Books

Who Is the Alien in Ursula K. Le Guin's 'No Time to Spare'?

Le Guin's understanding of aliens, or others of any stripe, is more evolved than ours.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters
Ursula Le Guin, Karen Joy Fowler

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Dec 2017

Other

There are so very many books written by Ursula K. Le Guin. A lot of readers who consider themselves to be thinking people don't take the time to read any of these books, mainly because they "don't read novels". But surely science fiction is for thinking people. People who care about Blade Runner and Arrival, or Asimov or Dick or Le Guin, tend to be highly philosophical. Authors of these novels have imaginative suggestions for ways to improve our current predicaments, as well as warnings about our modern ways with which high-minded readers might often agree. Even if one has just cause to be suspicious of the possible enjoyments lurking in Le Guin's novels, she has also released several non-fiction books. Perhaps it seems silly to start in on her essays or even her poems until one has at least dipped a toe into the fiction, but it's actually quite sensible to start off getting to know her mind through the reality of the memoirs before setting foot in the alternative worlds she's created. The important themes will be there, embedded in some lovely language and complex thinking, yet stripped of the trappings of suspenseful plot arcs or villainous characters.

A few years ago, it dawned on me that Le Guin was over 80 years old, and that if I didn't at least dip that toe in quite soon, I might not have the vaguely transcendental honor of reading and appreciating her work while she is still alive. At the same time, I had heard that she had begun a blog, and this seemed like such a good entry point into her daily living and random thoughts that it would provide an adequate sample for a starting place. Then of course, life simply got in the way and I never got into the blog the way that I had hoped. Le Guin is now 88 years old, and neither she nor I feels that we have time to spare. She has collected the best entries from her blog into a neatly organized book, No Time to Spare. So it was that here I finally began to see what I was missing.

There's something truly special about the way Le Guin talks about animals, because there's a deep, unique feeling in the way she relates to them—particularly her cat, Pard. The "Annals of Pard" essays are about life with her cat, showing up as a sort of through-line interspersed between the broader, less cohesive topics In the book. Le Guin respects that each animal species is an alien to the other species and the cruel facts of our humanness are usually precisely what prevent us from getting along well with other kinds of beings on Earth. This astute psychological study of Pard, rooted in decades of house cat experience, as well as her clear delight in letting these animals live their lives as they see fit with minimal intervention from her humanity, shows that Le Guin not only writes about recipes for world peace but in fact lives them, in miniature, in her own house daily.

In the ecosystem of her household, there's no reason to privilege a homo sapien over a feline. She has made many a sacrifice or accommodation on behalf of Pard, because cats have rights and an ontology that she has chosen to respect. She has similarly apt conjectures about the inner life of Christmas trees, the untrammeled mysticism of a lynx at the zoo, her husband's bad back, conversations among birds, and so on. There's so much world outside the house—and yet also plenty of world within it. Le Guin's mindful empathy for every kind of living and non-living thing makes her a role model for the rest of us who ever tried to walk a mile in another kind of shoe. No wonder her science fiction novels are often said to be particularly believable.

Other essays in the book pertain to topics such as the difficulties of being a writer who is simultaneously beloved by fans and marginalized by peers. Le Guin is not afraid to express curmudgeonly sentiments or talk politics, even if her opinions may prove unpopular. In some respects, she seems like a typical graduate of Berkeley High School. With her profound skepticism of the merits of capitalism, her à la carte Eastern spirituality, and her willingness to be disliked, she could certainly be a strong contender for Mayor of Portland.

Has she never been a subject of spoof for the television series Portlandia? After reading No Time to Spare, a part of me understands why. Portlandia is really about our unease with the city's stereotypical residents, about how odd they may sound to audiences in Dallas or Des Moines when removed from the context of their insular bubble. In some ways, Portlandia is quite sci-fi. The series is full of characters most of us recognize as alien—targets for ridicule, worthy of shaming. Le Guin lobs sharp, specific critique without devolving into mere insult or guilt-tripping. She certainly has a sense of humor about herself, knows her context and shared history. And yet despite the profound joy of Le Guin's life that is everywhere evident in No Time to Spare, the overall effect on the reader is to take the author quite seriously. In living, we probably have a responsibility—or certainly at least the opportunity—to sprout a good deal of empathy. Le Guin's understanding of aliens, or others of any stripe, is more evolved than ours.

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