Ursula K. Le Guin: An Introduction (1988)
by David Bratman
Reprinted from Mythprint, May 1988
No author, certainly not a prolific one, ever stands still in her work while she yet lives. And categories, genres, maps of mental landscapes -- like this one -- are only useful so long as they remain accurate descriptions of their subject. When the landscape changes, as it will, the map which we make of it should also change. This introduction to the work of Ursula K. Le Guin was written in 1988, in preparation for her appearance as Guest of Honor at Mythcon that summer. Le Guin wrote much after 1988, and much of what she wrote has retrospectively changed our view of what she had written before. This article could not be updated: it would have to be rewritten from scratch. But it seemed satisfactory at the time, so I present it here with these caveats.
-- David Bratman, October 2001/January 2018
Ursula K. Le Guin is a writer who transcends genre, yet she does not shrink from using genre labels to describe her works. This apparent paradox is resolved by the fact that she has mastered several genres, and even created one or two of her own. A writer who can move freely between categories need have no fear of being pinned down to only one.
Le Guin is usually identified as a science fiction writer, for the simple reason that her first published books were SF, and it was in that field that she made her name as a writer. Unlike most SF writers, though, she did not feel bound to the genre. "You must either fit a category, or 'have a name', to publish a book in America," she writes in her autobiographical essay "A Citizen of Mondath" (in The Language of the Night), and explains that, as a beginning writer in the early 1960s, she chose science fiction as a category to fit that was congenial to her and that she had some interest in, without committing herself to write it permanently. After 1974, with her Name made and with the freedom to write whatever she wanted, she found that she had nothing more she wished to say about outer space. She has been charged with abandoning SF for the siren call of the mainstream literary elite, but I believe that's a distortion of the facts. In truth, Le Guin's success as an SF writer freed her to publish what she had really wanted to write all along.
Ursula Le Guin has been invited as Guest of Honor at Mythcon XIX to honor her achievement as a writer of fantasy, but in her case -- as with the Inklings in whose honor the Mythopoeic Society was founded -- it is perhaps best to think of "fantasy" not as a genre that some of her works fit, but as a mode of writing that characterizes most of her works, whatever their genre. What she has been searching for throughout her writing career has been a "distancing from the ordinary" (to quote her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie"). This usually expresses itself in her works in the creation of a place different from our ordinary reality, and the sinking of roots deep into it, so that this place lives and breathes, and commands the Secondary Belief that is the highest achievement of the mode of the fantastic in literature. Some of Le Guin's places -- as in Always Coming Home or the tales of Orsinia -- are closely tied in some form to our Primary World; others -- as in the Hainish SF stories -- are distant planets. In either case, Le Guin stands more firmly on the soil she writes about than does any other author I know.
Le Guin's writings speak with a consistent voice. The strong sense of place is one constant in her works; there are others which are more controversial. I believe they can (and should) be defended, though, and as I come not to bury Le Guin but to praise her, a little defense seems justified.
For one thing, Le Guin's writings have a static, at times motionless, quality. Some of her best-known short stories, such as "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," are not really stories at all, but word pictures of a single situation -- ficciones, as Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote many such pieces, called them. Even Le Guin's larger works have something of this static quality. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai interrupts his narrative to give us native myths and an anthropological report. Always Coming Home is filled with stories, some of them quite eventful, but when put together the contents form a static mosaic picture of the culture they describe. There are several sources, I think, for the motionlessness in Le Guin's works: her sense of places as being, which is so strong as sometimes to exclude a sense of time as passing; the example of Lord Dunsany, whose short stories -- some of which are also ficciones -- were among Le Guin's earliest literary loves; and the influence of the Tao, a philosophy which teaches "Do only what is necessary," and which holds stillness as a virtue. (Archmage Ged in The Farthest Shore, who watches much and does little, embodies this principle.) Eleanor Arnason, at a panel on Le Guin at this year's Minicon, suggested a resemblance between Le Guin's style and the even tone of French classical literature (Le Guin has an M.A. in French). Readers used to stories in which the plot is the thing may find themselves a little off-balance when encountering something by Le Guin, but I think that adjusting one's expectations is worth the effort for the rewards it brings.
Le Guin is often accused of being a didactic writer. This is partially true. She does have something to say, and does not shrink from saying it. Normally the moral elements in her works are quietly expressed, but there is one subject -- a thoughtless threat to the ecological balance -- that is capable, in The Word for World is Forest and "Pandora Converses with the Archivist" from Always Coming Home, of rousing her to real anger. But I think it's a mistake to accuse her of being didactic in the true sense -- of writing her works for the purpose of preaching to her audience. C.S. Lewis has been similarly accused of writing didactic fiction, but he insisted that he had no such conscious intent. His works came out the way they did because the beliefs in the core of his soul expressed themselves that way in his fiction. "The only moral that is of any value," Lewis once wrote, "is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author's mind." Le Guin's message is very different from Lewis's, but I expect she would agree with this principle.
Since her first short novel appeared 22 years ago, Ursula K. Le Guin has published nearly thirty books. For those with only a passing acquaintance with her writings, I offer the following short overview of her oeuvre, a sketch map of the lands which Le Guin has explored.
Le Guin has written four novels which fit the conventional definition of fantasy -- wizards and magical lands and all that good stuff. The first three of these form the "Earthsea trilogy". This is not, as with The Lord of the Rings or Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle of Stars, a single novel in three volumes, but a trilogy in the older sense of separate independent stories which are richer when read together. They recount three portions of the life of Ged (not Jed, or, as one critic once typo'd it, God), the greatest wizard in the history of the archipelago of Earthsea. A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book, begins as a straight-forward attempt by the author to tell a story of a young wizard receiving his training; along the way it transforms into a more psychological story of self-discovery. The Tombs of Atuan goes further afield: the protagonist is a young woman shut up in a cave as priestess to the Nameless Ones of Atuan, and Ged is her rescuer from this living death. The Farthest Shore is the most complex of the books. Ged, in his maturity as Archmage, and a young companion go on a quest to learn the reason that magic is failing all over Earthsea. Le Guin has described it as a book "about death ... the thing you do not live through and survive," which is why of the three it is the least simple and most distant.
Earthsea is a splendidly depicted world, and Ged a sharply defined character. The Earthsea books were published as "Young Adult" novels, but like all the best YA's, they can be read with pleasure by adults as well.
The Beginning Place is Le Guin's other genre fantasy novel. At first glance the premise might seem even more conventional than A Wizard of Earthsea's, but as with the earlier book the author has something else in mind. There are plenty of fantasy novels about young people who discover gateways into fantasy worlds, but The Beginning Place is one of the few such written for adults, and it's the only one I know of where the focus is not on the fantasy land but on the gateway itself (hence the title); but the true interest of the book is on the effect of the journey on the protagonists. The Beginning Place is one of the few novels I return to frequently; and I always find myself as refreshed and enriched after a reading as Hugh and Irene do after their visits to the Ain Country.
And then there is Always Coming Home, which is in a class by itself. In my opinion it is Le Guin's masterwork to date, and it's certainly the largest book she's ever published. No essay on Le Guin would be complete without mentioning the anthropological approach and aesthetic she brings to her work (and her noble pedigree as the daughter of Alfred and Theodora Kroeber), and Always Coming Home is the best illustration of this. It is, quite simply, a work of fictional anthropology: a case study of a small tribe called the Kesh. It's a thorough study of their lives, customs, and beliefs -- all aspects of their existence, from their diets to their spiritual rituals, and it does not spare the anthropologist's personal observations. The focus of the book is on the literary art and music of the Kesh, so there are generous helpings of their literature: stories, nonfiction, drama, and poetry; and the hardcover and trade paperback editions contain a cassette (which is also available separately) of field recordings of Kesh poetry and music. The overall effect is of a mosaic portrait that enables the reader to get to know this civilization as intimately as an outside observer can. The only difference between this work and any other first-rate anthropological portrait is that the Kesh do not exist in the primary world: they are a people who "might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California." The wealth of detail and firm foundations that Le Guin has provided are the subcreator's art at its finest.
In the earlier years of Le Guin's professional writing career, the bulk of her output was science fiction. These works share the aesthetics and characteristics of her fantasy within a different genre. Between 1966 and 1978 Le Guin published eight SF novels, six of which fit into a loose future history called the Hainish or Ekumen series. Hain is the planet which in the series is identified as the original home of humanity; from which humans originally came in the distant past, seeding other planets, including Earth, with genetic variations on themselves. The Ekumen (also called the League of All Worlds) is an interplanetary U.N. which has grown up in later days to foster communication between the planets of humanity. This premise allows Le Guin to set stories on planets that vary greatly from each other, while maintaining a connection and sense of unity among the books.
The first three Hainish novels, the earliest books in the Le Guin canon, are very short works, and are romances rather than novels, a bit reminiscent of Andre Norton. Rocannon's World is the adventures of a League ethnologist exploring a new planet; Planet of Exile combines a love story with the problems of a civilization surviving in a hostile environment; and City of Illusions is the quest of a man searching for both his own identity and for an understanding of the Shing, the mysterious aliens who have invaded Earth. The Word for World is Forest is also fairly short, but was written some years later in a strikingly unromantic style: it recounts the attempted despoiling of a forest planet by a rapacious pre-Ekumenical Earth colonial expedition.
The remaining two Hainish books are full-length novels; they are also the works that made Le Guin's reputation as a writer. The Left Hand of Darkness is, like Rocannon's World, an account of an embassy to a Hainish planet that knows not the Ekumen, but it is a much superior work. Not only is it richer in detail and storytelling, but for all the variety of the inhabitants of Rocannon's world, the Gethenians in Left Hand are simply a creation of genius. The Gethenians are the famous science fictional aliens who are neuter except when they come into heat (kemmer), which they can experience as both male and female at different times. Le Guin's interest is in how these biological facts affect the Gethenian culture. She tells the story through the eyes of a sensitive Earth envoy, Genly Ai, who, while conducting delicate diplomatic negotiations with the local governments, comes to know and love the people of this world. As with the Kesh in Always Coming Home, the Gethenians are vividly and carefully described.
The Dispossessed is, like Left Hand, a thought experiment, but one of a political rather than biological nature. The main character, Shevek, like so many of Le Guin's protagonists, is a traveler, an envoy. He is a physicist who has left his home world, a poor, dessicated planet with an anarchist government, to open communications with its sister planet, which is rich, green, and capitalist. Interspersed between the chapters describing his visit to Urras are others recounting his life up to the point he decides to leave Anarres. Though Anarres is a working anarchy, it is not a perfect utopia: Le Guin has a fine eye for describing how such a civilization would (and would not) work. In the chapters describing his visit, Shevek serves as a discomforting foil for the Urrasti, whose civilization is disturbingly similar to our own.
Of Le Guin's other two SF novels, The Eye of the Heron fits well with the Hainish books, being a story of competition and conflicting loyalties in the colonization of a new planet; but The Lathe of Heaven is entirely different. It is Le Guin's homage to Philip K. Dick, science fiction's master of reality shifts, and deals with a man in near-future Portland whose dreams can retroactively change reality. His psychiatrist tries to control these dreams to build a better world than the one the story starts in, but dreams, as students of their lore can tell you, are not so easily controlled. These manipulations lead to unexpected results: like The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven is in part a comment on human relations and society.
One unique work of Le Guin's may best fit here: King Dog, her only published screenplay. Though Le Guin hoped while writing it that it might actually be produced, it was really written as a screenplay for the mind's eye. King Dog takes place in a Bronze Age country on a planet which might be Earth; it begins with the arrival of an extraterrestrial observer, who might be an Ekumen envoy, but the real subject of the story is the wise king, Ashthera, who befriends the observer. At one point Ashthera compares himself with a dog; like one he is more at home living simply and unpretentiously than in royal luxury, and he is far happier as a guerilla warrior fighting to regain his kingdom than he ever was ruling it. The plot is largely based on elements from the Mahabharata, a national epic poem of India.
Le Guin has published four short story collections. The first, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, "is what painters call a retrospective": 17 SF and fantasy stories, in roughly chronological order, from the first ten years of Le Guin's career as a published writer. The book includes four stories set in the Hainish universe, as well as the two short stories that were the first glimpse of Earthsea. The contents also include "April in Paris," Le Guin's first published SF story, a charmingly offbeat time-travel fantasy; and her undoubtable masterpieces in short fiction, "Direction of the Road" and "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," which I need not describe if you've read them, and should not if you haven't.
The second collection, The Compass Rose, contains twenty more recent stories. Many are SF, and the reader can sense Le Guin's interest in the genre moving from the open romanticism of the earlier parts of The Wind's Twelve Quarters towards a neat and often corrosive satire, in stories like "SQ," a sendup of utopian futures in which we are all healthy, happy, and sane; and "Intracom," which begins as a parody of Star Trek but soon turns into something quite different. "The Pathways of Desire" is another story which stands out: it is not a satire, but a subtle, iconoclastic SF story directed at people who are too occupied with dreams of imaginary worlds. It is the non-SF stories which occupy about a third of The Compass Rose which are the more sympathetic, romantic, and human works.
The third collection, Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences, is more of a potpourri, containing four new stories, seven reprinted ones from the first two collections, and a lot of poetry. There is a unifying theme, sort of -- the stories and poems are all about animals. (Or plants, or rocks, actually.) The title story, "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight," is a delicate account of a small girl, the survivor of a plane crash, who is cared for by the animal spirits of the desert. Another story, "May's Lion," is an outtake from Always Coming Home.
The fourth collection, Orsinian Tales, is something different yet again. Instead of being an assortment, these tales are linked together by their setting; and the book is a return to Le Guin's roots as a writer. Before she turned to science fiction in the desire to get published, Le Guin had written some short stories (one of which was published in 1961) and four unpublished novels "set in an invented though nonfantastic Central European country" named Orsinia. Orsinian Tales collects eleven of the short stories (including the 1961 one, though others may have been written more recently), set at various times in Orsinian history: a small gallery of portraits of the people living there. There is also now a published Orsinian novel, Malafrena, set in the mid-19th century, concerning a revolutionarily-minded student (Orsinia is at this time part of the Austrian Empire) and his relations with his family.
The Language of the Night is Le Guin's only non-fiction book. It contains 24 speeches and essays on fantasy and SF, mostly from the personal viewpoint, so that their main value is in what they reveal of the author's own beliefs and views. Several concern her own books, work habits, and personal history as a writer; a short piece on Tolkien, "The Staring Eye," is an expression of Le Guin's personal feelings about The Lord of the Rings. The most famous essay in the collection, "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," has become somewhat controversial among those who like the sort of fantasy that Le Guin here finds wanting. The essay is a simple and straightforward statement that the most important aspect of fantasy writing is the style; that great fantasy has "the genuine Elfland accent," and that authors whose books, though set in Elfland, sound "as if they were back in Poughkeepsie" are writing something which in truth "is not fantasy, for all its equipment of heroes and wizards." I would set this essay next to Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories" in its importance to the genre. Between them, Tolkien and Le Guin have the last word on what fantasy is, or should be.
In recent years, Le Guin's writing has been turning towards miniature forms. Always Coming Home, for all its length, is made up mostly of very short pieces. And her other newest books are mostly poetry collections and children's picture books. She has had three poetry collections to date: Wild Angels; Hard Words, which includes two short cycles, "The Well of Baln," which is vaguely Orsinian, and "Walking in Cornwall"; and Wild Oats and Fireweed, which includes a short cycle on the eruption of Mount St. Helens, as well as poem originally published in Mythlore 50.
Le Guin has published one Young Adult novel besides the Earthsea books: Very Far Away From Anywhere Else, the little-known gem of her oeuvre, a non-fantasy story on the theme of friendship, written with extraordinary care and sympathy. She has also published one picture book for small children, Leese Webster, illustrated by James Brunsman, the tale of an artistic spider a bit shyer than E.B. White's Charlotte. Three more picture books are on the way, all due to be published this year: A Visit From Dr. Katz, illustrated by Ann Barrow; Catwings, illustrated by S.D. Schindler; and Solomon Leviathan's Nine Hundred and Thirty-First Trip Around the World, illustrated by Alicia Austin. All, like Leese Webster, are about animals; the subjects of the first two should be obvious, and Solomon Leviathan is the same whale who is prominent in the Book of Jonah and Pinocchio.
There are several critical studies of Le Guin's work; the most readable and comprehensive recent study is Ursula K. Le Guin by Charlotte Spivack (Twayne trade pb), which I would recommend to those who wish to read more on the background to, influences on, and relations between Le Guin's works.