Fifty years after the publication of Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic work of science fiction The Left Hand of Darkness, and less than one after the author’s death, Charlie Jane Anders writes for the Paris Review about how the book served as “a guidebook to a place I desperately wanted to visit but had never known how to reach.” Read about Le Guin’s “ambisexual world” and its warm, provocative, occasionally brutal vision of an alternative society.
Never curse a slow elevator. Like a book or a song, it may offer lessons in grace or about growing older with truth and dignity.
I was once on an aging contraption wheezing its way from floor one to two … to six, when the unobstructed honesty of a child under age 7 and a person over age 70 was revealed.
Following long contemplation entirely void of self-consciousness, a young boy accompanied by his mother asked the elderly woman sharing our ride, “Why are you wearing a mask?”
She, a ballet company director whose lined face grew even more wrinkled as she bent forward and smiled, answered with a gentleness that defied what I knew was her usual habit—of shouting maniacally at dancers whose failed pirouettes or bent arabesque legs she took as personal insults. “I am not wearing a mask,” she crooned. “I’m just very, very old.”
The boy eyed his mother, perhaps wondering when her face, too, would turn into a map grooved by time, regret, smiles, the sun’s rays. He regarded the older woman, this time not staring, but actively, his eyes exploring each nook and cranny of her face. Accommodatingly, she remained nearly nose-to-nose. “It’s a very, very nice old,” he said at last. The woman straightened her spine, pleased a misconception had been shed and at the compliment. I, the observer, admired the straight-speaking pair and the care of their slow-paced exchange.
Taking that lesson into the literary world, childlike wonder, adult wisdom, and good humor are never lost in the work of two wordsmiths: Ursula K. Le Guin and Donald Hall. These artists died in 2018. The only comforts are found in the works they leave behind.
In addition to Le Guin’s poems, essays, book reviews, nonfiction, fantasy and award-winning science fiction novels (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Earthsea Cycle series and more), she, in her last years, wrote blog posts. A marvelous collection, No Time to Spare (December 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was inspired by Le Guin’s reading of The Notebook, Portuguese writer José Saramago’s blog-turned-book.
No Time to Spare divides into four sections interrupted by blogs about Pard, her cat. “The Annals of Pard” serve at the most superficial level as respite—breathers from what are mild to heavy duty miniature essays on “Going Over Eighty,” The Lit Biz,” Trying to Make Sense of It,” and “Rewards.” Read deeply (to read Le Guin any other way is foolishness), the storytelling swings with signature humor and forthrightness from territorial battles with a feline to self-reflective wrestling or victories involving beliefs, curses, music and not writing “the great American novel.” Throughout, mortality (Le Guin’s eventual and that of a very dead mouse) rattles and moans or ironically, affirms Le Guin’s childlike vitality upon reaching eight decades of life.
Among the essays, “The Diminished Thing” defines fortunate aging as retaining intellectual, practical and emotional vigor and gaining extraordinary breadth and depth of understanding. Aged intelligence, she writes, is recognizable and “if you have the sense of a bean sprout you know you’re in a rare and irreproducible presence.”
Relatedly, “Catching Up, Ha Ha,” written on the eve of Le Guin’s 85th birthday, protests the idea “that anyone over seventy-five who isn’t continuously and conspicuously alive is liable to be considered dead.” Confronting PR people, tired teachers and lazy students who might wish for the author to identify if not produce “the great American novel,” Le Guin asks, “Who cares?” Art, she later states in “TGAN Again,” is not “a horse race” and literature is not an Olympic competition.
If every essay does not hit with equal thrust, it’s impossible to overlook the craft behind the writing itself. The language on occasion is deliberately polemic, edgy and rhythmically irregular, but rarely preachy. Combining craft and profound content, there are “Belief in Belief” and a double-header on the music of Philip Glass and John Luther Adams. Le Guin constructs deep philosophical arguments over the misuse of one word in the former and captures the lyricism and rapture of a live performance in the latter’s few hundred words. It’s no easy task, but Le Guin makes it appear so.
Going over 80 with Le Guin is wondrous. Reincarnation would be a fine belief to have, but short of that, thank goodness Le Guin’s books are immortal.
Hall died in June 2018 at age 89. Foreswearing poetry in 2010, he continued to write and live in his New Hampshire farm. A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety (July 2018, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) chronicles Hall’s exploits on the cusp of becoming a nonagenarian. Like his Essays After Eighty, the new collection offers the many pleasures of reading Hall: song-like phrasing, quick wit mixed with anger that rides a bitter border but never plunges into mean-spiritedness or hate. There’s raw emotion and vulnerability, especially discoverable in confessions related to loss, professional envy, and essays in which he engages in self-loathing or laughing-at-self over his aging physique.
Hall’s protests are more subtle but equal to Le Guin’s. From the opening essay: “In your eighties you are invisible. Nearing ninety you hope nobody sees you.” And there are victorious proclamations: “As I write toward my nineties I shed my skin. I tell short anecdotes, I hazard an opinion, speculate, assume, and remember.”
From 1957 to 1975, Hall was an assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan. In Ann Arbor, he met poet and student Jane Kenyon. Eventually, they married and in 1975 moved to Eagle Pond Farm. (A delight in Carnival is the 119-word essay “Dictaters,” which involves the farm’s name. Even the spell-check generation will appreciate the typo-angle and will not object to its short, internet-era length.)
Hall often wrote about his life with Kenyon before and after her death in 1995 due to leukemia. Her work and death serve as an underlying touchpoint in essays on selected poets and absolutely in “Necropoetics,” a chapter about resuming his poetry after her death.
“In the months and years after her death, Jane’s voice and mine rose as one, spiraling together the images and diphthongs of the dead who were once the living, our necropoetics of grief and love in the unforgivable absence of flesh.”
As always in the work of Hall, shadowy nostalgia, tender personal memories, and a deep love of things old and slow, like baseball, uplift. A reader who might otherwise become morose is therefore comforted by the stories’ underlying warmth. Hope steeped in truth arrives in the book’s final essays, “Way Way Down, Way Way Up” and “Tree Day.” As it is with Le Guin, Hall acknowledges that “emotional intricacy and urgency of human life expresses itself most fiercely through contradiction.” Messy human life and vulnerability exists in the fold: In the skin of a newborn or in old age wrinkles, in skewed or straightforward perspectives, in honest words plainly spoken.
I was thinking about artists and aging when I learned the great Aretha Franklin had died all too early at age 76. Franklin, for many of us, changed the significance and meaning of the words “think” and “respect.” The song, “Think,” was written by Franklin and is both a protest and declaration on freedom. Her emphatic version of R-E-S-P-E-C-T, based on Otis Redding’s original song, erects seven letter-size monuments that add up to dignity. The power of Franklin’s words changed and changes hearts and human behavior, as did and do Le Guin’s or Hall’s finely written phrases and sentences.
So the next time you’re on a slow-moving elevator, don’t curse; take a moment to think. Speak to and respect the people riding along, regardless of age, gender, facial wrinkles, or other classifications. And on the chance that elevator gets stuck between floors, carry a book by Le Guin or Hall or hum a Franklin tune to pass the time.
Image: Flickr/Gwydion M. Williams
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.
Ursula K. Le Guin has died at the age of 88, according to the New York Times and Le Guin’s family. The prolific science fiction and fantasy writer — best known for her Earthsea series and The Left Hand of Darkness — explored themes like politics, gender, religion, and environmentalism. However, Le Guin wrote across genre and published over 20 novels, 100 short stories, 7 essay collections, 13 children’s books, 5 volumes of translation, and a writer’s guide. No stranger to awards, Le Guin most recently won the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Related Work for Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016. From our archives: The Millions interview with Le Guin from 2013.
Dreamers and readers have always been fascinated with the idea of the otherworldly, the extraterrestrial, the alien. So long as we have been telling stories, those stories have contained life beyond what is seen—be they gods, monsters, or, for the purposes of this essay, aliens.
Some have argued that the scientist Johannes Kepler’s work of fiction—Somnium—published in 1634 is the first work of science fiction that features an alien. In it, a boy named Duracotus is magically transported to the moon by a demon. There is life on the moon and it is described in a scientific manner (apparently—I haven’t read the book). My earliest encounter with an otherworldly lifeform was in The Man in the Moone or the Discovrse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales by the bishop Francis Godwin, published 1638. Godwin begins his tale with a suggestion that a voyage to the moon would be the equivalent of the early explorations into what is now the U.S. A man of means gains favor with a Spanish Duke by committing robbery and murder. A series of unfortunate events leads him to create a flying machine powered by creatures bred to counter the earth’s magnetic field and he finds himself on the moon. The moon people are true aliens—giants.
Micromégas by Voltaire, published in 1752, has pretty much no plot but almost certainly features the first aliens from beyond the moon; indeed, the solar system. They are also the narrators. Micromégas is the main character and an inhabitant of a planet orbiting Sirius. This planet is, Voltaire describes, 21.6 million times greater in circumference than the Earth. Micromégas is, therefore, “twenty-four thousand paces from tip to toe,” or about 20,000 feet tall. Science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, but maybe laying down warnings. However, Voltaire notes, for example, that Mars has 2 moons. Astronomers did not discover Phobos and Deimos until 1877. In this short story, there are also giant aliens on Saturn. The aliens have a better rationale for the direct questioning human philosophy, and Voltaire has a few digs at those who would not live a rational life along the way too, as the aliens debate science and philosophy (bickering over size and distance, for example).
1847 saw the publication fo the intriguing Orrin Lindsay’s Plan Of Aerial Navigation, Edited by J. L. Riddell. M.D. Riddell was American doctor, and this was a story published in a pamphlet that claimed to collect letters received by Riddell from a former student. Despite getting to the moon, Lindsay reports that there aren’t any aliens to be found; the story concludes with a letter again from Lindsay to Riddell suggesting a voyage to Mars. The hunt for aliens is not always successful, but the idea of finding life on other worlds, planets beyond the gaze of humanity, was gaining traction by that time. It wasn’t until The War Of The Worlds (1897) and H.G. Wells that non-humanoid aliens finally made contact. We all know the story. Martians invade earth, or rather, the southeast of England. We all know the subtext: British colonialism. But what Wells did was extraordinary. He thought about the evolution of intelligent creatures on the red planet. As a species, Homo sapiens tends to revolt against real animals that don’t operate in the expected manner: spiders, crabs, octopus. Wells used that to instill additional horror into the alien invasion. Would “the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind” have occurred of the Martians looked like you and me?
Meanwhile, Mars was the planet of choice for many new science-fiction authors, and Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs populated his planet with a range of different aliens. Norman Bean published a serial story from February 1912 through to July that same year. Called Under the Moons of Mars, it was printed in The All-Story. It was later revealed to be A Princess of Mars (1912). Burroughs was addressing race via the use of aliens on Mars: there are green Tharks—a nomadic warrior tribe; the princess is a red Martian; there are brutal, mindless white apes.
A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay features a made-up planet (Tormance) orbiting the real Arcturus, which is a double star system, consisting of stars Branchspell and Alppain
Olaf Stapledon created an entire universe in Star Maker, published in 1937. In it, the narrator is transported out of his body and tours the universe, exploring alien civilizations. One key alien concept explored is a non-humanoid symbiotic species. He pitched his aliens to have evolved in the same manner as life on Earth. Concepts such as collective consciousness are explored, maybe taking the concept of the insect hive-mind to its logical conclusion. Writers make up new species of intelligent life, why not make up who new planets?
It is alleged that C.S. Lewis decided to write Out of the Silent Planet (1938) after reading Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, but must surely also owe a debt Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. Lewis describes a convoluted process in which the protagonist ends up on a planet known as Malacandra. Lewis introduces three distinct intelligent species: the sorns are slender and humanoid and are the scientists and thinkers; the hrossa resemble overstretched otters—and have their love of water—they are poets and musicians; and the pfifltriggi are the builders, looking like insectile frogs. Lewis split characteristics into species in a similar manner to Burrourghs, but like Stapledon made some of them non-humanoid. By then, the idea that human-shaped creatures were the pinnacle of evolution was waning within science fiction. As science and understanding of the natural world advanced and Homo sapiens were accepted as just animals, science-fiction writers seemed to feel more freedom of imagination. Lewis was of course very religious and, as with Stapledon, the question of aliens as religious figures is addressed. A species called Eldila control life in the universe, and appear as vague shafts of light. They are Lewis’s angels.
By now, science-fiction books contained a plethora of alien species, all exploring similar ideas of evolution, religion, consciousness, and humanity’s place in the universe. As humans use and abuse our planet, would superior alien species use and abuse us?
E.E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1946) features a hyper-intelligence with no material existence. Childhood’s End (1953) from the great Arthur C. Clarke features aliens that have benevolently overseen human evolution but have the appearance of Satan. Humans are at war with an intelligent insect species with a super-intelligent queen in Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein.
Science fiction is a common disguise for philosophy. Solaris, published in 1961 by Stanisław Lem, is a treatise on memory and communication. Lem, picking up on some of the ideas of his predecessors that aliens need not be human-shaped or have minds like ours, developed the idea of a sentient ocean. The planet Solaris is studied by scientists, but the planet is studying them back. In less than a century, aliens have evolved from Wells’s trilateral brains to intelligent planets. Whereas the likes of Lewis extrapolated what science knew of biology and evolution, Lem let his imagination run riot; science be damned; they adhere to their own internal logic, even if it is beyond what we believe is possible today.
Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert features giant sandworms and the complex ecology of a desert planet. The aliens, from Gethen, in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. LeGuin are “ambisexual;” having no fixed sex. From the same year, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain sees the aliens as crystalline micro-organisms with no DNA.
Ringworld (1970) by Larry Niven takes imagination and biology to a new level. By now, aliens are all over popular culture, from so-called “real-life” alien abductions to classic science-fiction films such as Children of the Damned and TV series such as Dr. Who. Over the course of the Ringworld novels, Niven develops very definite biology, sociology, political life, and, of course, appearance of his aliens. The Pierson’s Puppeteers are 3-legged and 2-headed creatures. The brain isn’t in the heads, however. Meanwhile, the kzin are cat-like humanoids with a rich warrior-based history.
In the majority of science fiction, aliens and humans interact. The aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) are almost beyond comprehension. Known as Tralfamadorians, they exist out of time, witnessing time the way we witness distance. They also keep humans in a zoo. In Roadside Picnic (1971) by the Russians Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, we don’t meet the aliens, only their detritus. They visited the Earth some time ago and left behind objects that have had a curious effect on anyone who goes into the Zones. The intelligent aliens in Rendezvous with Rama (1973) by Arthur C. Clarke are so unknowable, they don’t even feature—only their space craft and a few non-sentient species and some plants are featured. Meanwhile, the alien Vogons in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams are patently so dumb it is hard to imagine them developing space flight in the first place. Contrast them with Adams’s mice, the hyper-intelligent superbeings that built Earth in the first place.
By the late 1970s, once Star Wars entered popular culture, aliens had truly exploded into the cultural consciousness. They continued to work as robust allegories for issues such as cultural suppression, the understanding of language, capitalism, food production, anything the author wanted to tackle. In Doris Lessing’s Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta (1979), empire and evolution are the topics: a benevolent galactic empire accelerates the evolution of a humanoid species. Lessing plots the story so that the natives have a degenerative disease, giving her licence to examine religion, power, and imperialism. Hyperion (1989) by Dan Simmons has similar themes, only with humans as the galactic dominant species. Simmons introduces the time-traveling Shrike, a fierce half-mechanical, half-organic, four-armed alien. It is both an object of fear and worship.
Mary Doria Russell has two intelligent species and a religious expedition in her remarkable The Sparrow (1996)—cultural and religious clashes are examined and their consequences are brutal. The aliens in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2000) look like humans and live in Scotland. However, they pick up hitchhikers so they can be processed and sent back to their home world for a huge meat-producing corporation. Matt Haig’s The Humans (2013) also has an alien that takes on human form so he can work in an English university.
From Haig’s “human,” to Becky Chambers’s multi-species crew of the spaceship Wayfarer in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) to Nnedi Okorafor’s jellyfish-like aliens in her Binti series, extra-terrestrials—be they energy, gaseous, insectoids, planetoids, immaterial or microscopic—tackle every aspect of science fiction in every conceivable way. The aliens are here to stay.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Is there such a thing as literary science fiction? It’s not a sub-genre that you’d find in a bookshop. In 2015, Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro debated the nature of genre and fiction in the New Statesman. They talk about literary fiction as just another genre. Meanwhile, Joyce Saricks posits that rather than a genre, literary fiction is a set of conventions.
I’ve not read a whole lot of whatever might be defined as literary fiction. I find non-genre fiction a little on the dull side. People — real people — interacting in the real world or some such plot. What’s the point of that? I want to read something that in no way can ever happen to me or anyone I know. I want to explore the imagination of terrific authors. I’ve heard that literary fiction is meant to be demanding. I don’t mind demanding, but I want, as a rule, a stimulating plot and relatable or, at the very least, interesting characters. I suspect My Idea of Fun by Will Self (1993) is the closest I’ve come to enjoying a piece of literary fiction, but I was far from entertained. And so I read genre fiction — mostly science fiction, but anything that falls under the umbrella of speculative fiction.
It turns out that some of what I’ve read and enjoyed and would recommend might be called literary science fiction. This is sometimes science fiction as written by authors who wouldn’t normally write within the genre, but more often than not regular science fiction that has been picked up by a non-genre audience. Literary fantasy is not so common as literary science fiction, but there is a lot of fantasy, both classical and modern that non-fantasy fans will be familiar with (many are put off by the label “fantasy,” and maybe an awful lot of terrible 1980s fantasy movies). Of course there are J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and the Chronicles of Narnia and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. These books are only the briefest glimpses into both the imagination of some terrific authors and the scope of fantasy fiction. It isn’t all about hobbits and lions and wizards. There’s much more to explore.
You’ve likely read most of these examples; if they’ve piqued your interest and want to explore more genre fiction, here are some suggestions for next steps.
Super Sad True Love Story (2010) by Gary Shteyngart is a grim warning of the world of social media. There’s not a whole lot of plot, but Shteyngart’s story is set in a slightly dystopic near future New York. There are ideas about post-humanism, as technology is replacing emotional judgement — people don’t need to make choices; ratings, data, and algorithms do that for you. As an epistolary and satirical novel Super Sad True Love Story engages well. The science fiction elements are kept to the background as the characters’ relationships come to the fore.
Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline. In Cline’s near future, like Shteyngart’s, there is economic dystopic overtones. Most folk interact via virtual worlds. In the real world, most people are judged harshly. Wade spends all his time in a virtual utopia that is a new kind of puzzle game. Solving clues and eventually winning it will allow him to confront his real-world relationships. Friendships are key to the enjoyment of this novel, as well as how technology alters our perception of them. Are we the masters or servants of technology?
Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson is a complex and knowing satire. The world is full of drugs, crime, nightclubs, and computer hacking; “Snow Crash” is a drug that allows the user access to the Metaverse. Stephenson examined virtual reality, capitalism, and, importantly, information culture and its effects on us as people — way before most other authors. Like Cline and Shtenyngart, technology — in this case the avatars — in Snow Crash is as much a part of the human experience as the physical person.
Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the best and most surprising novels in the science fiction genre. It is the story of childhood friends at a special boarding school, narrated by Kathy. Slowly the world is revealed as a science fiction dystopia wherein where the privileged literally rely on these lower class of people to prolong their lives. The science fiction-ness of the story — how the genetics work for example — is not really the purpose of the story. Ishiguro writes brilliantly about what it means to be a person and how liberty and relationships intertwine.
Spares (1996) by Michael Marshall Smith tells pretty much the same story, but with a different narrative and a more brutal full-on science fiction realization. Jack Randall is the typical Smith anti-hero — all bad mouth and bad luck. He works in a Spares farm. Spares are human clones of the privileged who use them for health insurance. Lose an arm in an accident; get your replacement from your clone. Spares is dark yet witty, and again, muses on the nature of humanity, as Jack sobers up and sees the future for what it really is. He believes the Spares are people too, and that it’s time he takes a stand for the moral high ground, while confronting his past.
The Book of Phoenix (2015) by Nnedi Okorafor is another tale about what it means to be a human in a created body. A woman called Phoenix is an “accelerated human” who falls in love and finds out about the horrors perpetuated by the company that created her. One day, Phoenix’s boyfriend witnesses an atrocity and kills himself. Grieving, Phoenix decides she is in a prison rather than a home. The book is, on the surface, about slavery and oppression: Americans and their corporations taking the lives of people of color as if they meant nothing. It is powerful stuff, with very tender moments.
Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut is perhaps his most famous work, and maybe his best. It is the tale of Billy Pilgrim, an anti-war chaplain’s assistant in the United States Army, who was captured in 1944 and witnessed the Dresden bombings by the allies. This narrative is interweaved with Billy’s experiences of being held in an alien zoo on a planet far from Earth called Tralfamadore. These aliens can see in such a way that they experience all of spacetime concurrently. This leads to a uniquely fatalistic viewpoint when death becomes meaningless. Utterly brilliant. Definitely science fiction. So it goes.
A Scanner Darkly (1977) by Philip K. Dick. Like Vonnegut, Dick often mixes his personal reality with fiction and throws in an unreliable narrator. In A Scanner Darkly, Bob Arctor is a drug user (as was Dick) in the near future. However, he’s also an undercover agent investigating drug users. Throughout the story, we’re never sure who the real Bob is, and what his motives are. It’s a proper science fiction world where Bob wears a “scramble suit” to hide his identity. Dick’s characters get into your head and make you ponder the nature of who you might be long after the book is over.
Little Brother (2008) by Cory Doctorow takes a look at the world of surveillance. Unlike Dick’s novel, this is not an internal examination but an external, as four teenagers are under attack from a near future Department of Homeland Security. Paranoia is present and correct as 17-year-old Marcus and his friends go on the run after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Doctorow’s usual themes include fighting the system and allowing information to be free.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. After a religiously motivated terrorist attack and the suspension of the U.S. Constitution, the newly formed Republic of Gilead takes away some women’s rights — even the liberty to read. There is very little science in The Handmaid’s Tale — indeed, Atwood herself calls it speculative rather than science fiction. The point, however, is not aliens or spaceships, but how people deal with the present, by transporting us to a potential, and in this case frightening, totalitarian future.
Bête (2014) by Adam Roberts is also a biting satire about rights. Animals, in Roberts’ bleak future, have been augmented with artificial intelligence. But where does the beast end and the technology take over? The protagonist in this story is Graham, who is gradually stripped of his own rights and humanity. He is one of the most engaging protagonists in recent years: an ordinary man who becomes an anti-hero for the common good. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, the author forces us to consider the nature of the soul and self-awareness.
Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores the ideas of a feminist utopia from the perspective of three American male archetypes. More of a treatise than a novel, it is science fiction only in the sense of alternative history and human reproduction via parthenogenesis. Gilman suggests that gender is socially constructed and ultimately that rights are not something that can be given or taken from any arbitrary group.
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin is regarded as the novel that made her name in science fiction. Humans did not originate on Earth, but on a planet called Hain. The Hainish seeded many worlds millions of years ago. In The Left Hand of Darkness, set many centuries in the future, Genly Ai from Earth is sent to Gethen — another seeded world — in order to invite the natives to join an interplanetary coalition. As we live in a world of bigotry, racism and intolerance, Le Guin brilliantly holds up a mirror.
Ammonite (1992) by Nicola Griffith also addresses gender in the far future. On a planet that has seen all men killed by an endemic disease, anthropologist Marghe journeys around the planet looking for answers to the mysterious illness, while living with various matricidal cultures and challenging her own preconceptions and her identity. Griffith’s attention to detail and the episodic nature of Marghe’s life result in a fascinating and engaging story — which is what the women of this planet value above all else. Accepting different cultural ideologies is an important factor in science fiction and both Le Guin and Griffith have produced highlights here.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) by Becky Chambers. There’s a ship called the Wayfayer, crewed by aliens, who are, by most definitions, the good guys. A new recruit named Rosemary joins the ship as it embarks on a mission to provide a new wormhole route to the titular planet. Chambers writes one of most fun books in the genre, featuring aliens in love, fluid genders, issues of class, the solidarity of family, and being the outsider.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke. In this folk-tale fantasy, Clarke writes a morality tale set in 19th-century England concerning magic and its use during the Napoleonic Wars. Somewhat gothic, and featuring dark fairies and other supernatural creatures, this is written in the style of Charles Dickens and others. Magic is power. Who controls it? Who uses it? Should it even be used?
Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) by Zen Cho is set in a similar universe to Clarke’s novel: Regency England with added fantasy. Women don’t have the same rights as men, and foreign policy is built on bigotry. The son of an African slave has been raised by England’s Sorcerer Royal. As in Clarke’s story, magic is fading and there are strained relationships with the fairies. This is where the novels diverge. Prunella Gentleman is a gifted magician and fights her oppressive masters. Cho writes with charm and the characters have ambiguity and depth. This is more than just fairies and magic, it is a study of human monsters, women’s rights, and bigotry.
Alif the Unseen (2012) by G. Willow Wilson. Take the idea of power, politics and traditional magic and move it to the Middle East. We’re in a Middle-Eastern tyrannical state sometime in the near future. Alif is Arabian-Indian, and he’s a hacker and security expert. While having a science fiction core, this sadly under-read book has fantasy at its heart. When Alif’s love leaves him, he discovers the secret book of the jinn; he also discovers a new and unseen world of magic and information. As with those above, this is a story of power. Who has it, and who controls it. The elite think they do, but the old ways, the old magic is stronger.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll. Everyone’s favorite surrealist fantasy begins with a bored little girl looking for an adventure. And what an adventure! Dispensing with logic and creating some of the most memorable and culturally significant characters in literary history, Carroll’s iconic story is a fundamental moment not just in fantasy fiction but in all fiction.
A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) by Haruki Murakami sees the (unreliable?) narrator involved with a photo that was sent to him in a confessional letter by his long-lost friend, The Rat. Another character, The Boss’s secretary, reveals that a strange sheep with a star shaped birthmark, pictured in an advertisement, is in some way the secret source of The Boss’s power. The narrator quests to find both the sheep and his friend. Doesn’t sound much like Alice for sure, but this is a modern take on the surreal journey populated by strange and somewhat impossible characters, with a destination that might not be quite like it seems. You might have read Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — both terrific novels — but you really should read Murakami’s brilliantly engaging exploration into magical oddness.
A Man Lies Dreaming (2014) by Lavie Tidhar. Was Alice’s story nothing more than a dream? Or something more solid? Shomer, Tidhar’s protagonist, lies dreaming in Auschwitz. Having previously been a pulp novelist, his dreams are highly stylized. In Shomer’s dream, Adolf Hitler is now disgraced and known only as Wolf. His existence is a miserable one. He lives as a grungy private dick working London’s back streets. Like much of Tidhar’s work, this novel is pitched as a modern noir. It is however, as with Carroll’s seminal work, an investigation into the power of imagination. Less surreal and magical than Alice, it explores the fantastical in an original and refreshing manner.
The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White. A classical fantasy tale of English folklore, despite being set in “Gramarye.” White re-tells the story of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Queen Guinevere. This is an allegoric re-writing of the tale, with the time-travelling Merlyn bestowing his wisdom on the young Arthur.
Redemption in Indigo (2010) by Karen Lord takes us on a journey into a Senegalese folk tale. Lord’s protagonist is Paama’s husband. Not at all bright, and somewhat gluttonous, he follows Paama to her parent’s village. There he kills the livestock and steals corn. He is tricked by spirit creatures (djombi). Paama has no choice to leave him. She meets the djombi, who gives her a gift of a Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world.
A Tale for the Time Being (2013) by Ruth Ozeki. Diarist Nao is spiritually lost. Feeling neither American or Japanese (born in the former, but living in the latter), she visits her grandmother in Sendai. This is a complex, deep, and beautifully told story about finding solace in spirituality. Meanwhile, Ruth, a novelist living on a small island off the coast of British Columbia, finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach — possibly from the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Ruth has a strong connection to Nao, but is it magic, or is it the power of narrative?
American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman. No one is more in tune with modern fantasy than Neil Gaiman. This is an epic take on the American road trip but with added gods. A convict called Shadow is caught up in a battle between the old gods that the immigrants brought to America, and the new ones people are worshiping. Gaiman treats his subject with utmost seriousness while telling a ripping good yarn.
The Shining Girls (2013) by Lauren Beukes causes some debate. Is it science fiction or is it fantasy? Sure it is a time-travel tale, but the mechanism of travel has no basis in science. Gaiman, an Englishman, and Beukes, a South African, provide an alternative perspective on cultural America. A drifter murders the titular girls with magical potential, which somehow allow him to travel through time via a door in a house. Kirby, a potential victim from 1989, recalls encounters with a strange visitor throughout her life. Connecting the clues, she concludes that several murders throughout the century are the work of this same man. She determines to hunt and stop him. As several time periods occur in Beukes beautifully written and carefully crafted novel, it allows comment on the changes in American society.
The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara. Whereas Gaiman and Beukes use fantasy to comment on culture from a removed stance, Yanagihara looks at cultural impact head on, with the added and very difficult subject of abuse. Fantasy isn’t all about spells and magic rings. In a complex plot, Western scientists visit the mysterious island of U’ivu to research a lost tribe who claim to have eternal life. Yanagihara’s prose has an appropriate dream-like quality as it explores our perceptions through the idea that magic is a part of nature to some cultures.
The Harry Potter series (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling. The story of a magician and his friends who grow up learning how to use magic in the world and to fight a series of evil enemies. As with other teen fantasies (such as TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer), these books are more about growing up and understanding the world than they are about magic and monsters.
The Magicians (2009) by Lev Grossman is, from one perspective, Narnia remixed starring Harry Potter at university with swearing and sex. Which sounds great to me! From another, it is about addiction and control. Quentin (Harry) loves the fantasy books Fillory and Further (Chronicles of Narnia). Thinking he is applying to Princeton, he ends up at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy (Hogwarts). He learns about magic while making new friends and falling in love, while is former best friend, Julia, who failed to get to Brakebills, learns about magic from the outside world. There are beasts and fights and double crossing and the discovery that Fillory is real. Rollicking good fun with plenty of magic and monsters, but Grossman adds an unexpected depth to the story.
Signal to Noise (2015) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a perfect fantasy novel for anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s. I’d imagine it is pretty enjoyable for everyone else too. This time, there is no formal education in magic. Set in Mexico, Signal to Noise charts the growing pains of Meche and her friends Sebastian and Daniela. The make magic from music. Literally. Magic corrupts Meche and her character changes. Moreno-Garcia nails how selfish you can be as a teenager once you get a whiff of power or dominance. In the end, everything falls apart.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
In 1934, the year Flash Gordon and The Three Stooges debuted, A.J.A. Symons published his great “experiment-in-biography,” The Quest for Corvo. In it, Symons, an aesthete bibliophile, describes first reading Hadrian the Seventh, an obscure Edwardian novel. The author, Frederick Rolfe, is a dazzling eccentric. Without any link to aristocracy, he assumes the name Baron Corvo and claims that England should submit to Italian dominion. Symons spends several years tracing the history of the painter-novelist from his dismissal as a young ecclesiastic to his last days in Venice. A prolific, irascible writer, Rolfe becomes increasingly frustrated by his own obscurity and failed commercial success: in the words of Rolfe’s acquaintance, Leslie, he was “a self-tortured and defeated soul, who might have done much, had he been born in the proper era or surroundings.”
Reading The Quest for Corvo, from a safe distance, I relished reading Rolfe’s vitriolic letters, excerpts from his novels dense with Latinate neologisms and anecdotes about his idiosyncratic behavior. Chris Offutt, though, experienced first-hand life with The Difficult Writer: his father was a Rolfe-like pornographer and science-fiction writer named Andrew Offutt, who wrote under the alias John Cleve.
My Father, the Pornographer contains reflections on Appalachian childhood, the portrait of the artist as a father, and literary analysis of mid-to-late-century genre writing. Most of all, it is a heartbreaking, hilarious, and humane exploration of the filial relationship. The father is a cankered patriarch right out of Fyodor Dostoevsky. He grew up in Appalachia, eventually getting married and starting an insurance business. He had literary ambitions from the age of 14, though. One of the pleasures of My Father, the Pornographer is watching Chris, the accomplished short-story writer and author of Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, attentively reading his father’s work, trying to understand the man and the author. While at the University of Louisville, his father wrote a short story, “Requite Me, Baby,” or “The Other Side of the Story.” Chris writes:
In the past fifteen years, I’ve taught creative writing at a number of universities, colleges, and conferences. If I’d come across this story in my teaching, I would have considered it among the most promising works I’d seen. A remarkable intelligence operates behind the prose…The voice is reminiscent of contemporary writers at the time, a combination of Salinger and Hemingway. One strong note is the handling of time…If I were a teacher conferring with the twenty-year-old who wrote it, I’d be extremely supportive.
The reader asks: How much of this is filial loyalty, the impulse to protect or defend your father’s achievement? The allusion to J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway seems hyperbolic. It would be unthinkable that a writing teacher today would compare an undergraduate student’s story in a contemporary workshop to, say, William Trevor or Alice Munro. But My Father, the Pornographer is a better book because it doesn’t assume a phony “objectivity” or “distance;” it’s a searching, open-hearted memoir that doesn’t contrive an easy position for its author in relationship to his father.
Though he was raised in the Depression and succored on Silent Generation values (family, duty, community), he inadvertently is drawn into the world of sci-fi conventions. It was a heady time to be working in science fiction: books like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 were winning Nebula Awards. Chris’s mother cuts her hair, his father doesn’t cut his, and the house takes another spiritual direction:
The Bible vanished from the dining room, replaced by an equally large copy of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Dad gave our property the official address of the Funny Farm, putting it on legal documents, stationary, and bank checks.
Over his career, his father wrote porn that touches on a range of fetishes, quirks, and predilections. Chris, the son, tries to catalogue the hundreds of published books but becomes “bogged down in subgenres.” He cultivated a porn-author persona, John Cleve, and ultimately in 1994 alone wrote 44 novels, including Punished Teens, The Chronicles of Stonewall 7: Captives of Stonewall, and Buns, Boots, & Hot Leather.
To meet market demand, Andrew created a highly efficient system. He “created batches of raw material in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions, and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders.” Sections were dedicated to descriptions of the female body: breasts were “meaty pendants,” “bulging sides of her shapely creamballs,” and “thrusting artillery shells.” As he wrote, he would cut and paste the scenes into his novel and black out the used material.
Like Rolfe, he was easily offended but pathologically incapable of physical confrontation or reconciliation. Apparently, he had an entirely one-sided but long-running feud with Harlan Ellison. He aired his grievances in compellingly splenetic correspondence. When a fan wrote him describing his own wife’s painful and tragic death, with a post-script pointing out a grammatical mistake in one of his books, Andrew Offutt lashed out:
Yes, of course it is nitpicking to PS an otherwise nice letter, requesting time and money-effort from a writer — or any other human being, surely — with the quoting of a slip on p. 24, in which “less” appears rather than “fewer.” Nitpicking and dumb, because it is designed to lose friends and intimidate people. Everything else is fascinating, though, including the ghastliness of your wife’s dying.
My Father, the Pornographer manages to give full expression to all the melancholy of his life — the intellectual insecurity, the fiercely-protected isolation, the heroic work ethic, the creative tenacity, the protean gifts — without losing sight of just how difficult the man was to be around.
How can science fiction writers invent aliens and entire planets but not include multifaceted characters of color in their fiction? At The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky discusses the genre’s equality problem and analyzes how race is viewed in everything from The Left Hand of Darkness to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. “When that future unthinkingly reproduces current inequities, it seems like both a missed opportunity and a failure of imagination.”
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.
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.