Yesterday's Tomorrows: Ursula K. Le Guin
by Graham Sleight
from Locus Magazine, October 2008
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (Walker, 288pp, hc) 1969. Cover by Jack Gaughan. (Ace 978-0-441-00731-8, $13.95, 320pp, pb) 2008. (Orbit 978-1-857-23074-1, £6.99, 256pp, pb) 1981.
The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin (Scribner, 186pp, hc) 1971. Cover by Carl Berkowitz.(Scribner 978-1-416-55696-1, $15.00, 192pp, pb) 2008. (Gollancz 978-1-857-98951-5, £6.99, 192pp, pb) 2001.
The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (Harper & Row, 342pp, hc) 1974. Cover by Fred Winkowski. (HarperPerennial 978-0-060-51275-0, $13.95, 400pp, tp) 2003. (Gollancz 978-0-575-07903-8, £7.99, 352pp, pb) 1999.
Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin (Harper & Row 0-06-015456-X, 525pp, pb) 1985. (University of California Press 978-0-520-22735-4, $21.95, 525pp, pb) 2001.
On a recent trip to the US, I found myself looking at a display of Ursula K. Le Guin titles, and found myself thinking how weird the covers were. The Ace edition of The Left Hand of Darkness features a blue-white snowy landscape, the horizon low in the image, a similarly coloured sky above it. The Scribner edition of The Lathe of Heaven has a flat yellow plain, a low horizon, and a perfect blue sky pocked with the occasional cloud. The HarperPerennial edition of The Dispossessed has a slightly wrinkled sandy plain, a low horizon, and a pale blue-grey sky. These three covers from three different publishers all seem to be sending the same message: these are books of the abstract, that make you raise your eyes to some metaphysical heaven. Which is, I suppose, a part of Le Guin, but it's very far from the whole. She always starts with the concrete. Take this, for example, from the first chapter of The Left Hand of Darkness (1969):
The king and the mason kneel, high between the river and the sun, on their bit of planking. Taking the trowel, the king begins to mortar the long joints of the keystone. He does not dab at it and give the trowel back to the mason, but sets to work methodically. The cement he uses is a pinkish colour different from the rest of the mortarwork and after five or ten minutes of watching the king-bee work I ask the person on my left, "Are your keystones always set in a red cement?" For the same color is plain around the keystone of each arch of the Old Bridge, that soars beautifully over the river upstream from the arch.
Wiping sweat from his dark forehead, the man man I must say, having said he and his the man answers, "Very-long-ago a keystone was always set in a mortar of ground bones mixed with blood. Human bones, human blood. Without the bloodbond the arch would fall, you see. We use the blood of animals, these days."
The narrator is a man named Genly Ai, a human emissary from the "Ekumen" of known worlds to this planet called Winter. The "man" who replies to him about the blood is one of Winter's natives, the Gethenians, called Estraven. The reason for my quotation-marks, and Genly Ai's hesitation about saying man, stem from the novel's central premise. Gethenians normally present as androgynous, but for a couple of days each month are in "kemmer" that is, they become either male or female.
That begs a question, though: why does Genly Ai refer to a neuter creature as "he" as a default? Joanna Russ, among others, has criticised the novel on these grounds. I tend to think now that this is a marker of Genly Ai coming from a society where "he" is the default from, in other words, a patriarchal society. The "he," in other words, is revealing about his world rather than Estraven's which, at this point, he comprehends only dimly.
The book traces a slow process of discovery of Winter and its inhabitants. In that respect, in that it's about finding out, it's a perfectly science-fictional work. (The later Ace edition carries a provocative introduction by Le Guin, in which she administers a few well-judged kicks to the idea of sf as narrowly extrapolative or predictive.) We find out, for instance, via Chapter 7 how and why the Gethenian biology was created. This chapter is an ethnologist's report on the planet what would, in other circumstances, be considered an "infodump." But Le Guin is so thoughtful a writer, the implications of her thought-experiments so thoroughly and deeply felt, that you find yourself wanting to hear this information, even if it is couched in as dry a form as this. The same could be said of her approach to symbols, to making the story mean as much as it can. The extract I quoted earlier, about the keystone being set in mortar made from blood, carries a freight of meaning about this Gethenian society. That they've made the transition from using human to animal blood suggests that they're a step away but only a step from primitive savagery. It's a caution, to us and to Genly Ai. In another writer's hands, the obviousness of this symbolism, the sense that we're being told what meaning to take from the text, would be preachy and clunking. But Le Guin gets away with it, I think for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the primitive nature of the society is indeed borne out, as we find out in Chapter 3, when Genly has a memorable interview with the mad King of Karhide. Secondly, a ceremonial of the kind described is a place where this kind of symbolism the blood mortar might plausibly happen.
The main thread in The Left Hand of Darkness follows Estraven's disgrace and exile from Karhide, and Genly Ai's odyssey across the planet. Their lives eventually become entangled, as well as continuing to be embattled by external forces. A final setpiece, as the two of them cross a great ice-sheet as they try to return to Karhide, serves as a vivid externalisation of their personal situation. It would be easy to praise The Left Hand of Darkness in ways that made its virtues seem static: the society and world it depicts are astonishingly vivid, and still raise potent questions about how we experience gender, among other things, here and now. But the abiding impression it leaves, more than in any other Le Guin work, is of the tug of the story and the extremity of the pressure driving it. It's not the sort of pressure that drives many SF novels: worlds are not in peril, universes not about to be un-knit. In many respects, it's a "small" story. But, even if the reader hasn't been exiled from anywhere, the threats this invokes are easy to empathise with: the loss of home, the threat of the state being against you, working out what love means for you. It is if you'll pardon the phrase the most human of great sf novels.
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The Lathe of Heaven, which followed in 1971, is a very different book. For a start, it's not set in the Ekumen universe. It also, at least on first reading, has a great deal in common with the work of Philip K. Dick.
Like Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), the novel takes epigraphs and some of its structure from oriental philosophy, in this case the work of Chang Tse. Their emphasis on the illusory nature of the world cues us to expect what the novel brings. The protagonist, George Orr, lives in a near-future SF world and has problems sleeping. He is seeing a psychiatrist, William Haber, and his dreams rapidly become the focus of their attention. But they rapidly progress from thinking of them in the terms we're used to as "anxiety-dreams" or whatever. It becomes increasingly clear that through the Haber-mediated technique of "effective dreaming," Orr's dreams can reshape the world.
So Orr and Haber have at their disposal a power, and part of the burden of The Lathe of Heaven is what happens when a power is exploited. Moving beyond merely benign "thought-experiments," the sort of premises that might fuel an sf novel, their wishes become increasingly self-centred and damaging. So the novel is partly a critique of Haber in particular and the values he represents. But it also becomes a strange and alienating experience in its own right, especially towards the end:
By the power of will, which is indeed great when exercised in the right way at the right time, George Orr found beneath his feet the hard marble of the steps up to the HURAD Tower. He walked forward, while his eyes informed him that he walked on mist, on mud, on decayed corpses, on innumerable tiny toads. It was very cold, yet there was a smell of hot metal and burning hair or flesh. He crossed the lobby; gold letters from the aphorism around the dome leapt about him momentarily, MANKIND M N A A A. The A's tried to trip his feet. He stepped onto a moving walkway though it was not visible to him; he stepped onto the helical escalator and rode it up into nothing, supporting it continuously by the firmness of his will. He did not even shut his eyes.
In a passage like that, the resemblances to Dick are clear, especially to the drug-filled visions of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965). But Le Guin's work differs in a number of ways. Firstly, by concentrating on a relatively small group of characters, rather than Dick's typical multiple viewpoints, the book has a focus in particular, a moral focus that's quite distinctive. Secondly, the setting of the novel within the frame of a scientific investigation raises questions in ways that Dick's books didn't. Even a work like Time Out of Joint (1959), whose ostensible subject is an experiment of a kind, focuses more on the experimenter's inner life than, as here, the process of the experiment. Le Guin is clearly far more interested in the ethics of the scientific process than Dick was.
It's not surprising if The Lathe of Heaven hasn't achieved the recognition or the place in collective memory of Le Guin's other works. It's not set in the familiar arena of the Ekumen, and it's a more disturbing and unstable book than many of her others. It's also, despite what I said above about its moral critique, not a work from which "lessons" or "themes" are easily extractible; it's far more irreducibly strange. But it's all the better for that.
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Le Guin returned to the Ekumen with The Dispossessed (1974), which like The Left Hand of Darkness won both Hugo and Nebula Awards. One of its governing images is a double-planet system to be more exact, a planet and its large moon. The planet is called Urras, the moon Anarres. Urras has a capitalist society whose values and mores are very familiar. Some time ago, there was an anarchist revolution on Urras, and those of the revolutionaries who wished were allowed to colonise Anarres and create the society they wished. This is the "Ambiguous Utopia" of the subtitle that the book carries in some editions. The origins of this world are explored in "The Day Before the Revolution", a story from 1974 collected in Le Guin's fine short fiction retrospective The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975).
The main plot of the book follows Shevek, a brilliant physicist, on both worlds. He is attempting to develop a "Principle of Simultaneity" which will, eventually, enable the creation of instantaneous communication via an "Ansible" and, ultimately the galaxy-spanning Ekumen of books such as Left Hand, which lies later in the internal chronology. Originally from Anarres, he keeps running into the saying "True journey is return," and this is a helpful way of understanding his path which is structured around alternating chapters set on the two worlds.
Inevitably, the center of the book certainly the feature to which many discussions return is the depiction of utopia. Perhaps the crucial feature of Anarres is that it is poor in resources. (The moon, being smaller, has a thinner atmosphere and less evolved indigenous creatures.) So it is a society for which scarcity is a fact of life. The "complex organicism" that results is thoroughly explored, both through showing and telling. The resulting society, in which communal living is at the heart of human meaning, is enormously convincing and detailed. Any number of issues, like the practicality of the original revolutionaries' desire for a completely decentralised world, are thought through in fascinating detail.
The depiction of this world is all the more pointed because of the contrast with Urras, and the use of Shevek's viewpoint to explore both. Added to that is the clarity and simplicity of the language Le Guin uses one of her great strengths as in this speech that Shevek gives to a crowd on Urras:
I am here because you see in me the promise, the promise that we made two hundred years ago in this city the promise kept. We have kept it, on Anarres. We have nothing but our freedom. We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charities, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much of anything else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful. If it is Anarres you want, if it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it with empty hands.
That image, of empty hands, recurs throughout the book: another instance of Le Guin's authorial control showing in the disposition of symbols. And Shevek's speech is really addressed not to Urras but to us, just as Anarres is an implicit challenge to readers: could you imagine being able to live in a world like this?
There is far more to say about The Dispossessed than I have space to here about, for instance, how language shapes culture, about the role of violence in society (and SF). It's no exaggeration to say that dissertations have been written on the subject. But I wouldn't want to make Le Guin seem like an author who is dry or dull. You may find that she refuses some of the pleasures of the genre explosions, space battles, cosmic perspectives, and the like but the central premise of her work is that we have to be more adult than science fiction often allows. We have to work out how best to live with our fellow humans and the environments that gave birth to us, and working out how to do that is an adult task.
- - -
This is also evident in a much later book, Always Coming Home (1985), which in a sense marks an endpoint of the utopian line of thought started in The Dispossessed. I say "book" rather than "novel" because, although a portion of it is taken up with the story of a woman named Stone Telling, far more is taken up with a description of the society she inhabits. This is the culture of the Kesh, who "might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California." It's conveyed through the Kesh's poems, accounts of their marriage laws, clothing, literature, dances, number systems, and so on. (Some versions of the book though not the one I own came with a tape cassette of Kesh songs.) This approach also represents a continuity with The Left Hand of Darkness, where the story of Genly Ai and Estraven is frequently broken up with stories from Gethenian culture. The central insight, that cultures understand themselves by the stories they tell themselves, is very convincingly put over. But Always Coming Home goes so much further than either of the two earlier books down this road, as well as giving so many other tools to understand the culture, that one finds it easier to question its assumptions.
Like Anarres, the Kesh society is one not founded on the kinds of abundance we're used to. The world has many fewer inhabitants, and although they have access to various items of technology, the main impression conveyed is of closeness to nature, to animals in particular, and to one's geographical home. Travel is both costly and discouraged in the chapter on medicine, for instance, we're told that sexually transmitted diseases are not endemic in the Kesh valley, but are known and called "foreigners' misery". Life expectancy is much shorter than we might expect in 2008, but the book's central argument is that that might be a price worth paying.
In the end, all the apparatus of Always Coming Home and the story of Stone Telling adds up to an advocacy, perhaps the most comprehensive in science fiction. It's a book that refuses narrative pleasures, that doesn't "resolve" or "make sense" in the closing pages, I think because it wants to suggest that certain axioms we might hold about, say, the satisfaction we get from textual closure are part of the larger picture that it wants us to question. I have to say, for myself, that Always Coming Home's advocacy is one I can't bring myself to agree with. Le Guin avoids the trap of sentimentalising the details of Kesh life in many individual ways, by making clear for instance that nature is dangerous as well as beautiful. But somehow the whole enterprise strikes me as wishful thinking as needing to wish away, in particular, many of the other 6,691,999,999 people on the planet and their desire to (presumably) keep living, to have families, and to prosper in safety. The question of the morality of this bit of Malthusianism is explicitly addressed on pages 147-8. But maybe my hesitation is a judgment on me rather than Le Guin or the book: why, for instance, do I say that "wishful thinking" is a pejorative, or seem to accept our present overpopulation and its dire consequences? Maybe a reading of the book as literal advocacy is too narrow, and one should understand it as an advocacy of certain values rather than a specific endpoint. Maybe like Le Guin's other books this is intended as much as anything as a provocation. You argue with it, you argue with yourself, you don't ever stop.
Graham Sleight was born in 1972 and lives in London, UK. He has written reviews and essays on science fiction and fantasy for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Interzone, SF Studies, SF Weekly, Infinity Plus, Strange Horizons, Vector, and Locus Magazine. He's served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2005 and 2006, and became editor of Foundation at the end of 2007.
Graham Sleight is one of eight regular Locus reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of new books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.