Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More
No matter what ignites the dynamic fusion of thought and action in her Hainish fictions, Le Guin generates provocative and intelligent considerations of complex forces.
Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels and StoriesPublisher: Library of America
Length: 1921 pages
Author: Brian Attebery, Ed.
Publication date: 2017-09
Daughter of a groundbreaking anthropologist who taught at Berkeley and Columbia, Le Guin pioneered the meticulous investigation of her imagined societies within the popular genre of speculative storytelling. She began writing as a child during the Depression. Beginning in 1966, her contributions began in the Ace Doubles, SF pulp. Editors and fans recognized her skill. Although her sophisticated interplanetary system took a while to form, and even if its inconsistencies bother nitpicking critics, Le Guin avers this genesis gave her freedom to shift between stories and novels. She learned the difference between "willful suspension of disbelief" and merely "faking" it when invention stirred. (Her Hainish books need not be read in order, she has assured readers before.)
Part of Le Guin's innovation came through the "ansible", a device enabling instant communication across the universe. This became a standard tool throughout the science fiction cosmos. Her other innovation in the '60s, she notes, has received less attention from a wider audience. The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula prizes, but it faced backlash, from pedants and from feminists. Le Guin's decision to use a fixed "he" for her people lacking a fixed gender -- it alternates in the month -- leads to her reiteration 50 years on.
Despite many recent changes in social perception of gender differences, "we still have no accepted ungendered pronoun in narrative." Demurring from the term "prequel" for her story "The Day Before the Revolution" preceding her anarchist utopia novel The Dispossessed, "word-hound" Le Guin returns to her central verbal concern. "What matters most about a word is that it says what we need a word for. (That's why it matters that we lack a singular pronoun signifying non-male/female, inclusive, or undetermined gender. We need that pronoun.)"
This anthology's first volume gathers the first five Hainish novels. In a brief review, only a glimpse at the many realms Le Guin presents can suffice. Roncannon's World turns out for the Hainish ethnographer Roncannon an orb which will bear his name. (Hain's a planet resembling our own as the original homeland of humanity; the handsome endpapers in Volume Two make its earth-tones of continents heighten this suggestion, but it's not equivalent to Le Guin's Terra: an example of Le Guin's off-kilter approach to world-building.) Some telepathy occurs, but this wound up so overwhelming a condition for her menagerie of bio-forms that their creator edged away from it as a must as she expanded her fictional forays. Roncannon blends sci-fi with fantasy. Its episodes entertain.
But eagle-eyed readers of venerable tropes may not be entirely convinced. There's a lot of humanoids evolving here on a smallish globe, so how they remain dispersed and sustaining may stem from Le Guin's anthropological curiosity more than a command of her developing talent in constructing plot.
Two more shortish novels follow. Planet of Exile as the title tells finds human colonists stranded on a hostile Werel. The arrival of attenuated seasons will become a factor in her present and future Hainish terrains: when winter comes, it stays for 15 years, and the "hilfs" arrive during this cold snap. These nomads call the humans "farborns." They both face savage hordes and snow-ghouls. One wonders if George R.R. Martin's vast audience knows of this 1966 predecessor, pitched again at the Ace crowd.
The following year, City of Illusions presents one raised by forest dwellers, but not born one of them. His quest across a ravaged earthscape and a dystopia full of occluded psychics also includes talking animals. Who can and cannot take life provides the complex theme, further taking on brainwashing.
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) attain canonical status. Many will be most familiar with these dense novels. They deepen the sci-fi genre. They will demand attention; they will reward reflection. This volume adds an "original" version of the experimental core of what became The Left Hand of Darkness's alternating genders on Gethen.
"Winter's King" sparked Le Guin's curiosity. What if "the king was pregnant" popped up in a tale? Both tales investigate how warfare equates with "predominantly a male behavior", If some people reverted to being female with an overwhelming sex drive for a few days a month, while others were male, how might this play out for an Ice Age planet a.k.a. Winter? Furthermore, Le Guin addresses how language, power plays, and relationships evolve.
The last work in the first volume, The Dispossessed may not have lasted as long in curricula and on reading lists as its gender-driven counterpart. It emerges from Le Guin's weariness with the Vietnam War and her Cold War affinity for Peter Kropotkin and Paul Goodman's non-violence. Pairing this via her youthful exposure to Lao Tzu, Le Guin incorporates the Tao into a study of no-coerced-order.
For it has to recognize anarchy's discontents. Determined to leave his anarcho-syndicalist home on Anarres, physicist Shevek travels to a patriarchal society on Urras. Class war, religious dissension, and the grip of the in-group naturally mesh with Le Guin's intellectual interests. While less read now than The Left Hand of Darkness, this novel of ideas also remains less popular than certain pulps penned by Ayn Rand. But Rand cannot match Le Guin's US-of-A-like A-Io for its ambiguous appeal as the Yang to the Yin of Urras. Capitalism gets its comeuppance, but so does socialism. Despite dense discussion, it's far more vivid than any Rand. For one "cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution." How one's possessive power gets mired in habit dramatizes -- admittedly too tediously for readers craving more drama -- its theories and its morality, as a thought-experiment.
As her fiction sweeps up allegory, her story arcs sometimes twine; but not neatly or necessarily. Her motivations push reflection arguably more than action. She leaves one pondering, despite what can be ponderous to those weary of nuance. Her erudite character studies and linguistic riffs predominate.
Le Guin's Hainish elaborations continue into the mostly shorter pieces of the second volume. The novella The Word for World Is Forest has always struck me as a protest against the defoliation of Vietnam. It may align more with the Earth Day sentiments of the early '70s, but either way, the revolt of those on Athshe against the invading Terrans bent on taking its resources to sustain their own depleted earth has remained topical. Le Guin acknowledges this sad truth in her appended 1976 introduction for The Word for World Is Forest. She relates how her own "fantasy" at that time that a Philippine tribe called the Senoi stood for a "dream culture" akin to her imagined one for her indigenous resisters. While these claims were largely debunked among anthropologists, Le Guin reasons that for her threatened world, the use of its scientific data may diminish accordingly as its "speculative element" compensates.
Hainish stories overlap in characters and ideas now and then among the seven compiled here. Her faster-than-light communication device the ansible excited her fellow scribes. By 1990, Le Guin took up a possibility akin to Madeleine L'Engle's "wrinkle in time". Le Guin was "allured by the notion of transilience, the transfer of a physical body from one point in space-time to another without interval."
Christening it "churtening", she allows that those who pull it off in her fiction are never sure how they did it, or if they can do it again. "In this it much resembles life." Her 1994 collection A Fisherman of the Inland Sea weaves influences from a Japanese folktale with Hain-adjacent love stories. She attempted in this decade "to learn how to write as a woman." Her latest brainstorm, the "sedorutu", sets on the world named O an institutionalization of hetero- and homosexual relationships "in an intricate four-part arrangement laden with infinite emotional possibilities- -a seductive prospect to a storyteller." Her "gender-bending" produces stories enriched by her own decision to speak out not only on behalf of women, but all who are loners and introverts. In an era bent on overpopulation, "unlimited growth", and "mindless exploitation", Le Guin retreats. She considers the misfit.
Her final entries twist more categories. Dark-skinned people enslave light-skinned ones. The emerging "story suite" becomes Four Ways to Forgiveness. Meanwhile, Le Guin learns of the destruction of "religious Taoism" during the regime of "aggressive secular fundamentalism" in China.
The Telling (2000) closes this volume. Le Guin sees around her in her own homeland the rise of similar "divisive, exclusive", and dogmatic instigators of hatred perverting "the energy of every major creed". This concluding novel depicts "the secular persecution of an ancient, pacific, non-theistic religion on another world." Those responsible, tellingly, originate among "a violent monotheistic sect on Earth". No matter what ignites the dynamic fusion of thought and action in her Hainish fictions, Le Guin generates provocative and intelligent considerations of complex forces. A tribute to her craft, these elegant volumes combine into a welcome set for loners, introverts, and the rest of us.