In 2014 Ursula K Le Guin proclaimed that “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings.”
Le Guin, who died in January, was a giant of 20th century literature. On her shoulders stand not just classics of genre fiction but everything from Salman Rushdie’s postcolonial magical realism to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter mega-franchise.
Le Guin used science fiction and fantasy not as a genre but a “method”. Future societies, distant planets and magical realms provided “a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas”.
Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists, their summer home “a gathering place for scientists, writers, students and California Indians”. Their interactions with Native Americans seem to have laid the basis for much of her “Hainish cycle” of novels, which explore a variety of planets through the culture shock of the ambassadors sent to meet them.
One of these, The Left Hand of Darkness, is probably Le Guin’s most celebrated novel. It describes a world that’s familiar — hierarchical states locked in an imperialist cold war — but missing one seemingly fundamental aspect of our society. The people there have no fixed sex or gender.
The Dispossessed concerns an anarchist Utopia threatened from within by bureaucracy — and by the paradox of the wall that protects it from a capitalist galaxy. The Word For World Is Forest shows a pacifist society coming to terms with the need to resist its pillage by a colonialist planet named Earth. City of Illusion is a subtle antidote to George Orwell’s 1984 and its claims for tyrants’ ability to rewrite history.
Some of Le Guin’s earliest stories describe a revolution in the fictional nation of Orsinia. The Lathe of Heaven features a groundbreaking portrayal of global warming — though regrettably Le Guin seemed to blame environmental disaster on overpopulation.
The success of the Earthsea trilogy of young adult novels about a wizard battling his own shadow and sailing to the land of the dead didn’t stop Le Guin coming back to pretty much subvert her own work. The remarkable belated, feminist sequel Tehanu questions sexual violence, domestic labour and why women are excluded from becoming wizards.
Le Guin had to fight for a space for women in a science fiction scene absurdly dominated by men. She stingingly declined to endorse one anthology “which not only contains no writing by women, but the tone of which is so self-contentedly, exclusively male, like a club, or a locker room” that “Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.”
Le Guin’s writing was a product and a part of the explosion of social movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Fellow author Margaret Atwood locates her within the “generation of American women that fuelled much of the second wave feminism”.
“She was taught to think, as they used to say, like a man: widely, curiously, rigorously. But after she married and left academia, she found herself in a society that treated her and all women like an irresponsible 13 year old. For those who’d been taught they were grownups, this was like trying to seal a volcano inside a tin can.”
Le Guin used a similar metaphor in a 1986 speech to young women that today sounds made for the #MeToo movement. She said, “In this barbaric society, when women speak truly they speak subversively. They can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want — to hear you erupting.”
Le Guin combined hostility to all oppression and war with extreme scepticism towards collective action, tinged with both anarchism and Taoism. For her, freedom is a responsibility of the individual, not a battle between classes. But if that makes her writings hardly a roadmap to the revolution, as a reminder to look up to that horizon they are irreplaceable.
The story that sums up her philosophy borrows a thought experiment from Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Henry James. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas imagines a society peaceful, happy, equal and free — except for one child, condemned to perpetual torment as the price of Utopia.
For some, not even Utopia justifies that oppression. “They walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going.”