In Memoriam: Ursula K. Le Guin and the Writing of the Possible
Some years ago I was on a date, talking about culture and infrastructure as I do, and trying to explain why I don’t accept that the way we live is the only way we could live. I feel this way because I’ve read a lot of science fiction, especially as a child and young adult. I knew the world could be different from the way it is—not just smoothing the edges, not just less exploitation, more diversity, or solar panels, but radically different. My date (not my current partner) didn’t believe me; he didn’t read a lot of fiction, and certainly didn’t read science fiction. He didn’t quite understand what space travel or dual-star systems have to say about our real lives.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized that when I was talking about the different worlds found in science fiction and fantasy I was largely referring to the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin.
Le Guin passed away on January 22nd of this year at the age of 88. She was immensely influential, both to writers of genre fiction and to several generations of readers, thinkers, and dreamers. N.K. Jemisin’s non-European, non-white civilizations, Ann Leckie’s ungendered empire in Ancillary Justice, and the magical systems of numerous fantasy series, including Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, all owe her a debt, whether their borrowing was conscious or not. Le Guin was not the only writer imagining new possibilities in the 1960s and 1970s—interested readers should also check out the speculative fiction of Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Samuel K. Delany, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), and Doris Lessing—but she was arguably the most commercially successful and the one my generation is most likely to have seen on our elementary- and junior-high-school library shelves.
Le Guin knew well, and never let her readers forget, that through words one creates a universe. A world begins with language. Moreover, a world starts with language of the self. In “Introducing Myself” (2004), Le Guin begins with the provocative phrase “I am a man.” She continues:
Women are a very recent invention [. . .]. So when I was growing up there were only men. People were men. They had only one pronoun, his pronoun; so that’s who I am. I am him.
She goes on to critique the male default, particularly in the literary world. She takes her time, deliberates, and pauses for an extended aside on the relative merits of equestrian show jumping and sex as spectator sports. Finally, contemplating her aging body, Le Guin concludes:
If I’m not good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might as well start pretending to be an old woman. I’m not sure that anyone has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.
In this short essay, Le Guin gives herself—and, importantly, her readers—permission to transgress the language of socially determined gender and thus define themselves anew.
In these worlds, when we’ve named ourselves, we can also bestow that power of self-determination onto others. In her short story “She Unnames Them” (1985), Le Guin depicts a latter-day Eve, neglected by Adam, freeing the animals and critters of the land, sea, and sky, exhorting them to reclaim their own names. The dogs and domesticated birds resist, but are reassured that they can retain their old names (cats, so she claims, never accepted human-given names to begin with). What’s important is that they now have personal agency.
Once she has finished removing the names, Eve comes upon a problem: she no longer knows how to express herself. She ends with ambivalance:
I could not chatter away as I used to, taking it all for granted. My words now must be as slow, as new, as single, as tentative as the steps I took going down the path away from the house, between the dark-branched, tall dancers motionless against the winter shining.
The natural world is now radically different, ambiguous, just by shifting language.
Her most well-known books, the young-adult Earthsea series (starting with A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968), also foregrounds the power of language to change the world. Here, magic is knowing the true names of things. However, the Earthsea books use language in a subtle way that is also able to affect our own world. Although these books are high fantasy, a genre defined by the legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien and Northern European mythology, her characters are described with brown, red, and black skin tones. These physical descriptions are understated in the text, noticed by many readers of color but, like a secret code, missed by many white readers. Indeed, when Sci-Fi Network adapted these books into a TV miniseries, they cast mainly light-skinned European-descended actors. Le Guin was not pleased:
My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn't see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. 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?
Changing the complexion of protagonists was a small rebellion in its time. Yet it was in her books for adults where Le Guin’s imagination really taught me to think broader and deeper. In Always Coming Home (1985), Le Guin, the child of anthropologists, puts together an ethnography of a far-future West Coast American civilization. People now live in a post-capitalist society, in a communal setting, with just enough technology to run electrical generators. They have no need or desire for cars, heavy industry, or money. Our current present is depicted as a nightmare from which they’ve evolved and escaped. Perhaps this is what taught me to distrust automobiles and contemporary city planning?
Always Coming Home describes a pretty optimistic and attractive utopia, but most of Le Guin’s alternative worlds are more ambivalent. In Lathe of Heaven (1971), a man discovers the power to change reality through his dreams. His psychiatrist encourages him to dream the world into a better place, but the results are decidedly mixed. World peace comes at the expense of mobilization against an off-world alien invasion and a dream of racial harmony results in skin-color homogeneity. A major theme of Le Guin’s writing is revealed: even good ideas and good worlds contain some trade-offs and caveats.
This idea of flawed utopias is most evident in The Dispossessed (1974), my personal favorite of Le Guin’s. Indeed, print editions of this novel are often subtitled “an ambiguous utopia.” The protagonist, Shevek, comes from an inhabited moon with an anarcho-syndicalist political system. Gender equality and bisexuality are the norm, children are raised in communal centers, and private ownership of all but a limited number of personal items is not permitted. Everyone is officially equal and all decisions are made communally. To be honest, this all seems pretty good to me, especially when contrasted in the novel with the main planet, where a patriarchal, capitalist society is in a cold war with a more repressive communist dictatorship (similarities to Cold War-era Earth are entirely deliberate). The founder of the anarchist society is Odo, and I’ve often considered myself a natural Odonian; I’ve just never seen the appeal in collecting material goods.
Nevertheless, Le Guin also makes clear that the Odonian world has its problems. Individual freedom is by necessity curtailed in a communal system, and outside ideas that challenge the status quo are looked upon with suspicion. Some people like to own things, and Shevek is tempted by the luxuries available in the capitalist nation that do not exist on his world. While Le Guin’s own sympathies lie with the anarchist-communist ways of living, she is honest about how individual variation means that no world can be a utopia for all. This ambiguity leads Frederic Jameson to describe her as “a Utopian writer with mixed feelings, and offers the constitutive undecidability of a representation which affirms and foregrounds Utopia in the very same act by which it calls it fundamentally into question.”
Of Le Guin’s many worlds and societies, some of the most memorable for me are those that play with gender and sexuality. Left Hand of Darkness (1969) describes a society of humans on the planet Gethen who are ambisexual; they are agendered most of the time but grow either male or female genitals in order to mate once a month. The novel is narrated through the point-of-view of a black male from Earth, who learns to interact with and befriend a Gethen individual in the absence of the gender cues he’s used to in other societies.
The society of O, first described in the short story “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” (1994, in a collection of the same name), also stands out for its unique approach to sexuality and relationships. Marriages are called “sedoretu” and composed of four parties, two men and two women. Each individual man or woman is expected to have sexual relations with one of the other women and one of the men, but is forbidden from having relations with the fourth member. These interactions are determined by whether one is a “Morning” or “Evening” person, an identity signifier that is passed down from mother to child. In her short-story collection The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (2002), Le Guin revisited O through the perspective of a woman who has difficulty fitting her desires within the constraints of the sedoretu. Here, as in The Dispossessed, Le Guin wasn’t able finish describing a society without telling us what might go wrong in it.
Le Guin, unlike others, never denied that she was writing science fiction and fantasy, and had no patience for genre snobbishness. In the short piece “On Serious Literature” (2007), she gently mocked the literary establishment by using an expanded metaphor of a reanimated zombie polluting more serious writers: “Genre breathed its corpse-breath in her face, and she was lost. She was defiled. She might as well be dead. She would never, ever get invited to write for Granta now.”
Le Guin’s writings are always notable for her compassion towards her characters and their circumstances. Her brand of feminism was broad and boundless enough to encompass genderless and multigendered worlds, and too freewheeling to get bogged down in the narrow gully of victimized women and bad men. She understood, implicitly, that breaking down patriarchy included breaking with these sorts of simplistic framings.
In 2014, Ursula K. Le Guin spoke at the National Book Awards:
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.
We’ve lost one of the best of these visionaries. But I’ll be re-reading her works to remind myself of the possible, and I hope you will too.
Sanjida Rangwala is a geneticist living in Silver Spring, MD with her husband and two cats. She is passionate about infrastructure and ways to make her community better. Follow her on Twitter @adijnas.