Ursula K. Le Guin Le Guin, Ursula K(roeber) (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Le Guin, Ursula K(roeber) 1929–

Le Guin is an award-winning 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, and for the last volume of this set Le Guin won the National Book Award. Her work is noted for its clearly delineated portraits of alien worlds, often reflecting the author's own explorations into the philosophy of Taoism and the oriental view of history. Among her creations are the Hainish, an ancient people who claim to be the original human race and to have originally colonized Earth. The Hainish are central to five of Le Guin's novels. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

George Edgar Slusser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In terms of quality alone, it is difficult to speak of development in the fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Her writing has been good from the start. She has published short stories of high quality, selectively, over a period of thirteen years. Since 1966, she has written nine novels. Even the worst of these, The Lathe of Heaven is imaginative and ambitious, far superior to most SF being produced today. There is little doubt that Le Guin is one of the best writers currently working in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Apparently at the height of her powers, she promises much.

Nor has her world view changed or altered significantly since the beginning…. [Her best fiction] examines the possibility of balance between the individual and his world. Le Guin has always believed strongly in such balance, in the dynamics of polarity. Taoism is not an interlude; it is and has always been the strongest single force behind her work, the mold that shapes novel after novel, and binds them one to another in a coherent pattern of human history. Her use of oriental wisdom is highly personal, the creative adaptation of a philosophical system to a literary genre long dominated by a harshly western vision of evolution and technological progress. (p. 3)

To study Le Guin's novels is to study a complex organism that is growing and expanding harmoniously according to a central law of balance. This growth takes two forms. First, there is a shift in focus away from the celebration of balance and toward the problematics of balance, a shift which brings the individual closer to the center of this world, as maker and breaker of equilibrium. From novel to novel, man's relationship to the whole, and the nature and composition of that whole, become increasingly complex. Second, to render this complexity, there are important changes in form. Le Guin's later novels are much more elaborate, more concrete, more realistic. In place of vaguely stylized "worlds," we find carefully drawn societies; instead of "heroes," multifaceted, believable characters. Le Guin rapidly abandons the classic impersonal narrator, so dear to many old pseudo-epics and space operas, and begins to experiment with point of view. First a story is told from the limited perspective of one mind, and then through two or more centers of consciousness; diaries, interpolated tales, elaborate fictions of the editor, all have their place. Simple linear storytelling gives way to flashbacks, skillful juxtapositions of narrated time. Here, on this level, we may speak of synthesis. For what is happening, and will probably continue to happen in Le Guin's fiction, is an interesting merger of genres—the literature of speculation, science fiction and fantasy, with that of personal relationships and manners, the so-called "mainstream" novel.

From the start, Le Guin's writing is a fiction of ideas—or rather, of one idea: change in permanence, the dynamics of equilibrium. Her early novels are important because they lay the foundations of an historical vision from which she has not yet deviated. The two poles of that vision are, on one hand, celebration of balance and cosmic order, and on the other the difficulty of men to predict, to control the "way" this order will go. Even the best of intentions may go awry, bringing about the opposite result. Each of her novels presents a "problem," an inbalance to be stabilized, things apart that must be brought together. To do so takes effort; there must be will to order, and a hero. But if this is not to become a vicious circle, a comedy of errors where each new deed only wreaks more havoc, there must be some knowledge too. In Le Guin's universe man develops as he grows wiser.

The first novel, Rocannon's World (1966), and to some extent the second, Planet of Exile (1966), are exercises in paradox. What seems insignificant, misbegotten, hopeless, turns out in the end to yield unexpected riches. As individuals, the heroes play surprisingly little part in this process. They persevere, trust in things, but have little more than a token need to trust in others, and almost none to trust in themselves. In her third novel, City of Illusions (1967), a significant change occurs. The battlefield shifts from the external world of stock heroic adventure to the hero's mind itself. This internalization leads to new emphases; it increases the weight of personal responsibility, and with it the possibility of human evil arising from the burden of choice, the acceptance or rejection of the limits of existence. In these early novels what is called "evil" remains primarily an external factor, the fruit of ignorance, something to be converted or destroyed. But gradually, subtly, the spectre of self-delusion grows until, in her later novels, it turns things inside out. There, instead of demonstrating that untold "good" may come from the most insignificant act, Le Guin warns that even the smallest deed, foolishly or maliciously done, can cause untold harm. (pp. 4-5)

Le Guin's saga does not follow the pathway of linear progression. No advance is permanent, no conquest stable. One thing brings about its opposite. The only certainties are balance and change. Two major themes in [the first three Hainish] novels indicate quite clearly the course of Le Guin's thought: telepathy, and the League of Worlds. (p. 7)

[In] the early Hainish novels, parochialism, cultural isolation, and xenophobia strike at the very heart of the League, despite its plans and laws. Without mutual understanding, fear and fanaticism take over. The Shing, the "alien," simply incarnate what is a human failing, and make it an absolute. They allow no physical contact with men; mentally they are cut off by the lie. Like Agat's colony, they too are dwindling in number; in spite of this, they would remain apart, willfully and perpetually. Their famous Law is, in reality, their means of cutting themselves off from life…. (p. 10)

Le Guin's "future history" differs greatly from the Heinleinian variety, where each episode is a decisive step in man's conquest of the universe. Here both man and technology are defeated; "survival of the fittest" is not a matter of guts or guile, but rather of adaptation, of knowing the limits of self and others, of reaching other minds, communicating with them but not coercing them. The rugged individuality so championed by other writers is never glorified by Le Guin. To be an individual in her universe is to be whole, and that can only happen when man accepts his responsibility as part of a balanced universe. The greater his role in that universe, the more urgent the need for understanding self and the limits of self.

Each of these three early novels celebrates balance—they are pearls on a string. In each of them two "principles" are at work—polar forces which generate and sustain their inner dynamic. The first could be called "elusiveness of control," its counterweight "fortunate paradox." What first seemed the right move, then turned out to be the wrong one, now by some unpredictable twist reveals itself to be correct after all, on another level altogether. The technique of dramatizing these intricacies of change in permanence is fully worked out in Rocannon's World—this is no "apprentice" piece. Later works will elaborate these techniques and explore their significance, but will not alter them in any fundamental way.

From novel to novel, mankind is growing up. As he does, more emphasis naturally falls on the individual. Balance becomes less a matter of the machine righting itself, and more a burden thrown on the hero. Rocannon is emmeshed in forces external to himself. Convention does not ask that he ponder self, but that he act. However, in City a shift has clearly occurred. Although this novel superficially relates a quest leading to the destruction of an unknown enemy, the difference in focus is striking. (pp. 10-11)

City of Illusions displays an even more elaborate, and nearly bewildering, profusion of binding symbols and paradoxes. However, the profusion of signs serves a precise thematic function. In a novel about illusion and reality, the hero's task, like ours, is to break through the shimmering surface to truth.

Paradox thrives in CI: The Shing are rulers ruled; reverence for life is really fear of death. And the patterns of imagery are even denser. Jewels and sun, reflected light and real light, patterning frames and the frame of heaven, illusion and reality, fill the novel from its first to last pages. All are shadows to one degree or another; the clear light of truth is never seen. (p. 15)

These early novels, however skillfully written, remain verbal skeletons, too stylized and bound by the conventions of the space adventure to be truly effective. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin takes a bold step, for here the Hainish saga is transposed into concrete terms—recognizable societies, with men instead of symbols.

The Left Hand of Darkness is far more complex than its predecessors; in terms of sheer technical skill, it is Le Guin's most satisfying work to date. A delicate balance of ideas and passions is maintained throughout. The storytelling process is intricate. Over all lies an editorial framework, intermingled with interpolated tales, documents, diaries, and constant shifts back and forth in narrative time. This richness of texture does not impede the forward movement of the story, or the sheer suspense of the main plot. The popularity of this novel … is due at least partially to a striking central idea, a world whose people are androgynous. Also,...

(The entire section is 3966 words.)

Elizabeth Cummins Cogell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Le Guin's books are characterized by a significant use of setting…. [Five of her Hainish stories, Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusion, The Left Hand of Darkness, and "The Word for World is Forest," demonstrate a] significant use to characterize native species on other worlds—a use which has become more complex in successive stories. It goes beyond the more obvious uses of setting to create atmosphere or to draw the reader into an alien environment and thus into the plot. The Hainish stories form a unit in which the theme and plot are dependent on the League or Ekumen contact with species which are native to—or at least have for a long time inhabited—that planet. Furthermore, these native...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Barbara J. Bucknall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Le Guin insists that androgyny is not the main theme of [The Left Hand of Darkness], the main theme being rather that of fidelity and betrayal. But, quite apart from the instantaneous response that the idea of the androgyne evokes in the reader's imagination, there has to be a reason, and a reason that makes good sense in creative terms, for using the androgyne as a term of reference for the discussion of fidelity and betrayal. The androgyne, simply by being presented as existing, looks to the trusting and warm-hearted reader like the answer to a question, and that answer looms so large that the theme of fidelity and betrayal tends to get pushed a little to one side. If one thinks about the androgyne for a long...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

Barry N. Malzberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Le Guin is] perhaps the most successful and critically admired writer ever to produce a substantial body of work within the genre limits of science fiction. In terms of critical recognition, only Vonnegut and Bradbury come close, but Vonnegut's novels were published as literary, not genre, works, and the short stories that made Bradbury famous in the 1940s and 1950s appeared in mass circulation magazines. And neither has won a National Book Award as did Le Guin for juvenile literature…. (p. 5)

Le Guin's focus, from the outset, has been detailed and anthropological…. [The Left Hand of Darkness] in its careful documentation of a society whose mores superseded the individual choice of its...

(The entire section is 1167 words.)

Karen Sinclair

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Repeatedly in [Le Guin's] fiction we confront individuals who are of society and yet not quite a part of it. The outsider, the alien, the marginal man, adopts a vantage point with rather serious existential and philosophical implications. For Le Guin this marginality becomes a metaphor whose potency is fulfilled in a critical assessment of society. (p. 50)

The "chronic uprootedness," the disconnectedness, endows the protagonists with a vision that transcends that of the others around them, who see the world through culture-bound categories and characterizations. Yet theirs is not a happy plight. Their vision isolates them, while their attempts to promote understanding seem only to remove them further...

(The entire section is 1751 words.)