Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ursula K. Le Guin

Notes from all over

leave a comment »

It’s been a while since I last posted, so I thought I’d quickly run through a few upcoming items. On Saturday June 15, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago will be showing Arwen Curry’s acclaimed new documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. After the screening, I’ll be taking part in a discussion panel with Mary Anne Mohanraj and Madhu Dubey to discuss the legacy of Le Guin, whose work increasingly seems to me like the culmination of the main line of science fiction in the United States, even if she doesn’t figure prominently in Astounding. (Which, by the way, is up for a Locus Award, the results of which will be announced at the end of this month.) The next day, on June 16, I’ll be hosting a session of my writing workshop, “Writing Fiction that Sells,” at Mary Anne’s Maram Makerspace in Oak Park. People seem to like the class, which runs from 10:00-11:45 am, and it would be great to see some of you there!

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2019 at 9:35 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

To preach that story is conflict, always to ask “Where’s the conflict in your story?”—this needs some thinking about. If you say that story is about conflict, that plot must be based on conflict, you’re limiting your view of the world severely. And in a sense making a political statement: that life is conflict, so in stories conflict is all that really matters. This is simply untrue. To see life as a battle is a narrow, Social Darwinist view, and a very masculine one. Conflict, of course, is part of life, I’m not saying you should try to keep it out of your stories, just that it’s not their only lifeblood. Stories are about a lot of different things.

Ursula K. Le Guin, in an interview with David Naimon

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2018 at 7:30 am

Le Guin Again

with 26 comments

A few weeks after the presidential election, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote on her personal blog: “Americans have voted for a politics of fear, anger, and hatred, and those of us who oppose this politics are now trying to figure out how we can oppose it usefully. I want to defend my country, my republic. In the atmosphere of fear, anger, and hatred, opposition too easily becomes division, fixed enmity. I’m looking for a place to stand, or a way to go, where the behavior of those I oppose will not control my behavior.” The problem of opposing the situation “usefully” is one that evidently preoccupied her for the rest of her life, as Donald Trump, whom she had once dismissed as “the essentially harmless nut who thinks he’s Napoleon,” continued to dominate the conversation in the country that she loved. And she had been preparing for this fight for her entire career. Last February, after comparing Trump to the golem, a giant that could be turned back into mud if a single letter on its forehead were erased, she wrote:

[Trump] is a true, great master of the great game of this age, the Celebrity Game. Attention is what he lives on. Celebrity without substance. His “reality” is “virtual”—i.e. non-existent—but he used this almost-reality to disguise a successful bid for real power. Every witty parody, hateful gibe, clever takeoff, etc., merely plays his game, and therefore plays into his hands…Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion…He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left—mud.

Two or three years ago, the strategy of collectively ignoring Trump might have worked well enough to get rid of him. It seems less effective now. But I think that what Le Guin was advocating was less the idea of reducing him to irrelevance through our collective indifference, which is a ship that has unfortunately sailed, than of limiting his impact on our inner lives. The relationship between the private self and the state is a mystery that has been investigated by countless American writers, and the beauty of Le Guin’s work was that she was able to explore it on an interplanetary level. Science fiction has a way of making individual human beings seem all but irrelevant, to the point where the genre’s true hero, as the editor John W. Campbell often argued, is humanity as a whole. Its depiction of societies evolving over time may well be a more accurate reflection of how the world works than conventional realism, which has a way of overstating the power of free will, but it can also be frustrating for those of us who look to fiction for answers. Le Guin’s genius lay in taking this inherent tension and transforming it into one of her great themes, which was the role that specific people could play in the rise and fall of planets. It makes for a stark contrast with Asimov’s Foundation series, in which history is reduced to the statistical aggregate of trillions of lives, and it also avoids the trap of the Star Wars franchise, which until recently seemed to identify the fate of the galaxy with that of a single family. Le Guin’s protagonists aren’t chosen by fate, but they also aren’t rendered irrelevant by the scale of the problems involved. They’re ordinary men and women doing what they can to affect systems of unbelievable complexity.

Earlier this week, I republished my post on The Left Hand of Darkness, which is the story of a solitary envoy, Genly Ai, who sets out to convince an entire planet to change its ways. A few years later, Le Guin revisited this basic story in The Dispossessed, which in some respects is even more interesting, because it comes closer to our own experience. If Genly Ai is almost unbelievably admirable and devoted to his cause, Shevek, the central figure of The Dispossessed, is a mess. The novel opens with Shevek traveling from his planet, Anarres, to its twin, Urras, which have been isolated from each other for generations. Anarres is an anarchist utopia, while Urras has developed along capitalist lines, and they exist in a state of mutual distrust. Shevek, a physicist, sees his visit to Urras as a way of bringing the two cultures closer together, or so he tells himself and others. In fact, his motivations are more complicated—he left Anarres largely because of professional frustration—and when he arrives at his destination, he makes a terrible job of it. He allows himself to be manipulated by the ruling class; he gets drunk and makes a clumsy pass at a married woman; and when he finally goes over to the side of the underground revolution, his only visible act is to give a speech at which scores of people are killed. In the end, when he returns to Anarres, he seems to have accomplished almost nothing, and the book ends on a note of ambiguity. (To be fair, Shevek also discovers the principles behind the ansible, a form of communication that travels faster than light, but this is handled almost as an aside.) It’s a messier, more frustrating novel than The Left Hand of Darkness, but it also more accurately reflects the nature of most political engagement, which is often driven by personal factors, and frequently leaves us unsure if any of it was worthwhile.

And it isn’t an accident that The Dispossessed centers on the image of a wall. On the very first page of the novel, Le Guin describes the wall around the spaceport on Anarres, which is the only legal boundary on the entire planet:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

After arriving on Urras, Shevek finds himself on a planet of walls, including the ones inside the heads of the people whom he meets. He marvels of one of them: “There were walls around all his thoughts, and he seemed utterly unaware of them, though he was perpetually hiding behind them.” But Shevek soon finds walls in his own mind as well. Moving past them is Le Guin’s other major theme, and she returned to the image repeatedly in the months before her death. In February, she posted a poem by Anita Endrezze simply titled “The Wall,” followed a few months afterward by a poem of her own, “The Jaguar,” in which she remembers being given a piece of the Berlin Wall by a friend, and adds: “but this wall they are building / straight across my heartland / with our flag draped across it / is the coffin of my country.” She lived long enough to see many of her worst fears come to pass, and she died while they were still unresolved. But in her very last post, in a poem that she wrote a quarter of a century ago, Le Guin left us with what often seems like the only possible answer: “And I will honor only / my people, the powerless.”

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2018 at 9:26 am

The first envoy

leave a comment »

Note: The legendary author Ursula K. Le Guin passed away on Monday at the age of eighty-eight. This post on her novel The Left Hand of Darkness originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 10, 2017.

And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of…and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?

—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Genly Ai, the central character of The Left Hand of Darkness, is a lone envoy sent from Earth to convince the people of Gethen, an isolated planet of perpetual winter, to join the Ekumen, a confederation of eighty-three inhabited worlds. His mission seems absurdly difficult, and perhaps inherently impossible. He doesn’t carry any technology aside from an ansible, a communications device that can transmit messages instantaneously across the galaxy, and he’s set apart from the Gethenians in fundamental ways—the planet’s inhabitants are ambisexual, with no fixed gender, and the idea of being permanently male or female strikes many of them as a form of perversion. Not surprisingly, few believe his story. His spacecraft is confiscated upon his arrival by the government, and although he could, in theory, call down a mother ship at any time, he refuses to do so until the Gethenians have agreed to join the coalition. (The situation is only complicated by a growing rivalry between the neighboring countries of Karhide and Orgoryen, which prompts a character to wonder: “How does one hate a country, or love one?…What is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?”) Genly’s only option is to somehow persuade them on his own, which could take years, if it happens at all. Envoys to other planets have even been killed. When asked why the Ekumen takes this seemingly irrational approach, Genly explains: “I was sent alone, and remain here alone, in order to make it impossible of you to fear me.” Later, he expands upon this: “The First Envoy to a world always comes alone. One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion.”

At first, inevitably, it goes poorly. The prime minister Estraven, who is the only person in the kingdom of Karhide who seems to believe Genly, is abruptly exiled, and his place is taken by another politician, Tibe, who is hostile to the envoy, openly nationalistic, and eager to manipulate a vulnerable king. As Genly recounts in his report:

Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn, vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “integrity of the kingdom’s borders”…He talked much about pride of country and love of the parent land, but little about shifgrethor [mutual honor and respect], personal pride, or prestige…I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse elements of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something which the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”

In this passage, Le Guin, whose novel was first published in 1969, seems even more prescient than George Orwell. Genly continues: “It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer…hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness…Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war.” And the situation in Karhide has obvious parallels to that of America today, which Le Guin lived just long enough to see come to pass:

Slow as their material and technological advance had been, little as they valued “progress” in itself, they had finally, in the last five or ten or fifteen centuries, got a little ahead of Nature. They weren’t absolutely at the mercy of their merciless climate any longer; a bad harvest would not starve a whole province, or a bad winter isolate every city…Now Karhide was to pull herself together…and the way to make her do it was not by sparking her pride, or building up her trade, or improving her roads, farms, colleges, and so on; none of that; that’s all civilization, veneer, and Tibe dismissed it with scorn. He was after something surer, the sure, quick, and lasting way to make people into a nation: war.

And here’s the sentence that chills the blood my most: “[Tibe’s] ideas concerning it could not have been too precise, but they were quite sound.”

Yet I think that Le Guin is in some ways greater than Orwell, whose work I admire enormously, because she hints at a way forward—although it isn’t an easy one. It lies in Genly’s ultimate understanding of his mission, which he only realizes toward the end of the book:

I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou…[The Ekumen’s] doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means. It proceeds, therefore, by subtle ways, and slow ones, and queer, risky ones; rather as evolution does, which is in certain senses its model…So was I sent alone, for your sake? Or for my own? I don’t know.

Le Guin’s solution, which I won’t discuss, isn’t entirely satisfying, but the problem that she poses remains very real. The predicament that she describes is an extreme one, but on some level, we’re all in Genly’s position. We may acquire a few allies along the way, but we’re fundamentally alone, and we’re attempting to deal with impersonal forces that seem too large for any one person to change. In all too many cases, they are. But it’s only on the individual level, and one day at a time, that true change ever happens. There have been envoys before us, of course. But whenever we reach out to make a connection with another human being, it’s as if it’s happening for the very first time. And we owe it to Le Guin to try.

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2018 at 8:48 am

The first envoy

with one comment

The Left Hand of Darkness

And I wondered, not for the first time, what patriotism is, what the love of country truly consists of…and how so real a love can become, too often, so foolish and vile a bigotry. Where does it go wrong?

—Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Genly Ai, the central character of The Left Hand of Darkness, is a lone envoy sent from Earth to convince the people of Gethen, an isolated planet of perpetual winter, to join the Ekumen, a confederation of eighty-three inhabited worlds. Genly’s mission is absurdly difficult, to the point where it often seems inherently impossible. He doesn’t carry any technology aside from an ansible, a communications device that can transmit messages instantaneously across the galaxy, and he’s set apart from the Gethenians in fundamental ways—the planet’s inhabitants are ambisexual, with no fixed gender, and the idea of being permanently male or female strikes many of them as a form of perversion. Not surprisingly, few believe his story. His spacecraft was confiscated on his arrival by the government, and although he could, in theory, call down a mother ship at any time, he refuses to do so until the Gethenians have agreed to join the coalition. (The situation is only complicated by a growing rivalry between the neighboring countries of Karhide and Orgoryen, which prompts one character to wonder: “How does one hate a country, or love one?…What is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?”) Genly’s only option is to somehow persuade them on his own, which could take years, if it happens at all. In the past, envoys to other planets have been killed. When asked why the Ekumen takes this seemingly irrational approach, Genly explains: “I was sent alone, and remain here alone, in order to make it impossible of you to fear me.” Later, he expands upon this: “The First Envoy to a world always comes alone. One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion.”

At first, inevitably, it goes poorly. The only person in the kingdom of Karhide who seems to believe Genly, the prime minister Estraven, is abruptly exiled, and his place is taken by another politician, Tibe, who is hostile to the envoy’s mission, openly nationalistic, and eager to manipulate a vulnerable king. As Genly observes in his report:

Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn, vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “integrity of the kingdom’s borders”…He talked much about pride of country and love of the parent land, but little about shifgrethor [mutual honor and respect], personal pride, or prestige…I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse elements of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something which the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

In this passage, Le Guin, writing in a novel that was first published in 1969, seems even more prescient than George Orwell. Genly continues: “It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer…hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness…Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war.” And the situation in Karhide has obvious parallels to our own:

Slow as their material and technological advance had been, little as they valued “progress” in itself, they had finally, in the last five or ten or fifteen centuries, got a little ahead of Nature. They weren’t absolutely at the mercy of their merciless climate any longer; a bad harvest would not starve a whole province, or a bad winter isolate every city…Now Karhide was to pull herself together…and the way to make her do it was not by sparking her pride, or building up her trade, or improving her roads, farms, colleges, and so on; none of that; that’s all civilization, veneer, and Tibe dismissed it with scorn. He was after something surer, the sure, quick, and lasting way to make people into a nation: war.

But here’s the sentence that chills the blood my most: “[Tibe’s] ideas concerning it could not have been too precise, but they were quite sound.”

Yet I think that Le Guin is in some ways greater than Orwell, whom I admire enormously, because she hints at a way forward—although it isn’t an easy one. It lies in Genly’s ultimate understanding of his mission, which he only realizes toward the end of the book:

I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou…[The Ekumen’s] doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means. It proceeds, therefore, by subtle ways, and slow ones, and queer, risky ones; rather as evolution does, which is in certain senses its model…So was I sent alone, for your sake? Or for my own? I don’t know.

Le Guin’s solution, which I won’t reveal, isn’t entirely satisfying, but the problem she poses is very real. The predicament that she describes is an extreme one, but on some level, we’re all in Genly’s position. We may acquire a few allies along the way, but we’re fundamentally alone, and we’re trying to deal with impersonal forces that seem too large for any one person to change. In all too many cases, they are. But it’s only on the individual level, and day by day, that true change ever happens. There have been envoys before us, of course. But whenever we reach out to make a connection with another human being, it’s as if it’s happening for the very first time.

Written by nevalalee

February 10, 2017 at 10:02 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

February 10, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Ursula K. Le Guin

Whenever they tell me children want this sort of book and children need this sort of writing, I am going to smile politely and shut my earlids. I am a writer, not a caterer.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2013 at 7:30 am

%d bloggers like this: