Taking Politics to Another World
Ursula K. Le Guin on science fiction, capitalism and forgiveness
For many people, science fiction conjures up images of obsessive, geeky fans dressed up as starship officers of television programs set in space. This negative association is not entirely undeserved. Most of what passes for sci-fi, these days, amounts to thinly veiled cowboy stories in space, with all the problematic colonial, racist and gendered distinctions that also accompany westerns. But there is, and has always been, a decidedly political side to science fiction. This has ranged from the right-wing libertarianism of Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers, 1959) to the reform liberalism of Isaac Asimov (I, Robot, 1950) to the futuristic socialism of Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, 1974).
Why do some creative people take their political discussions beyond our world and into space? What can such works of art tell us about our political struggles right now? In a 1975 introduction to her groundbreaking novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin argued that science fiction is not really about some place somewhere else. Instead, it’s about us – right here, right now. Science fiction can offer us a powerful way to reflect on our present political difficulties, to denaturalize what seems obvious and normal, to see our problems in new ways, and – perhaps – push our discussions in new directions.
To give us greater insight into the potential intersection of science fiction and politics, Canadian Dimension decided to interview a number of politicized SF writers. In this issue, we kick off the series with Ursula K. Le Guin.
Ursula K. Le Guin has been publishing novels and short stories in both the science fiction and fantasy genres since the 1960s. The Left Hand of Darkness, the groundbreaking novel on gender and sexuality that Le Guin wrote in 1969, has probably garnered more academic scrutiny than any other story in science fiction. The Dispossessed, published in 1974, garnered inordinate attention from the Left for its startling evocation of the potential and possible limits of an anarchist socialist society surrounded by state capitalist and state socialist alternatives. More recent works like The Telling, Four Ways to Forgiveness and Changing Planes have continued to focus on questions of oppression in its multiple forms of class, race, gender and sexuality – and the struggles against them.
Canadian Dimension: In your 1976 introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness you say that “science fiction is not predictive, it is descriptive.” What are the issues you are most focused on describing today?
Ursula K. Le Guin: Well, I haven’t written any genuine science fiction since The Telling, in which issues of governmental and religious control of information are fairly central. The “idea” – the emotional impetus for the book – came from my belated realization that Chairman Mao had all but obliterated the millennial religious practice of Taoism from within half a generation. I used that monstrous fact as a model for my entirely invented story – but I should never have said so, as saying so seems to lead people to think or say that the story is about China, or Communism, or the religion of Taoism, or philosophical Taoism – which, of course, it isn’t.
Changing Planes is partly science fiction – at least it uses the trappings – and some of the stories do have issues at their heart, I suppose. But their “description” tends to be ironical or satiric.
The Telling, and my fantasy trio – Gifts, Voices, Powers (the last volume to be published this year) – are book-centred books. What does it mean to respect or disrespect books? What is “book learning”? How do the spoken and the written word interact? What is the importance of a library? … Now, on the verge of the material written word being hugely augmented and partly replaced by the more ephemeral electronic word, it seemed a good time to look back at what writing is, what the book has meant.
Updating The Left Hand of Darkness
CD: On The Left Hand of Darkness, how would that “description” articulated in 1969 give way to a different description of gender or sexuality today?
UKL: In 1995 I published a long story called “Coming of Age in Karhide” (reprinted in my collection, The Birthday of the World), which, as it were, updates Left Hand. The narrator, a native, allowed me to dwell on all kinds of things I had figured out about the Gethenians in the course of absorbing New Feminist critiques of it in the seventies, and writing screenplays of the book in the eighties, and just thinking about it over the years.
With that story, I probably said what I have to say about Gethen. I believe people under 75 should be in charge of talking about sex and gender. Most of us over 75 have other, often more pressing issues.
CD: What “description” was The Dispossessed aimed at capturing? Do the tensions in this novel still capture the tensions across the Left today?
UKL: The obvious, current-time descriptive elements in Dispossessed are Urras as Earth and A-Io as Capitalism (with a hint of 1980s Communist and Third World countries elsewhere). More on the predictive order is the description of Earth as a destroyed environment – dead oceans, global warming, etc.
The Left tendency to fragment off, leaving a seemingly monolithic Right – reflected in the book – seems unabated today; but I wonder if the old debate between Communism and Anarchism may have changed its tone with the death of the U.S.S.R.?
CD: Many commentators have noted the traditional gender bias between “hard” and “soft” SF. Is this changing? Is there a marketing bias toward hard SF?
UKL: I’m not the person to ask about it, since I have never seen the “hard/soft” distinction satisfactorily defined. If it ever had a meaning, it has by now (like the phrase “politically correct”) been degraded into a mere cover-up for an unadmitted value judgment. I don’t know what the gender bias is. It certainly has nothing to do with the gender of the author. If there is a marketing bias, it looks to me as if it’s towards the kind of SF favoured by adolescent boys. That might have less to do with gender than with age, geekism and a demand for drastic, universal solutions, inculcated by media violence, electronic games and organized religion.
The Question of High Technology
CD: A great deal of SF is focused on technology in both its catastrophic and utopian visions. Your work avoids this duality. How then would you characterize the promise or problem of technology?
UKL: Arrrrrrr – please, can we say “high technology” when we mean high technology? As an anthropologist’s daughter, I have to point out that we probably had technology before we had language. The sticks that female chimpanzees have been seen to collect and use to skewer small prey animals are a chimpanzee technology. The use of these weapons is learned and passed between generations, a basic definition of a technology. We primates are so clever.
So, what do you want me to say about the promise and problem of sticks? You can kill with sticks. You can dig with them and plant seeds in the holes. You can build houses with them. You can scratch your back with one, and then put out your enemy’s eye with it. Somewhere in here, morality enters in….
I know, as anybody who listens has known for fifty years, that a successful technology does not destroy the environment, but that our current growth-dependent high technology is leading only to disaster. My two utopian novels don’t avoid the catastrophic high-tech scenario; they just have the horror happen offstage, like Greek tragedy – far away, in Dispossessed, and long ago, in Always Coming Home, long enough that the Earth, freed of human overpopulation, has been able to repair a good deal of the ruin. Always Coming Home is utopian in that it attempts to describe what a successful “climax” technology might be like.
CD: In The Telling, the main character seems caught between the seeming promises and costs of both modernity and tradition. Is this our current left dilemma – how to sustain tradition without sacrificing the benefits of modernity?
UKL: Perhaps it is rather a matter of putting a severe brake on the unthinking pursuit of the apparent benefits of modernity? Whether tradition can do that, I don’t know. The use of reason would seem a better means, but we don’t like to use reason very much.
The people I respect most in North America are Indians, particularly the Pueblo Indians, such as the Zuni and Hopi, who have – under relentless pressure to “acculturate” – kept their traditions alive. They have mostly taken only what they saw as morally safe to take from the great, big goody-box of industrial capitalism. That is extraordinary, exemplary. The price of it, of course, has been bitter poverty.
CD: The Telling seems very rooted in indigenous traditions of oral history. How have you been influenced by indigenous traditions?
UKL: Just stray reading, bricolage. No real research, no scholarly knowledge.
CD: Many of the consistent themes in your work – environment, sexuality, the value of indigenous knowledges – have now risen in prominence in progressive circles. Do you feel you were ahead of the curve on these issues?
UKL: Yes, I do.
CD: What issues are you grappling with now that you think progressives should give a higher priority?
UKL: The issues that worry me most have become so immediately urgent and are all so totally interrelated – environmental degradation, human overpopulation, corporate-industrial capitalism – that I can’t even say I’m grappling with them. Is it useful to say that progressives should give the recent history of the city of New Orleans high priority in their thinking? I hope it is. Hope dies hard.
CD: Changing Planes seems to focus on the challenges of communication. The characters find themselves in situations they don’t understand – but nonetheless appear to be drawn toward what they don’t understand. What most writers pose as a problem, you appear to pose as an opportunity. Is this more “description” or encouragement?
UKL: Shaw would have called it the “Life Force.” Look at kittens, or kids: they are always in situations they don’t understand, but can’t get out of – so, they explore them. Mainly, I suppose, it’s just a reflection of my temperament. I never read a sentence in a foreign language without wishing I could learn that language.
Should a Marxist Forgive?
CD: The stories in Four Ways to Forgiveness reproduce many of the constant themes of your work, particularly the intersecting oppressions of class, gender, race, sexuality, but with more focus on various aspects of forgiveness – of ourselves, our oppressors, our leaders, etc. Where do you see the problem of forgiveness fitting into current left or contemporary politics?
UKL: Now that’s a tough one. Should a Marxist forgive Lenin and Stalin? Should a Jew forgive? Should a Palestinian forgive? Is there such a thing as political forgiveness? Russia and the U.S. haven’t “forgiven” each other all the insults of the Cold War, they’ve just cozied up for whatever they can get out of each other. I think forgiveness is a word without meaning in corporate capitalism.
CD: Oppressive forms of state power figure prominently in your work – particularly states imbued with a zeal for progress – yet the Hainish emissaries appear to represent a more benevolent state. Does this suggest that you think a democratic, non-capitalist state is possible?
UKL: I’d like to. I remember a United States, about the time of Adlai Stevenson, that seemed to be trying to keep at least some of the promises of democracy against the pressures of capitalism. But we didn’t elect Stevenson – and have followed the Eisenhower path ever farther, ever since. That old man had his nerve, warning us about the “dangers of the military-industrial complex” – after eight years of letting them run his government!
As for the Hainish, I wouldn’t trust them, if I were you. The little I know about them, I like – particularly their present culture of concurrent pueblos and cities, regional traditionalists and planet-hopping historians, as described in “A Man of the People.” But perhaps the reason their historians seem so wise and kind is that they are students and inheritors of a cruel, terrible, appalling history.