Ursula K Le Guin helped us imagine a better world

January 31, 2018
Ursula K Le Guin.

There are few things more restorative right now than reading the work of US fantasy and science fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin.

Her writing offers a temporary reprieve from the terrors and traumas of our current political moment of soaring wealth inequality, and the daily struggle to resist the belligerent menace of US President Donald Trump and the ruling class he serves.

The celebrated novelist who authored more than 20 novels, as well as collections of poetry and children’s books, passed away on January 22 aged 88.

Le Guin was a radical thinker whose life’s work examined both the ugliness and beauty of our world. She upended literary conventions and embraced the fantastic to tell stories that compelled readers to rethink their basic assumptions about our society.

She was a feminist and activist symathpetic to anarchism. Her work touched the lives of countless readers, many of whom took away the idea that another, better world might in fact be possible, even if we don’t know how to get it or what it will look like.

Writing 'from below'

Like the people at the end of Le Guin’s famous short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, the people who make the revolution will set out to find the better world.

At every stage of my life, Le Guin’s work has been with me, starting with A Wizard of Earthsea when I was 11. I took refuge in that book. Like many working-class kids in the US, I remember having had a sense of powerlessness when I was young, but Earthsea, unlike The Hobbit or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was a story where words had power.

As I grew older, I realised that Earthsea did much more than boost my confidence. Published in 1968, the liberation politics of that time are embedded in it. With its brown-skinned protagonists and decidedly non-Tolkien-inspired setting, Earthsea serves as an alternative to the Eurocentric fantasies full of the anxieties that author Michael Moorcock has called “bourgeois bugaboo”.

As the Earthsea series progressed, Le Guin underwent a process she described as “catching up with my feminism”.

In her words, she approached the later books by “looking at [the series] from an entirely different point of view. Instead of looking at it from above, from those in a position of power, I looked at it from beneath, from the position of the powerless.”

In doing this, she brought gender and women’s oppression to the foreground. Her commitment to looking at the world and her work “from below” is one example of why the left should celebrate Le Guin.

Le Guin was closely aligned with anarchist politics. In the 1960s, she was an activist, opposing the Vietnam War, and began to identify with pacifism and anarchism. She immersed herself in a broad range of writing, including work by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and even Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin.

While her work often celebrates anarchism, Le Guin dodged labeling herself as such in a 2016 interview, somewhat halfheartedly describing herself as a “bourgeois housewife”. Regardless of how she viewed her own politics, she was certainly sympathetic toward anarchism as a set of ideals and practices.

Le Guin had a spiritual component to her life as well. She practiced Taoism and Buddhism, themes that run throughout her work alongside and in concert with her interest in all things anthropological.

She had a fascination with utopia, often creating them in her stories and then fracturing them to show us some ugliness about our own world. Novels such as The Dispossessed argued against passive acceptance of exploitation and oppression.

Her impact on popular culture is immense. Author Neil Gaiman credits reading Le Guin with transforming him into a feminist. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon has called her the best writer of her generation.

Author and Marxist China Mieville observed that Le Guin had a “slow-burning fury at injustices” and “a very sharp and unremitting diagnosis of things in the social world”.

'Slow burning fury'

This “slow-burning fury” was on display in 2014 when Le Guin was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation. Her speech quickly went viral and was turned into social media memes: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable.

“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, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

Le Guin defended art, and books specifically, as being more than just commodities. She called out the “commodity profiteers” of Amazon and big publishing houses that try to sell authors’ works as if they are “deodorant”.

Le Guin defended what is often called “genre” literature and challenged its relegation to the back of bookstores while “the so-called realists” are held up as true literature.

The National Book Award speech wasn’t the first or last time Le Guin used her voice to challenge those in power. She refused to support sci-fi/fantasy anthologies that only published male authors.

After the 2016 election, she wrote about the despair and frustration felt by so many. She defended the Indigenous-led anti-oil pipeline protesters at Standing Rock in North Dakota, comparing that struggle to past civil rights struggles.

At the start of the Trump presidency, Le Guin wrote: “I know what I want. I want to live with courage, with compassion, in patience, in peace.” And she did.

Let’s read her work, immerse ourselves in the worlds she created, and celebrate the lessons she has to teach — like looking at the world “from below”, being bold enough to imagine things differently than they are today, aspiring toward courage and compassion, and striving for a world free of capitalism so that peace can actually be possible.

[Slightly abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

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