Note that after the original publication of this article, Ursula K. Le Guin passed away.
Today I’m looking at Ursula K. Le Guin, a favorite author of mine since I was a young teenager, particularly after I read The Left Hand of Darkness for a class, and then began to devour more of her stories. Le Guin’s novels, children’s books, and short stories, which are generally science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction (she also wrote nonfiction and poetry), have long focused on key issues before they became popular in fiction, including gender and racial equality, isolation, coming of age, feminism, and ecological awareness. As I cited Marie Myung-Ok Lee in my previous article featuring Kim Stanley Robinson, artists are like deer that sniff out the winds of change ahead of time.
According to the Boston Globe:
Le Guin wasn’t just ahead of the curve in contemplating the social construction of gender. While science fiction zoomed toward the technological future, she wrote about anarchist movements, the way societies create aliens within themselves, and climate change.
“Of many present day memes,” Margaret Atwood wrote in an e-mail, “well might it be said; Ursula got there first!”
The Left Hand of Darkness is part of a series of books called The Hainish Cycle, which explores ideas of human expansion, similar to Isaac Asimov. The Word for World is Forest is another in the Hainish series, depicting environmental themes. In The Dispossessed, which takes place in the same world of the Hainish Cycle, Le Guin looks at the structure of time, along with anarchy and varying social systems – tying a temporal structure not just to physics but to philosophy and ethics. The themes in Le Guin’s books are layered and holistic, examining beginnings and ends and the journey between these two points. She has received high recognition and dozens of awards.
Since the 1960s, Le Guin has taken science fiction to a new level, from what many see as a technological genre to one that explores the totality of the cultural pyramid – how societies can evolve with technology, economy, policy, and ideology, all of which largely depend on our natural environment. Le Guin’s expedition is well imagined, and her world-building is vast, including planetary civilizations and their relationships with other planets – or the social structures within.
Le Guin’s bibliography is large, including the Earthsea fantasy series in the 1960s – some of the novellas and short stories it includes are continuing even still. Earthsea, to me, is a beautifully built fictional world wherein magic, the Tao, and natural elements are strong. Le Guin’s numerous projects – including the poetry and stories of Orsinia, short and long fiction, poetry, and nonfiction – spread like a mythical albatross’s wings over a sea of great writers.
In all her stories, nature holds a large presence. Throughout time, Le Guin has shown in fiction, whether in realism or metaphor, that ecological health on the given planet of her subjects is a key concern. The award-winning author has not been didactic but a weaver of great stories that speak to us personally, no matter how far away or exotic the world.
Particular to climate change, Le Guin wrote the short story “The New Atlantis,” which appeared in The New Atlantis and Other Novellas of Science Fiction (1975), edited by Robert Silverberg. As pointed out in the last spotlight on Kim Stanley Robinson, it was in the 1970s that scientists began converging on the fact that global warming would be the next big risk to planet Earth. Le Guin, among just a few other authors, was a pioneer in writing fiction that included anthropogenic global warming.
In “The New Atlantis,” a woman (Belle), who is frustrated with trying to mend a pair of blue socks, has a conversation with a man on a bus, and we learn that the world they exist in has rising seas and an authoritarian style of government. Polar ice caps are melting, Manhattan is under water, and, in Portland, where the story takes place, tectonic plates are shifting, there are constant power outages, and people are being arrested for piddly crimes.
Within this dystopian frame, however, the novel is utopian. The characters in the novel dream of a better world rather than giving in to insurmountable problems.
In Social Alternatives, Anne Maxwell argues:
…We also encounter a group of ordinary humans intent on preserving the dream of a better world rather than the exploitative and unsustainable one of late capitalism. As tectonic plates clash and the physical environment collapses around them, the story’s protagonist is consoled by the thought of a new civilization arising from the old; one in which humans live in harmony with their fellow creatures and the natural environment. Read in the context of the neoliberal world we are today facing, Le Guin’s story is a timely reminder of the human capacity to keep dreaming of better worlds no matter how grim the actual situation.
The man on the bus tells Belle that there is a new continent rising from the ocean. The reader may realize that this new continent represents Plato’s legend of Atlantis, a utopian world made up of concentric islands, around which are canals, rare natural beauty, and rich resources such as gold. The idea of a new Atlantis also contains elements of the human condition in regards to hopes and dreams: rebirth after destruction, a continuation of the life cycle, and the idea that there is not a final end to us all. It is, in many ways, a simple and basic desire for humankind, and all species, to continue and persevere. In our trials to do this, if we are responsible for polluting our home so much it becomes unlivable, what emerges out of our deepest conscience is another chance to try and do it better next time. The new Atlantis represents that second chance.
Continental shift and polar ice melt have contributed to the possibility of new continents or islands emerging from the sea. In the background of this conversation on the bus, Belle reflects on her trip to a wilderness week at Oregon’s Mount Hood – from which she is just now returning – and, with dark humor, her thoughts unfold the anti-wilderness aspects of the trip, including the commercialization and spindly trees of the largest forest remaining in the United States, the mountain guide’s disrespect for jay birds, and the proliferation of cement, among other ironies found in a “wilderness” trip.
After the bus breaks down, Belle finally gets home. She enters a dark house and after shakily lighting a candle, she sees a strange man; it turns out to be her husband, Simon, who has returned early from a rehabilitation camp. Upon seeing her, he responds with a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s “To Helen:”
Ah, psyche, from the regions which are Holy Land!
This line alludes to the Greek myth of Psyche and Cupid (where Psyche was unbelievably beautiful and at one point shined an agate lamp toward Cupid – similar to Belle holding up a candle to properly see her husband). I point this out here because Holy Land, in Greek mythology, refers to half-gods and half-humans that founded or created the aspects of the world, including the utopian Atlantis.
Belle and Simon are extremely cold, in the pitch black of the power outage, and they lie together on their bed, in the void, reflecting on the universe itself – on the birthing of all life. And then there is light. As they think of planets and stars, they begin to see more lights:
But in the dark now are growing other lights, many of them: lamps, dots, rows, scintillations – some near at hand, some far. Like the stars, yes, but not stars. It is not the great Existences we are seeing, but only the little lives.
I really like the above passage from the story, especially the last line. Later, Belle feels sad about a back injury that Simon got at the camp and notices his weight loss. Feeling sorry for him, she begins to cry, and her husband teases her that she will drown the entire North American continent. The story continues on, punctuated with reflections on the universe and life itself. As the story evolves, the couple’s hope for a better world, and Simon’s experiment to free people from the militaristic government, mirror the dream of that mythological New Atlantis and make this a utopian tale.
Despite the references to gods and magical islands, Le Guin wrote often of ordinary humans dreaming of, and doing, the extraordinary – being the change they want to see. This is so important in fiction because readers need to relate to stories somehow and know that they are not that different from characters they admire. Le Guin empowered readers to act because they learn they can in her stories. In a world in which climate change is so huge and omnipresent, in which the effects of it can submerge us both figuratively and literally, and in which the political narrative is often in denial of its very existence and provides no mechanisms for fighting environmental catastrophe, we turn to fiction to find the stories that help us cope. That inspire us. And Le Guin, in this sense, has provided decades of wildly entertaining worlds wherein we find ourselves.
(Photo by Dan Tuffs/Getty Images.)
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.