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THE DEATH of Ursula K Le Guin on January 22 prompted elegiac tributes from critics, fellow authors and an assortment of activists — feminists, anarchists, socialists and environmental campaigners.
The diversity of Le Guin’s appeal is extraordinary, but so too is the paradox at the heart of her reputation.
She was a writer celebrated for highlighting the iniquities, horrors and dangers of the way we live now and for exploring alternative forms of social and political organisation.
When the US National Book Foundation honoured her contribution to literature in 2014, her award acceptance speech celebrated the positive potential of creative writing. “Hard times are coming when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being,” she said.
But Le Guin had firm views about the separateness of the creative process. In an interview a decade earlier, she declared: “[People] can read Kant and Schopenhauer if they want speculation. I am an artist, I write stories not treatises. I am not fully in control of, and do not seek control of, my stories.”
The loosely connected books of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle have done most to establish her reputation as a writer of thoughtful and provocative science fiction and fantasy. The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969, one of the earliest novels to be recognised as feminist science fiction, centres on a diplomatic mission to bring the Gethen planet system to join a coalition of humanoid worlds.
The envoy Genly Ai struggles to understand Gethenian culture, not least because its people are ambisexual. Some feminist commentators disliked the casting of ambisexual characters in traditional male roles and others were disappointed by the assumption of heterosexual norms.
But the book offers a sharp critique of masculinity and explores the theory that gender divisions cause sexual aggression and foster a hunger for war. Le Guin’s assertion that she “eliminated gender to find out what was left” is at odds with the idea that she relinquished control of her narratives because it implies she worked in a self-consciously political way.
Another Hainish book, The Dispossessed of 1974, offers a searing critique of capitalism and proposes a form of anarchist-communism as a potential alternative.
The story is set on two worlds, Urras and Anarres. Urras is rich in resources but its wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few. It is dominated by competing states, one based on patriarchal capitalism, the other on authoritarian parties that claim to rule in the name of the proletariat.
Anarres, on the other hand, is a harsher and economically poorer world with a social structure based on Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid.
Le Guin, who expressed her enthusiasm for Kropotkin in her non-fiction writing, was too subtle a writer to present a one-sided argument in The Dispossessed. The governmental systems of Urras are not portrayed as one-dimensionally malevolent while the limitations of life on Anarres are presented warts and all.
The key character, Shevek, is a physicist whose career is limited because his beliefs are out of step with his society’s prevailing orthodoxies. His work is further affected by an obligation to perform manual labour when Anarres faces a natural disaster.
None of the political options Le Guin sets out is perfect, hence the book’s subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia, but it is clear that she sees egalitarian and stateless societies, based on mutual aid and collective responsibility, as preferable to capitalist systems based on systems of command and control.
Le Guin’s writing is crammed with speculation about utopianism, sex, sexual politics, anthropology, religion and the misuse of power. Interesting obsessions for a writer who suggested readers should not look to her writing for speculation.
The Word for World is Forest (1976) is an allegorical take on the US involvement in Vietnam and its critique of colonialism, militarism and environmental destruction is more relevant than ever in the context of Donald Trump’s presidency.
In The Telling (2000), Le Guin rejected a purely materialist analysis of human relations in favour of striking a balance between traditional spiritual wisdom and the benefits of technological development.
The Earthsea cycle, a classic of children’s literature, has much to say on the responsible use of power and, as far as I can remember, 1972's The Wizard of Earthsea was the first book I read with a non-white lead character.
In her later years, perhaps inspired by creeping fascism in US politics and her fears for the environment, Le Guin reaffirmed the social responsibility of artists. “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings,” she declared.
“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art and, very often in our art, the art of words.”
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