The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, November 26, 2018

Thank you, Ursula

The Scottish Book Trust invited me to speak for ten minutes introducing the Glasgow Film Theatre's showing of Arwen Curry's documentary Worlds of Ursula k. Le Guin.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin Official Trailer from Arwen Curry on Vimeo.

It's a great honour to be asked to introduce this film. Thank you for inviting me.

The blue badge on my lapel says 'Thank You Ursula'. I picked it up a few months ago at the Locus Weekend, a science fiction event in Seattle, and going by the number I saw being worn at that and other local events the sentiment was widely felt. I'm sure you all share it. We miss Ursula Le Guin, and we have a lot to thank her for.

For her novels and stories and criticism, of course, and for more than that.  Among the many tributes on her death was that of John Scalzi who said that Le Guin 'was a supporting column of the genre, on equal footing and bearing equal weight to Verne or Wells or Heinlein or Bradbury. Losing her is like losing one of the great sequoias.'

Her loss was felt well outside the genres of science fiction and fantasy. She had achieved mainstream literary recognition, with a National Book Award and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But again it was more than that. For many in what seemed increasingly a dark time, she was a tribal elder, a wise woman.

She drew on anarchism, feminism, anthropology, ecology, and Taoism, but never uncritically or unquestioningly. She could be wickedly funny. In her essay 'A Modest Proposal: Vegempathy' (in the aptly titled 2017 collection No Time to Spare) she pointed out that plants are, as science is only now beginning to discover, sensitive and communicative beings. 'We don't know what the carrot feels.' We should eschew the slaughter of plants and live exclusively on water and oxygen.  'It is a pity that the Ogan movement by its nature and principles is fated to be, in each individual case, rather short-lived.'
I can't claim to have read all of her work, and I'm probably not alone here in that. But all of it that I have read has affected me deeply. As I've said elsewhere, her work 'embodies the stubborn virtue of seeing with both eyes, in depth and in colour, without looking away from or ignoring uncomfortable truths. ... Ursula Le Guin may be the SF writer most respected by the literary mainstream; the most studied academically, her work set texts in countless courses. She remains subversive, and her work dangerous reading, because it changes the reader and makes them look at the real world in a different light.'
One of the many remarkable things about Le Guin was how much she developed. Her early novels were fairly standard adventure SF. What made them stand out was their philosophic depth and poetic language. I first read City of Illusions in my late teens or early twenties, which as you may suspect was a long time ago. Some of the images, the lines, and the mood remained so strong in my memory that a year or two ago I began to worry that a novel I had been failing very hard to write for many years might be an unconscious plagiary of City of Illusions. So I re-read it, and I was surprised to find how kind my memory had been. The good bits I remembered were all there but they were embedded in a plot and setting and devices – alien invasion, telepathy, mind control -- that any competent pulp-SF writer could have written. What matters is that the good bits were what she built on. She very quickly shook off the husk of clunky skiffy plotting and worldbuilding and went on, as we all know, to write novels and stories that no one else could have written.

The first of these that I read was The Left Hand of Darkness, which again was in my late teens. This time I was blown away. One of the cover quotes of that edition was from Damon Knight, who said 'from the first page you find yourself totally immersed in it, and at the last page you come out of it with a start and a shiver', and that start and shiver captures exactly how I felt, when the narrator encounters Earth-human beings again after spending years in the company of Gethenians. It's us who look alien.

You get the same effect reading The Dispossessed, from different angles and all through the book. It escalates. You, the reader, are almost certainly living in capitalism, under a state; and you see how strange that would seem if you had always lived in a socialist anarchy. And of course the anarchy and the socialism look strange and alien to you. And then you see how some all-too-familiar aspects of your life here and now crop up in the imperfect utopia of Annares, and you also see how attractive, in many ways, the wealth that presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities is and would be to the exile from Annares. And on and on it turns and spirals. Then, quite suddenly and almost in passing, you see how both sides, Urras and Annares, look to someone from Earth. From our Earth, the ruined Earth of our probable future if we don't do something about it.

And again you fall out of the book with a start and a shiver.

Then there are the short stories, 'The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas', 'The Day Before the Revolution', 'Nine Lives', and one of my absolute all-time favourites, 'The Author of the Acacia Seeds, and other Extracts from The Journal of Therolinguistics'.

And then there's the fantasy, of which other than some short stories I have only read The Earthsea Trilogy. I read that to my daughter when she was still young enough to need a bedtime story but old enough to enjoy it; and I have to say there were places where it was hard to read without my voice cracking.

In her National Book Award acceptance speech Le Guin said:

 Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Her words went around the world and she is with us as long as they are. Thank you Ursula.


Thank you, bro,
for putting a ,
in. Much appreciated.
Few do anymore.
And they expect U.S. to know?
Perplexes me as our perplexion
of the Democrats.
God bless you.

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