Science Fiction

Ursula Le Guin: Novelist


The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Edited by Susan Wood. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 1979. 343 pp. $9.95.

Until quite recently, to call a piece of literature "science fiction" was to brand it as inconsequential. Of course, to fans of the genre, the term science fiction is very nearly what heavenly father is to the Christian: the name of all that is holy, all that is due a genuinely religious reverence and devotion. And to the publisher and the bookseller, it is a label that virtually guarantees a certain sale, albeit a modest one, and is therefore a safe bet (which is why science fiction is comparatively easy for a beginning writer to sell). But to the critic, the term science fiction is, and for a long time has been, a convenient epithet by means of which an entire group of books may be shunted aside, dismissed, without fear that any rival critic might show up one's hasty judgment by subjecting the books in question to closer and more sympathetic scrutiny.

This is changing—and well it should. For at least a decade now the genius of American literature has been with science fiction to an altogether disproportionate extent. Of the half-dozen American novels of the 1970s that stand a reasonable chance of enduring, of becoming "classics," four or five, depending on how broadly or narrowly the term is construed, are "science fiction." Two—The Word for World Is Forest (1972) and The Dispossessed (1974)—are by the same novelist, a science fiction writer named Ursula K. Le Guin.


Le Guin has been presented with one National Book Award for her children's fantasy, The Farthest Shore (1972), and nominated for another for her superb collection of "mainstream" short stories, Orsinian Tales (1976). And she answers the question, Why do you write science fiction? by saying, "Because that is what publishers call my books. Left to myself, I should call them novels."

This may sound like the reply of a writer who has been tempted by the taste of popular success to denigrate and disown the medium that made her success possible, but it is not. Unlike Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who began denying that he was a science fiction writer as soon as acceptance into the income bracket and intellectual/social milieu of the literary mainstream made it profitable for him to do so, Le Guin describes herself frequently and proudly as a science fiction writer. She only holds the opinion that science fiction is fundamentally just like any other fiction and that as a category it is of more use to publishers and booksellers than to writers and readers.

"It's lovely," she writes, "to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses,…to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it's a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn't about the future." What then is it about? Lies. "A novelist's business," says Le Guin, "is lying." But this is not to say, paradoxically enough, that fiction writers are uninterested in truth. On the contrary, they are mainly preoccupied with telling the truth. It's just that "they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That's the truth!"

And how can a pack of lies be the truth? By being, not literally true, but metaphorically true. It is not literally true that Richard Nixon is a monster, but it is metaphorically true; and we can communicate a good deal of truth about Nixon's character by making the statement that he is a monster, which is a lie. So it is too with those longer, "elaborately circumstantial lies" we call novels.

"All fiction is metaphor," Le Guin writes. "Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, technology, and the relativistic and historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another." Still another is the alternative polity, and it is this one among science fiction's metaphors that Ursula Le Guin has exploited to greatest advantage.


The Dispossessed is an anarchist utopia. The Word for World Is Forest is a fable in celebration of countercultural political values: it is antiwar, antibigotry, antimilitarist, and anti-imperialist; and it is easy to understand why the generation that fought so tenaciously against the Vietnam war has enthusiastically adopted this novel. It was in fact written, Le Guin tells us, "in the winter of 1968, during a year's stay in London," with the antiwar movement, in which Le Guin was an active participant, half a world away, and the participant aching for an outlet for her bottled-up ideological fervor. Her 1976 short story, "The Diary of the Rose," is libertarian in still another way (it is almost certainly the most chilling fictional damnation of political psychiatry since One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest), as is her most recent novel, The Eye of the Heron (1978).

The fact is, like every other American writer of permanent importance, Le Guin is individualist, antiauthoritarian; and it seems natural to call her—in the broadest and most useful sense—a libertarian. Yet try as we might to slap this label on her, we can't make it stick. In the first place, she won't have it. She has described herself as a "petty bourgeois anarchist," but she has also described exactly what sort of anarchism it is that she considers "the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories":

Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with; not the social-Darwinist economic "libertarianism" of the far right; but anarchism, as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism's principal target is the authoritarian State (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid).

And, as if this (which appeared four years ago in her collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters) weren't enough, she now lumps "libertarianism" (for her, apparently, the quotation marks are part of the spelling) with technocracy and (are you ready for this?) Scientology, as a "reactionary, easy-answer" approach to social problems.

To top it all off, she devotes large chunks of an essay called "The Stalin of the Soul" to inveighing against "censorship by the market." It seems that whenever a writer chooses to concoct a potboiler and produce ready cash rather than concoct the book he'd like to concoct if he didn't have to feed his family, he's willingly submitted to censorship. He hasn't yielded to temptation; he hasn't chosen one value (money) over another (artistic self-expression) and acted accordingly; he's submitted to censorship. His case is fully comparable to that of the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose famous novel, We (1921), has been suppressed by law in the Soviet Union for nearly 60 years. Can this be Ursula Le Guin speaking, the same Ursula Le Guin whose anarchist novel, The Dispossessed, reflects so much insightful thinking about the way the spontaneous order of the market works to bind communities together?

Libertarian or not, Le Guin is one of our very best fiction writers, and, as this book readily demonstrates, a graceful and provocative essayist to boot. Twenty-four essays are collected here (many of them rescued from the pages of small-circulation science fiction fanzines where they would have remained undeservedly obscure), together with an exhaustive checklist of all of Le Guin's published work, so that you can hunt up those of her essays that aren't included in The Language of the Night. There aren't that many of them, by the way, and they might have been included if editor Susan Wood had relinquished a few of the 25 pages she spends uselessly and tediously summarizing Le Guin's ideas. The function of an editor is to edit, not to clutter up the place with superfluous, garrulous introductory remarks.

Jeff Riggenbach is the executive editor of Libertarian Review and a radio commentator syndicated through the Cato Institute's Byline program. He is currently writing a book on the meaning of the '60s.