Of all the things I thought I would be writing about today, this is not one of them. Of course I knew she was unwell. Of course I knew how old she was. Of course I know all journeys end.
Still, the impact of such endings can dislodge and shock. Because it is difficult to envisage the world continuing with such an absence.
Unlike others, I have read relatively little of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work. The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, Wizard of Earthsea, The Word For World Is Forest, The Left Hand Of Darkness…a handful of others, short stories. Enough to start a long change in trajectory for my own work and, more importantly, in my apprehension of this thing we do called “science fiction.”
So I want to talk about that instead of reviewing a biography and a bibliography others will more ably do.
Le Guin never wrote the expected. She published in the magazines, her novels came out with the SF label on the spine, some of the covers suggested that a reader might find something like all the rest of the books around them inside. And indeed there was that—interstellar settings, outré physics, aliens, exotic locations. But then there were the bits that refused to sustain the standard pattern.
“I didn’t know Fomalhaut II had all those people besides the trogs,” said Kethro, the curator.
“I didn’t either. There are even some ‘Unconfirmed’ species listed here, that they never contacted. Sounds like time for a more thorough survey mission to the place. Well, now at least we know what she is.”
“I wish there were some way of knowing who she is…”
Early in the pages of Rocannon’s World we read that exchange and it is a promise and warning that what will follow, for decades, was all about learning who we are. Le Guin took the potential of what we call science fiction to unbury the many selves of sentient life and hold not one but many mirrors up to us. To tell us, over and over again, that who we are is more important than what. That sounds banal, certainly, because after all, isn’t all fiction about that?
Of course, but not in ways that can delineate the artificial from the organic, the applied from the emergent, the structural from the holistic the way science fiction does. Too many things are too often taken for granted, left unexamined and therefore unquestioned, in most literature, and we’re left with portraits that, while often insightful and clear, go only so far in examining the limitations of selfhood, of identity, of the ramifications of social, biological, and technological fabrics that comprise context.
Read The Dispossessed and you see this potential in full flower.
But it is a constant throughout her work. It might be said that her work was always concerned with the problems of self-expression in relation to dynamic systems, be they natural, technological, political—in fact, all three as an amalgam. The interconnections between the self and the community drove her narratives, and intentionally or not she sought balance. (I think intentionally, oh yes, fully.)
Much has been written and debated about the impact of the Sixties on, well, everything, but within SF in particular it seemed to have been a period of enormous ferment, regeneration, and experimentation. Most of it was ephemeral and soon vanished from memory, as with almost all SF in any given period. Le Guin entered the field with all the appearances of a writer of the Old School, but there was something going on in her work that, quietly and irresistibly, infected what came after. She exemplified, through her writing, the euphemism “the personal is political.”
Getting to know another, really knowing them, is a supremely political act. It changes everything. Its changes you, them, the context in which this discovery occurs. Being open to such knowing is to be vulnerable, and that leads to unknown possibilities. If all we look for in others is what we already have, then we never know them, and so we preserve ourselves against the possibility of change, of growth, of the pleasures of otherness. That, too, is a deeply political act, the choice to not look, to not know.
To not see.
The Left Hand Of Darkness is entirely involved in this kind of seeing. It is a story of blindnesses and veils and the necessity of seeing anew.
After Le Guin, it is impossible to understand science fiction as less than the most deeply political of literary forms.
It is also impossible to dismiss it as nonliterary. In Le Guin, the range of possible ways of seeing others is expanded beyond any probable comfort zone. She expanded her vision so much that the boundaries that had kept SF neatly barracked cracked and fell open. Oh, certainly she was not the only one, but her assault on the limits of literary convention were all the more effective because they were so pleasurable to read, and once read, impossible to forget. Her work altered your perspective.
After Le Guin, there is no going back to previous standards.
After Le Guin, it is impossible to pretend that change can be forestalled, that the world is complete, that the self and the community can be kept apart to mutual benefit, that politics is ignorable, that others are not us.
After Le Guin, really, the universe is bigger, richer, livelier, more dangerous…and not at all what we might wish to expect.
She was amazing. She amazed.