Iconography: Ursula K. Le Guin, the Model of a Modern Mythmaker
I love Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing so much. Who better with whom to finish our trip into feminist science fiction? And how to pick just a few of her works to write about…?!
Eighty-one years old now, Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California, the daughter of writer Theodora Kroeber and anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber. She now lives in Oregon. Whenever I meet an Oregonian, I ask if they’re a fan. There’s yet to be a face that hasn’t taken on a kind of soft joy at talking about her writing. Le Guin has published twenty-one novels and eleven short story volumes, not to mention her translations, children’s books, poetry, essay collections and such. She’s been around a while, through the ups and downs of the science fiction scene since the 1960s. Through all that time, she has remained interested in and most interesting for a fair portion of the planet. You’ve got to have respect for a woman in a pretty privileged position who has always done her best to make that not so.
I don’t have a single favorite Le Guin novel or short story: that changes as I do. But one of the things I always like best about her writing is that she’s that rare white person who writes race in a way I find welcoming, not alienating. Science fiction—and fantasy for that matter—is often about arranging imaginary worlds on white terms, or according to the logics of white cultures. Here is a white woman who builds the kinds of myths I can relate to. The cultures of the Earthsea universe feel more like home than European fairytales ever did. It soothes a hurt in my heart to have characters of color be a norm, for whiteness to never be unmarked, to not be the perspective around which everything else has to be arranged.
Le Guin writes science fiction as I like it best, and a part of that is her commitment to questioning her own prior thinking. She is well loved for her Earthsea cycle—an amazing body of fantasy work you have to find at once—and one of the best parts of reading it is seeing how Le Guin’s thinking around gender in particular changes over the years. Her Hainish cycle is premised on the idea that the Hainish people are trying to rebuild communications with planets they colonized millennia ago, such as Earth. The cycle follows efforts to include more worlds in their Ekumenical alliance, and the stories of those worlds. The Left Hand of Darkness is the most famous of the Hainish works. It’s about Genly Ai, a man from Earth, his attempt to bring the people of Winter into the Ekumen, and his struggle to relate to these people without fixed reproductive physiology. It throws open doors around gender and sexuality and binary oppositions, and it’s brilliant, although it’s not as revolutionary as it ought to be. Most simply, the use of male pronouns as neutral ones undercuts the wonderful gender ambiguity. Le Guin re-examines the novel in her essay “Is Gender Necessary? Redux,” which is well worth your time to read. She's remarkable for this kind of sincere engagement with her own work.
And she’s simply clever with words: her writing is clear and ably drawn, full of apt images. There is a page on her website called A Few Words to a Young Writer I think you ought to read. “Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.” And, for me, Le Guin goes towards the truth. She writes like she loves words, knows the true nature of stories. She is fiercely ethical and profoundly loving.
That’s Ursula Le Guin for you: a rarity, someone successful for doing it right.
I want to finish up with a few recommendations. I could go on about Le Guin all day, but I’ll be kind to your eyes/speakers and pick just three of my favorites. “Another Story” and “The Rock That Changed Things,” both collected in A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, are favorites of mine. The former is as much a joy for its worldbuilding as its science as its beautiful love story. The latter is about freedom and paradigm shifts and revolution; you’ll love it. My favorite Le Guin right now is Four Ways to Forgiveness, a Hainish story suite, as Le Guin puts it, about slave and colonizer twin worlds, and the political and personal experiences of emerging from slavery.
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