Rocannon’s World, Ursula K. Le Guin’s first novel, remains her most melancholy one. Here, sitting in the wake of her death, I’ve returned to it. More than The Left Hand of Darkness, more than The Dispossessed, Rocannon’s World sets the tone of Le Guin’s expectations of the world.
The prologue is a story about a queen named Semley who wants to reclaim her birthright, a fabulous jewel that was stolen before her birth. Convinced that she can recover it and her family’s honor in one fell sweep, Semley leaves her daughter, husband, and royal court to travel south and regain something that was lost before time.
That’s what Le Guin’s work does at its best. It encourages us to think that we can emulate characters like Semley; the current shape of the world has nothing to do with what it was or what it could be. This is the core of her oft-shared quotation about capitalism being no more grounded in the world than the divine right of kings. Things don’t have to be the way they are forever, and it takes an immense amount of bravery and vision to find the pathway out of the track we’ve set ourselves in.
the current shape of the world has nothing to do with what it was or what it could be.
This is the hopeful Le Guin, the author who could point at a new dawn breaching the horizon and give us some hope that things could be better no matter how hard they are now. Rocannon’s World, after all, is patterned after Norse mythology, that makeshift patchwork of stories that, finally, dissolves into Ragnarok and its apocalyptic reconstruction of the cosmology of things. Nothing, not even our gods, are forever. If that’s true, then why should the things that destroy us so thoroughly stick around?
There’s another side of Le Guin as well. It’s the melancholy one, the bleak one, the side that looks at a world-ending event and considers the horror of what that means for so many. The purges of The Left Hand of Darkness and the consideration of choice and loss in “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” are haunting.
And Semley, that opening figure of Rocannon’s World, has her entire life stolen by her quest for the gem that would restore her family to glory. Transported through space and experiencing light-speed, she returns to her home decades later, her daughter fully grown, her husband dead, and her kingdom conquered.
Le Guin wasn’t disempowered when she grappled with negativity. Her writing is able to mourn and move forward. She didn’t pause; she embraced the death march of living, demanding that we make the most of what is here and now and plan for what is coming down the line. There will be children coming, millions of them, and we’re going to leave this desolate planet to them in the way that so many of the denizens of her science fiction and fantasy worlds did. We, like Rolery and Jakob on their ice-bound Planet of Exile, have to hold it all together for the sake of the people who have yet to enter this world.
This melancholy relation toward the shape of things to come was the fuel for Le Guin’s fiction and nonfiction. An interviewer once asked her if she wrote “ethical fantasy,” and her response is telling: “I don’t know what an ethic would be. I don’t have a clear idea. An ethic should be something that one can state, as a proposition as it were, and I can’t.”
From the 1960s and on through the ever-more-elaborate operations of global capitalism, Le Guin focused on principles more than transcendent ethical claims. There is not a world where one can do right all of the time. Instead, there is a world of tactics, of choices, of trying to figure out how to make the most important changes with the minimal amount of violence to those around you. Very few of her characters make it through their lives without harm, both physical and mental. No one goes through life unchanged by it.
In China Miéville’s words, we’ve lost a literary colossus. “If we were to fail you so, we would never have deserved you,” he wrote of her death. And in the wake of that, I wonder how my own little corner of world creation and maintenance, games, might take up the banner dropped by our loss of Le Guin. What can that big cluster of modes of interaction and narrative development do to honor her legacy and carry her ideas forward?
There are glimmers of a new world, our new world, transposed into the fantastic and the science fictional video game worlds. Primordia and NiER: Automata ask us to project the implications of our human-ness into the far future and to consider what it means for us to pass domination and violence down through time as the core values of our species. Observer and its cyberpunk contemporaries project corporate domination of everyone and everything else into the near future for lessons on hope, resistance, and ho
w those things are quashed before they can bloom. These fictions speculate and demand that we examine our lives. What do we want to pass down to the future?
These are our melancholy games, our sad games, the ones full of mourning and misery. These are games that are on the ground, that refuse to put us in the shoes of all-powerful, maximally-violent superheroes who can crush the world beneath their heels after they get enough levels and skill points.
I have to admit that these games, our bombastic first-person fantasies and gun-based violence simulations, even the ones I love so much in the genres that I play constantly, don’t offer us many ways of changing or even rethinking the world we live in. In Le Guin’s words, these kinds of games fail to offer a space of “flexible resistance.” They give us more of the same: domination by those able to dominate, violence by the violent, horror flipping back and forth between agents.
To inherit Le Guin’s principles is to evade the fantasy of power. We need more games that grapple on the ground, that present that conditions of our lives, whether those lives are abstracted into the fantastical or grounded in real-world specificity.
We need works that can settle into sadness about the way things are and yet know, like Semley, that things don’t have to be this way. To follow in Le Guin’s footsteps is to hunt for the things that we don’t have but should have. There is no true world, nothing “natural,” and games can point over the horizon in the same way that Le Guin’s fictions did. She did not leave us an ethic, but she did leave us principles and ways of being concerned about the world. And those principles demand that we pick a path that carries us our of our monstrous present and into a better future.