City of Illusions, Ursula le Guin

Marcie/Buried in Print and I have been discussing off and on doing another read-along, and one of Marcie’s suggestions was le Guin’s Hainish cycle, which has a consistent SF universe, but a number of discrete stories.

The cycle consists of – in order of the period of their setting:
The Dispossessed (1974)
The Word for World is Forest (1972)
Rocannon’s World (1966)
Planet of Exile (1966)
City of Illusions (1967)
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994) Short story collection

The underlying story is that humans originated on Hain. That the Hainish, a peaceful race, occupied many planets, including Earth, sometimes with variants on humans who had been genetically engineered. They invented instantaneous communication, using a device called the ‘ansible’ (which name has been taken up by many SF writers since) and faster-than-light (FTL) travel, but only for objects, not for themselves. Inter-system travel for humans is possible at near the speed of light, which means that while travel may appear near instantaneous for the travellers, objectively years, and quite often centuries, have passed.

Over the (vast) period of these books, the Hainish civilization rises, as the League of All Worlds, falls back, and rises again as the Ekumen.

I’m sure those para.s above are indicative of why so many of you pass when it comes to SF, because it all seems so contrived, unnecessary and difficult to follow. For geeks like me these made up worlds allow the exploration and restatement of every day problems in new settings; and yes they provide a deal of escapism.

The importance of Ursula le Guin is that she was a major writer who chose to write within the SF genre; whose character development was unique in SF and fascinating in any context; and that she explores gender issues, ecology and cooperative systems of government in ways and to depths that are unique in any genre.

I have previously reviewed The Dispossessed, but was not meaning to preempt a possible read-along when City of Illusions fell to hand (I was actually looking for Gaskell’s Ruth to do a long promised review, but it’s in hiding – a common occurrence when I move books so that they will be closer when I need them). I’ll go ahead with this one now and in a year or two no doubt, Marcie and I and anyone else who wishes to join in will knock off the rest. In fact, just a few hours before I posted this, Lou (Louloureads) posted a review of The Word for World is Forest.

‘My’ copy, with the cover above, cheaply bound, pages yellowing with age, is inscribed to Milly, Mothers Day 1984 – a recent work from our favourite author, as I was just starting a new job after a period out of work, and we were living in a rental in Blackburn (Melbourne), with three children under seven, while we looked for a house to buy, which we did shortly after.

The period of this book, it becomes clear, is two thousand years in our future. The League of all Worlds has been attacked and has pulled back. Earth is ruled by a human-looking race called the Shing from the city of Es Toch – a wonderfully imagined city of transparent buildings which appears to have been constructed over the Grand Canyon. The people of Continent One (North America of course) are few, isolated into small communities and are living primitively, though with some remnants of their earlier civilization, in particular laser guns which don’t appear to need recharging.

“What do we really know of the time of our greatness? A few names of worlds and heroes, a ragtag of facts we’ve tried to patch into history. The Shing law forbids killing, but they killed knowledge, they burned books, and what may be worse, they falsified what was left. They slipped in the Lie, as always.”

The story commences in the vast Eastern Forest. A man with strange yellow eyes, intelligent, but entirely without memories emerges into a clearing. The community there, the house of Zove, even with their rudimentary telepathy, cannot know if the man is an idiot, or a Shing pretending amnesia, or a tool of the Shing, or a victim, a man whose brain has been wiped. But they take him in, give him a name, Falk, teach him, he becomes the partner of the teenage daughter of the house.

Falk and Zove determine that Falk must go on, alone, that his arrival at Zove’s house was but the first part in a long journey, and so Falk sets out, walking, to cross the continent to Es Toch.

This then, or at least the middle part of the novel, is the story of a long pilgrimage, as was Le Guin’s following, better known, work, The Left Hand of Darkness. In that, Le Guin used the shared ordeal to interrogate notions of gender. Here, the ordeal is not always shared, though it is at the end, and what Le Guin is exploring is Truth and Lies. What can be believed? Falk decides early on that he must take the stance of always telling the truth, that only then will he have a basis for detecting the deceits of others.

Falk finally comes to the edge of the Eastern Forest on the banks of the Great River, crosses over to the Prairies, gains a companion, walks and walks, together they cross into the mountains, and so he comes to Es Toch.

There he discovers that the Shing can Mindlie – lie telepathically – and he must work his way through that. Yes, this is in part an adventure novel, and is only in small parts concerned with relationships. All the author’s focus is on Falk and how he deals with, how he thinks through, the problems he must confront. We do not end with a great victory, just another step forward in a long journey.

I can’t at this late stage in your reading lives persuade you to began reading le Guin, but I love her, her work, her insights, her stories, and I was very glad to be back here, in this small corner of her universe, after an absence of nearly 40 years.

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Ursula K le Guin, City of Illusions, Ace Science Fiction Books, New York, 1976. 217pp.

see also:
The Dispossessed (theaustralianlegend)
The Word for World is Forest (Louloureads)

Atwood, Le Guin & SF

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

One book has captured the spirit of present and near-future USA like no other, and that is Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale (1985). On writing ‘1985’ I am astonished that it is so old, obviously America has been growing into Atwood’s predictions for some time. The TV series of the book premiered in 2016, and the sequel, The Testaments, was published in 2019.

A Handmaid’s Tale sits over us, over all discussions of the rise of the Right in the US in particular, as Animal Farm, 1984 and Brave New World did over discussions of Communism and totalitarian government – not always accurately – when I was a young man (in the 1960s and 70s).

Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018) and Margaret Atwood (1939- ) were friends, east coast gals with a university – Radcliffe “in the pre-Second Wave years” – in common.

Seated on little divans in front of over 2,000 people [in Portland, 2010], they seemed like two old school chums swapping gossip even when they were deconstructing modern realism and debating whether or not the human race is doomed.

Claire L. Evans — Space Canon, Gizmodo, September 28, 2010

Le Guin, the queen of SF, however is forced to tiptoe round Atwood’s refusal to acknowledge that she writes Science Fiction. Atwood argues science fiction is for space travel and things we can’t yet do, while what she does is speculative fiction, stuff that we have the means to do right now, right here on Earth (Moving Targets).

That is to say, she – and these days any number of writers of “dystopian” fiction – choose to write within one strand of SF, which has a history going back more than a century, while disclaiming all their antecedents and preserving, in their own minds anyway, their literary purity.

In her summary of the two writers’ discussion, Evans offers this breakdown: “could happen (speculative fiction), couldn’t happen yet (science fiction), could never happen at all (fantasy).”

If you’re still one of those who cling to the myth that there is ‘literary’ fiction and there is genre fiction, Le Guin was fierce that “realism is a genre like any other, and that all writing is by definition literary“. Further, “realism is limited in terms of what it can actually discuss. The modern realistic novel, she lamented, has devolved into tales of well-off East Coast people with problems” which might come as a shock to writers in the rest of the world. Atwood and Le Guin did agree that “speculative and not-quite-real fictions have more freedom to tackle sweeping subjects unavailable to the realist.”

Le Guin’s strongest critique of Atwood was a year earlier, in a review of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009).

To my mind, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science fiction.

Le Guin, Guardian, 29 Aug., 2009

Le Guin makes the point that in ‘realistic’ fiction we expect characters of some complexity, while in genre fiction we expect ‘types’, though “the supposed distinction is so often violated in both directions as to be nearly meaningless”. She then goes on to explain why all Atwood’s characters are ‘types’, “these were figures in the service of a morality play”. Le Guin does not say, but it’s true, that one of the great strengths of her own Science Fiction is the complexity of her central characters.

A year after Portland Arts & Lectures 2010 Atwood defends herself at some length:

Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much “science fiction” as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty-Four as much “science fiction” as The Martian Chronicles? I might reply. I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.

Atwood, Guardian, 15 Oct., 2011

There she goes again, distinguishing one branch of SF from another, and then attempting to claim the branch she likes as anything but SF. In one hundred years time when Earth’s remnant population is living on Mars will she move The Martian Chronicles over to her side of the ledger? At what stage does The Postman change sides, or Neuromancer, or The Matrix? If the US somehow doesn’t become a fascist theocracy after these midterms or 2024, does A Handmaid’s Tale then become SF in Atwood’s mind?

Basically, she says I write in the tradition that extends forward from Jules Verne. I just don’t wish it to be called SF. Sorry, MA, you don’t get to choose.

And because I am a Le Guin fan, let me end with something Atwood wrote on Le Guin’s death in 2018

Not only was she one of the literary greats of the 20th century – her books are many and widely read and beloved, her awards are many and deserved – but her sane, committed, annoyed, humorous, wise and always intelligent voice is much needed now…

Isn’t it, just? And, Atwood goes on ..

In all her work, Le Guin was always asking the same urgent question: what sort of world do you want to live in? Her own choice would have been gender equal, racially equal, economically fair and self-governing ..

Atwood writes from a different angle, but in her ‘speculative’ works she is clearly asking the same question. Atwood and Le Guin, two greats of SF.

This post is both a lead in to the problems of defining ‘dystopian’ (no, no, no, not SF) fiction in AWW Gen 5, and my contribution to Marcie/Buried in Print’s MARM 2022.

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Image:
Portland Arts & Lectures 2010: Margaret Atwood & Ursula K Le Guin, reported in Cultural SF and Movie Learnings, 30.09.2010 (here). Literary Arts recording (here)

Essays referenced:
Claire L. Evans, ‘Space Canon’, Gizmodo, 28 Sept., 2010 (here)
Ursula K Le Guin, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, Guardian, 29 Aug., 2009 (here)
Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin bring off-the-wall humor to Portland Arts & Lectures, the Oregonian (here)
Margaret Atwood, ‘The Road to Ustopia’, Guardian, 15 Oct., 2011 (here)
Margaret Atwood, ‘Ursula K. Le Guin’, Guardian, 25 Jan., 2018 (here)

SF & Issues

Journal: 087

Earlier in the week Karen/Booker Talk posted “What I’m Reading : Episode 45, May 2022“, and one of the books she was planning to read was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). I commented: “Good to see you reading some hardcore SF – Fahrenheit 451. OK some SF is just boys toys, rocket ships and guns, but lots of it tackles serious issues that people actually care about.”

Karen’s reply was: “OK, so let me throw down a challenge for you Bill. Give me a few recommendations of SF that does exactly what you say – tackles serious issues that people care about.”

So, given that I’m just an ordinary (lifelong) SF reader, and not a specialist SF lit.blogger – though I have from time to time highlighted women’s SF here, because it tends to have more character development, and often a quirkyness, that ‘straight’ (guy) SF lacks, not to mention a lot less action-for-action’s sake – let’s see what I can do.

We all know Fahrenheit 451, it’s about burning books, something we all care about. So that’s one. Bradbury (1920-2012) was an amazing writer. Sue and Melanie have been chipping me about not reading SF short stories, but I have a number of Bradbury anthologies – I just went off and read a few stories from I Sing the Body Electric. He has a dreamy prose style that is totally unique. There was an android ‘grandmother’; a man alone on Mars 60 years after Armageddon on Earth, with only tapes of his own voice to keep him company; but I didn’t see anything which fit today’s thesis.

My old favourites, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick, Robert Sheckley, John Sladek slid from straight/pulp SF into postmodernism. They were concerned with how a capitalist world might look in the future. I might recommend Sheckley’s Mindswap (1966) because a) it’s LOL funny and b) in one place the hero swaps into a world, into the body of the president, where change of government occurs by a citizen shooting the president. These writers deal with ‘issues’ all the time, so in Galapagos (1985) Vonnegut explores how evolution might work if a pandemic wiped out nearly all the world’s human population.

We could go on to JM Ballard, Doris Lessing and Ursula Le Guin who are all great writers as well as SF writers. Ballard who as a child was imprisoned by the Japanese in China during WWII, was fascinated by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which set him free. His fiction for a long time dealt only with the world ending. Lessing, as I discussed recently, in Shikasta looks at systems of government and social organisation. Her Mara and Dann (1999) is an exploration of global warming and the resulting mass emigrations or whole countries. Le Guin is an advocate for anarchist governance – The Dispossessed (1974) – for the environment – The Word for World is Forest (1972) – for feminism and for anti-militarism.

A lot of writers, in Australia and elsewhere, are facing up to the imminent end of life on Earth-as-we-know it by writing fiction which is ‘dystopian’ but for which they refuse the label ‘SF’. Over the past few years there has been a rush of such fiction by young Australian women.

The first (to come to my attention) was Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) which posits a Melbourne of widespread poverty, with UN peacekeepers; but the book takes ‘a wrong turn’ into something very much like Magic Realism. I find, as I page through my reviews, that I have a decided preference for quirky in my SF.

Another such novel is Elizabeth Tan’s brilliant Rubik (2017) set in Perth. “This is a novel for our neo-liberal times where corporations run by faceless old white men both know and control everything about us. Tan fights back subtly, with satire, with ‘acceptably brown’ characters, with off-hand analyses of the way we submit to being manipulated.” (my review).

I have reviews for Melissa Ferguson’s The Shining Wall (2019) – an underclass forced to live outside city walls; Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace (2017) – innovative uses of a total body suit for recording experiences; Geogia Blain’s Special (2016) – a world controlled by corporations rather than national governments; and a time-travelly climate change one set near Wollongong (sorry, I can’t offer a prize for the first correct answer).

Two important ones though are Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things (2015) which describes the indefinite internment of a group of young women who have been the playthings/victims of men and had the temerity to complain; and Claire G Coleman’s Terra Nullius (2017). Coleman is an Indigenous Western Australian, a Wirlomin-Noongar woman, and she writes of Settlers arriving and enslaving the local people. As in her second novel, The Old Lie (2019), it only slowly becomes obvious how this is SF. Her third, Enclave, is out in four weeks. My order has been placed.

This last week I have been listening to Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018), the third in her Wayfarer series. It’s actually more of a lecture than a story, on how to create a society which runs without money – real socialism in action! The earlier two were much better as stories, with interesting characters and dealing with the problem of are AIs ‘alive’.

Karen, I don’t seem to have actually recommended any particular book but I hope you enjoyed the discussion as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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Recent audiobooks 

Dina Nayeri (F, Iran/USA), A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea (2013)
Emma Viskic (F, Aus/Vic), Those Who Perish (2022) – Crime
Dervla McTiernan (F, Ire), The Good Turn (2020) – Crime
Polly Crosby (F, Eng), The Women of Pearl Island (2021) – SF (actually a soppy inter-generational female friendship thing, but the premise is that the Brits tested an atom bomb in 1955, on an island in the Channel)
Elin Hilderbrand (F, USA), Nantucket Nights (2002) – Mystery
Laurie Halse Anderson (F, USA), The Impossible Knife of Memory (2013) – YA (starts out as grunge, but descends into soppy teenage romance. I skipped the girl’s father’s trendy Vietnam War flashbacks).
James Baldwin (M, USA), Just Above My Head (1979) – Literature!
Tanya Talaga (F, Can), Seven Fallen Feathers (2017) – Non Fiction
Becky Chambers (F, USA), Record of a Spaceborn Few (2018) – SF

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AWWC May 2022

DateContributorTitle
Wed 04Elizabeth Lhuede“Reputed authoress”: Isabel Grant
Fri 06Stories FTAIsabel Grant: The Archangel Michael (short story)
Wed 11Bill HollowayNathan Hobby, The Red Witch (review)
Fri 13Stories FTA“Old-Women’s Stories”: Mrs Langloh Parker
Wed 18BronwynMary Gaunt
Fri 20Stories FTAMary Gaunt, Quits (short story)
Wed 25Whispering GumsEthel Turner’s juvenilia
Fri 27Stories FTALouise Mack, Teens (novel extracts)

All the Friday posts are stories, or extracts from stories, written by the authors mentioned.

Where on Earth, Ursula Le Guin

If you grew up in the country as I did, then you will know those old-fashioned engagement parties and 21sts, in woolsheds or football clubrooms, trestle tables groaning with savouries and salads and cakes and cakes and cakes catered by the CWA or church women’s guild. My uncle Allan’s 21st was the same, a long table all down the middle verandah of the old farm house, seven year old me in a far corner eating and eating until I had to open all the buttons on my pants, cream cakes and pavlova, fruit cake and mince pies, jelly, trifle, lemon meringue pie and icecream.

And that’s how this collection of short stories by one of the greats of modern fiction struck me. I had to open all my buttons and lean back groaning in the corner. That’s how short story anthologies often strike me. When I open a book I want a meal not a plateful of cakes, and I love cakes.

In a lovely cheerful Introduction Le Guin explains how the two volumes of Selected Stories were chosen:

[First] .. no novellas – even though the novella is my favourite story-form, a lovely length in which you can do just about what a novel does without using all those words.

[Then] .. arbitrary restrictions, [no] stories closely tied to novels … [or] stories forming an integral part of story suites, where the pieces are linked by characters, setting, and chronology, forming an almost-novelistic whole.

So there I was with enough stories, still, to make a book about the size of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary.

After much more culling, she was down to two volumes, this one, Where on Earth for “mundane” stories, and the second, Outer Space, Inner Lands, mostly for SF, which I will review when that bloated feeling is finally gone.

If you ignore Le Guin for being a writer of genre fiction then that is your loss. She is (or was) both a fine writer technically and maybe the best story teller of the past 60 years. Where else but in SF could she explore the ideas behind Feminism, Environmentalism and Utopianism which were bursting out of her, and which she was so skilled in conveying. Nevertheless, in Where on Earth which while it is not without whimsy, she explores the problems of ordinary people dealing with ordinary people.

[In college] I had been writing realistic stories (bourgeois-USA-1948) because realism was what a serious writer was supposed to write under the rule of modernism ..

But I was soon aware that the ground it offered my particular talent was small and stony. I had to find my way elsewhere.

[The invented Eastern European country] Orsinia was the way, lying between actuality, which was supposed to be the sole subject of fiction, and the limitless realms of the imagination.

So, the first four stories are from Orsinian Tales, sharing a common geography, a backward, barren, mountainous country ruled by a distant Soviet bureaucracy; and sometimes sharing or alluding to characters in other stories (and so of course, breaking one of her own rules, above).

When Konstant Fabbre was hurt in the rockslide in the quarry he was twenty-six years old; his brother [Stefan] was twenty-three; their sister Rosana was thirteen. She was beginning to grow tall and sullen, to weigh upon the earth.

Konstant has saved the life of a deaf fellow worker. The deaf man’s daughter comes into town to care for Konstant. Stefan wants her. Unlike all his fellow townsmen Stefan has been away to school. Eventually he takes a mule and heads across the desert plain and into the mountains, through driving snow, heading for the capital. (Brothers & Sisters).

Stefan and his friend Kasimir travel by train and bus to Kasimir’s home town, for a break. Stefan falls in love with Kasimir’s sister Bruna. Then, Kasimir is shot by the police, Stefan is jailed. (A Week in the Country)

Bruna Fabbre is home, cooking when her daughter comes in from college. Stefan is at his desk at the university. Young people armed with paving stones are facing off with soldiers guarding the palace. The daughter is on the organising committee. Soon, Bruna and Stefan are in the street. (Unlocking the Air)

It seems there is an ‘Orsinian’ novel, Malafrena, of which I was unaware and which I must have.

There are 15 or so subsequent stories, most of which didn’t stick, many fanciful in one way or another, taking a fairytale or perhaps Native American style. Three stories at the end caught my attention. Each proceeds by a series of internal monologues.

A family is staying at the beach house they have long owned on a remote stretch of Oregon coast. We swap backwards and forwards between three women – daughter (uni student), mother (professor) and grandmother (widow) as they re-settle into long established routines, which are disturbed by the arrival of a researcher, a young woman, working on the life of the grandmother’s well known late husband. (Hand, Cup, Shell)

We are ‘inside’ for short periods each of the inhabitants of the tiny rural town of Ether which is notable for moving around when no-one is looking, sometimes settling on the Oregon coast and sometimes on the eastern slopes of the ranges. But it is Edna and her many lovers (and children) over the years who is the real centre of the story (Ether, OR).

Finally, a story made of eight brief stories linked only by the characters in each having the same names and roughly the same power relationship to each other, which Le Guin says arose out of an assignment she once set her students. Try as you may, you cannot make the Stephen or Ann in one story be the same person as the Stephen and Ann in the next (Half Past Four).

Have I made myself clear? Ursula Le Guin was a genius. Not just in writing, or story telling, though she was, but in her up-close observation and descriptions of human behaviour.

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Ursula K Le Guin, Where on Earth: Selected Stories Volume 1, Gollancz, London, 2012. 281pp

see also:
Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed (here)

The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin

756970.jpg

One of my favourite novelists, Ursula Le Guin (b.1929) died last month (22 Jan 2018). I was barely aware of her children’s fantasy fiction which brought her so much acclaim but her adult novels, which are both Science Fiction and Literature, brought me, Mrs Legend and eventually our children, both pleasure and an awareness of what-might-be. Throughout the seventies and eighties she was the first writer we both looked for in second-hand stores and whose work we discussed, and just this xmas we inducted out oldest granddaughter into the club with Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest.

Ursula K Le Guin in her writing and no doubt in herself, was a feminist, an anarchist and a conservationist, a (quiet) revolutionary in the sixties and seventies when it all seemed possible, right up to now when it seems less possible but rather more necessary. She was a fine story-teller who used her adult science fiction to picture and discuss her beliefs and who argued that science fiction was an important and necessary part of Literature. Her obituary in the Guardian says that

… she conveys her strong conviction that science fiction and fantasy, though fascinating in themselves, are also essential literary constructs or tools through which the world could profitably be described – but only if one honoured the tools. She was impatient – though respectfully so – with her friend Margaret Atwood’s disinclination to call some of her own novels science fiction.

Some time in the nineties or oughties I lost track of her and so was pleased when Michelle (MST at Adventures in Biography) wrote of her family’s connection with Le Guin (here) and then came up with Le Guin’s great defense of Harper Lee (here) on the release of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 (my review).

The Dispossessed (1974) was one of three political masterpieces Le Guin wrote at the height of her powers in the sixties and seventies, the other two being Left Hand of Darkness (1969) on feminism and The Word for World is Forest (1976) on conservation and the rapacity of capitalism.

The Dispossessed is the story of a man, Shevek, a physicist working on the Unified Field Theory which eluded Einstein, living on a planet Anarres which 200 years earlier had been colonised by ‘Odonians’ – followers of the woman, anarchist philosopher and revolutionary, Odo. Anarres circles a slightly larger and much more fertile planet, Urras. (The physics of their situation, which Le Guin glosses over by referring to each being the other’s moon, is that they would in fact have orbited each other around their common mid-point and their daily rotations would have synchronised so that they constantly showed the same face to each other.)

Urras, which acts as an analog for present-day Earth, is heavily populated and divided into countries with authoritarian governments. The wealthy country A-Io is an analog for the USA and the communist country Thu of course stands in for the USSR. They are not at war but during the course of the novel fight a proxy war in a third country, putting down a peoples revolt, with A-Io victorious and reinstalling a dictatorship (a reference no doubt to the USA’s intentions in Viet Nam at the time of writing.)

In the background of this story, of all Le Guin’s SF, are the space-faring and long-civilized Hainish who posit that an even earlier civilzation seeded thousands of planets throughout the galaxy with ‘mankind’. The Hainish have near-lightspeed travel, which they are happy to share, but Shevek’s work on ‘Simultaneity’ carries the promise, for the first time, of instantaneous communication. The Hainish, and Terre, almost destroyed by global warming (Yes, that was a thing in 1974. We have been ignoring it for a very long time. The only fiction I ever had published was on a Melbourne inundated by rising sea levels (RMIT Engineering magazine, 1970) ), have embassies on Urras which play a small part at the end of the story. The Terran ambassador tells Shevek:

“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species … There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot … There are nearly half a billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do …”

The story follows two paths: chapters of Shevek’s life growing into adulthood on Anarres, from maths prodigy to physicist, working within his chosen field and as a labourer as the people struggle to deal with shortages and drought, meeting women, getting married, having a family, increasingly having to deal with structural rigidities and social pressure which serve to prevent him disseminating his work; alternating with his time as a mature scientist in A-Io, feted but closeted away from ordinary people, becoming increasingly aware that by being the first person ever to make the trip back from Antarres to Urras he has sold himself, sold his groundbreaking work to the State.

I know there is plenty of boy own stuff in SF, lots of militarism and soft-sex fantasies (the mild, clerkish Robert Heinlein was derided for the enormous muscles of his heroes and breasts of his heroines), but there is also social and literary experimentation which did not, could not find a place elsewhere. The Dispossessed is not space opera, Le Guin makes us care about her protagonist, about his inner struggle to conform his conscience with a workable anarchist ethic. She gives him a life partner, Takver, and friends who share and guide his struggle. She is aware of the problems that will confront a working revolutionary society, and confronts them head-on: the decline of systems of work into bureaucratic rule-following; the failure of voluntary work-sharing and rationing when resources are scarce; the problem of inertia in science which Popper describes in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934) and of analagous failures in the arts. And she balances her male protagonist with an overtly feminist, “womanish”, political philosophy. Odonianism. Anarchism, syndicalism, socialism, pacifism.

Shevek in A-Io struggles with the comfort of his rooms, with the idea of servants, with the absence of women from all areas of work, with his increasing awareness that he is being “duchessed” – inundated with luxuries – in return for the completion of his thesis on Simultaneity. At a ball, consuming alcohol for the first time, he makes a fool of himself with his hostess – the women are naked from the waist up which he takes as an invitation – but in his subsequent hangover determines to defect to the workers, takes part in a massive demonstration which is dispersed by machine gun fire and, finally, ends up at the Terran embassy.

Shevek, a diffident man, is persuaded to address the demonstration. “There might have been a hundred thousand human beings in Capitol Square, or twice that many”. Exactly the situation in Bourke Street, Melbourne on Moratorium Day, May 8, 1970, when the capitalist press attempted to play down our numbers, 20 wide and packed solid all the way, a kilometre, from the GPO to Parliament House and back into the Treasury Gardens.

“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 Antarres. 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 charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful…”

Ursula L Guin was a great, great woman. We are the poorer not for her passing, but for our failure to pay her the attention she deserved.

 

Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed, first pub. 1974. Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2002

see also:

John Clute, Ursula K Le Guin obituary, the Guardian, 25 Jan 2018 here
Ursula K Le Guin, A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman, 3 Aug 2015 here
Ursula K Le Guin, website here


Australia’s First Women Writers – Giveaway

Michelle in her guest post (here) promised a copy of Clarke, P, and Spender, D, Life Lines: Australian women’s letters and diaries 1788-1840 to a lucky commenter. She has written to tell me that the winner is … Jay Hicks. Congratulations Jay. Drop me a line at theaustralianlegend@gmail.com with your postal address and your book will soon be in the mail.