When I was a young graduate student, I wrote an essay on one of the first short stories Ursula K. Le Guin ever published. It’s a wonderful story about human cloning called “Nine Lives”, which was published in Playboy in 1968. This was the beginning of my adoration for one of the most influential science fiction authors in America.
Publishing in a Male Dominated Industry
My prof asked me to get original page numbers from the Playboy issue, so I went to my university library, where I waited patiently while the library staff retrieved the magazine from closed storage. The librarian asked if he could look too, to see what the pictures were like in a 30-year-old Playboy, so we opened it together, only to find that all the naughty pictures had been cut out.
We joked about some librarian of the past meticulously excising the pictures. I got my page numbers for the story by Ursula K. Le Guin, (which was published under a gender-neutral name, U.K. Le Guin), and returned the magazine.
But years later, when I think back to that excised magazine, I think too of Ursula Le Guin publishing as U.K., hiding her gender.
Hiding the fact to the 1960s readers of Playboy that alongside the women posing for pictures in that magazine was another woman writing science fiction. And wow, what an incredible variety of science fiction Le Guin has produced. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll say right now that Le Guin is one of my all-time favorite writers, and she’s the writer who got me interested in utopia in the first place.
Ursula K. Le Guin as a Teacher
I still remember perfectly the first time I ever saw her speak, in Seattle, in 1998 or 1999 when I was a grad student just dipping a toe into the study of feminist science fiction. She was reading from a new short story collection and the audience was absolutely mesmerized.
After reading, she took as many questions as we could throw at her. She was gracious, funny, knowledgeable, energetic, and absolutely generous. You could see in the way she conducted that reading—and I’ve seen her a few times since always exactly the same—that she’s a natural teacher.
And she’s not only interested in thinking about utopia; she genuinely loves to talk about it, even to people who aren’t especially expert in the field.
I think it’s that openness, that welcoming tone to her work that has made Le Guin such a major force in late-20th– and early-21st-century literature. Her stories and novels have won all the major science fiction awards, but she’s been celebrated far beyond science fiction and fantasy.
She has an impressive number of lifetime achievement awards from societies including the Library of Congress, the American Library Association, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Utopian Studies Society, and the National Book Foundation, and more.
Accepting the Label of Science Fiction
Le Guin has always embraced the label of science fiction, and I think how Le Guin has embraced this category has helped to broaden the notion that science fiction can also be literary fiction. She wrote, in 1974, about the potential of the genre, and I love this quote. Here’s what she wrote. “If science fiction has a major gift to offer literature, I think it is just this: the capacity to face an open universe. Physically open, psychically open. No doors shut.”
“If science fiction has a major gift to offer literature, I think it is just this: the capacity to face an open universe. Physically open, psychically open. No doors shut.”
And that’s very much what Le Guin herself does—approaches various fictional worlds and situations with an open mind, drawing upon disciplines like physics, anthropology, and fine arts, imagining worlds in which people attempt all kinds of strategies of governance, including no governance at all.
She has actually written quite a lot about how science fiction works, with her most famous statement coming, perhaps from the introduction to her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, where she says no matter how far removed it seems from our current situation, science fiction is always descriptive, rather than predictive.
She’s funny about it, too. “The “method and results of fictional prediction much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what might happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation.” It’s so true, isn’t it?
Le Guin doesn’t write horrifying dystopias. But she doesn’t write straightforward utopias, either. This is, after all, the thinker who brought us “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” with the child in the basement paying the price for utopia. And nearly everything she writes—whether science fiction or fantasy, has utopian elements, which means it’s almost impossible to choose what to discuss. But I’ve decided to focus today on two of her best-known utopian works, both from the Hainish Cycle: The Left Hand of Darkness from 1969, and The Dispossessed from 1974.