Ursula K. Le Guin Le Guin, Ursula K(roeber) (Vol. 8) - Essay

Le Guin, Ursula K(roeber) (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Le Guin, Ursula K(roeber) 1929–

Le Guin is an American writer of science fiction and fantasy whose primary genre is the novel. She has also published a compilation of short stories, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, and a volume of poetry, Wild Angels. Le Guin has likewise extended her creations of fantasy to the world of children's literature. The Earthsea trilogy is her most noted contribution in this field. (See also Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

The Dispossessed belongs right in the middle of the literary genre announced in its subtitle [An Ambiguous Utopia]. Le Guin creates for us a society that is in her view significantly better than our own, but one not beyond our capacity to achieve. We see how the people of this society live, work, play, love, hate; how they are organized politically, exchange their produce, educate their children, manage their sexual relations; we see what they value and disvalue and we witness how their values stand up under extreme stress. The book is organized so as to display the virtues and (uncharacteristically for the genre) the weaknesses of a "good place." In another traditional function of the genre, just as Thomas More's Utopia is a slashing satire on the sixteenth-century European social order, so The Dispossessed constitutes a severe critique of twentieth-century industrial society. In these respects and in others The Dispossessed is close kin to most utopian fictions one can think of from More to H. G. Wells.

The story concerns a people who have voluntarily left the fertile mother planet Urras to live on Anarres, Urras's barren and desolate moon. Urras is a transparent stand-in for Earth in the twentieth century…. Anarres, on the other hand, is a stand-in for no existing country or government; it represents possibility only. (pp. 256-57)

Le Guin has not tried to depict the "just" or "perfect" or "happy" society that utopian theorists have from time to time evoked. Life on Anarres is hard; people suffer; some are selfish, narrow, power-loving. There is conflict and the anarchistic ideal is flawed. Still, the principles are there in action; and despite a lynching mob and encroaching bureaucratization, the moral level of Anarres, its success as a humane society, is high. (p. 257)

It is as though Le Guin had set out to test Socrates' contention in The Republic that the ideal state is one in which people lead hard, simple lives, producing only necessities…. These are recalcitrant materials for a writer: how does one show, how does one make interesting, a truly simple happiness?… Utopian writers have always found it easier to define the good life by showing what it is not.

The genre is full of traps. For example, how does a utopian society come into being? More's King Utopus simply founded Utopia by decree. Edward Bellamy's Americans slid into it by accident. Marxists tend to like William Morris's News from Nowhere, an otherwise rather delicate book, because it faces the question of how revolutionary violence can give birth to the good life. Plato was most forthright of all: the philosopher who is to create the ideal society will "take society and human character as his canvas, and begin by scraping it clean." The image has given liberal commentators fits. Le Guin's way of scraping the canvas is to have her anarchists abandon not only their native planet but their native language as well. They create, and use exclusively, an artificial language, with all the losses that entails, in order to start afresh.

Another trap, source of much tedium in utopian fiction, is that of exposition. "Tell me," say innumerable visitors to Utopia, "how your society is organized," and the flat expository prose rolls on endlessly before us. The Dispossessed avoids this as much as possible, showing instead a non-authoritarian communist society in operation; not in detail, of course—this is not a blueprint—but in selected scenes and episodes so that we get a feeling, if by no means a full understanding, of how such a society might work. It is a measure of Le Guin's seriousness and honesty that with all its negative advantages the society has its full quota of moral complexities and human failure.

The genre, of course, has advantages as well as traps. A visitor from Utopia to our world brings unexpected perspectives to the familiar and commonplace. [The protagonist] Shevek's first view of Urrastian landscape, a grove of trees with the land falling away to a fertile valley—nothing dramatic—has vivid impact because we see, with heightened visual powers, through his unaccustomed eyes. Used negatively, the device provides a built-in satiric blade. Le Guin has only to place Shevek on the Madison Avenue of A-Io for a process of estrangement, of "defamiliarization," to take place. Shevek looks in shop windows, the show places of our culture…. The Anarresti have a saying: "Excess is excrement." From that perspective the simple enumeration [of merchandise] becomes fierce social commentary.

Melodramatic doings in A-Io are handled less deftly than the smaller episodes on Anarres. Le Guin's talent is in imaging the remote, the extreme, life pared down to the thing itself…. Le Guin loves her Anarresti, who by choice and by the iron force of environment have reduced their lives to what is essential: "a people selected by a vision of freedom, and adapted to a barren world, a world of distances, silences, desolations."

Any work powered so overtly by moral and social energies can hardly avoid a certain fictional thinness. H. G. Wells recognized the problem. "That which is the blood and warmth and reality of life is largely absent" from utopian fiction, he said; "there are no individualities, but only generalized people." The Dispossessed does not entirely escape the difficulty, but in the character of Shevek, the Anarresti physicist, Le Guin achieves something new. Starting with richly imagined scenes from childhood (a chilling episode, for example, in which Shevek and three other youngsters enact a prison experience), she creates the kind of character one associates with the novel proper. A believable scientist, a complex human being tormented by competing obligations, Shevek has some of the functions of the traditional apologist for Utopia; but the functions have been complicated almost beyond recognition and Shevek comes from another literary kind. Thus generic expectations are confounded and a genre enriched. (pp. 258-60)

In ordinary terms the proportion of science fiction to utopia in The Dispossessed is very small indeed. The book is set in the future, but so, of course, are many utopias. The Hainish, a people from Le Guin's science fiction novels, play a small but crucial role, and Shevek's great theory is straight out of the science fiction repertoire. But this is about all. Thus the bloodlines of the book are, as always, mixed; but the dominant strain cannot be in doubt.

The ghetto experience of science fiction has prompted it to imperialistic ventures: science fiction now lays claim to all forms of speculative fiction, emphatically including the utopian. I think this is a mistake, tactically as well as strategically. Had reviewers recognized The Dispossessed as a newer, more interesting Walden II or Island, instead of categorizing it as they did and missing its central thrust, we would already be having the discussions—literary, political, generic—a work of this importance is certain to generate. (p. 261)

Robert C. Elliott, "A New Utopian Novel," in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1976, pp. 256-61.

Unlike many science-fiction writers [Le Guin] is exhilarated less by "probable causes" than by "future experience," less by the gadgetry of the future than by the quality of life and the psychic consequences of social and technological change.

Much science-fiction works roughly along the same principles as science itself: can the problem or its solution be duplicated? Le Guin often begins with a scientific possibility, as in the story "Nine Lives," one of the finest in the volume [The Wind's Twelve Quarters], which dramatizes what happens when two technicians on a far-off planet are visited by assistants, a 10-person clone. Here is duplication personified. Le Guin is fascinated with what it would feel like to be a member of such a clone, sexually and emotionally self-sufficient…. And she moves from this concern to the insight that future experience is still human experience. For all of us the distance between the stranger and oneself is absolute, but we learn to negotiate it so early that we may forget the negotiation is learned….

A kind of cultural relativism is implicit in many of these stories…. (p. 28)

The stories are not so impressive as the best Le Guin novels, for Le Guin is superb at suspensefully sustaining long narrative sequences impossible in short fiction. Nevertheless "Nine Lives" and "The Field of Vision" need not be condescended to…. Like Doris Lessing, who has several times recently crossed in the other direction the traditional line between fiction and science-fiction, Ursula Le Guin is capable of a healthy blurring of genres. (p. 29)

Joan Joffe Hall, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 7, 1976.

[Ursula Le Guin's] fiction is closer to fantasy than naturalism, but it is just as grounded in ethical concerns as [John] Brunner's work, despite its apparent distance from present actualities. Though some would argue that her political novel, The Dispossessed (1974), is her best work, and others might favor her ecological romance, The Word for World is Forest (1972, 1976), or her young people's fantasy, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), today's critical consensus is still that her best single work is The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

In The Left Hand of Darkness Le Guin moves far from our world in time and space, to give us a planet where life has evolved on different lines from our own…. [The] major effect of Le Guin's imagining such a fictional world is to force us to examine how sexual stereotyping dominates actual human concepts of personality and influences all human relationships. (p. 39)

I know of no single book likely to raise consciences about sexism more thoroughly and convincingly than this one. And that this is done gently, in a book which manages also to be a fine tale of adventure and a tender story of love and friendship, makes the achievement all the more remarkable. There are few writers in the United States who offer fiction as pleasurable and thoughtful as Ursula Le Guin's. It is time for her to be recognized beyond the special provinces of fantasy and science fiction or feminism as simply one of our best writers. (pp. 39-40)

Derek de Solla Price, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 30, 1976.

Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the most accomplished of contemporary science fiction writers, has written a provocative collection of short stories that are not science fiction by any conceivable definition of the term. Having said this, I must add that these "Orsinian Tales" share many of the virtues of her best science fiction. As in her novels "The Dispossessed" and "The Left Hand of Darkness," she writes in quiet straightforward sentences about people who feel they are being torn apart by massive forces in society—technological, political, economic—and who fight courageously to remain whole. In her science fiction, these struggles take place in a vaguely defined future on imaginary planets, where everything from the shape of continents to the flux of social conventions has been created to frame, mirror and, at key points, force the action. Readers who feel uncomfortable with objective correlatives on this scale may dismiss the creation as mere "fantasy."

But no one is likely to fix that label on the "Orsinian Tales." Most of the stories are set in an unnamed Central European country with a long and typically somber history; the "progress" from feudalism to industrial capitalism to Soviet-dominated Communism does nothing to alter the odds against individual freedom. (p. 8)

The chronology of the tales is deliberately mixed; the dates of the first six stories are 1960, 1150, 1902, 1920, 1956 and 1910. By turning history inside out in this manner, Mrs. Le Guin forces the reader to piece together a picture of the country and its people bit by bit. And only as the bits accumalate does the underlying strategy become clear: The country is unnamed because it is "imaginary." It is not simply Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia or Hungary with the names and faces changed, nor is it a generalized Kafkaesque nightmare. Like the allegorist (or the science fiction writer), Mrs. Le Guin has carefully constructed an entire country to suit her needs.

Of course, she has not given her imagination the same loose rein as she does in her science fiction novels; all the details have the ring of reality. There are no anachronisms in the "Orsinian Tales," no deus ex machinas, nothing that clashes with the broad outlines of European history as the textbooks know it. But even within these bounds she succeeds in putting her special mark on the material. Most authors achieve verisimilitude in historical fiction through a display of documentation; well-researched descriptions of specific locales somehow vouch for the authenticity of characters and plot. Despite the superficial resemblance, Mrs. Le Guin's method is entirely different; what breathes life into each of her tales is not documentary pretense but the primary act of imagination underlying the whole book.

Not surprisingly, the two most successful stories deal directly with the claims of the imagination. (pp. 8, 44)

There are no easy choices in Le Guin's "made-up" world. The imagination, she tells us, destroys as well as redeems. It is not even clear that we can influence the outcome; yet freedom consists of acting as though we could. (p. 44)

Gerald Jonas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 28, 1976.