day, that A Wizard of Earthsea is the best coming of age story for boys there is.
I like her so much that if I could have an extra grandmother, and I could pick anyone in the world for the job, it’d be her. As a man, I sometimes have a hard time relating to women in certain circumstances. I am, after all, a messed-up male of the generation that came right after feminism, bombarded with middle-class gender guilt for the first half of my life, railing against it for the other. Every time I have any dealings with Ursula or her books, it sorts me right out.She lets men be men, and women be women, but most important of all, she allows that people are people, whatever they may be, flawed yet brilliant, each and every one.
She’s got a joy of life that’s positively infectious too. How cool is this? When I started to set this interview up in 2007, I had to wait a couple of weeks because she was ‘out wandering in the desert’. A later buzz I got from her came a couple of years later, when I reviewed her book Lavinia, she sent a personal thanks to me via her publicist, thanking me for getting her book’s message.
Anyway, enough of the cringe worthy praising, you can get an idea of why I think she’s so damn great below.
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin
Born: 1929, Berkeley California
Where is she to be found? She has lived in Portland, Oregon for almost 50 years.
What does she write? Her work tends towards examinations of the human condition through the redemption of a character who is alienated from, or alien to, a particular setting. She is best known for two major series. Her Hainish books are set in a universe seeded millennia ago by humans from Hain (see boxout), its clashing cultures fertile ground for her anthropological themes. Her fantasy Earthsea stories look at the balance of power between the genders. This is a recurrent subject in the work of this important feminist writer.
Le Guin is also the creator of several stand-alone novels, realist short stories and is a prolific essayist, her favoured topics being writing, the power of language and storytelling.
Who is she influenced by? Le Guin began writing aged five, unsuccessfully submitting her first short story to Astounding Science Fiction at 11. In her case, it is best to ask who she influenced, and not who influenced her.
Awards: She has won over a dozen, including five Nebulas and five Hugos. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974), won both these accolades. Other awards include Locus, National Book, Endeavour and the James Tiptree Jr.
There are authors who entertain without enlightening, there are authors who enlighten without entertaining, and there are authors who do both. Twisting these two strands of literature into perfect lines of prose is Ursula K Le Guin.
Her attention to detail makes the places in her books live and breathe in a way that few other authors can manage. Furthermore, her characters are amongst the most believable in the genre. She has a fundamental understanding of the human soul that makes her creations almost walk from the page. Her portrayal of the differences between men and women is unsurpassed, to the extent that The Wizard of Earthsea is one of the best coming-of-age tales for men ever written. Her work is often placed in the box marked ‘feminist’, but her works are egalitarian, not angry polemics, and see the good and bad in both sexes.
Le Guin has undoubtedly been influenced by her anthropologist father, Alfred L. Kroeber. He was recognised as one of the foremost scholars in the field, especially for his work with disappearing native American cultures. His mastery of the social sciences is something that Le Guin also exhibits, and it is her grasp of how society, gender and environment interacts that make her books so compelling. Whether we’re being given insight into the nature of power through the maritime culture of Earthsea, or unknowingly imbibing concepts about the liquidity of our perceived reality in The Lathe of Heaven, her books are grave, thoughtful but altogether uplifting tales on the ultimate nobility of the human spirit. That they are also often exciting and thoroughly absorbing adventures in wonderfully imagined alien settings is more than enough to merit the attention she has had from genre fans, mainstream critics and academics alike. She is a woman possessed of an almost frightening wisdom…
Guy Haley: Which authors and books inspired you to become a writer?
Ursula K Le Guin: I started writing poems and stories at age five. Not quite sure what authors and books I was familiar with at that age. Peter Rabbit? Mother Goose?
I think “the anxiety of influence” is considerably overrated. Some people, if they get half a chance, are going to find rhythm and music in their language and make up stories with it, just like other people are going to make songs or draw pictures or dance. Yes, we borrow a lot; but art is, primarily, a gift.
GH: You are often described as a feminist writer. Do you think that is an accurate assessment? Did you set out to be a feminist writer or is this opinion of you based on the fact that you were a well-received female author at the time when feminism was at its height, and you were sort of co-opted by the movement?
UKL: I have frequently described myself as a feminist, because feminist thinking and writing of the Sixties and Seventies had a huge liberating influence on me, setting my mind free from a whole lot of masculist bigotries and superstitions; and so it would be untruthful and ungrateful not to call myself a feminist, even if the term doesn’t fully describe either my thinking or my writing.
Besides, when you say you’re a feminist it annoys the bigots and the old farts and the prissy ladies so much, it’s kind of irresistible.
GH: Did feminism succeed?
UKL: I see fish riding bicycles everywhere, don’t you?
GH: One of the most noteworthy things about your books is that your characters are entirely believable. How do you manage this?
UKL: By being fully convinced, while writing them, that they exist. And that, therefore, there’s a whole lot about every one of them that I don’t know. It’s my job as a novelist to try and find out what I need to know about them.
GH: You also portray men in an accurate way that few men even succeed at. They are not the caricatures women can write – emotionally stunted, annoying and inclined to unthinking action, nor the caricatures men can write – all notions of war and conquest and the masters of easily gained power. What gives you this insight into the male psyche?
UKL: Thank you for some much appreciated praise. I think women look at men partly in wonder and mystification: Why ever do men act like that? – and partly with the clear, impartial understanding of the interested observer: This is how men act. Men look at women with the same double vision, I think. The other gender’s view of us can be and should be a very valuable thing to us. But too often it’s clouded by prejudice, personal resentment, the will to dominate, fear, hatred, and then it’s worthless.
GH: You have an amazing family history – your clan seems to be brimming with great achievers and deep thinkers. How has this affected you?
UKL: I like my tribe. They argue well, and loudly, with great passion. They love the arts and sciences. They are kind and honorable people. They set me a lot of good examples – both those who came before me, and those who are younger than I.
GH: Who had the most influence on you as a writer, do you think, your writer mother or anthropologist father?
UKL: My mother didn’t write anything till she was getting on to sixty, so I guess it had to be my father; but I didn’t read much of what he wrote till I was in my thirties, so his influence must have been osmotic. Also genetic – I believe my mind works somewhat the way his did, though less disciplined and methodical. He loved to read fantasy, by the way.
GH: What do you think the purpose of story is in human society?
UKL: Oh, I have written whole essays about this. I think we tell stories to each other to remember who we are as a people, and to find out who we are as individuals. Our stories carry our memory as members of a/the human community, information we need to find our way through life. Therefore it’s important that the stories we tell be as true as we can make them.
GH: From a storytelling perspective, which has most utility, fantasy or science fiction?
UKL: Depends on the story you want to tell, I should think? Science fiction is wonderfully useful for offering a convincing picture of alternative ways of doing and being, which can shake readers out of fixed mindsets, knock the blinkers off them. It’s also awfully good for dire warnings. Fantasy, which I see as vastly older and larger than SF, can do almost anything you want it to do. It can entertain the king, or mock him mercilessly, or found a religion, or describe Colombia. People who think fantasy means wishful thinking need instruction in the uses of the imagination.
GH: Why do you write so little contemporary fiction?
UKL: You mean realism? Oh, I suppose because, all through the twentieth century, realism was what you were supposed to write, and I never have liked being told what to do.
GH: You have several grandchildren. What will science fiction and fantasy will be like when they have grandchildren of their own do you think?
UKL: Guy, this question spooks me. When I think what the world, the Earth, may be like, when and if my grandchildren have grandchildren, I quickly begin to tell myself how tough human beings are, how life survives and even flowers under incredible abuse and deprivation; but sometimes, looking at what we’ve done and what we’re busy, busy, busy doing right now, my hope sinks pretty low. I guess I hope the kids have something to read and enough to eat.
GH: Anthropological themes suffuse your work, especially in the Hainish books. They make excellent stories that are wide-ranging and capable of tackling many issues simultaneously. In the light of its strength in stories, do you see anthropology as a sort of ‘master science’, in the social sciences, able to explain much of who we are and why?
UKL: I like that idea very much. May I steal it?
GH: Why do you think these themes work so well in this science fiction context?
UKL: For one thing, because they do exactly what I said I think science fiction is particularly good at and useful for: They present alternative cultures/societies/technologies/physiologies/mores/sexualities/etc. to the reader – who, like all of us, is more or less “culture-bound” – stuck in one way of seeing, one way of doing.
GH: I watched the TV Earthsea series, which was not very good, to put it mildly. You did not think much of this yourself. What went wrong?
UKL: The people who made it, having smarmed me with promises to respect the story and to honor the consultative capacity given me in the contract, didn’t. Having hyped or lied about who was to write the screenplay, they gave it to a hack. The casting and directing were as feeble and foolish as the writing. I feel sorry for a couple of the older actors. Everybody else concerned deserves nothing but derision. Including me, for letting myself be fooled by some Hollywood jerks looking for a free ride on an author’s name.
GH: Did you like the Miyazaki anime?
UKL: I like all Hayao Miyazaki’s films – particularly My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. The one Goro Miyazaki film I’ve seen (described as being based on the Earthsea books, although in fact it merely uses some names and episodes from them in an entirely unrelated story) did not particularly make me want to see any others.
GH: Do you think we’ll see a The Lord of the Rings style adaptation of the sequence some time – Earthsea is arguably one of the few, full-on secondary world fantasies that would cope well with a big screen treatment, as it has the necessary depth to survive the transition from one medium to the other. Or have you had it with adaptations?
UKL: Well, a filmmaker with genuine imagination, who is also actually able to read a book and understand it, will have to come along. Every now and then there is one. Michael Powell was one. He wrote a lovely little script for the first two books, years ago; but fantasy films were out of fashion then and he couldn’t sell it; and then Coppola, who was backing him, went broke. Since then nobody of any stature has come along, except Hayao Miyazaki, and he handed it over to his son.
GH: You are at the height of a very fruitful career. You’ve already had a huge influence on many writers and readers. What do you hope your legacy will be?
UKL: Irreverence toward undeserved authority, and passionate respect for the power of the word. Oh, and my books staying in print, too.
GH: Which are your favourite books from your own work?
UKL: I love them all, the flawed little bastards.
We asked Ursula what the hallmark was of good fantastical fiction, after all, we figured if anyone should know the answer, it would be her.
Good writing style and accurate detail makes good fantastical fiction: To start with. I don’t have much to say about this that I haven’t already said, and I hate to find I’m repeating myself without knowing it; so let me repeat myself deliberately. In a piece called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” reprinted in my book The Language of the Night, I talked about style in fantasy writing:
“Why is style of such fundamental significance in fantasy? Just because a writer gets the tone of a conversation a bit wrong, or describes things vaguely, or uses an anachronistic vocabulary or shoddy syntax, or begins going a bit heavy on the ichor before dinner – does that disqualify the book as a fantasy? Just because the style is weak and inappropriate – is that so important?
“I think it is, because in fantasy there is nothing but the writer’s vision of the world. There is no borrowed reality of history, or current events, or just plain folks at home in Peyton Place. There is no comfortable matrix of the commonplace to substitute for the imagination, to provide a ready-made emotional response, and to disguise flaws and failures of creation. There is only a construct built in a void, with every joint and seam and nail exposed. To create what Tolkien calls a ‘secondary universe’ is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator’s voice. And every word counts.
“This is an awful responsibility to undertake, when all the poor writer wants to do is play dragons, to entertain us all for a while… But all the same, if one undertakes a responsibility one should be aware of it.
“And I believe that the reader has a responsibility; if we love the stuff we read, we have a duty toward it. That duty is to refuse to be fooled; to refuse to admit commercial exploitation of the holy ground of Myth; to reject shoddy work, and to save our praise for for the real thing. Because when fantasy is the real thing, nothing, after all, is realer.”
I wrote that about 35 years ago. It still says pretty much just what I’d say now.
As for accurate detail, it’s essential in fantasy for the same reason a strong style is: because there isn’ any world there at all except the one you build up out of details and description. It’s all up to you.
So how can a detail be ‘accurate’ if you made it up? How do we know that nimriths weigh only a few ounces and have long claws? I made up nimriths, so why can’t I say they are heavy and clawless? Because back on page 90, as our heroine crossed the Voomian Desert, she noticed that she could track the nimriths in the greyish dust only by the deep scratches left by their claws as they hopped along…
A fantastic detail is accurate if it is consistent throughout the story and if it is coherent with other details in the story. If it’s changed, there has to be a reason, a cause, just as in the real world.
I keep hitting on this because I read so much would-be fantasy that cheats on the accurate, vivid details that would build up a credible world. The writer just pushes a lot of tired, borrowed, fake cliches around. Fantasy kingdoms in which people fight and kill each other all the time, which have no economy, no working class, no possible way to keep going… Fantasy people who ride horses all day and night and then leap off them and never give them another thought… I’m supposed to be interested in the people but I’m sorry, I’m with that poor heartstrained horse who’s never going to get the pail of water he’ll die if he doesn’t get…
Wishful thinking is not fantasy. And imitation of fantasy cliches isn’t fantasy either. It’s commercial schlock.
Well, you asked!
The Great Human Diaspora
Much of Le Guin’s award-winning fiction is set in the Hainish universe. A vast galaxy that is nevertheless full of very human-scale contrasts, it provides a sandbox for Le Guin’s favourite cultural riffs.
Though Ursula K Le Guin is perhaps best known as a fantasy author in the UK, the vast bulk of her work has been science fiction. And many, though not all, of her SF books are set in the Hainish universe. This interstellar backdrop postulates that in the distant past, human beings from the planet Hain spread out and colonised the galaxy, seeding many world with human and other life. However, the people of Hain had no technology that enabled faster-than-light travel or communication, and their star-spanning culture collapsed catastrophically under the weight of unconquerable distances. Many worlds, including our own, were isolated for so long that their populations reverted to primitive levels of technology and forgot their heritage.
That is until, a few centuries from now, agents of the Ekumen begin to contact numerous worlds. The Ekumen are not a colonial organisation intent on conquest, but are more akin to something like the British Council, dedicated to promoting cultural exchange. (Le Guin’s books are notable in that violence is frequently absent). That’s not to say that many human societies are not bent on domination, and several of her stories concern the actions of one culture trying to dominate another.
This, of course, sets the scene for many situations that enable Le Guin to tackle her favourite ideas, as long-isolated human populations meet and have to figure each other out. A lot of these stories feature an outsider, whether it be the aloof agents of the Ekumen or men and women of conquering societies encountering foreign cultures.
The lessons these ‘outsider’ characters must learn is invariably one of acceptance, for the principles of Tao are also key to Le Guin’s work. To live well one must not pit one’s will against the universe, but allow it to work with it, and that balance in all things is vital. So, we have stories like that of Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) who must learn to accept the unique sexuality of the people of Geneth. Also, stories such as ‘The Fisherman of the Inland Sea’ (1994 – from the short story collection of the same name), where the characters are already at one with his environment. One of the few tales actually set on Hain itself, the story sees the Hainish unconcerned by the immeasurably old relics of prior civilisations that dot the planet, viewing them simply as part of the landscape.
But Hain can be a ticklish thing for the kinds of readers who like to categorise and list. The Hainish books might cover 2500 years of future history, but, unlike Earthsea, Hain never was intended to be a continuous creation, and has many inconsistencies.
“I didn’t set out to write a series, exactly,” says Le Guin. “It just growed, like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I found it a lot easier to keep going back to the same universe than to keep making up new ones. Ask God – God probably doesn’t forget what he did with various places and peoples, though. I do. So people who try to make a grand history out of the ‘Hainish’ books are doomed to extreme frustration – they find whole millennia missing, two planets with the same name – Werel – that aren’t the same planet – a universe of booboos. It’s such a mess you’d think Coyote [the native American Trickster god] made it. Like this one.”
Despite Le Guin’s interest in social issues, and societies that eschew high-tech for simpler lifestyles, there is an underpinning of hard SF to the Hain books. New technologies are being developed that allow a League of All Worlds and the Ekumen to come into being. One of her double award winners, The Dispossessed, features the development of the instantaneous communications device known as the ansible, and the ‘New Math’ that underpins it, as a major part of the story. Ansible is a corruption of the word ‘answerable’, and the device has gone on to be a part of the SF toolkit for many authors. Likewise, in other books we see the use of NAFAL (nearly as fast as light) travel, the deployment of death rays that work using the ansible technology, genetic engineering, and the coming development of ‘churten’ technology that will allow instantaneous travel.
Le Guin herself has pointed out the unlikeliness of much of this tech, but would not change any of it were she to get a second chance.
“The ansible works fine, doesn’t it?” she says. “Most of the fundamental tropes of science fiction – zooming around the galaxy at FTL speeds or via strings or whatever, meeting and communicating with aliens on other planets, interplanetary wars and empires and leagues, all that – it’s pure hokum. Pure and glorious. The space ship is not a prediction, it’s a metaphor. That doesn’t invalidate it! Just the opposite: it makes it as useful as it is enjoyable. Take her out, Scottie.”
EIGHT OF THE BEST
Ursula K Le Guin’s understanding of the subtle joys and agonies of the human condition is beyond compare, her prose flawless, her wisdom ineffable. Like folkstories from long ago, her tales teach as well as enthrall. Here are eight scintillating gems from her treasure house of story. [Hey! You say, there's nine here, not eight! Sorry, but we cheat, we journalists, and I was asked to swap one out at the end of the editorial process, purely because we couldn't find a physical copy of one of the books for our complicated, but cool-looking, bookshelf-style photoshoot. Here, have an extra. My treat].
The Wind’s Twelve Quarters
This collection of 17 short stories was published as Le Guin’s career was well underway, and is a fantastic primer to her themes, her worlds, and her way of thinking.
The stories were all written in the first ten years after Le Guin initially made it into print, and provide an insight into her development as a writer, one further illuminated by her own comments on each. There’s a broad mix here, from Earthsea stories (‘The Rule of Names’, ‘The Word of Unbinding’) to hard SF. All exhibit her awesome understanding of humanity. For example, Nine Lives, which she slightly disparagingly refers to as ‘wiring diagram’ fiction (i.e., dependent on science), tackles the hard SF staple of cloning, but does so, as is usual for Le Guin, through the eyes of characters so solid that they feel like real people.
The stories show that Le Guin’s style has remained remarkably consistent throughout her career. Though her themes have become richer, her prose gelled early into the sparse, uncluttered poetry that has always marked her out as an exceptional storyteller.
Many of the tales included – like The Rule of Names – provided the springboards for full-length novels, others present different perspectives on some of her books, such as ‘Winter’s King’ (about King Argaven from The Left Hand of Darkness) and ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ (which describes the last day of Laia Aseio Odo, The Dispossessed‘s equivalent of Karl Marx). This latter tale won a Nebula, another, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, a moral fable about citydwellers in a utopia whose happiness depends on the suffering of one child, earned a Hugo.
A Wizard of Earthsea
A Wizard of Earthsea concerns the early life of Ged, a man who will one day become the greatest and wisest Archmage in Earthsea’s history. But in this first book he is young and headstrong, and his rivalry with another student at the wizard’s school on Roke leads him to accidentally summon a deadly spirit that gravely wounds him and causes the death of the Archmage.
Though Ged recovers and becomes a wizard, the spirit dogs him for years, until Ged resolves to turn the tables on his pursuer, and chases it past the furthest of the southernmost islands. Here he confronts it and speaks its true name – Ged – thus healing the two halves of his broken soul.
A Wizard of Earthsea examines Le Guin’s constant theme of balance. It is also is about the responsibility of power, as Ged grows from impotent childhood to all-too-powerful adulthood, and in is it is one of the most effective coming of age tales ever written.
The book is bursting with Le Guin’s inventiveness. Earthsea, with its thousands of islands, resembles a temperate Indonesia, its combination of multiple cultures and seafaring traditions setting it far above other, more formulaic fantasies. Its magic is particularly fascinating. The system comes from Le Guin’s belief in the power of words, for on Earthsea, to know the true name of something is to have power over it.
Earthsea is as fine a creation as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, which always feels a thing of myth (though intentionally so). Earthsea, however, achieves a genuine verisimilitude. Le Guin writes like she is documenting reality, nowhere is this more apparent than in her Earthsea books.
The Left Hand of Darkness
The third in Le Guin’s Hainish series marked her emergence as a major SF talent, earning her a Hugo and a Nebula award, and it is often cited as key text in the field of feminist SF.
Genly Ai is an Earth-born agent of the Ekumen, the interplanetary government that links the scattered worlds of the human diaspora. He tells the story of his mission to Karhide on the planet of Gethen (also called Winter, as the planet is bitterly cold), to bring it into the broader fold of mankind.
The Gethenians are unlike any other humans, being asexual, only choosing a sex temporarily in their phase of ‘Kemmer’. Ai’s fixed maleness fascinates and disgusts the Gethenians, while Ai himself is hopelessly baffled by their ambivalence and subtle power games. Despite his training finds he himself making gaffes both in Karhide and the nation of Orgoreyn, and becomes embroiled in intrigues in both countries as they edge closer to the planet’s first war. Only through the efforts of the Gethenian Estraven does Genly survive his stay, and it is their relationship that forms the core of the story as Genly slowly comes to an understanding of the Gethenians through Estraven, eventually finding a kind of love with him.
This is a powerful work, an examination of what is fundamental to all humans once gender identity is stripped away.
The Lathe of Heaven
A parable about man’s desire to control his own destiny to disastrous effect, The Lathe of Heaven saw Le Guin stray into Philip K Dick territory. It is one of her finest standalone novels and scooped the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards.
George Orr is a draughtsman living in a world dogged by overpopulation, global warming and war. He is frightened by his ability to ‘effectively dream’ – when he sleeps, the world changes. Referred to the psychiatrist William Haber for abusing drugs that suppress these dreams, Orr is exploited as Haber tries to harness his power to change the world for the better. So much meddling goes on that the glue of reality threatens to come unstuck, forcing a showdown between Orr and his therapist that leaves the universe whole, but only just.
Though the book’s point is essentially ‘The grass is always greener’ writ large, it is also notable in how negatively psychology is portrayed. Orr tries to escape Haber, but finds this virtually impossible by dint of the fact that he is a patient in therapy and, therefore, regarded as incapable of making a rational decision. However, as it turns out, it is Haber, not Orr, who is insane.
The book is definitive of Le Guin’s personal philosophy. The theme of ‘being’ versus ‘doing’ occurs many times in her books, as it is a fundamental part of the eastern ideas that suffuse her work, but it is arguably most strongly evident in Orr, the man who wants to simply be, but cannot help but do.
The Word for World is Forest
Another Hain book, one full of the horror of war. Athshe is a planet occupied by colonists from Earth. They intend to settle what they call ‘New Tahiti’, and set about cutting down the forests and enslaving the local populace. The Athsheans have diverged markedly from the original Hainish human stock, and are only one metre tall, have green fur and big eyes. They are regarded as lazy primitives because of the unusual way they rest, and are brutally treated by the settlers to the extent that the Athsehans eventually turn on the Terrans with shocking savagery, despite having no history of violence.
The arrival of a Hainish and Cetian diplomat with the news of the formation of the League of All Worlds and an ansible looks to bring the crisis to a peaceful end, as the Terrans are told by their own government to mend their ways. However, a raid on an Athshean tree-city by their main oppressor, Captain Davidson, precipitates more bloodshed.
The Terrans depart Athshe, but native society has been rocked to its roots.
Though the novel was released in 1976, The Word for World is Forest was first published as a novella in Harlan Ellison’s 1972 collection, Again, Dangerous Visions. Written at the height of the Vietnam war and clearly allegorical in its depiction of colonial exploitation, the story has Indians and Vietnamese in the Terran group, pointing out that the oppressed can easily become oppressors themselves; that there are no innocents among humanity, for at the end of the book even the childlike Athseheans have learnt the ways of violence.
According to internal chronology, The Dispossessed lies at the start of the Hainish cycle, as it details the creation of the ‘New Math’ that will lead to the creation of the ansible.
However, the book’s real concern is with social theory – the subtitle of the book is ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’ – and Le Guin uses the story of the restless mathematician Shevek to examine the implications of revolution.
Shevek lives upon Anarres, the massive moon of Urras, from whose governments it broke away following an anarchist revolution nearly two hundred years in the past. Although the state is supposedly non-existent on Anarres, Shevek’s radical theories bring him up against the hidden power structure there. Dismayed, he undertakes the dangerous journey to Urras, but though he is feted on Urras and is initially grateful of its personal freedoms, he finds himself equally ill at ease with that society’s capitalism.
Through these two worlds, which are far enough away from real-world analogues to be more than cyphers, Le Guin shows us that all societies have their flaws, no matter how perfect they may seem on paper. As one of the characters says at one point “Our earth is their moon, their moon is our earth” – there is no truth, only different ways of being. That the characters are well-drawn individuals only reinforces the idea that people everywhere are occupied with trying to get along as best they can no matter what their culture.
The Dispossessed won both the Nebula and Hugo in 1975.
Always Coming Home
Although Always Coming Home explores similar themes to many of Le Guin’s other books – it has a strong feminist angle, features two mutually opposed cultures and follows a character that travels from one (another anarchistic society) back to the other, it is notable in its vivacious experimentation with the form of the novel.
Always Coming Home is set in a post-apocalyptic California, the home of the matriarchal Kesh people. The Kesh have rejected many of our society’s ways, referring to them as ‘The Sickness of Man’. Though they make use of technologies such as steel and railways, and have access to a self-managing computer system left over from our own future, they live a simple life bound to the land.
Where the true novelty of the book lies is that here Le Guin drops her authorial camouflage and steps openly into the role of anthropologist. Always Coming Home is presented as a collection of essays, stories, recipes and drawings (by Margaret Chodos), and originally came accompanied by a taped collection of Kesh music (by Todd Barton), that document the Kesh way of life, the whole being loosely tied together by the story of Stone Telling, whose mother married into a patriarchal society bordering the Kesh and then fled it.
It has been said that Le Guin’s career is marked by utopianism, in Always Coming Home she presents us with a very personal one.
The latest full-length Hainish book, and the first Le Guin had written for 20 years, is a tale of mirrored oppressions.
Sutty is a Canadian of Indian descent who decides to join the Ekumen as a cultural observer to escape the Unist Religion that dominates Earth. She is assigned to the world of Aka, a planet with a rich culture of storytelling that forms a kind of religion. However, during her transit to the planet, which takes the relative equivalent of sixty years, there is a cultural revolution on the planet. As it strives to industrialise to bring itself up to what the new regime sees as the galactic norm, it has purposely destroyed its earlier culture. All Sutty has learned is useless, and her purpose on the world, to catalogue its folk-knowledge, defunct. She’s further horrified to learn that this change may have come about as a reaction to communication with Earth’s fundamentalist government, as Le Guin hints that contact from something like the Ekumen could bring as much harm as good.
But the old culture clings on in places, and Sutty embarks on a momentous journey to discover it.
The juxtaposition of religious and scientific intolerances simmers away as Sutty tries to protect what remains of the old ways. The message here is that we cannot ignore our pasts or rewrite them, and to deny them is to deny ourselves. It’s an interesting book, unusually written with overtones of a thriller.
The Other Wind
When Le Guin revisited Earthsea with Tehanu in 1990, a disempowered Ged took the backseat to his wife Tenar and their adoptive daughter Tehanu. Though Le Guin described this as the last book of Earthsea, Tales of Earthsea followed, and continued to resculpt Earthsea in a feminist mould, revealing that the patriarchal school of wizards was co-founded by women, their authority later usurped by men. This tack outraged some fans who saw this re-imagining a betrayal of the series’ purity as a fantasy construct, and Ged’s reduction to a simple villager as akin to an emasculation.
In actuality, the later Earthsea books are not out of character, and deepen Earthsea’s themes of balance and responsibility. Tehanu in particular asks interesting questions by showing us, through Ged, what happens to heroes when their quests are done.
The Other Wind, the last Earthsea book to date, brings a satisfactory conclusion to the series, and ends with a figurative and literal transformation of Earthsea. Life and death, humans and dragons, male and female are reconciled as the Dry Lands, Earthsea’s artificially created afterlife, are returned to the dragons, freeing the trapped dead to be reborn in the process. Tehanu’s true nature is revealed and peace finally comes between Earthsea and the lands of the white-skinned Kargad.
After all this Tenar returns home to Ged and their simple life together, and the Earthsea saga concludes with a message of home and belonging.