Ursula K. LeGuin

[Interview by Heather Davis]

Ursula K. LeGuin is one of the most important and widely read writers of the twentieth century. Over the past fifty years, her prolific output—which spans poetry, novels, short stories, children’s books and essays—has been hugely influential, especially to the genre of science fiction. Through her careful construction of worlds not so different from our own, LeGuin’s works have helped redirect science fiction out of the margins of genre literature to an unparalleled category of thought experiments and possibilities for different worlds, lives, and ways of being. Her universes offer “the enduring welcome of the imagined world,” as she so elegantly puts it here. Through her stories, she has created a place in the world for so many of us who wish for great change, an implicit critique ofmasculinist techno-fantasy and industrial capitalism,offering instead the beauty of quiet reflection, joy in relation, and a gracious and humble manner to live with the planet with which we are completely entangled. I had the incredible honour of discussing with her, over email, her books, the space of imagination and time, ecological crisis, feminism, and science fiction today.

 

Heather Davis — In re-reading many of your books, such as The Telling or The Word for World is Forest, your vision of earth and its human population is both damning and yet full of compassion. Earth is described as a ‘garbage planet,’ as the careless actions of its inhabitants have made it barren and desolate. But despite the egregious actions of some of your characters, there is such a tenderness and compassion to your writing. It feels so good to read your books, like an act of healing. Can you comment on the role of compassion within your worlds and towards even the most unlikable characters?
Ursula K. LeGuin — I wish that were entirely true. But I really dislike some of the people in my stories. Or despise them, which is worse. But as a novelist, I do have to know how this despicable character got that way, and still more important, what it feels like to be that way—even if I don’t much want to. A character you don’t inhabit, that isn’t in fact part of yourself, is a puppet, or a mouthpiece, or a bogeyman. I am Colonel Davidson in The Word for World is Forest, even if I don’t like to admit it. I suppose that’s a kind of compassion. Not in the great Buddhist sense, though. More like the Roman Terence’s saying “Being human, I consider nothing human alien to me.”

​It’s true that there aren’t a lot of real villains in my fiction. I’m no good at Iago. The people in my stories who screw life up for themselves and others mostly do so without intending to, and without enjoying it. Forgiveness is possible, and there are more than four ways to it.

— Many of your stories deal with the strange shifts of time, how time bends, the passage of time across distances, and losing people through time. Shevek, in The Dispossessed becomes important to the universe that he inhabits precisely because of his theories of time, which are the precursor to the ansible, an instantaneous communication device that is used in many of the worlds you created. This reminds me, rather obviously, of the increase of travel in our present world, of instantaneous communication across long distances, but also of the ways in which time can be so discontinuous in our human experience of it. The people in The Word for World is Forest, for example, have dream-time which is a kind of parallel time-world that the characters move in and out of. How do you think about time in your novels
— This is a new idea to me; that I write about time. I’m sure it’s true. (I don’t see a lot of the themes and continuities in my books till somebody else points them out). The fact that the uses of time have changed hugely, drastically, within my lifetime, is certainly true. I lived when simply waiting was a large part of ordinary life: when we waited, gathered around a crackling radio, to hear the infinitely far-away voice of the king of England… I live now when we fuss if our computer can’t bring us everything we want instantly. We deny time. We don’t want to do anything with it, we want to erase it, deny that it passes. What is time in cyberspace? And if you deny time you deny space. After all, it’s a continuum—which separates us. So we talk on a cell phone to people in Indiana while jogging on the beach without seeing the beach, and gather on social media into huge separation-denying disembodied groups while ignoring the people around us.

​I find this virtual existence weird, and as a way of life, absurd. This could be because I am eighty-four years old. It could also be because it is weird, an absurd way to live. Anyhow, none of it got into my fiction—except maybe the time-and-space-erasing NAFAL flight, which puts my characters down in imaginary worlds with real tigers in them (to telescope Moore and Borges) where they have lost all their family and friends back on the old world, which would indeed be the penalty of long space flight. And I suppose you could compare my invention, the ansible, to the cell phone—it erases space. But (like me) my people only use it in emergencies.

— How have the worlds you created many decades ago changed with time, do you inhabit them differently now?
— The worlds I invented exist in a space-time which is, after all, neither actual nor virtual, but fictional. So I don’t inhabit them very differently than when I wrote them.There they are. I can go back to them. That’s a valuable thing about fictional worlds; they’re simply there. Lothlorien is not going to be trashed by agribusiness and urban sprawl. The climate of Gont will not be destabilized.

​Of course the person who rereads, who goes back to Middle Earth or Earthsea, isn’t the same person who first wrote or read them; but that’s another matter, I think, having to do with the individual only, not with the permanent habitability, the enduring welcome of the imagined world.

— Was the lack of recognition of science fiction as literature freeing for you as a younger author, even as it did leave you in a ‘literary ghetto,’ as you have called it? The playfulness of science fiction, and the fact that that genre was for a long time considered outside of the canon seems to offer more room for movement.
— Yes, definitely, you put that very well. I just couldn’t stick inside the rigid mold of Modernist Realism that prevailed in fiction when I was starting out, and I didn’t want to play the social games of the East Coast literary world either. I’m a Westerner. I lit out for the territories… In commercial and literary criticism terms science fictionwas a ghetto, but the genre in itself was wide open, wild country—you could discover, you could explore whole regions where nobody had yet gone. Just what I liked.

— How have attitudes towards science fiction changed throughout your career and where do you think the genre is going?
— At present the old literary criticism categories and exclusions are broken or breaking down—people don’t want them, they don’t fit the modern sensibility. I agitated for decades to get Phil Dick [Phillip K. Dick] shelved next to Charles Dickens, as it were, and that’s happening. So far so good. But after that, what? I don’t know. I hope younger writers will show me. I know it will involve going places we haven’t yet been.

— I am curious about how feminism has changed, and changed you, over time. Most famously, The Left Hand of Darkness, deals with a much more fluid or ambiguous form of gender, as the characters are primarily androgynous and then enter periods of fertility as either a man or a woman, throughout a lifetime experiencing each of these different sexes. This work was incredibly important to theories of sex and gender when it was published in 1969 and remains a seminal feminist text today. How do you think about feminism in your work in the present?
— To be honest, I don’t. What if instead of talking about feminism without defining it, as everybody does, we talk about masculinism? Then I can say that learning how to escape the almost universal masculinization of fiction made a great, life-giving change in my thinking and my fiction from 1968 on. And that growing into that knowledge, learning how to write as a woman and as a human being of complex and only partly definable gender, has been a vital element of my work ever since.

— I really like this turn, from feminism to thinking about masculinism. In your 1986 essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” you talk about the techno-heroic, a masculinist impulse in fiction which props up stories of war, killing and dominance over nature and which contribute to the vast exploitation of resources. Your stories offer so many alternatives to this devastating techno-heroism that we on earth currently are living through. What do you see as the role of stories in this age of extreme ecological crisis?
— Well, if we don’t think about alternatives, we’re stuck with what we’re doing now, following hi-tech industrial growth-capitalism to the bitter end: the uncontrolled exploitation and exhaustion of mineral, plant, and animal resources, along with “solutions” to the resulting deadly pollution that are mere evasions of the problem, as at Hanford, Washington [the most polluted nuclear site in the United States, containing high level radioactive waste] or Fukushima.

​Darwin helped us see that the species that adapt are the species that survive. The imagination is a powerful human means of adaptation. We can say, “I will not live this way” because we’re able to imagine a different way to live that might be better. I think a large part of why we tell stories, and why they’re essential to kids, is to exercise and confirm the power of imagination. And science fiction, using that beautiful tool—the thought experiment—can be useful by rejecting wishful thinking and easy false solutions, sticking to what science, however tentatively, can tell us about reality. Not just space technology and cyberengineering, but the life sciences and the social sciences, ecology, anthropology, neurology, all of it. There’s such lovely stuff there for the mind to play with. Lovely, and maybe life-saving.