December 2012

Julie Phillips

features

The Real and Unreal: Ursula K. Le Guin, American Novelist

It's been fifty years since Ursula K. Le Guin sold her first short story. Since then her books have been read, taught, quoted, thrust upon acquaintances, put at the top of Occupy reading lists. Over the course of a long, unpredictable, idiosyncratic career, she has written contemporary fiction, historical fiction, poetry, and essays. But she still has one unfulfilled ambition: to be discussed not in genre but in literary terms. She told me recently, "I would love to see somebody, somewhere, sometime, just talk about me as an American novelist."

For someone who's best known as a science fiction writer, it may be a lot to ask. If you prefer your fiction strictly realistic, if you're impatient with invented names and places reachable only by spaceship or magewind, you'll have trouble granting her a place in the literary canon. Now, however, with several Le Guin publishing projects going on, it may be time to rethink her legacy. The question is not whether she'll be read fifty years from now, but how.

I like to picture future American literature students electronically thumbing through copies of The Le Guin Reader. Because people have their own Le Guin, the works that speak most directly to them, I fantasize about editing that reader. I'd put in the stories told from impossible points of view. I'd put in my all-time favorite time travel love story, and a couple of playful, postmodern fictions-about-fiction. I'd put in poems and some of her essays, with their generosity, humor, and inclusive, unprejudiced vision of what literature is and can do.

Meanwhile, what's been reissued isn't bad either. Her Earthsea fantasy series was recently published as a complete set, for the first time in the US. A book of her new and selected poetry, Finding My Elegy, has just come out. And Small Beer Press, which specializes in genre-bending literary fiction, has brought out The Unreal and the Real, some of Le Guin's best, most challenging, most troublemaking, most adventurous, most influential work.

It wouldn't surprise me if future literary critics read Le Guin as an important ancestor, the writer who brought imagination into realist American literature. She helped teach a generation of young writers to mix literature with the low-culture energy of genre. Writers who venture into what Michael Chabon calls the "borderlands," literary fiction that draws on the fantastic, are almost all following Le Guin's map. Junot Díaz, Kelly Link, David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, Victor LaValle all cite her influence. Just think of her as the éminence grise of the American imagination.

A book as innovative as Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is hard to imagine without Le Guin's own talent for narrative invention. (Critic Scott Timberg has said of the linked stories in Cloud Atlas, "It can seem as if each section is taking one phase of Le Guin's complex career as a model.") Her love of language and her imaginative gifts have left their mark on Chabon's work; even a relatively "straight" book like Telegraph Avenue is full of fantasy and fannish élan. Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao owes a debt to her writing on the workings of political power.

Mitchell told me that it was reading Le Guin as a child that made him want to become a writer. Enthralled by the Earthsea books, he wanted to do to others what had just been done to him. In an email interview, he spoke of how Le Guin could dream up a nonexistent world "and make it feel more real than the 'real' here and now around me, this Worcestershire I'm growing up in. Sometimes I think my writing life is the theory, practice and emulation of that same trick."

He says he still turns for inspiration to Le Guin's novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. So does Chabon, who told me that Le Guin's science fiction, including The Lathe of Heaven and the antiwar The Word for World Is Forest, "helped shape my way of thinking about men and women, love and war. She was and remains a central figure for me."

Díaz wrote me, "I read her nonstop growing up and read her still. What makes her so extraordinary for me is that her commitment to the consequences of our actions, of our all too human frailties, is unflinching and almost without precedent for a writer of such human optimism. She never turns away from how flinty the heart of the world is. It gives her speculations a resonance, a gravity that few writers, mainstream or generic, can match."

Mitchell agrees. He says The Dispossessed, Le Guin's study of an anarchist society, "feels just as relevant in the age of Occupy as it must have felt in the early '70s. Dystopias are a piece of cake to write, but utopias usually die of implausibility by page five. Le Guin's trick is to build hers from the same crooked timber as our world."

None of these early Le Guin novels was written on the "borderlands." The Earthsea books are pure fantasy: they're tales of wizards and dragons set in an imaginary archipelago. The Philip K. Dick-inspired The Lathe of Heaven is set in a future composed of dreams. The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on a planet where people have no fixed gender. Yet these books are also wholly literary: they contain skillfully drawn characters and touch on profound philosophical and emotional truths. Since the unity of opposites is a theme that runs throughout Le Guin's work, it's no surprise that she should treat genre and literature as inseparable.

But as she taught young readers to love genre, she moved on, experimenting with combinations of genre and realism. Since the late 1970s, her short stories have been the place where she tries out new forms. They're hard to classify, which may be one reason why her literary reputation hasn't been what it could be. It's also what makes them so exciting.

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Le Guin has divided the stories in The Real and the Unreal into two volumes, called Where on Earth and Outer Space, Inner Lands. "Some people will identify the first volume as 'mundane' and the second as 'science fiction,' but they will be wrong," she writes in the introduction, not only defying categorization but making a rude hand gesture in its direction.

And it's true that volume one isn't a place where fans of realism can get too comfortable. The first four stories in Where on Earth are entirely realistic but set in the invented Eastern European country of Orsinia. Two, written in the 1950s, grapple with themes of political and personal freedom. A sequel from just after the fall of the Wall, "Unlocking the Air," is powerfully, joyously hopeful.

Alongside "Hand, Cup, Shell," a well-executed story of mother-daughter love and tension, there's "Horse Camp," in which teenage girls' love of riding goes so deep that horses and children become each other. In "Buffalo Gals" a lost child finds a new mother in Coyote, the trickster of Indian myth. The dreamlike, haunting "Texts" is about decoding the messages of objects. "Ether, OR" deals with ordinary small-town life, but the town itself keeps moving. ("The way you can't count on Ether is a hindrance sometimes, like when I got up in the dark this morning to catch the minus tide and stepped out the door... with my clam spade and bucket, and overnight she'd gone inland again.")

When she started writing "Ether, OR," Le Guin told me, "I thought the town was going to sort of shift in time. And it wouldn't do it. It would only shift in space." This kind of intuitive strangeness is often what makes a Le Guin story interesting or funny. It's sometimes what makes it so truthful or uncanny that it sends shivers up your spine. It's not a quality that's definable in terms like realism or genre.

Some of the stories in the second volume, Outer Space, Inner Lands, are "straight" science fiction, especially older ones like "Semley's Necklace" (first published in Amazing Stories in 1964) and "Nine Lives." Others use science fiction to play with ideas about perspective and messages. In "Mazes," an alien creature forced to push knobs for a researcher gives the most expressive performance of his life for an experimenter who can never understand. In "The Author of the Acacia Seeds," linguists decipher the autobiography of an ant and the poetry of penguins, "written almost entirely in wings, neck, and air." ("The difficulties of recording a group kinetic performance in a stormy ocean as thick as pea soup with plankton at a temperature of 31° Fahrenheit are considerable; but the perseverance of the Ross Ice Barrier Literary Circle has been fully rewarded...")

Again, though, some of the strongest are sui generis. "The Shobies' Story" takes place in a spaceship attempting faster-than-light travel, but is a postmodern meditation on the power of narrative to shape reality. There's nothing at all unearthly about the deliriously funny and provocative "Sur," the story of how an all-women's expedition became the first to discover the South Pole -- aside from the fact that it never happened. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is hardly a story at all. Instead it's a brief parable about the potential costs of utopia.

In each collection there's a story or two that seems to me too moralistic, too much Le Guin on a "soapbox," as she herself has characterized it. I might have exchanged them for one of her stories set on the planet O, where a marriage consists of four people, or "The Seasons of the Ansarac," which asks what would happen if human sexuality were seasonal, like that of birds. But like I said, people have their own Le Guin.

Karen Joy Fowler is a friend of Le Guin's, as well as a fan. (She name-checked Le Guin in her bestseller The Jane Austen Book Club, as did Mitchell in his novel Black Swan Green.) What Fowler admires most, she told me, is the playfulness of Le Guin's storytelling. "A lot of her work is about telling stories, and what it means to tell stories, and what stories look like. She's been extremely influential on me in that area of what I, as a beginning writer, thought a story must look like, and the much more expansive view I have now of what a story can be and can do.

"It often has to do with just playing around the idea of what a story could be," Fowler continued. "She makes you think many things are possible that you maybe didn't think were possible, or hadn't thought about at all."

There's one more important aspect to Le Guin's literary influence. Many of the characters in her science fiction and fantasy have dark skin. It's a detail that many white readers don't notice. For readers and writers of color, though, Le Guin's work has served as a welcome to the borderlands. Pam Noles, author of the excellent essay "Shame," on race in genre fiction, writes that when she was a young reader feeling left out of fantasy, the realization that the hero of the Earthsea books wasn't white made her burst into tears.

Andrea Hairston is a professor of drama at Smith College and author of the award-winning Redwood and Wildfire, a historical novel with fantasy elements about two vaudeville performers, one a Seminole Indian, one a black "hoodoo woman." When I asked her about Le Guin's influence she wrote, "I feel possible with her in the world. Too much else denies who I am or who I could imagine myself to be."

Le Guin herself first came to science fiction in the early 1960s in search of creative freedom. As a young writer in the 1950s, she told me, she had struggled to find a place for herself. "I was going in another direction than the critically approved culture was. I was never going to be Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow; I didn't know who my fellow writers were. There didn't seem to be anybody doing what I wanted to do."

She read Isak Dinesen's Gothic tales, Italo Calvino's Baron in the Trees, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, the subtly haunted short stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner. Looking for fertile ground for her own fiction, she tried inventing it, setting her stories in an imaginary Eastern European country she called Orsinia.

In Orsinia it was easier for her to write about political freedom without slipping into polemic. Political and intellectual liberty is an important theme for Le Guin. In one of the conversations she and I have been having about her work, she told me it was partly a response to being young in America in the 1950s. "I was looking for something I needed in my own life. It had to do with just thinking and being, in a society that really did seem to be shutting the doors and windows and becoming more stifling."

When the collection Orsinian Tales appeared in print in 1976, it was nominated for the National Book Award. But when they were first written, in the 1950s, no one would publish them, and in search of an audience Le Guin found her way into science fiction. Although it was not the kind of writing a passionately intellectual, fiercely ambitious young writer was expected to do, she found it gave her both distance and room for her energy.

A recurring figure in Le Guin's work is the character who is just ahead of his time. Shevek, the hero of The Dispossessed, argues for an intellectual freedom he himself may never see. For many of the citizens of Orsinia, the Wall falls too late. She has sympathy for these transitional characters, she told me, because she feels like one herself.

It's been hard for reviewers to cope with Le Guin. She's often seemed like a writer without a critical context. But that may just mean that the context is still to come.

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At eighty-three, Le Guin is still writing -- and still discussing genre and realism, a pot she's been stirring for almost her entire career. In a recent blog post, she argued that imaginative literature always has the potential to be subversive. "Why are things as they are? Must they be as they are? What might they be like if they were otherwise?" she wrote. "To ask these questions is to admit the contingency of reality, or at least to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken... There really is nothing to fear in fantasy unless you are afraid of the freedom of uncertainty."

To a certain kind of writer, that uncertainty is a promise and an invitation.

Julie Phillips is the author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. She has been interviewing Ursula K. Le Guin about her life and work.