Ursula K. Le Guin
Any major science-fiction gourmand will tell you that Ursula K. Le Guin is among the most compelling writers living today.
Dec 2 2008, 12:00am
Any major science-fiction gourmand will tell you that Ursula K. Le Guin is among the most compelling writers living today. At age 79 she’s also a renowned poet and essayist, but it’s as the author of some of the more mind-warping sf and fantasy tales of the past 40 years that she’s most revered: The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, the six Earthsea books, nine short-story collections, and her latest novel, Lavinia, among them.
These books drop you into acutely strange territories where conjectured sociology, alien technologies, and our own deeply held myths are merged, to almost psychedelic effect—psychedelic as in perspective-mutating, context-smashing. They’re on the through-line of true speculative lit that stretches from Edward Bellamy and H.G. Wells to Kurt Vonnegut and William Gibson—what writer Nancy Jesser calls “an anthropology of the future, imagining whole cultural systems and conflicts.”
Le Guin has lived in Portland, Oregon, with her historian husband, Charles, in the same house for almost 50 years.
Vice: First off, I’m curious about the motivation of an 11-year-old girl in 1940 to submit stories to science-fiction magazines. What led you to that point?
Ursula K. Le Guin: Well, I’m not sure how much I can tell you about the motivations of that girl. It’s been a long time since I knew her. But as I recall, she sent her story to a science-fiction magazine because it was a science-fiction story. My brother and I had been pooling our vast monetary resources to buy an occasional magazine, Astounding or Amazing or Thrilling Wonder. Twenty-five cents each. Some of the stories were good, some were pure pulp hackery. I thought, I write better than some of this stuff. So I wrote a modest story involving a time machine and the origin of life, and submitted it. It came back with a polite rejection letter, of which I was rightly proud. If I waited ten years or so before I tried to go pro again it wasn’t because my first attempt was a failure but because I was getting a sense of what I had to learn in order to write the way I wanted to write.
There’s all this debate about what even constitutes science fiction. Strictly speaking, a movie like Star Wars is not sf in the original sense. It’s more of a “space opera.”
This distinction makes most sense to me: Science fiction—and the correct shortcut is “sf”—uses actual scientific facts or theories for the source ideas or framework of the story. It has some scientific content, however speculative. If it breaks a law of physics, it knows it’s doing so and follows up the consequences. If it invents a society of aliens, it does so with some respect for and knowledge of the social sciences and what you might call social probabilities. And some of it is literarily self-aware enough to treat its metaphors as metaphors. “Space opera” is nice, but I’d call Star Wars sci-fi, because it’s what most people mean when they use the term. Sci-fi uses the images that sf—starting with H.G. Wells—made familiar: space travel, aliens, galactic wars and federations, time machines, et cetera, taking them literally, not caring if they are possible or even plausible. It has no interest in or relation to real science or technology. It’s fantasy in space suits. Spectacle. Wizards with lasers. Kids with ray guns. I’ve written both, but I have to say I respect science fiction enough that I wince when people call it sci-fi.
Wikipedia categorizes a lot of your work as “soft science fiction”—a pretty horrible-sounding designation. Is there a more useful term for what you do? Maybe one that’s not even contingent on the category of science fiction?
Talk about wincing! Some sf writers decided a while ago that true sf can only be based on the so-called hard sciences—astronomy, physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science, and so on. The word “hard” brings some gender luggage along with it. And sure enough, these guys find stories based on the “soft,” or social, sciences to be a debased and squashy form of the genre. They see it as chick lit for geeks. So, OK. If anybody wants to build a ghetto inside the ghetto and live there, fine with me. But I wish this sectarianism hadn’t infected Wikipedia. If they want to call my stuff social science fiction, that’s fair enough. But so much of what I write isn’t sf at all.
Don’t tell me that you still come up against resistance from male readers to the idea of a female sf writer.
Among male sf writers there was considerable chest beating and territorial spraying, of course, but it mostly died out with the paleolithic generation. From male readers I have seldom felt much resistance. The misogynists simply avoid me and my books, on the principle that what they don’t know can’t hurt them. The most negative feedback related to gender I ever got was to Tehanu, the fourth book of Earthsea, which shifted the point of view from men of power in a male-dominated world to powerless men and women in the same world. That really irked the boys. They saw it as a betrayal. I see it as exactly the opposite.
Are there many other professional female sf writers?
Most of us belong to Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and I’m curious enough that I recently went through the directory and counted male/female. I got 194 total: 6 uncertain-gender initials, or first names like Lee and Chris, 68 women, and 120 men. So it looks like roughly two to one among professional sf writers. That seems about right. Sf readership, as the polls in Locus magazine show, has definitely moved toward more women and more older readers.
I really wouldn’t have guessed that many. What unique perspectives do women bring to sf?
This is a huge subject, because it involves us at once in the question of what, if any, unique perspectives do women bring to fiction in general. But I’d say that the entrance of a substantial number of women sf writers in the 60s and 70s, along with some unconventional males of the same generation, enlarged the scope of the genre, increased its literary and intellectual sophistication, introduced credible female and nonheterosexual characters, and improved the general quality of the prose—and won a lot of new and faithful readers.
Your new novel, Lavinia, fleshes out of an important female character in Virgil’s Aeneid, one who never speaks in the original poem. I was really struck by one thing. In the ancient world people bore the burden of anticipating an unhappy afterlife in the underworld. It’s as if there were no heaven, only hell and purgatory, to look forward to. I’d think it would be difficult to create motivations in characters with that view of their existence.
Are you saying that people have to believe that they are going to heaven when they die in order to find any reason for living on Earth, or to live by their conscience? I certainly hope you’re mistaken. Actually, I’m merely being polite. You are mistaken. Belief in heaven and hell is a big deal in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and some forms of doctrinaire Buddhism. For the rest of us it’s simply meaningless. We don’t live in order to die, we live in order to live. The Greco-Roman afterlife or underworld was neither hell nor purgatory. Some of the shades there were unhappy, others were happy. It depended a good deal on their behavior in life. They’d all rather be alive than be there, which seems understandable. Virgil describes the place in the sixth book of the Aeneid, if you’re interested in seeing what he thought it was like. But your question, which is stated whether intentionally or not in terms of a specific religious belief, is simply unanswerable in terms of my novel.
No, no. As an atheist myself I certainly don’t believe that being moral proceeds solely from a belief in gods or religions. But—ancient history not being my strongest suit—I was under the impression that the underworld was populated exclusively by deeply melancholic and tormented shades—that there was no concept of paradise for mortals. Not true? OK, misfire on my part.
No sweat. I tend to go off like a firecracker when people seem to be trying to force my work into a belief box, especially the monotheistic one, where I do not belong and do not want to be. Sorry!
The spirit of Virgil appears to Lavinia several times, and in one scene he reels off a condensed if extremely graphic account of the violent deaths in the Aeneid. It goes on for pages! His cynicism is palpable. Is it also yours? Is Lavinia an antiwar book?
It isn’t cynicism, it’s moral outrage. Quite a difference there. Yes, Lavinia is an antiwar book, as is the Aeneid.
It’s got several themes, the most interesting being your conflation of the concept of fate with the narrative privilege of the author. In this case Lavinia actually meets her author, but fate still takes its course. It seems like a key idea in your writing.
I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve dealt much with fate or destiny as such. Though when I read the Greek tragedies or the Aeneid, the idea of a person having a destiny and living it through—or not living it through, and so failing to be who they should be—makes perfect sense to me. “Fate” and “destiny” have a grand sound. “Duty” is a related word that doesn’t sound so grand but still has a strong moral meaning in daily life. In the story, Aeneas has a destiny. He’s a hero. So does Lavinia. She’s destined to marry the hero. But from her point of view, and I think from Aeneas’s too, both of them are just trying to see what their duty is and do it. It consists mostly in their responsibility to their people—family, friends, companions, fellow countrymen. That hasn’t changed much, I think, in 2,800 years. And it might be a theme running through my fiction—trying to figure out what you ought to do and how to do it.
We have this weird idea of the Bronze Age—in Hollywood movies, comic books, and video games, anyway—as an era of total savagery with little-to-no peace or empathy. Your historically accurate depiction in Lavinia is so different.
Right, since the movies have come to rely increasingly on violence in place of drama, and video games seem to consist of nothing but varieties of slaughter. But fiction still deals with the whole range of human interaction, not just aggression. If you go back to our best actual testimony from the Bronze Age, which is Homer, you don’t find savagery. In the Iliad, the combat scenes are just an element of the complex psychological action and the human drama. And the Odyssey is about an old soldier going home and the problems his wife’s been having while he was away. I’m certain that novel readers are willing to follow me into a Bronze Age where, however differently from us they live, the people are people, with human minds and hearts, living ordinary daily lives, and working, and finding love and grief and peace and war as much a mystery as we do. Have you seen Shanower’s two graphic novels, Age of Bronze—the background story of the Trojan War? He strikes a good balance between bang-pow action and ordinary life. And they’re really handsome.
Sounds good. Sf writers often have to invent and detail advanced technologies for their stories. Your communication device, the ansible, was so good it was adopted in variation by other sf writers. Too bad you couldn’t patent it! But were you thinking at all of Joseph Licklider and the ARPANET—the original internet—when you invented the ansible in 1966?
One of the things I like about sf is the way ideas get borrowed and played with—the way musicians have always riffed off each other. I wouldn’t patent the ansible. I get a kick out of meeting it in somebody else’s universe! And I didn’t know beans about the ARPANET. I just had to have a faster-than-light communication system so people light years apart could talk to each other, so I had my physicist invent it for me.
I watched the Studio Ghibli anime of Tales From Earthsea—well, half of it. I thought it was pretty crappy but haven’t exactly worked out why. Then there was the Sci Fi Channel’s Earthsea series. Your opinion?
About the Sci Fi Channel travesty and the Studio Ghibli exploitation of Earthsea, I’ve written a good deal, which you can find on my website, so can I not repeat it here? I’ll just say this: Both films have only a superficial connection to the books, and both are quite stupid, though the Ghibli anime has some fine artwork.
I wrote a screenplay of the first two books of Earthsea with Michael Powell, who did Peeping Tom and Black Narcissus, in the 70s. Francis Ford Coppola was backing Michael then, and we tried hard to sell the screenplay, but the big studios were scared of Michael, either because he was old or because he had a reputation for shocking audiences. And none of them at that point had the dimmest idea of what fantasy is or how to film it. They treated us like we were lice.
Wow, you and Michael Powell. Perfect pairing, actually.
Michael pursued me for months, wanting to make an Earthsea movie, which I didn’t want, until finally I agreed to meet him. Then of course I fell in love with him. Most women did. He was a genius, and a lovely man. Working on the screenplay with him was a ball—and a whole education in screenwriting.
Have there been any worthy adaptations of your novels to the screen?
The only good adaptation to film I’ve had so far is the 1980 Lathe of Heaven from PBS. It’s still available on DVD. It was made on a budget that wouldn’t pay for the hairdressers’ doughnuts these days, but the screenplay’s adequate, the directing is intelligent, the acting is super, and the special effects are really something else. Like, the spaceships are lighted Frisbees, being hurled into the air by Ed Emshwiller’s son. I love it.
I have a friend who’s very into sf literature but won’t watch an sf movie. Snobby, or would you agree that the form doesn’t work well on film?
I’d send him to Brother From Another Planet, maybe? I love that movie. So many directors don’t understand or respect the book they’re working from, or, like Spielberg, don’t want to get beyond childish wish fulfillment, or they confuse sf with special effects and can’t match the effects the author’s words make happen inside your own head when you read.
No, they can’t. But why is that? Why do science-fiction ideas and narratives lend themselves so well to such old technologies as writing and reading?
Because the theater inside your head is just so much bigger and better equipped and has more up-to-date special effects than any studio in Hollywood.
Your father was the estimable anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. Was he an influence?
I’ve used a lot of anthropological themes in my work and stolen lots of excellent ideas, though I’ve never studied anthropology methodically. I’d say I have certain interests my father had, and my mind works in certain ways his mind worked, which is probably heredity as much as influence. But he thought in facts and I think in fiction. He liked fantasy, by the way, the little there was back then: Dunsany, Eddison. I think he’d have liked Tolkien.
Your books have fascinating takes on castes, slavery, and racial conflict. Do you think we’ll eventually evolve past those limitations? I guess I’m wondering if you see yourself in any way as utopian.
I wrote two utopias. The Dispossessed takes place on another planet, where an emissary from earth describes it as hopelessly polluted, ruined by human greed and aggression. In Always Coming Home, earth was damaged the same way, but it’s set in the very far future, after the planet has mostly recovered and the human species has, perhaps, altered its nature slightly through natural selection—evolved past our present limitations, as you say—though that’s not certain. So I guess even if I write utopias I’m not a utopian. I try to hope. I can’t say much more than that.
What’s your take on magical realism? Where would you put it in relation to sf?
I think magical realism was invented to describe a certain kind of Latin American fiction—like García Márquez—at a certain period, when it was a useful term. Since then it’s been slung around so loosely it doesn’t mean anything in particular to me. I’ve written a lot that could be called magical realist—like all my Orsinian stories—but does calling them that explain much about them? It could be useful to call them that, though, because magical realism is considered literature, and so people who think sf or fantasy is subliterary might read them without losing their respectability. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be the cause of anybody losing their respectability.
The book that many consider your masterpiece, The Left Hand of Darkness, describes a planet of a-gendered humans. They become male or female for only a few days in every lunar cycle.
Four or five days. Like a menstrual period. And wow, they’re a lively four or five days!
That narrative conceit is not the central one in the book...
Well, it’s pretty near the center.
Your exploration of it is so up-to-date, it’s astonishing.
Thank you. It was fun.
Have you known transgendered or hermaphroditic people in your life?
The Left Hand of Darkness dates from 1968. Was “transgendered” even a word then? If I knew any intergender people—and no doubt I did but didn’t know it—they weren’t telling. It was a different world. Things people can take for granted now were considered unspeakable, or criminal, or imaginary. I asked a very nice doctor friend to read the book and tell me if he thought my Gethenians were physiologically possible. He read it and said, “Yes, this would be possible. But it is troubling, it is disgusting.” But let’s not feel all that superior to him now in our enlightened wisdom. How many states can a homosexual couple get married in? How many hermaphrodites live in the closet our society shuts them up in, the gender it forces on them?
How do you keep the immense scale of the books from wobbling out of control in your head? The sheer intensity of it would cause me to dream constantly of the alien worlds I’d created.
I’m a writer. My imagination works most actively and vividly in my writing, and the imagining and planning of it. I kind of live there, in the story, while it’s coming to be.
Yes, but for the Hainish Cycle of books you invented over 80 different inhabited worlds, each with its own cultures and physics...
No, no, thank you for saying so, Steve, but if I really had, I would admire myself tremendously. I would be in awe of my own staggeringly great mind. What I did was give the illusion of there being all those different worlds. That’s called art, or fiction, or something. The rule is, you only invent what you have to. And that’s pretty much what’s right in front of the reader. Let’s say it’s an ansible. I do not, in fact, invent the ansible. I do not explain how it works. I cannot, but shhh. I simply present the device as working, and as coming from a society which is far in advance of ours in science and technology, having spaceships that can travel nearly as fast as light, et cetera. And this background or context creates expectation and softens up the readers’ credulity so that they’re willing to “believe in” the ansible—inside the covers of the book. After the ansible had been around for a while, I invented the man who invented it, Shevek, in The Dispossessed. And he and I played around with some pretty neat speculations about time and interval and stuff, which lent more plausibility to the gimmick itself. But all I really invented was a) the idea of an instantaneous transmitter and b) a name for it. The reader does the rest. If you give them enough background/context, they can fill in the gaps. It isn’t just smoke and mirrors. There has to be a coherent vision of how things hang together in that society/culture/world. All the details have to fit together and be thought through as to their implications. But, well... it’s mostly smoke and mirrors. What else is any fiction?