I was stuck in fantasy. Ursula Le Guin looked beyond.
A few weeks ago, I heard that Ursula K. Le Guin, the notable American science-fiction and fantasy author, had passed away.
My first reaction on hearing that was, “What? She was still alive?” For some reason, I had always thought of her as one of those ‘old time’ authors, contemporaries of people like J.R.R. Tolkien. Something about the way she wrote didn’t seem characteristic of a ‘modern’ author — or what modern meant by the definition I created in my juvenile simplicity.
I picked up my first Le Guin book, A Wizard of Earthsea, when I was in my ‘fantasy-obsessed’ phase, having, as a compulsive re-reader, just made my way through Tolkien’s A Lord of the Rings for the millionth time. I was browsing through the shelves of my school library at the time, looking for something similar to satisfy my thirst.
Ours is not a very large library, but it has an impressively curated collection, and I was taking my time going through it. I had recently been deemed old enough to begin reading from a whole new section, so I was excitedly devouring everything I could see (although, really, I had a rather marked tendency to see only the fantasy novels).
When A Wizard of Earthsea caught my eye, it seemed to fit the bill perfectly, especially going by the cover, which portrayed a cloaked wizard confronting a magnificently evil dragon across a glittering sea. (Despite having been warned several times not to judge a book by its cover, that is precisely what I did). The book itself was very worn, which was always a plus . New books, for some reason, just don’t have the same kind of appeal as an old, weathered one, pages brown with age.
My first reading of the book seemed to confirm my initial impression that it was simple, classic fantasy — it followed the adventures and misadventures of a young, highly talented wizard named Ged, in his pursuit of his ultimate nemesis. Fairly standard stuff, plot-wise (and so, of course, I thoroughly enjoyed it).
On rereading, though, I began to suspect that A Wizard of Earthsea was — as corny as it may sound — much more than it seemed.
Take the main character’s enemy, for example: although he is technically the “bad guy” of the story, he is linked very strongly to the hero himself: it was in fact Ged who created him, in a moment of arrogance.
Instead of having the ‘good side’ win, Le Guin has the idea of a ‘balance’ of forces which Ged has disrupted. In trying to defeat his enemy, the hero is seen as trying to overcome himself, in a way. This is an idea I’ve rarely seen in other books of the same genre: most usually follow the format of the (often white male) protagonist involved in a desperate battle for good, and who typically triumphs through superior strength, skill, ingenuity, or generally by virtue of being the ‘good guy’.
When the SyFy Channel made movie versions of the first two Earthsea books in 2004, Le Guin was very critical of the adaptation. She especially disliked the fact that the main character was cast with a white actor, while in the books he has ‘red-brown’ skin:
“Most of the characters in my fantasy and far-future science fiction books are not white. They’re mixed; they’re rainbow…Whites are a minority on Earth now — why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger coloured gene pool, in the future?”
Her main characters are not always male, either and the female ones go beyond the badass-but-still-feminine stereotype, unlike the characters that are so often seen in modern young-adult books like the Shadowhunter or Divergent series.
When I tried reading the Shadowhunter series, I couldn’t get past half the first book (which is saying something, as I usually have quite a bit of stamina for ‘cheap’ fantasy books). The main character, although technically a huntress of evil demons, is still very predictable when it comes to things like her love life — wherein she promptly falls for the talented and good-looking, but generally arrogant and insensitive guy, who obviously turns out not to be as arrogant and insensitive after all.
Le Guin’s characters, on the other hand, seem to be more ‘real’. In The Tombs of Atuan, the character Tenar is a girl living in a highly religious sect. There, she is essentially forced to sacrifice her identity as a human being to the gods of that society, as part of her devotion to these gods. Through this kind of setting, Le Guin explores ideas of growing up, identity, psychological conditioning, and other similarly deep philosophical concepts.
This painting of a young girl is rather more realistic, especially since it takes into account the various situations, societies and backgrounds of all people currently living on earth, as compared to the young adults of most young adult fiction, which seem to conform to a rather upper-middle-class, white-centric character.
Le Guin was known to be a very vocal feminist. She often roundly criticised the male-dominated field of writing science-fiction, once saying
“I’d like to ask the men here to consider idly, in some spare moment, whether by any chance they’ve been building any walls to keep the women out, or to keep them in their place, and what they may have lost by doing so.”
She even turned down an offer to write a blurb for a sci-fi anthology, because it didn’t have any female authors in it. She said the tone of the collection was “so self-contentedly, exclusively male, like a club or a locker room” that she didn’t want to be a part of it.
Her books also “push the boundaries” of things like gender. Her award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness shows a world where people are neither male nor female, only temporarily acquiring a sex during periods of heat for the purpose of reproduction.
In her own description of the book, she said that it was a “thought experiment” that tried to look at the nature of human society, and that she had “eliminated gender to find out what was left”. This description, I felt, captured the book perfectly.
When I first started reading The Left Hand of Darkness, I was initially confused as to what exactly the plot was. It was from the point of view of a ‘normal’ human who had come to that world as an ambassador from the rest of the human worlds, but that was kind of it, in terms of the plot itself. Through the book, however, I realised that Le Guin was trying to do a general ‘exploration’ (as the literary critics call it) of the different possible aspects of this ‘thought experiment’.
That, really, is what I found so amazing about this book.
Apart from feminist ideas in her books, Le Guin has very political ones too. Influenced a lot by ideas like Taoism and anarchism, she wrote stories like The Dispossessed, which is explicitly about a anarchic society in conflict with a capitalist one. Regarding capitalism, she says (and this is one of my favourite quotes of hers):
“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.”
She was known for campaigning in ‘industry battles’ against Google and Amazon, which basically means she criticised the fact of their monopoly of the market of selling books. Amazon supposedly used to pressurize publishers to publish the kind of books they wanted — basically, those that were seen as less risky or radical.
Generally, Le Guin has voiced criticisms of the capitalist model which many countries follow, and the intense exploitation of a large section of the human population that is the basis on which this model rests (which is, to me, an obvious fact — but one that is, unfortunately, loudly denied by several seemingly deluded others).
She similarly criticises Donald Trump:
“He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mic off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left — mud”.
She shows these sentiments in her books, and that is basically what so many people (including, obviously, myself) like about her books. Through fantastical settings — a man whose dreams shape the real world, a small group of humans sent on a generations-long journey to colonise another planet — she makes brilliant observations about people living here, now, today. “The future is,” she once said, “a means of thinking about reality.”
When Le Guin passed away, on the 22nd of January this year, many notable authors such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King publicly mourned her passing. However, as she herself wrote, :
“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”