Ursula K. LeGuin And The Left Hand Of Birthdays

Ursula K. LeGuin And The Left Hand Of BirthdaysLet’s fire up the old ansible and send an interplanetary happy birthday to Ursula K. LeGuin on her 84th orbit. LeGuin is one of those science fiction/fantasy writers who gets to be called “literary”; her work actually shows up in college literature anthologies — usually the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” a fable about moral complicity in injustice that college freshmen usually decide has to be about communism, but that I’d really like to try using in a class someday in conjunction with some reporting on where iPhones come from.

Leguin is one of those writers who gets credit for nudging science fiction into adulthood, with novels where the interplanetary travel is less about adventure and SensaWonder than about getting characters to worlds where they have to question their assumptions about the whole project of being human. Like Gethen, the icy planet in The Left Hand of Darkness, where people have no fixed gender, becoming male or female only for a brief period once a month. (I read it in college, and one of her offworld protagonist’s observations has stuck with me for some reason: while the civilization had developed the technology for television, it just never caught on, as they simply preferred radio.) Or the mind-bending of The Lathe of Heaven, in which poor George Orr is cursed with dreams that reshape the fabric of reality — and usually not in desirable ways.* And of course there are the ambivalent notions of utopia in The Dispossessed, with its vision of an anarchist society that mostly works, but which no Tea Party is trying to legislate into being, thank Ged.

LeGuin sometimes gets labeled as “soft” SF or more accurately, as “social-science fiction.” In her fictional universe, it makes perfect sense that humans develop an instantaneous galaxy-crossing communication device — the ansible — long before they have faster-than-light starships. The machines are almost an afterthought; playing with the structure of human cultures and interactions is where the adventures come from. Plus, she’s from Portland, Oregon, so she knows a thing or two about unceasing rain, something this displaced Oregonian has always appreciated. Go read her lovely essay about the art of refusing awards, and then this interview in Vice, of all places. Tor.com calls it “wonderfully prickly,” which is about what we’d expect from a woman who extracted an apology from Cory Doctorow after he reprinted a brief comic essay by her on BoingBoing.

You do not want to mess with Ursula K. LeGuin. Especially not on her birthday.

* The Lathe of Heaven has been adapted for television twice — a surprisingly good 1980 version for public TV (which some helpful elf has thrown onto YouTube) and a 2002 Sci-Fi Channel adaptation that I keep meaning to watch.

[Photo credit R. Durborow, UrsulaKLeGuin.com]

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  • Ondine Green

    I always found it interesting that the anarchist society in _The Dispossessed_ was still dealing with sexist attitudes and power structures (manarchism?) even though their society was founded by a woman.

  • andreamd

    I have a card she wrote to me many years ago. Also never,ever watch the hideous Wizard of Earthsea that SyFy(?) did. Ursula posted a statement that she wanted her name removed from that horror(or watch it and see what a piece of junk they made- far removed from her book).

  • WA Bishop

    Another thing I remember about Gethen: they have mechanical transportation but it only goes two miles an hour. That makes it easier to walk alongside.

  • FeloniousMonk

    On being asked where she got the idea from ‘Omelas’ from, she reportedly said “From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?” Happy birthday, Ms LeGuin.

  • Vecchiojohn

    She once talked about Science fiction to my English class at Portland State back in the early 70s. She used to dispense candy dressed up as a witch at Halloween. Felice!

  • MrCanoehead

    Lathe Of Heaven: watch the 1980 version, skip the 2002 version.Trust me.