Le Guin’s Subversive Imagination


Arts & Culture

On the day of my induction by, and first visit to, the august institution of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, I was shown to the literature section of the portrait gallery and left there alone among the giants. This may have been a kind of hazing ritual, like abandoning someone at the entrance to a corn maze. Cheever. Baldwin. Roth. Faulkner. James. Welty. Morrison. It was overwhelming. I felt like I needed a ball of string to keep from getting lost amid the glory. So I started searching the grid of framed photographs, from the pince-nez era to the present day, for writers of science fiction and fantasy. I’m not sure why my thoughts went in that direction, exactly. Maybe I felt a little guilty about belonging to a club to which many of my personal literary heroes and influences–John Collier, Jack Vance, H.P. Lovecraft, Cordwainer Smith–had not been admitted. Above all I was looking for Ursula K. Le Guin.

I found James Branch Cabell: yes, arguably a fantasist. Stephen Vincent Benet, who wrote a seminal postapocalyptic short story that is indisputably science fiction, “By the Waters of Babylon.” William S. Burroughs? I couldn’t honestly say if he counted as a science fiction writer or not; I’ve never been able to make head nor tails of the guy. And then there was good old Kurt Vonnegut, imaginer of dystopias, deviser of the global pandemic ice-nine, charter of the planet Trafalmadore. But as I stopped before his photo, I wasn’t at all sure he wouldn’t prefer that I just keep moving. That would have been the case with all these dudes, I reflected. Great American writers, if they happen to write science fiction and fantasy, rarely attained the highest honors. They were denied—they were not even considered for—the most prestigious prizes. They were not, finally, taken seriously. As Vonnegut once put it:

I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labelled “science fiction,” and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.

A writer’s surer, easier path to prizes (and who doesn’t like prizes?) is to steer clear of the genre gutter entirely, and if it can’t be avoided—if one was “born there,” so to speak—to repudiate or renounce it. Ursula K. Le Guin did it the hard way. For decades she consistently produced masterpieces, works of immense thematic, stylistic, structural, conceptual, and psychological sophistication and depth, intricately patterned, vividly imagined, intensely felt, beautifully written, that were also avowedly and unashamedly works of fantasy and science fiction. She rarely strayed beyond the boundaries of genre; instead she expanded them. She never repudiated the genre gutter that had fostered her ambitions and fired her imagination; instead she confirmed Oscar Wilde’s surmise that there is no better vantage than a gutter for looking at the stars.

I love and admire and have delighted in so many of her books: The Lathe of Heaven, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, The Word for World Is Forest, the wonderful short stories, in particular the unforgettable “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” But my first experience with her work was about more than delight, admiration, or love. It was about transformation. The person I was on the way to becoming, in 1972—a particular coalescent configuration of synapses, apperceptions, and neural pathways—did not survive the encounter, at age nine, with A Wizard of Earthsea. The first volume of her Earthsea trilogy, the book was set in a richly realized and detailed imaginary topography of islands and ocean where the craft of language—the proper, precise configuring and utterance of words by a trained adept who knew their histories and understood their capabilities and thus could call things by their true names—had the power to alter reality, to remake the world.

But what really rearranged the contents of my skull was this: the book itself was a fractal demonstration of its own primary conceit. With nothing but language—lines on paper, properly configured—Ursula K. Le Guin conjured an entire planet into vivid existence, detailed and plausible from its flora to its weather to the dialects and ceremonies of its inhabitants. And while that world vanished the moment I closed the book’s covers, the memory of my visit, of young Ged’s searing struggle with his own malign shadow, remained. In Earthsea, the wielders of linguistic power were known as wizards, and they called their craft magic, but it was obvious to me, even at nine, that the true name of magic was writing, and that a writer like Ursula K. Le Guin was a mage.

That was only partly right, it turned out. Writing was the magecraft; but the magic force that fueled it was not language, in Ursula’s view. It was imagination.

In the early seventies, Ursula wrote a number of essays in defense of one of the two great literary traditions, fantasy, that were her passion and her bread and butter. (Though she felt, intuitively, that the distinction between fantasy and the other tradition, science fiction, was a trivial one.) These essays have titles like “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” and they are solidly in the tradition of apologia by other modern fantasists, like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who felt obliged to defend their work from the dogmatists of pragmatism, practicality, utility, all those hard-eyed people that Bellow’s Herzog called “reality instructors.” Fantasy equaled escapism, held their dogma; to encourage people to believe that escape from present reality was even desirable, let alone possible, was at best foolish and at worst immoral, if not criminal. The real target of this dogma, Le Guin argued, was not fantasy per se, but the most human faculty of imagination.

Le Guin counterattacked. The so-called reality presented as material fact by the enemies of the imagination was a construction, a machine designed to subjugate women, to suppress and supplant indigenous cultures, to commodify human experience and automate human behavior. Seen in this light, escapism was a subversive force, even a potentially revolutionary act, and the imagination—our capacity to envision and construct alternatives to the present sorry state of affairs—a powerful tool of human liberation. That, Le Guin concluded (and went on concluding for the next forty years) was the true reason for the animus against fantasy and science fiction: it threatened the status quo.

Forty years later Le Guin was still defending the imagination. Her understanding of its enemy had shifted somewhat to encompass the cooptation of imagination and that dreaded word, “creativity,” by corporate strategists and marketeers, but her sense of alarm had only increased. It was not simply the genres of fantasy and science fiction that she saw as under attack but the entire enterprise of literature, indeed the fundamental project of literacy itself, defined not simply as the capacity to read a text but as a means of training the imagination—and ultimately of constructing an authentic self—through sustained encounter with literary art. “What a child needs,” she wrote:

 …what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow some freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen. Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence. Reading is a means of listening.

The current cultural orthodoxy, often formulated or short-handed as “stay in your lane,” postulates that a writer ought to remain centered in their own community, to write from their own and their community’s experience: to stay home. But Ursula argued that those places, those points of origin, home and community, are themselves acts of the creative imagination. She begins her 2002 essay “Operating Instructions,” discussing children in the specific context of training their imaginations through literature: “A child who doesn’t know where the center is, where home is, what home is—that child is in a very bad way.” So far it sounds like she may be preparing to argue on behalf of staying in one’s lane, of staying put. But then she goes on:

Home isn’t Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary. Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it, whoever your people are.

Here comes the Le Guinian turn:

They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

Le Guin’s understanding of community was bounded only by time and oblivion. Reaching it required us to make daring, impossible leaps, to pull off thrilling feats of escapism from the gray confines of our inchoate selves.

In the hands of a great artist, what we call fantasy and science fiction are best understood not as literary genres so much as literature in its purest form: the calling into existence, by means of the enchantments of language fueled by the mana of imagination, of worlds and communities: in some remote legendary age, on another planet, in Yoknapatawpha County or Mercy, Michigan, or one of Toni Morrison’s other fictionalized versions of her hometown of Lorain, Ohio; in the conjuring up, through magecraft, of the inhabitants of those imagined homes, along with the secrets of their hearts, and the labyrinths of their brains. Fantasy and science fiction say openly what so-called mainstream fiction generally endeavors to conceal: look, I’m making it all up! Not only that, Le Guin reminded us: we are making ourselves up, too. Inventing the stories of ourselves and our communities, not out of whole cloth, but out of all the other stories we have listened to and read from childhood. And the more widely we read, the more carefully we listen, the further beyond the confines of our own personal gutter our escape plans will be able to carry us, the nearer to the stars.


Ursula K Le Guin was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2017 

Michael Chabon lives in Berkeley, California.