The Dispossessed

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The Utopias of Ursula K. Le Guin

The revolutionary science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away January 22, understood something important about ideal worlds and societies: Utopia is not perfection. Utopia is process. It is reflection and adjustment, learning and growth. It is communication and respect, self-awareness and honesty. This concept echoes throughout her body of work, but she explores utopia-as-process fully in one of her most radical novels, Always Coming Home, published in 1985.

This novel, more accurately described as a fictional anthropological study, has no singular narrative and no main character. Certainly, we hear life stories from individuals in the Kesh society depicted in the book, but traditional narrative isn’t the only means by which Le Guin tells this story—she includes poems, plays, illustrations, musical notation, and other ephemera as part of the tale. This nonlinear narrative structure, along with the stories included therein, synthesizes Le Guin’s beliefs on the unavoidable, destructive outcomes of a patriarchal, capitalist society by rejecting them whole cloth.

In a 2015 essay for Motherboard, Le Guin wrote, “Every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.” Much of her fiction concerns itself with finding a better way, a way mutually beneficial to humans and the earth.

Indeed, in Always Coming Home’s utopic society, the Kesh live in a reclaimed post-apocalyptic California. Although some land remains arable, much of what was formerly the United States is inhospitable to human life. The text implies that the conquest-driven, consumptive culture of the 20th century directly led to the continent’s ruination. Despite the harshness of their environment, the Kesh thrive. But how do you build utopia from destruction and ruin?

Here’s where the book becomes difficult, radical, and complex. The hinge spiral, a two-armed spiral circling out from a single center point, is the key to understanding both the novel and Le Guin’s vision of utopia. Not only does the spiral form the central motif for the Kesh, but the narrative structure itself echoes the spiral.

Always Coming Home is a study in what a complete and utter rejection of capitalism and patriarchy might look like—for society and for the art of storytelling. For the Kesh, poverty is non-existent because the society supports all of its members. Artists, artisans, and other creative types are valued as highly as hunters and farmers. The people work with the land, not against it, and certainly not in dominion over it. Greed is unnecessary because every person has what they need to be happy and healthy. Crime is so minimal as to be nonexistent.

Although many of Le Guin’s other novels contain utopias, her most well-read novels are not quite as grand in vision as Always Coming Home. The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, chiefly addresses the singular topic of gender/sex and the consequences of favoring one biological sex over the other. The Dispossessed, a 1974 novel written in response to the Vietnam War, explores an anarchist utopia and what a world without capitalism might look like. But it, too, stops short of completely re-envisioning society. In addition, these novels—along with the majority of Le Guin’s books and short stories—follow a semi-traditional narrative structure. They have a beginning, middle, and end. They have protagonists and antagonists. They use the language of patriarchy, albeit subversively.

By avoiding a linear narrative in Always Coming Home, Le Guin escapes the trap inherent in all would-be subversive texts: the use of language, which is controlled by patriarchy. Always Coming Home avoids the patriarchal conventions of storytelling by first eschewing a traditional narrative arc detailing a protagonist triumphing over an antagonist. Instead of one arc, Always Coming Home consists of many smaller arcs. The text’s longest section, “Stone Telling”—the life story of a woman of the same name—takes up only slightly more than 100 of the text’s 525 pages. The inclusion of other life stores aside from Stone Telling’s, such as those in the “Eight Life Stories” section, shows that no one narrative should represent an entire group of people or a place. Rather, diverse voices should be given a space in which to share their experiences and stories, whatever form those stories might take.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, we are privy only to Genly Ai’s reactions to the ambisexual Gethenians. In The Dispossessed, we follow Shevek in his studies and experiences with anarchism and capitalism. In Always Coming Home, Le Guin presents an entire world of stories and perspectives. (This is not, of course, to say that Le Guin’s other novels don’t have value and meaning—they absolutely do, and are great in their own ways.)

Always Coming Home also escapes the patriarchal convention of linear storytelling by situating the creative and autobiographical works of the text, which constitute its bulk, within a socio-historical context. Pandora’s commentary and informational sections lend weight to those creative works by giving them extra layers of symbolic and historic meaning, and more importantly, by revealing the processes through which Kesh society maintains its utopia (this is also a subversion of the concept of “utopia,” which by patriarchal storytelling tradition cannot exist and always ends badly).

The novel’s arrangement is not, however, without shape, and its shape allows the text to communicate with itself. The “Stone Telling” section, broken into three parts, is the hinge around which Le Guin spirals the historical, societal, literary, and biographical sections of the text, many of which are also broken into multiple parts. These sections do not exist independently of each other, although they can be read separately. Instead, they wrap around each other and reflect upon each other, building meaning as they go.

At the very end of “Time and the City,” the Archivist at the city of Wakwaha tells Pandora, “Tell about the Condor. Let Stone Telling tell her story.” Linearly speaking, though, Stone Telling’s story began on page seven, and part two begins on page 173, immediately after this exchange between Pandora and the Archivist. The narrator’s introduction to “Stone Telling,” the hinge, comes one-third of the way through Stone Telling’s tale, effectively cycling back to that section rather than simply providing a preface for it.

Because there are many stories, readers can enter the text at multiple points, unlike a traditional novel. The lack of a dominant narrative voice gives the reader freedom to choose her entry point and makes her an active participant in the text. Not only do multiple entry points undercut the idea that there is one “right” story—that of the hero—but create a text in which exist nearly infinite possibilities for the interpretation of meaning. “Readers, after all,” Le Guin said in an interview included in the collection At the Field’s End, “are making the world with you. You give them the materials, but it’s the readers who build that world in their own minds.”

Regardless of where a reader starts reading and what choices she makes, she is in effect swirled back into the text and into communication with it at the end of each section, not marched out of it as in a traditional point A to point B narrative.

Capitalism and patriarchy embrace a binary: rich/poor, right/wrong, male/female, etc. “Success” refers only to vocational and financial success, never the successful raising of children or creation of art (whether or not anyone sees or appreciates said art). Le Guin cracks these binaries open, from the way the Kesh keep records (anyone can give anything to the library, and it is kept as long as people are interested in keeping it) to the way she structured the book as a spiral.

Le Guin takes the idea of multiple entry points to another level entirely by including non-lingual aspects in the book, thereby further evading the problem of language and dominant discourse. Scholar Robin Roberts points out that the novel itself is a collaborative work, since others composed the music, drew the pictures, and helped Le Guin with the maps, further avoiding the problem of “univocality,” as she calls it. Roberts says—and I agree—that, “Through her amalgamation of diverse materials, Le Guin emphasizes the act of interpretation.”

In Always Coming Home, even the arrangement of sections provides a clear critique of patriarchy by juxtaposing Kesh society with that of the Dayao, or Condor, people. The Dayao people believe in an immortal god called One. One created the world, and will eventually unmake it. On page 190, Stone Telling says, “Human men are imitations of him. One is not the universe; he made it, and gives orders. Things are not a part of him nor is he part of them, so you must not praise things, but only One.” Instead of the Valley’s animistic beliefs that hold all things sacred, the Dayao worship one god and follow a strict hierarchy of power and authority.

The above passage from page 190 brings to mind two particular passages from The Bible. The first is John 1 verses 1-3, which states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”  The second passage is Genesis 1:7, which states, “So God created man in his own image.” The Bible teaches, like the One, that a supreme being created the world, and that humans were made in his image, and exist to glorify him. Since a supreme being created the world for human use, they do not need to respect or show honor to the more-then-human world, let alone communicate with it. By echoing the language of The Bible, the text makes the parallel between the Dayao society and our own clear.

The Kesh, in contrast, call all living things people, and differentiate between species. There are human people, and cow people, and coyote people. By calling these species the same word used for humans, the Valley people show that they hold animals in equal regard to themselves. They do not kill mercilessly or without cause. Only wild animals who, according to “The Back of the Book,” “allowed themselves to be hunted, who responded to the hunter’s singing and came to meet the arrow or enter the snare, had consented to come into the Second of the Earth Houses, the Blue Clay, in order to die. They had taken on mortality sacrificially and sacramentally.”

The ways the hinge motif can be applied to Always Coming Home would fill volumes. The novel’s content and structure echo one other so closely that they, too, become arms on the spiral. Even the physical book acts as a hinge, connecting reader to author, and reader to content, and author to content. Without the others, the existence of one becomes meaningless. It is not the final product that matters, but the process by which author and reader give the story life.

Le Guin understood that if we seek a limited version of success defined by the values of capitalism and patriarchy, we will never progress beyond these self-destructive ideals. Instead, we should revel in the cyclical nature of things, in self-reflection and growth, in living with the natural world instead of against it. We should embrace the interconnectedness of life and reject the idea that if one person is rich, another must be poor.

It is only by engaging in the never-ending process of reflection and growth that we can achieve utopia, or some version of it. That is Le Guin’s final, and greatest, gift to all those who dream of a better way to live.

Getting Away with Murder: The Millions Interviews Ursula K. Le Guin

Every morning, The Oregonian publishes the latest tally of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ursula K. Le Guin prints out the number in bold script on standard computer paper and tapes it to her living room window not far from the rainbow peace flag atop her garage. Does this do any good? Does this change anything? You might just as well ask if novels or stories have any real-world effect. In an interview with Wired magazine last year, she gave her approval to the members of Occupy Oakland who decorated their signs with the cover of The Dispossessed, one of her science-fiction novels that chronicled a failed revolution.

Le Guin is not a dull or prescriptive leftist and there are good reasons why her work attracts genre geeks and high-brow literary types along with activists. Her novels and stories are critical of every sort of imagined culture, and at times filled with sympathy for figures one imagines would be her fiercest political opponents on this earth. There are no Darth Vaders or Saurons in her Earthsea Cycle novels. She can’t quite manage to turn the creepy social engineer in The Lathe of Heaven into a Stalinist monster. But she does depict cruel and twisted societies and her humane gifts as a storyteller allow her to dissect them without providing any fast answers on how to correct them. Like J.M. Coetzee, she demands that you ask what citizenship in the human race requires. Unlike Coetzee, she makes you ask those questions without hating yourself for being human.

Small Beer Press has just released a two-volume collection of her short stories, The Unreal and the Real. The first volume, Where on Earth, includes her realist and magic realist fiction set somewhere on the planet she inhabits. It includes some of her pieces set in Orsinia, her fictional Eastern European country, which she has not chronicled since it enjoyed a revolution a little over 20 years ago, as well as favorites like “Direction of the Road” and “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight.” The second volume, Outer Space, Inner Lands, includes work more squarely placed within the science-fiction genre, including “Betrayals,” another story about the aftermath of a failed revolution and “The Wild Girls,” a long piece about a slave society. The volume opens with her famous parable, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” It’s always hard to define a genre. Much of the work in her first volume could find a place in her second volume, and vice versa.

I met her at her house in Portland on a January afternoon. It was a clear day and you could see Mount Saint Helens about 50 miles distant from her dining-room window. We sat in her living room where we were consistently interrupted by her black-and-white cat Pard. We began the interview by talking about her parents and siblings. Her father Alfred Kroeber was a legendary anthropologist who wrote a famous study of the California Indians in the 1910s. Her mother Theodora Kroeber enjoyed a writing career late in life, writing biographies of her husband and of Ishi, the last member of a lost California tribe whom he had befriended. Karl Kroeber, her late brother, was an English professor at Columbia University. The following is a pared-down version of a 75-minute conversation.

The Millions: What did you learn about writing from your father and mother?  Your mother started writing around the time you started writing.

Ursula K. Le Guin: She got published first though. I suppose what I learned from my father is that writing is something people do. It’s a perfectly normal human activity. You do it everyday. You have a place where you do it and when you’re doing it, it is respected…The family doesn’t bother you.

Now, of course this doesn’t work the same way when you’re not a professor and are a young housewife. But I think it gave me a security a lot of young writers don’t have, the sense that I’m doing something absolutely worthwhile. And the sense that I can and I will make the space in my life to do it. And this can be a huge problem, particularly for women writers. They really want to write, they really have the urge, but they aren’t sure that they have a right to do it. And I was given the right by seeing my father, who I respected and who everyone respected and who was a great guy, just doing it. So that’s a huge gift.

From my mother [it was] more complicated. She, being of her generation, didn’t start writing until she got all her kids out of the house and settled. She felt it wasn’t right to combine writing [with] being a housewife and mother. I had some problems with that in my teens. I wondered if I could do it. My best friend in high school, who was John Steinbeck’s niece, said, “Of course you could do it if you want to. Why not have kids and books?” She was right. So there again, I got support. My parents were supportive, but they didn’t hover at all.

TM: Were there any writing techniques that you learned from them?

UKLG: No. I didn’t even realize what a good writer my dad was until I was quite grown up and had been writing for a long time. My mother loved to talk about her writing while she was writing. [She would] talk about it before she wrote…which was neat for me because I cannot talk about writing. And I never talk about anything until it’s finished. There’re different kinds of writers and she was the kind that liked to talk it out. And it was a lot of fun to have someone like that to talk about writing. But I don’t think we taught each other anything.

TM: It’s interesting that you say that because I thought there was a tone in her book on Ishi similar to what I see in some of your books.

UKLG: Well that would probably be something that someone else could see that I couldn’t.

TM: A way of pulling back, a quietness.

UKLG: That’s nice, yeah. She and I certainly have different styles. But you know how it is. The kid doesn’t want to be compared too closely to the parent. So I could be absolutely blind to some similarity there.

TM: Did you find yourself studying these imagined worlds the same way your father studied his actual worlds?

UKLG: There’s certainly a similarity, but I think it’s temperamental. I didn’t read his books, as I said, until I was grown up and I had been writing what I write for quite awhile. We are interested in artifacts and how things are made and how operations are carried out. It’s [a similar] mindset, his equipment [as an anthropologist] and mine as a novelist.

TM: And I imagine that’s something you picked up by osmosis in dinner table conversations growing up.

UKLG: Yes. He wouldn’t talk shop at table, but we entertained a lot of people, particularly in summer when we were up in Napa Valley. [There were] anthropologists, ethnologists, European intellectuals — mostly refugees as this was the ’30s and ’40s — and the conversations would be very wide-ranging. My father did not talk a lot about his work. Of course he wasn’t doing ethnology anymore by the time I came along. There were some picturesque ethnologists who came through and told us about their adventures.

TM: You wrote a bit about your brother Karl, who was my professor at Columbia, and your shared love for books growing up. Did you share your work with him early on?

UKLG: No. Karl and I were the two youngest [of four children] and we were just under three years apart. We were pretty tight and pretty feisty. Karl was a rivalrous person. He was very sick as a baby. He was not what they call celiac now [– he] was the real thing. He lived on rice and bananas for his first six years. So he was very fragile. And he had a tremendous fighting spirit. So Karl was in rivalry with me [from the start], which was kind of ridiculous. So there were always some problems [and we] were also very tight. Brothers and sisters are fascinating.

TM: It sounds like the Kennedys.

UKLG: (Laughs) Well, slightly different type, but yeah.  I think you know how that can be within a family. We played together and read books together all through our childhood. And often we were up there for the whole summer and there were a lot of adults coming and going but there were just four kids. When the two older brothers were playing Julius Caesar, Karl and I were [the Gauls].

TM: Was that your introduction to storytelling, playing together like that?

UKLG: Story-telling was mostly from my father who would tell us mostly Indian stories outside the house [in summer] around the fire at night. My Great Aunt Betsy had the family stories. She was a good storyteller.

TM: She was on your mother’s side?

UKLG: She was my mother’s aunt. She grew up in Wyoming. It’s a Western family. She just had that gift of storytelling. It’s because we were up there in the summer, and we sat around the fireplace [under the stars — so] no reading. It was all just game-playing or storytelling. We could play charades. So I think I had a much more oral culture than most American kids of my generation [– even then, before television.]

TM: In Always Coming Home you play with the Indian tradition where everyone is sitting around telling a story and then someone…

UKLG: Does a variation.

TM: What intrigues me about it is that it’s a very fast-motion version of what occurs in written culture.

UKLG: Yes, exactly.

TM: You read a story by Tolkien and you turn around and say I’m going to do my own version of this with the same archetypes.

UKLG: Being in science fiction was great because there was an open and free borrowing of vocabulary and ideas and so on. [It] was not plagiarism in the slightest. It was simply artists using the same material. I always compare it to the Baroque music period, where they’re all borrowing from each other like crazy and they’re all building the same house.

TM: When you’re writing about these made-up worlds, the Hainish worlds, Orsinia, or Earthsea, you are imagining all these small details, what the chairs or the doorknobs look like. But there are limitations to what you can imagine.There’s only so much you can know.

UKLG: It becomes an obsessive game.

TM: Are you ever aware of that when you’re writing?

UKLG: No, because after all in writing if you don’t have to mention the doorknob you don’t. I think one reason why most science-fiction movies are so lousy is that in them you do have to imagine the doorknob and you have to design it. And every single visual object has to be designed to tie in together. And then you get into a literalism which is a little bit soul-killing. But in writing you get away with murder. You just suggest something. So much of fantasy and science fiction is just the art of suggestion. You don’t really tell people that much, but they think you have because they imagine it.

TM: But how does it work when you imagine a new language.

UKLG: Oh well that’s different. I always come back to Tolkien here, who wrote the essential essay about those of us who make up languages. Lots of people when they’re kids draw. They draw islands or maps or places with the roads and the cities and the marshes and mountains and so on. It’s amazing when you ask an audience, “How many of you did that as a kid?” At least a third of the hands will go up. I never asked how many made up languages, which would be interesting to do. But I don’t think very many do. I love language, I love the sound of language. I play with word sounds in my head. This is just some native gift. I make up more languages than I have to actually.

TM: When Hemingway writes For Whom the Bell Tolls, he writes the dialogue as a Spanishfied English. He knows the basic constructions of Spanish in order to be able to do that. Do you ever try to do anything similar with your invented languages?

UKLG: No, not in the way Hemingway does, where he writes with a Spanish accent. And I don’t like it when he does that to tell you the truth. I find it a little affected and foolish. “Okay Ernest, if you want to write in Spanish, write in Spanish. Learn it well enough to write in it. You’re writing English.”

In The Left Hand of Darkness you have a major cultural concept like shifgrethor. I didn’t need to build the language out of that. But I did need to know enough to get shifgrethor. I needed to have a phoneme pool to get the word from. And then I just needed to know the word and what it meant and had meant and all its connotations and denotations. But I didn’t really need the rest of the vocabulary.

I do translate. I like translating very much. It’s a kind of writing I’ve done more as I’ve gotten older. And of course if I’m translating from Spanish I don’t want it to sound like Spanish. I want it to sound like English. I want it to do in English what it does in Spanish. So I’m almost the other pole from Hemingway there. And not only there.

TM: Do you feel “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” means something different now than when you wrote it?

UKLG: That story? No. Because I don’t know what it means. It is a question. I know why I wanted to write it. Out of middle-class guilt, out of human guilt for what we do to each other and everybody else. I know my motivations for that story. [It] meant a lot to me. Of course, that’s the story they always ask about, and write letters about. And they always want me to give the answer and not the question.

TM: That story speaks very directly to life under late capitalism. I don’t know if you see that story speaking to other possible systems.

UKLG: Well, I never thought of it that way because I’ve only lived under late capitalism. And both Dostoevsky and William James who asked the question the story asks before me were living under capitalism. Dostoevsky somewhat less. His was more of a feudalistic capitalism. I don’t know. Interesting question. But not one I could answer now.

TM: I’d be curious to know how maybe someone in Cuba would react to it.

UKLG: I don’t know. It would be interesting to find out. The story has been translated into lots of languages. But I don’t know if I’ve ever heard from anybody specifically about it from a really different culture. And I don’t know if my stories go to any really different cultures. I think Indonesia is about as far [as my work has gone]…Turkey…Korea…They’re all capitalistic.

TM: I sense in the way “Omelas” ends, with a look at those who choose to walk away from it, and the way many of your stories end, and a few of your novels, a weird Tolstoyan optimism minus the Christian theology. In the situations that you imagine — as bleak as they are – there’s always some decent humanity that exists that is somehow still worth preserving.

UKLG: Optimism seems an odd word. But I can see why you use it. It may just be a refusal to take the counsel of despair. I think to admit despair and to revel in it — as many 20th- and 21st-century writers do — is an easy way out. Whenever I get really really depressed and discouraged about our politics in America and what we are doing, ecologically speaking, globally speaking, [with] our mad rush to destroy the world, it’s very easy to say, “To hell with us. This species is not successful.” Something tells me I have no right to say that. There are good people. Who am I to judge? The problem with despair is it gets judgmental. But I’m not saying this very well.

TM: This refusal to judge is the other side of the refusal to idealize.

UKLG: And of course, when I was in my 20s and 30s I had a good deal of political idealism. I did think we really could work towards and achieve more justice in human societies. And that revolution might be a way to do it. I’m pretty far left, and basically socialist. Human nature is whatever human nature is. “We can make it better than it was so far.” It’s pretty hard to keep thinking that decade after decade, let me tell you. I guess José Saramago was able to hold onto his Marxist faith into his ninth decade, but he was a very tough guy. A lot of that hopefulness — that would be optimism — gets knocked out of you, particularly if you are living in a country as I feel I am living in, that is really on the skids, that is really losing it.

TM: There seems even in “The Wild Girls,” the bleakest story here, some of what I call optimism.

UKLG: There is? (Befuddled expression)

TM: There’s still humanity that comes through in this horrible slave society, in which people can still tell a joke.

UKLG: But that’s how people are. I will not say, “Even in Breslau they told jokes.” But they probably did. You read Primo Levi and you realize how people can come out of something like that. He’s still Primo Levi. He’s a beautiful man. Human beings are very tough. And they are funny and they are kind. There are all sorts of good things about human beings. And I come back to this. I have no right to despair. As for “The Wild Girls,” probably the last full short story I wrote, I think it’s a good story. But I don’t really like it because it’s so dark. Those people just don’t have a chance. It’s based on an Indian society in the Mississippi Valley that really did work that way. And I’ve been trying to imagine myself into that society. And just…“My God!”

TM: Your father had no patience for those who idealized the Indians. He had a lot of fascination for these cultures. But he disliked the [condescending, co-opting] white voice of “I admire the Indians.”

UKLG: “The wonderful brave Indian.” Oh yes.

TM: I was just thinking of that as interesting given that that was your inspiration for this story.

UKLG: The fact that it came from an Indian culture was neither here nor there. It just struck me as one of those utterly weird things that human beings have actually done. I didn’t make this up. I just fictionalized it.

TM: You have this beautiful man archetype with Shevek in The Dispossessed. He is of a different culture that you make up. So how do you balance admiring the man himself while avoiding the trap, as your father was clear about, of idealizing the culture?

UKLG: Oh, I guess because I was inoculated early. I have rarely romanticized another culture, idealized it because it’s different than mine. I say rarely, because when I was in my teens I romanticized France and romanticized French culture the way a lot of people do. Of course when I got to France, there were people [who]…but man, did they eat well. (Laughs)

There’s something I got fairly directly from my dad. [The differences are endlessly interesting], but value judgments are not involved. And you can’t romanticize.

TM: But you can romanticize an individual.

UKLG: Sure.

TM: And fall in love with him.

UKLG: And it could be a man or a woman. And of course there are beautiful people. I’ve met them. They’re not beautiful all the way through, [maybe, but] people worth knowing for the rest of your life. There are such people. That’s put me out of step a good deal with a lot of the fiction of my time.

TM: Because the fiction of your time is opposed to romanticizing individual figures?

UKLG: The fiction of my time is about dysfunctional American suburban families.

TM: No Jean Valjeans.

UKLG: Talk about romantic. Well, shoot I like Victor Hugo. I can romanticize with the best of them. I tend to romanticize people but not cultures.

TM: When you write, how much of it is “doing not-doing,” the Taoist ideal?

UKLG: Maybe, as I’ve gone on, what I’ve learned as a writer is that you do as little as possible. And part of it is leaving a lot of it up to the reader. And a lot of it is realizing you don’t have to do that much if you do the right thing. [Makes clicking sound] That’s enough. So my writing has tended to be shorter and more allusive than it used to be. I was re-reading The Lathe of Heaven — which I’m still fond of, which I still think is funny — but, boy would I cut it if I could. They talk too much. They explain things too much.

TM: I know you’ve written that science-fiction writers are not prophets. But is there any thing that has happened in your society during your writing life that has happily surprised you?

UKLG: Hmm…That’s not particularly a question to me as a writer, is it? Just to me as an American.

TM: Yes. Just curious.

UKLG: Well, pure happiness is such an endangered thing. This may sound sort of trivial, but I took geology in college, one semester. And I liked it but I couldn’t stick with it. I didn’t want to be a scientist anyway. But when they began figuring out plate tectonics, when they began figuring out how the Earth is put together, why we have mountain ranges, why continents drift and so on…That was an intellectual revolution that I lived through week by week as it developed. And it was wonderful. It was so terrific to realize that geology of all the stable solid sciences was just coming to pieces at the seams and discovering the world all over again and finally getting its feet right on the real world instead of on a lot of theory. That was so cool. I think science – not technology — science is one of the best things we do. And then there are artists who have come along in my lifetime, like Saramago, [who I wouldn’t have discovered] if they hadn’t Nobel-ed him. “Wow! There’s a man like that, writing like that, in his 80s.” I don’t know if things are better or worse. It’s always the best of times and the worst of times, isn’t it? But I’ve been glad to be alive while things like plate tectonics and Saramago were going on.

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