Ursula Le Guin has died

by Henry on January 23, 2018

She was a wonderful, vexing, intelligent writer, and great humanist. I was lucky enough to be able to tell her once how much her work had meant to me (via email – we had been talking about doing a Crooked Timber symposium, which she decided in the end she didn’t have sufficient time to commit to). There are a very few books that I’m simply not able to talk about coherently, since they’ve shaped me so deeply that I can’t think straight about them. The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are among them.

{ 52 comments }

1

J-D 01.23.18 at 11:47 pm

Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight
On the empty sky.

2

Sumana Harihareswara 01.24.18 at 12:14 am

“There are a very few books that I’m simply not able to talk about coherently, since they’ve shaped me so deeply that I can’t think straight about them. The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are among them.”

That’s exactly how I feel. It’s awful to lose her.

3

engels 01.24.18 at 12:44 am

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

RIP

4

Faustusnotes 01.24.18 at 12:57 am

For me A Wizard of Earthsea was the book of hers I can’t talk about coherently. Such a wonderful and inspiring work. And The Dispossessed opened my eyes to the possibility that our world might not be being run right, and made me start investigating other political ideas. Such a wonderful and thoughtful writer with such a huge and understated impact on modern literature!

5

Gabriel 01.24.18 at 1:05 am

Fuck.

I like to think that I’m basically immune to sweaty-palm syndrome upon meeting someone I greatly admire, but when I met Ursula and we had a small chat about writing and fantasy lit, all I could think of during the conversation was, ‘Ursula Le Guin is talking to me.’ And when she addressed a group of writers I was lucky to be a part of, there was complete silence as she spoke. Reverential silence.

We will miss so much about her.

6

Donald A. Coffin 01.24.18 at 2:15 am

“Shelley was kicked out of Oxford—I think the story is unauthenticated, but who cares—because he painted a sign on the end wall of a dead-end alley: THIS WAY TO HEAVEN. I feel that every now and then his sign needs repainting.”
Ursula Le Guin, Introduction to the story “The Field of Vision,” in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters​

7

steven t johnson 01.24.18 at 2:25 am

She was a wonderfully imaginative writer, skilled in her prose. Unlike most literary figures I know of, she was committed neither to deceptive quietism, nor to thoughtless reaffirmation of the status quo. Although an occasional fantasist she generally eschewed the reactionary skepticism of absurdism. Her work was about something, not just herself, or pieces of herself taking on second life as characters. I think you could say that as a writer she could make you feel and think at the same time, changing your outlook, if you let it. Of course, this is said of pretty much every writer who critics like, but I think in her case it was true.

But she was too good for cheap sentimentality. She deserved I think to be taken seriously. And when we do that, we have to admit that she was an anarchist. I suppose she was second only to Noam Chomsky in making anarchism look like a feasibly humane politics. But this was in the end still only a glamour of words. I suggest the very best fusion of her art and her politics wasn’t her science fiction, much less her fantasy. It was her historical romance of revolution, or possibly counter-revolution, Malafrena. Appropriate to her anarchism, it was both a fiction and backward looking. Appropriate to her art, it makes a bad case with grace and humanity. Even as we reject her, we must honor her.

8

xaaronx 01.24.18 at 6:00 am

“Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn. And with them, all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is rebirth. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal? What is it but death, death without rebirth?”

—Ged, ‘The Farthest Shore’

9

bad Jim 01.24.18 at 7:56 am

I read her mother’s book, Ishi in Two Worlds, years before I encountered her science fiction. Her work was strikingly sane, compared even to her revolutionary contemporaries. The anthropological perspective is distinctive, refreshing, and necessary; it’s misleading to generalize about human nature from the behavior of our families or our neighbors.

10

MFB 01.24.18 at 9:14 am

Sad, very sad. And yet she had about as good a life as it was possible to have under the circumstances — arrived in science fiction just at the right time for her beliefs and values to be expressed (she wouldn’t have done well in the “golden age” era, I fear) and managed to get books published which probably couldn’t have made the mainstream a decade earlier.

So I suppose one shouldn’t be too sad. We have her books.

11

Phil 01.24.18 at 10:18 am

I read A Wizard of Earthsea – but let’s just pause for a moment over that indefinite article: not the wizard, not the mightiest or most important or most special, just a wizard, one story among who knew how many others. There’s something quite deeply radical there. I often used to look at the map of the Archipelago and imagine the stories that could be told about people who lived on all those other islands (whose names I’ve forgotten, alas).

I read A Wizard of Earthsea, anyway, when I was 11, and it spoke to me – I mean, it named me; it seemed to build its world around me, in a way that I never remember feeling with C. S. Lewis (before) or Tolkien (after). I felt something similar, although I was or felt I was a very different person, when I first met Shevek on Amarres five years later. By that time I’d lost my childhood habit of re-reading my favourite books over and over again, but I made an exception for The Dispossessed. It informed my teenage shift from vague Guevarist Communism to a more articulated anarchism – and has left me with an enduring sense of the possibility of revolution.

The last work I’d mention is her 1975 short story “The New Atlantis”, which I only read much later – well, in my early 20s; again, it seemed like much later at the time. It’s at once a grumpy green-anarchist dystopia and an achingly sweet vision of… well, read it yourself (you can find it online). It’s like a meditation on Kafka’s joke – “Of course there’s hope – hope in abundance, endless amounts of hope. Just not for us.” (It also underlay my first published short story, for what that’s worth.)

If you’d mentioned Le Guin to me last week I would probably have said something grumpy about fallings-off and second-guessing and losing the courage of one’s fictional convictions and so on – and I still find it hard to overlook Tehanu. (But – authors, eh? Whedon killed Tara.) But my God, when she was good she was a world-shaper – and I’m not talking about fictional worlds.

Hail and farewell! She won’t be forgotten.

12

Adam Roberts 01.24.18 at 10:39 am

#7 Genuinely puzzled to hear Le Guin described as an anarchist. Pigeonholes don’t capture her, but if anything we might call her a Taoist. Not at all the same thing. “Even as we reject her …”? Speak for yourself!

13

Anarcho 01.24.18 at 2:22 pm

I’m very sad — she was a great writer. “The Dispossessed” is a classic — she “got” anarchism, and her account of it on Anarres showed that. Even its problems — she clearly understood that the struggle for freedom will always continue, even in societies which are much more free than others. I blogged about this aspect of “The Dispossessed” recently in response to something Ken MacLeod had written about it:

http://anarchism.pageabode.com/anarcho/kropotkin-servitude-or-freedom-1900

MacLeod’s silly — and easily refutable — comments made me want to re-read the book, which I did. I do get something new from it every time I read. A true classic — and an inspiring one.

So somewhat sad today — I’ll re-read “The Left Hand Darkness” now. At least her works are still with us.

14

John R Garrett 01.24.18 at 2:25 pm

When I think about the writers I love and respect, she stands alone, not only as a writer but as a force, evoking commitment and intensity. But I want to add that she was also a wonderful creator of character, and could nuture them and let them grow: not just Gad but many more. Who else now?

15

Glen 01.24.18 at 3:10 pm

“Uninfluenced by others, he never knew he influenced them”

16

Neville Morley 01.24.18 at 4:21 pm

A wonderful writer and profound thinker, even if in recent decades it’s been best expressed in essays and book reviews rather than great novels. I am also very sad that there was never a CT book event.

17

steven t johnson 01.24.18 at 4:28 pm

Adam Roberts@11 “Genuinely puzzled to hear Le Guin described as an anarchist.”
Ah, well, read The Dispossessed. You won’t be puzzled after that, plus you’ll have the experience of an amazing novel.

“Pigeonholes don’t capture her, but if anything we might call her a Taoist. Not at all the same thing.” LeGuin was a Daoist in the same sense one can be a Thomist but not a Roman Catholic. Or be a Kabbalist but not Jewish. Or be an astrologer but not superstitious. It’s not at all clear what being a Daoist means, except that the plot of The Lathe of Heaven means that using power to change society is not just morally wrong, but magically shows itself to be objectively, irrefutably wrong. The Lathe of Heaven shows her anarchism and Daoism are not not at all the same thing, but related. Not at all the same thing isn’t a synonym for the same thing.

“’Even as we reject her …’? Speak for yourself!” I thought the user name made it obvious I wasn’t speaking for you or any other CTer. But I’m not alone in rejecting anarchism (and Daoism too for that matter,) so the use of “we” is oppositional/defiant.
But I’m afraid I was quite serious in thinking that true respect for LeGuin meant taking her seriously, instead of dismissing her anarchism and Daoism as meaningless little quirks.

18

William Berry 01.24.18 at 5:57 pm

As one who has always loved the precision and focus of short fiction, I appreciate her stories more than the novels. Yes, Dispossessed and Left Hand are great works, and, with a little effort I can forgive The Lathe of Heaven, but the paradoxes of NAFAL travel, as in “Semley’s Necklace”, the moral paradox of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, that perfect last line of “Sur”— “We left no footprints even!—, the dry absurdism of “The Author of The Acacia Seeds, etc.: those are what affected me most over the years.

And she was one of the great feminists of the C20.

She will certainly be missed, but she will always be with us.

19

icastico 01.24.18 at 6:18 pm

I love LeGuin’s books and The Dispossessed should be on any must-read list (along with its companion novel, Delany’s Trouble on Triton – and his long essay on how to read The Dispossessed in Jewel Hinged Jaw).

The Lathe of Heaven was the first book of hers I read, and the PBS film made from it continues to be one of the best book adaptations around.

20

Adam Roberts 01.24.18 at 6:59 pm

Steven T Johnson: intentionally or otherwise, your cavalier “ah well read the Dispossessed” strikes an amazingly grating note. If it was intentional, then: bravo. Well done you.

As it happens, I have read The Dispossessed. Indeed, I’ve read literally everything Le Guin wrote, fiction and non-fiction, some of it many times, and have written about her critically, at some length, and in various forums. I write myself, and my first published novel was avowedly a midrash upon, or reworking of, The Dispossessed. And yet, despite your assurance that reading The Dispossessed will cure my puzzlement where your comment is concerned, I find myself still puzzled, a bafflement not clarified by your comparison of Taoism to Kabbalism or astrology. (Astrology? Really?) You’re collapsing the difference between the teller and her tale? Are you going to suggest, on the strength of War and Peace, that Tolstoy was a famous Bonapartist?

“Even as we reject her …? Speak for yourself!” I thought the user name made it obvious I wasn’t speaking for you or any other CTer.
I think, here, you have mistaken the illocutionary function of my phrase.

21

J-D 01.24.18 at 7:06 pm

steven t johnson

I suppose she was second only to Noam Chomsky in making anarchism look like a feasibly humane politics. But this was in the end still only a glamour of words.

It took me years, and more than one rereading, to articulate a response to the criticisms I’ve read of the politics of The Dispossessed, which is that the book is not attempting to give a demonstration of how anarchism would work, so that an objection that Anarresti society wouldn’t work is not to the point. I could point specifically to passages which expose obvious lacunae in the description of the Anarresti system. Nobody ever objects, I notice, that we are not given an explanation of the political system of A-Io, where the other half of the book takes place; nobody imagines that’s the point, or part of the point. It is, rather, the point of the book, or the larger part of the point, to show what people living in an anarchist society might be like, if such a thing as an anarchist society could ever exist; to give one answer to the question posed in the last line of The Left Hand Of Darkness, ‘Will you tell us about the other worlds out among the stars—the other kinds of men, the other lives?’

22

Wild Cat 01.24.18 at 7:22 pm

She was a great soul. A writer who inspired me for many decades. I’m just grateful I had a chance to chip in some work for some anthologies that included her short stories. It was a honor.

23

Stephen Johnson 01.24.18 at 7:46 pm

Every time I reread the Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, I find something new & worthwhile to think about. The world – at least my tiny patch of it – is much richer mentally for her work.

I need to dig back through some of the other ones, it’s been too long.

24

Robert 01.24.18 at 8:13 pm

Any discussion of Le Guin and anarchi should deal with Always Coming Home. Is a hinge a Daoist concept?

25

Robert 01.24.18 at 8:15 pm

I liked The Author of the Acacia Seeds, too. Another great one is The Rock that Changed Things.

26

Robert 01.24.18 at 8:23 pm

Which Hainish world had the marriages with four people? You are expected to engage in hetero and homosexual relations with two of your three spouses, but treat the fourth more like a brother or sister. And there was some sort of notional family structure that limited who you could marry in what role. This setup struck me as creative as Winter.

27

steven t johnson 01.24.18 at 8:39 pm

J-D@21 “It is, rather, the point of the book, or the larger part of the point, to show what people living in an anarchist society might be like, if such a thing as an anarchist society could ever exist…” Very well put. This makes very clear in what sense LeGuin made anarchism look like a feasibly humane politics. Of course, this should be addressed to Adam Roberts, who never got that point at all.

“Nobody ever objects, I notice, that we are not given an explanation of the political system of A-Io, where the other half of the book takes place; nobody imagines that’s the point, or part of the point.” Nobody who would be listened to, to be precise. I object that one of the key points in the entire book is that Shevek rejects communism, because statism/revolution, etc. Why would an author want to falsely complexify the issue of pacifism by really spelling out imperialist war and fascism in a novel about pacifist anarchism? The book is not a thought experiment or a tract to be refuted. Shevek’s moral indifference to the plight of humanity on Urras is there, for the reader to see, if they wish.

Again, I think it demeans LeGuin to dismiss her politics and even her absurd Daoism as nothing worth thinking about.

icastico@19 “I love LeGuin’s books and The Dispossessed should be on any must-read list (along with its companion novel, Delany’s Trouble on Triton – and his long essay on how to read The Dispossessed in Jewel Hinged Jaw).” I read a version in paperback called Triton. Neither Trouble on Triton nor The Jewel-Hinged Jaw have ever been in a library I had access to. I remember regretfully passing on The Jewel-Hinged Jaw in a rather expensive trade paperback, when it first came out, I think. But venturing to rely on my memory, however risky a proposition, I would say that LeGuin, as befits an anarchist, was fundamentally looking backward, though in a thoroughly anti-Bellamy way. And Delany, whatever else he was doing in Triton (high comedy, I thought at the time,) wasn’t.

William Berry@18 Although you and I may consider LeGuin a strong feminist, others have felt differently. We should always be willing to be instructed. At this point I meant to link to an Athena Andreadis essay, “As Weak as Woman’s Magic” but it seems to disappeared from the database. Perhaps a left-handed tribute? If anyone has a downloaded copy, posting it would be enlightening.

28

Peter Dorman 01.24.18 at 8:51 pm

I have used The Dispossessed in teaching numerous times, and it always works. Some students are practically ready to sign up for Anarres on the spot; others are repulsed by its soft coercion. What’s wonderful is how it sort of pre-builds the bridges that enable those who view it differently to compare notes and shift foreground and background with each other. It is a unity of opposites in practice.

At its core, I think, is a working out of the observation that there are three forms of social order that have been counterposed in the twentieth century — the market (competitive self interest), the state (political dictation), and the social pressure of peers (in Ostrom as much as Kropotkin). UKL shows us all three.

Some aspects of the book don’t work so well. The division of possibility into three ideal types is useful up to a point but then becomes confining; after a first exposure to the extremes we want to move on to potential hybrids. She further evades that step with her plot resolution, not just the deus ex machina at the very end but also (especially) Shevek’s speech at the demonstration with its shift from collective action to finding the core of one’s own being. (Some will disagree, but I always cringe when I get to that part.) What does work, however, works so brilliantly that I always forgive her. And Anarres is so fully imagined……incredible.

I’ve only read a smattering of her other work (Left Hand, some of her essays), and she can be prickly at times, but she always represents for me an embodiment of what literature can offer to our understanding of the world: the power to make ideas, feelings and perspectives tangible. Visible, hearable, smellable. Especially with ideas it’s quite a gift.

29

Theophylact 01.24.18 at 9:27 pm

I bought Always Coming Home over 30 years ago, read a little, put it down. A few months ago, packing up books, I came across it again. This time I couldn’t put it down. Reading it brought me close to tears many times.

By the way, she was a great short-story writer. Everyone knows “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”; but don’t miss “Sur“.

30

Icastico 01.25.18 at 12:37 am

@27 Triton is Trouble onTriton. Same book.

31

Faustusnotes 01.25.18 at 1:03 am

I think le guin is a far superior salesperson for anarchism than Chomsky, and the dispossessed a much more honest attempt to explore what anarchism would mean to ordinary people than he has ever tried. A flaw of revolutionaries is their unwillingness to say what their final society would be like. Le guin made the best attempt at doing so.

Also a shout-out to orsinian tales. She really knew how to bring the ordinary and the mundane to life.

32

Icastico 01.25.18 at 1:44 am

@27. Re: LeGuim in relation to Delaney – not sure LeGuin was looking backwards so much as exploring. One of the signs that her exploration is worthwhile to join with her in is the fact that Delany, one of her more serious peers, would spend hundreds of pages of both fiction and criticism in an attempt to dialogue with her work and the themes it raises. Trouble on Triton, in this sense, is deadly serious.

33

LFC 01.25.18 at 2:13 am

Re the anarchism side discussion:
No doubt steven t johnson has read a good deal more Chomsky than I have, but my impression is that, when it comes to his political writings, Chomsky’s main concern has been the critique of U.S. foreign policy, not making the case for anarchism. I can’t say I’ve followed Chomsky’s work at all closely, but I do have on the shelf the book that it’s probably fair to say made his reputation in this respect, the essay collection American Power and the New Mandarins (pb, 1969), and I’ve dipped into it enough to know that it is definitely worth reading, esp. for those with any interest in the Vietnam War period.

ok, back to LeGuin, etc.

34

Gabriel 01.25.18 at 3:58 am

*Delany.

I always feel bad for Chip whenever I see his name misspelled (which is constantly).

35

Josh 01.25.18 at 5:07 am

“They just hook by nature. They’re like Velcro, anarchism and Taoism.” http://www.oregonlive.com/books/index.ssf/2010/02/northwest_writers_at_work_ursu.html

36

Annarestipanda 01.25.18 at 12:53 pm

While I have appreciated the philosophical and political in LeGuin, it is names and images that have stuck with me. I can see the sword of Erreth-Akbe glinting in the sunlight above the port of Gont, I know what a Chabe stove looks like. Dragged, despite my dislike of sea voyaging to the Scilly isles, I sat amid the Tombs of Atuan on a deserted shore and scanned the horizon: Uffish, Koppish, Vemish, Damory, Roke, the Kargad Isles, and far over there, the Dragons Run and the Hand. My passport is stamped with LeGuin worlds.

37

Sumana Harihareswara 01.25.18 at 3:03 pm

In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness Le Guin writes:

Yes, indeed the people in it [the book] are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are.

In 2001 I taught this book in a college setting — it was the first book on the syllabus — and the students came in to class, and I asked: “How are we ‘already’ androgynous? Where does gender not affect us?” I may have said different words.

And the moment was electric. I looked around the room. I was pretty sure that every single one of those students was staring, gazing, not blankly, but thinking, for a second, two, three. I had asked something they hadn’t asked themselves before, and they were sifting their experiences, seeking, seeing with new eyes, forming new synapses, making connections. And two or three voices called out at once, bursting with the enthusiasm of discovery. On the rowing team. In Wu Shu. Over the internet. And we made connections, categories… it was one of the best, if not the best, moments I’ve ever had in teaching.

Le Guin writes in that same introduction:

Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find — if it’s a good novel — that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

I also want to point out Le Guin’s work as a translator and advocate of others’ voices. I’m surely not the only one who never would have heard of Argentinian author Angélica Gorodischer except that Le Guin decided to translate Kalpa Imperial. And Le Guin created a translation of the Tao Te Ching. The breadth of her work — as this Oregon Public Broadcasting obit reminds us, “Her works can be found across six or seven sections of any bookstore or library, from poetry to children’s literature to criticism and essays, to her powerful, wondrous novels.” — she was her own kind of polymath, and I treasure that example she set, too.

In reading her 1983 commencement address delivered at Mills College I see how Le Guin’s message, that I need to decolonize my mind from thinking that maintenance and carework is second-class compared to exploring and making and building stuff, has influenced my career choices.

And maybe my favorite line of hers, from a book I haven’t even read yet:

“The dead are dead. The great and mighty go their way unchecked. The only hope in the world lies in the people of no account.” (from “The Finder,” in Tales of Earthsea)

38

icastico 01.25.18 at 6:12 pm

@34 “I always feel bad for Chip whenever I see his name misspelled (which is constantly).”

Me too… I can only blame commenting from my iPhone. It auto-corrected on me every time (but couldn’t catch LeGuim, sadly).

@37 ” I’m surely not the only one who never would have heard of Argentinian author Angélica Gorodischer except that Le Guin decided to translate Kalpa Imperial.”

Her translation of Kalpa Imperial is a true service to the English speaking world…a beautiful piece of work.

39

Sumana Harihareswara 01.25.18 at 7:18 pm

Naomi Novik’s poem “For Ursula” made me cry again.

40

J-D 01.25.18 at 9:04 pm

Robert
The name of the planet you are thinking of is O, featured in the stories ‘A Fisherman Of The Inland Sea’, ‘Unchosen Love’, and ‘Mountain Ways’. The population is divided into two moieties, the Morning and the Evening: you belong to the same moiety as your mother, and you can only ever have sex with people of the other moiety, not with people of the same moiety. (None of the stories mentions people breaking this taboo, but ‘Mountain Ways’ does deal with people breaking a different taboo; if she’d ever been asked, I don’t imagine Le Guin denying the existence of the practice on O, in the same way that nobody would deny the existence of incest on Earth, but perhaps she was never asked.) The only form of marriage acknowledged in the stories (there’s no hint, though, of any taboo on premarital or nonmarital sex) is the sedoretu, which is formed by one man and one woman of each moiety, and each member is expected to have sex with both the members of the other moiety (separately) but never with the member of their own moiety. A sedoretu can also be expanded with additional members when a brother or sister of a member joins it.

41

mrmr 01.25.18 at 11:24 pm

fwiw, I hadn’t remembered Anarres as a Utopia–after all, Shevek begins the work by fleeing it because of its stultifying ideologically-laden conformism. That was something that struck me at the time; to me, then, at least, The Dispossessed seemed deeply political, but yet also honest, because LeGuin was deeply political, but yet also honest–bright, intellectual, and richly imaginative, and struggling with the image of social order. I don’t recall the book as one where she comes to a real answer, though her sympathies obviously lie here and there. Perhaps I was projecting. But whether it was her or me I was reading, I ate it up.

As much as I loved The Dispossessed, and much of her other work, I will agree that her Taoism seemed both genuine and ridiculous (to me, a non-Taoist). Sometimes I just found it kind of cute–she was, after all, an old Bay Area hippie of the right era. That’s where I grew up, I feel like I’ve seen the type and personally find it charming. The Lathe of Heaven, though, was a punishment. And some of those short stories, too. Well, you can’t win them all.

One of the things that was wonderful about Earthsea–and there are so many things that are wonderful about it–was how it combined humanistic compassion with an analytic-critical appreciation of social roles and rites. For a long time I listed The Tombs of Atuan as my favorite book. One thing I loved, beyond the mere beauty of the language, was how clearly it showed Tenar as the chosen one; and yet an owned girl, an object of ritual significance, under the domination of nuns and worse yet the great old stones. Some agency most surely, but peculiar. She escapes! But then when she is free, with her dashing companion, there is–remorse, a sense of loss. The stones are broken. On the day she returns by ship she wears a golden armband, the next day she will be just another person, and a woman at that. The series returns to her later, and her life is just as rich and textured, but now: an ungrateful son, middle age.

I don’t know that I’ll ever really share her worldview. And I don’t think it’s all aged equally well–The Word for World is Forest, for instance, strikes me as a work that will be quietly forgotten as its moment has passed (reaction to Vietnam). But she was wonderful. I’m sure she could write an incredible eulogy for herself, full of sharper language than “incredible.” All I can do, though, is pay my respects in an ordinary way, and try to make time to read her wonderful works again.

42

J-D 01.26.18 at 1:37 am

<a href="http://crookedtimber.org/2018/01/23/ursula-le-guin-has-died/#comment-725893"steven t johnson

“It is, rather, the point of the book, or the larger part of the point, to show what people living in an anarchist society might be like, if such a thing as an anarchist society could ever exist…” Very well put. This makes very clear in what sense LeGuin made anarchism look like a feasibly humane politics. Of course, this should be addressed to Adam Roberts, who never got that point at all.

I cannot figure what leads you to that last conclusion, about Adam Roberts.

I object that one of the key points in the entire book is that Shevek rejects communism, because statism/revolution, etc.

I feel that’s the sort of suggestion that ought to be backed up by a textual reference. The direct reference to communism that sticks in my mind comes from Chapter Eleven, where the Terran Ambassador, Keng, refers to Anarresti society as an experiment in ‘non-authoritarian communism’; Shevek does not object ‘No, we’re not communists.’ In his discussion with Chifoilisk in Chapter Five, Shevek rejects the Thuvian model, and Thu is easily and plausibly read as an analogue of the Soviet Union, but lots of people, groups, and organisations have combined self-description as communists with rejection of the Soviet model.

Shevek’s moral indifference to the plight of humanity on Urras is there, for the reader to see, if they wish.

Again, I’m wondering about textual support. What I think of is the line from Shevek’s talk with Tuio Maedda in Chapter Nine: ‘If I would be of use, use me.’ I also think of this paragraph from earlier in the same chapter, when Shevek has succeeded in inducing Efor to open up to him about working-class life in A-Io: ‘It was not “the real Urras.” The dignity and beauty of the room he and Efor were in was as real as the squalor to which Efor was native. To him a thinking man’s job was not to deny one reality at the expense of the other, but to include and to connect. It was not an easy job.’

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Josh 01.26.18 at 5:29 am

The belief that Le Guin was an anarchist is quite widespread here in the U.S. Here’s a moving eulogy on that theme. https://crimethinc.com/2018/01/25/we-will-remember-freedom-why-it-matters-that-ursula-k-le-guin-was-an-anarchist

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bad Jim 01.26.18 at 6:50 am

I’m fond of ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ and Zelazny’s ‘Doorways in the Sand’ because of their resolute silliness (and their left coast roots, because this is where I live). When I first read those books I attributed them to the influence of PK Dick, underground comics, the Beatles — my milieu. But then, that culture was to some degree the result of writers like them.

‘The Lathe of Heaven’ is a fun story. Having watched two dramatizations, I’ll always think that ‘George Orr’ can be pronounced ‘Jor Jor’ and visit antique shops with anticipation.

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Jim Buck 01.26.18 at 8:27 am

M. John Harrison was talking about Le Guin last night. He said that when he first encountered The Left Hand of Darkness “… it was completely unlike anything I had read before. I thought: This must have been written by an alien! It was so other! In the final analysis, that is a terrible indictment.”

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J-D 01.26.18 at 9:14 am

mrmr

fwiw, I hadn’t remembered Anarres as a Utopia

One way or the other, it’s there on the title page; the sub-title is ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’. There’s also this passage in Chapter Ten, which reads to me as an explicit disavowal of utopian projects:

He also felt that a man who had this sense of responsibility about one thing was obliged to carry it through in all things. It was a mistake to see himself as its vehicle and nothing else, to sacrifice any other obligation to it. … the separation of means and ends was … false. … there was no end. There was process: process was all. You could go in a promising direction or you could go wrong, but you did not set out with the expectation of ever stopping anywhere. All responsibilities, all commitments thus understood took on substance and duration.

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steven t johnson 01.26.18 at 11:42 am

J-D@42 begins by professing bafflement at why an explanation of the way in which The Dispossessed is an anarchist novel should have been addressed to Adam Roberts. The reason of course is that Roberts claimed that LeGuin was not an anarchist, and that she was a Daoist, as if Daoism and anarchism were incompatible, rather than related. (If anarchist-sympathizers protest anarchism is a political philosophy and Daoism is a philosophy/religion, that rather misses how anarchism is political philosophy in a religious cast of mind. It’s not just LeGuin whose real world anarchism was a kind of Sunday go-to-church and think good thoughts affair.)

It’s as if J-D were trying to amnesty Adam Roberts. Well, a science fiction critic misread a major SF novelist. This would be embarrassing, but politics are involved. I would hate to think that J-D was somehow convinced that the explanation of what LeGuin was doing somehow meant she wasn’t writing an anarchist novel. If Victor Hugo can have political commitments in Les Miserables and it was still a novel, rather than a crude tract, so can LeGuin.

If I’m going up to the attic to dig out a LeGuin book, I will get Malafrena. If I get The Dispossessed, rather than hunting for a quote, I’ll end up re-reading the whole book. But without quotes, a Communist activist approaches Shevek for political support, on the grounds that they are both anti-propertarians. Shevek refuses. It’s true that the book doesn’t use the word “Communist.”

As to the quotes in the comment? What ever is “non-authoritarian communist” supposed to signify except “not-a-Communist?” Not-an-anarchocapitalist?

LeGuin knew perfectly well that she could have written an Urras scene instead where sympathizers of Communism were hostile to Shevek on contact, condemning him as a draft dodger in the class war, cowards fleeing the ruling class of Urras. I surmise she didn’t because that version would be embarrassing, and worse, Shevek’s repudiation of revolution—as she she sees it of statism—was a major decision, especially as regards the political themes.

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DCA 01.26.18 at 5:09 pm

I’ll probably get a negative reaction for saying all this, but on rereading The Dispossessed (first time since adolescence) I found it could be read as an imagined demonstration that a truly libertarian society (everyone is free to do as they please, though schooled to do so for the common good) might require the complete abandonment of property. As such, it shows the narrowness of what is usually called libertarianism.

Not many novels make you think as much as hers do–but perhaps that is because few fiction writers have her anthropological sensibility.

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ترول 01.26.18 at 5:22 pm

My (no doubt incomplete) impression of LeGuin’s Taoism is that it is – among other things – a tenable and rather attractive political position. In particular, its non-interventionism – the idea that in many cases you have a responsibility _not_ to intervene to correct what you perceive as an evil – is an essential corrective to American mainstream thought. Vietnam taught her that, as Iraq should have taught us.

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J-D 01.26.18 at 9:48 pm

steven t johnson
I am not sure what it means to describe a book as ‘an anarchist novel’. I wrote earlier ‘It is, rather, the point of the book, or the larger part of the point, to show what people living in an anarchist society might be like, if such a thing as an anarchist society could ever exist’ and you responded ‘very well put’. A portrayal of what an anarchist society might be like does not automatically equate to advocacy of anarchism. You wrote yourself: ‘The book is not a thought experiment or a tract to be refuted.’ If it’s not a tract then it follows automatically that it’s not an anarchist tract. I’m not sure what it means for something to be an anarchist novel without being an anarchist tract. If you mean simply that it’s a novel about anarchism, which it clearly is, then there is nothing absurd about the idea of a novel about anarchism being written by somebody who is not an anarchist, and the fact that she wrote about anarchism is not evidence that Adam Roberts was mistaken to write that Le Guin was not an anarchist. For what it’s worth, she herself denied being an anarchist on the grounds that she didn’t live like one. Apart from that, I am not, as you suggest, defending Adam Roberts against a charge of having misread the book, as I have no idea what his interpretation of the book is; except that, as(he’s written nothing on that point here, I can’t find the basis for the charge

If I’m going up to the attic to dig out a LeGuin book, I will get Malafrena. If I get The Dispossessed, rather than hunting for a quote, I’ll end up re-reading the whole book. But without quotes, a Communist activist approaches Shevek for political support, on the grounds that they are both anti-propertarians. Shevek refuses. It’s true that the book doesn’t use the word “Communist.”

That’s the exact same passage I was referring to when I mentioned Shevek’s dialogue with Chifoilisk in Chapter Five, which I also didn’t quote from. Chifoilisk is a scientist and also, as he acknowledges to Shevek in this dialogue, an agent of the government of Thu. In the dialogue in Chapter Five, he asks Shevek to come to Thu and put his science at the service of Thu; Shevek declines, after a discussion in which Chifoilisk attempts to make the case that Thu is closer to Odonian values than A-Io and Shevek, without directly denying this, attempts to make the case that Thu deviates from and is antagonistic to Odonian values, more actively antagonistic even than A-Io. My point here is this: if a person refused to work for the Soviet Union, it would not have shown that the person rejected communism; when Shevek refuses to work for Thu, it does not show that he rejects communism. Here’s just one illustrative quote:

‘Why don’t you come to Thu and see how real socialism functions?’
‘I know how real socialism functions’, Shevek said. ‘I could tell you; but would your government let me explain it, in Thu?’

You also ask

What ever is “non-authoritarian communist” supposed to signify except “not-a-Communist?”

I understand ‘non-authoritarian communism’ to mean ‘a form of communism that is not authoritarian’, and if that is insufficiently clear, I need to know which it is you think we need to clarify further, the meaning of ‘communism’ or the meaning of ‘authoritarian’. I do know that there are some people who would argue that ‘non-authoritarian communism’ is a contradiction in terms because communism is authoritarian by definition, but I do not know whether you are one of those people. Or is your position perhaps the reverse, that communism is non-authoritarian by definition and that therefore the description ‘non-authoritarian communism’ is confusing because of a false implication that there could be such a thing as authoritarian communism? or is there some other possibility I’ve missed?

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steven t johnson 01.27.18 at 2:34 am

“Shevek declines, after a discussion in which Chifoilisk attempts to make the case that Thu is closer to Odonian values than A-Io and Shevek, without directly denying this, attempts to make the case that Thu deviates from and is antagonistic to Odonian values, more actively antagonistic even than A-Io.”

Substitute “Einstein” (or “Ainsetain”) for Shevek, “Korolev” for “Chifoilisk,” “USA” for “A-Io,” and as you noticed yourself, “USSR” for “Thu.” Again, dramatizing the issue in this way, to make Shevek the hero in repudiating evil, rather than having Odonians despised as runaways from the struggle, was a choice, with meaning. (Yes, Odonians were ostentatiously portrayed as despised, for the wrong reasons, which discredited them.)

As I wrote previously, “I object that one of the key points in the entire book is that Shevek rejects communism, because statism/revolution, etc.” (You yourself quoted that one.) And I also wrote “I surmise she didn’t because that version would be embarrassing, and worse, Shevek’s repudiation of revolution—as she she sees it of statism—was a major decision, especially as regards the political themes.” Shevek is not a puppet for the author, but a character. Nonetheless, it is LeGuin, and Shevek, who see communism as statist, as authoritarian, as revolutionary dictatorship. People against revolution, i.e., winning the class war, reject communism, no matter what they wish, or say. Their non-authoritarian communism is a rejection of real world politics in favor of schemes and projects never to be undertaken, any more than LeGuin lived as an anarchist. Her anarchism was essentially religious, and the believer need no more live anarchism than the Christian.

All of them define communism as dictatorship, and reject the economics as unnatural, causing poverty. They always see the economic arrangements as restriction of consumption, what Marx condemned as barracks communism. It is a primitivism that better fits ancient Sparta than today’s world. But anarchists are not sophisticated thinkers, including LeGuin. Being an artist didn’t save her from the stupidities, of looking backward instead of forward.

Taking Adam Roberts’ purported objection is silly. Roberts was having a hissy fit because someone took her work seriously, instead of just mouthing the proper platitudes. Your common idea that The Dispossessed is some sort of thought experiment is preposterous. James Blish was the one who did that sort of thing, like in his fascist novel, or his deranged YA series. If you compare The Dispossessed with Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, you should notice two things: One, that in terms of SF premises and world building, they are very, very close to being the same thing. Two, that it was Heinlein who was playing with anarchism, whose characters wanted to win, and that LeGuin wasn’t playing, but even in fiction (especially in fiction) repudiated even a day dream of winning.

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J-D 01.27.18 at 4:50 am

steven t johnson
Shevek considers himself to be a genuine revolutionary and the Syndicate of Initiative (admittedly only sketchily described in the novel) to be a revolutionary project. You don’t consider Shevek to be a genuine revolutionary because, as far as I can make out (but perhpas I have misunderstood you?), he does not behave in a genuinely revolutionary way. What’s not clear to me is what you would consider to be a genuinely revolutionary project for Anarresti revolutionaries. To storm the Port of Anarres, seize control of a freighter, and take it to Urras in order to join in an effort to overthrow the Ioti capitalist ruling class? or what? Shevek does in fact join in the general strike and demonstration (‘If I would be of use, use me’), which is also supported and jointly organised by the pro-Thuvian Socialist Workers Union; how is that not a revolutionary action? what else would you suggest he could have done?

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