ARTS & CULTURE

Hopping Through Time With Ursula K. Le Guin

The science fiction novelist shares her thoughts on Amazon, Worldcon and the limitations of dystopia.

31/08/2015 10:39 PM AEST | Updated 01/09/2015 3:00 AM AEST
Priscilla Frank

In a 1966 novel, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote about a little device -- about the size of a lunchbox -- that allows its owner to communicate across land masses, even planets, in a flash. Though the ansible isn't currently a reality, we're constantly working to improve the speed with which we can deliver electronic information to far-flung readers. 

That Le Guin could even conceive of such a technology decades ago speaks to the powers of her imagination. "You move along with your time," she said in a phone interview with The Huffington Post, noting that some of the more radical concepts she penned in the 1990s would've never occurred to her when she set out to start writing.

Though she's lauded as a feminist novelist and poet who's used fictional societies to criticize gender norms, she admits that she was slow to grow into her own beliefs. After all, she was raised on the hard sci-fi of male physicists and engineers -- great books not unlike last year's The Martian, but far removed from her interests, which are centered on social sciences, anthropology and religion.

Over the phone -- a sort of proto-ansible -- the author discussed her development as a feminist, her thoughts on this year's Hugo Awards, and her concerns about Amazon. She punctuated most of her steadfast opinions with a good-humored laugh -- a reminder of the amusement and wonder that underlies so much of her work.

I wanted to ask a little about your slightly more recent stories -- in a story from the '90s, “Coming of Age in Karhide,” you return to the world of The Left Hand of Darkness, but explore the characters’ sexuality more closely. Why did you feel you were able to do this decades after the world was created?

Science-fiction was not doing sex, essentially. The sexuality of the Gethenians could be considered rather kinky back then. This was the late '60s. The '60s were swinging, but fiction in a way hadn’t really caught up. The whole idea of questioning the construction of gender, and the fact that people can be intergender, that was not being discussed then. So, to show this kind of sexuality which is different from human sexuality -- where people go into heat as it were, like an animal -- if it had been published back then, it would’ve been published as porn or something. So by the '90s, I could write what I couldn’t write in the '60s, and what, in a way, I couldn’t even fully imagine. You move along with your time.

By the 90s, I could write what I couldn’t write in the 60s, and what, in a way, I couldn’t even fully imagine. You move along with your time.

In a later story, “The Birthday of the World,” you created a female character whose name was God. There were all these elements of that story that were in some ways much more directly feminist than your earlier books. Why was that?

I was a kind of slow-developing feminist. There were a lot of people ahead of me in writing feminist fiction. But I did catch up slowly, and thoroughly. It’s not a matter of feminists waving some sort of banner, it’s just restoring a balance to fiction that was missing. Fiction was pretty thoroughly male, and male-centered. That’s like hopping along on one foot. I’d rather walk with both feet.

On that topic, did you follow any of the controversy surrounding Worldcon and the Hugo Awards this year?

Oh, yeah. How could you not follow something weird like that? These Puppy people. I think what they were mostly after was a great, big, flaming quarrel that science fiction has always been very good at. Everybody shouting insults at everybody else. [Laughs] It kind of fizzled. It sounds like the convention was actually very cheerful and happy. And the people they were attacking didn’t get out the fire bombs and throw them back. They sort of went on doing their thing, and George R.R. Martin was a very good influence on everybody. He was saying, "Come on, let’s not have one of these stupid wars."

Were you surprised this controversy was even happening in 2015?

No, no, no. There are always these insecure white guys. I’m afraid they’re sort of a fact of life.

I thought it tied in so neatly with the themes of many of your novels -- fear of difference between genders. Do you think that fear is receding at all?

It’s always been there. There’s always been this sort of retrograde pool within science-fiction as a field. The guys who want all the science to be what they call hard science. And for all the people to be white males. And for some reason they say, “It’s more fun that way!” Well, maybe for you boys! After all, science fiction was, for quite a while, kind of a boy engineer's toy set.

And your work is more influenced by social sciences -- anthropology, religion. Are you ever influenced by so-called hard science fiction?

Some very good stories were written in that tradition. In the '30s, '40s, '50s -- that’s when I was growing up. So, sure, I read it. There are some very fine short stories written purely within that tradition. The thing is, times change, and you can’t keep writing within one tradition for very long, or else it gets stale and stupid.

Along with more diverse authors and themes, some science-fiction writers have become more politically-oriented, using fantasy to highlight society’s problems. What is your opinion on more overtly political fiction?

Well, it’s such a complicated question. I hate to give a sweeping answer. I will just talk about my own practice. I think the less explicitly political fiction is, the less it’s aimed at some particular problem, the more effective it may be. It’s a matter of hiding a message. It’s a matter of not having a message at all, but just writing about something that concerns you very deeply, and putting your heart into it. I don’t think preachy stories and novels are ever anywhere as effective as novels written from the heart about something.

The personal is the political. That’s the old feminist mantra. But that means if you politicize your work, you are narrowing its focus. It may be intensely effective for a while, for some people. It will alienate other people, and it won’t mean anything 10 years from now. I don’t mean there’s anything wrong with having a message and delivering it, and using fiction to do it. But that’s just not what I really wanted to spend my time doing.

There are books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Lincoln said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “You’re the little lady who caused the Civil War.” It is preachy, but it’s also absolutely written from the heart. She just felt so deeply that we were wronging ourselves by having slaves and making people slaves. Her passion still comes through after all these years. That’s the kind of book that, even if it’s preaching message, it hits something deeper, too. 

There’ve been an awful lot of dystopias lately. You can open a book and say, “Oh no, not again! Here we go, stumbling across the country while things die around us.” It’s boring!

I read a review you wrote of a dystopian book -- On Such a Full Sea -- where you argued dystopia is a limited form. Why do you think that is?

 [Laughs] Well, it is limited by its own nature. It’s about a certain type of world. There’ve been an awful lot of dystopias lately. You can open a book and say, “Oh no, not again! Here we go, stumbling across the country while things die around us.” It’s boring!

Do you have any insight into why they might be so wildly popular?

No, I don’t. I suspect it’s kind of connected with horror and zombies and all that. That people are scared, so they want to read fiction where they can be scared without any real reason to be. To sort of play at being scared instead of being really scared. I don’t read that stuff. I’ve never been able to read horror, so I don’t know why people do, but they sure do! And there are some good writers writing it. China Miéville, my God.

So which books do you love? I read somewhere that you differentiate between books that get into your head and the books that get into your bones.

I wonder what I meant. Of course, the books you read early, before 20, and love passionately, they get to you. Even if later on you can’t read them again. You were shaped by certain books. All of us that read a lot, we’re partly book-manufactured. It’s really hard to talk about the influence of such books on you because it goes so deep. It’s like, what was your father’s influence on you, what was your mother’s influence. How can you say? You grew up with it. So, you will find I dodge all questions about favorite books and so on. What does it matter what I like?

So, maybe a more pointed question about what you like to read. You’ve said you’re worried about writers like Grace Paley disappearing from the canon. Are there other women writers you believe deserve more acknowledgement?

You have to worry about all women fiction writers. The prizes go predominantly to men, even when the juries are women. Awards are tremendously important nowadays. Bookstores have whole shelves of books that won awards. You don’t win the award, you never get on those shelves. The university canon of what’s read in colleges has been very heavily male, and they still tend to sort of drop women out of it as soon as they die. And that’s exactly what I’m afraid of with Grace, whose work was never bestseller popular. It’s just that everybody who values really good fiction reads Grace Paley and goes, "Oh my God." There’s nobody like her. And that’s a problem for a writer, too. They can’t compare her to a well-known male name. Because there aren’t men who write anything like that. And I don’t know any women who do, either.

So it’s just my general worry, about all women writers, including myself. We go along happily in our lifetime, and then, poof! All of a sudden we have to be dug out by feminists 50 years later.

It’s just my general worry, about all women writers, including myself. We go along happily in our lifetime, and then, poof! All of a sudden we have to be dug out by feminists 50 years later.

Speaking of awards, I heard your wonderful speech about Amazon at The National Book Awards last year. You began the speech by saying, “Hard times are coming.” So, do you have any predictions for the future of bookselling and publishing if things continue as they are?

It’s so chaotic and uncertain now. And it has been for quite a while. I don’t think anybody honestly has any idea where it’s going. It’s important that no one entity of any kind -- and it’s likely to be a corporation, because that’s who’s governing us now -- be allowed to take control. It’s really bad when a government controls publishing, and it’s just as bad when a corporation does.

But, we’ll work out how to handle ebooks. Hopefully, we’ll preserve copyright in some way, so piracy isn’t so common and unpunishable. Piracy is just so easy, and our government is not defending copyright adequately. But where it’s all headed in the future, I don’t know.

Somehow or other you must feed the writer. It’s kind of like saying, we can give everybody a free automobile, but there isn’t any gas. There’s a lot of idealism behind the mantra, “Information wants to be free.” But there’s also a lot of self-deception or lying, because actually the people who make it there are supported by advertising. It isn’t free. And they are profiting. So it isn’t some lovely, hippie paradise.

You’ve said realism is a very grown-up form of literature, and that that may be its weakness. Do you think grown-up literature benefits, or could benefit, from a more childlike approach.

That’s very complicated. Childishness is not what we want in adult literature. You don’t even want it in kiddie lit.

Realism and imaginative fiction are intersecting more and more. This is great, because it puts a spirit back into realism -- it can get awfully heavy, full and grim. But fantasy can float off like a balloon. When they collaborate, when the fantasy is realistic in its details, that’s where we’re at in some of the best writing that’s being done now. And I like it very much. I just wish all the books weren’t 500 to 600 pages long. I have to get that in.

There are great, magical short stories being written, though!

Oh, sure. But the novels. Have you noticed? They’re these huge door stops. David Mitchell's, especially. Honestly, the last five novels that’ve been sent to me to blurb or review have been over 500 pages. 

I don’t like reading electronically, and I like to read lying down. When you get a 500 or 600-page novel on your stomach, it’s awfully heavy.

One of my very favorite forms of fiction is novella. A very long short story of a very short novel. It’s a beautiful length, you can do anything at that length. You can tell a really big story. And yet, a good reader can read it in an evening. And I really like that.

You’re releasing an updated book about craft, based on a seminar you’ve taught. Though it takes many skills to develop as a writer, which skill or asset would you say is most essential?

Commitment. And I stole that from Philip Glass. Somebody asked what it takes to be a composer, and he just thought a second, and said, “Commitment.”

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