undefinedLe Guin, 1996.



In the early 1960s, when Ursula K. Le Guin began to publish, science fiction was dominated by so-called hard sci-fi: speculative fiction grounded in physics, chemistry, and, to a lesser extent, biology. The understanding of technological progress as an unalloyed good went largely unquestioned; America was enjoying unprecedented prominence in world affairs, and the science fiction of what has come to be known as the “golden age” projected this same sense of exceptionalism onto the cosmos. The space adventures that filled the pages of Amazing Stories and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction tended to be written by, for, and about white men, with only occasional nods to racial or gender (or, for that matter, species) diversity. Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World (1966), which featured a classic man of science as its hero, did little to upset the status quo. But a sea change was coming.

No single work did more to upend the genre’s conventions than The Left Hand of Darkness(1969). In this novel, her fourth, Le Guin imagined a world whose human inhabitants have no fixed gender: their sexual roles are determined by context and express themselves only once every month. The form of the book is a mosaic of primary sources, an interstellar ethnographer’s notebook, ranging from matter-of-fact journal entries to fragments of alien myth. Writers as diverse as Zadie Smith and Algis Budrys have cited The Left Hand of Darkness as an influence, and Harold Bloom included it in The Western Canon. In the decades that followed, Le Guin continued to broaden both her range and her readership, writing the fantasy series she has perhaps become best known for, Earthsea, as well as the anarchist utopian allegory The Dispossessed, to name just a few books among dozens. Her productivity is remarkable. Lavinia (2008), her most recent novel, was her twenty-third book-length work of fiction.

Ursula Kroeber was born in Berkeley, California, in 1929, the daughter of Alfred L. Kroeber, a prominent anthropologist, and Theodora Kroeber, the author of a best-selling biography of Ishi, the “Last Wild Indian in North America,” who lived out the last years of his life on display at a museum on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Her childhood was spent in the company of her large family and their many academic visitors, as well as members of the Native American community. She went on to study at Radcliffe and Columbia, which granted her an M.A. in French and Italian Renaissance literature in 1952, at the age of twenty-two. On a steamer bound for France in 1953, she met the historian Charles Le Guin, whom she married a few months later.

For the past half century, Le Guin and Charles, a professor of history at Portland State University, have lived in a handsome but inconspicuous Victorian on a steep, tree-lined street just below Portland’s Forest Park. The house—which, appropriately for a writer of science fiction, appears larger on the inside than it does from without—harbors a surprise: a veranda with a view of the ruined cone of Mount Saint Helens. Le Guin received me in the parlor, but we soon moved out onto the veranda, in part to escape the fierce attentions of her cat.

John Wray

 

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about the term science fiction, as connected to your work?

LE GUIN

Well, that’s very complicated, Wray.

INTERVIEWER

I’m sorry. Are you at peace with it? Do you find it reductive?

LE GUIN

I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.

INTERVIEWER

That’s how one can identify a sci-fi author, I guess—tentacles coming out of the pigeonhole.

LE GUIN

That’s right.

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me there might be authors whose work is more accurately described by the term science fiction than your own—someone like Arthur C. Clarke, for example, whose work is often directly connected to a specific scientific concept. In your fiction, by contrast, hard science is perhaps less important than philosophy or religion or social science.

LE GUIN

The “hard”–science fiction writers dismiss everything except, well, physics, astronomy, and maybe chemistry. Biology, sociology, anthropology—that’s not science to them, that’s soft stuff. They’re not that interested in what human beings do, really. But I am. I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that.

INTERVIEWER

Might that be why your fiction has been more readily admired in so-called literary circles—that it’s more engaged with human complexity and psychology?

LE GUIN

It’s helped to make my stuff more accessible to people who don’t, as they say, read science fiction. But the prejudice against genre has been so strong until recently. It’s all changing now, which is wonderful. For most of my career, getting that label—sci-fi—slapped on you was, critically, a kiss of death. It meant you got reviewed in a little box with some cute title about Martians—or tentacles.

INTERVIEWER

Since we’re on the subject, what was it like to grow up as the child of a prominent anthropologist? Did it contribute to your beginnings as a writer?

LE GUIN

That’s a question I’ve been asked about a billion times, and it’s really hard to answer. Obviously, my father’s interest and temperament set some kind of ... well, I almost want to say a moral tone. He was interested in everything. Living with a mind like that is, of course, a kind of education. His field of science was a human one, and that’s really good luck for a novelist.

We spent every summer, all summer, at a ranch he had bought in Napa Valley. It was very run-down, easygoing, and my parents had lots and lots of guests. My father would entertain his fellow academics and people from abroad—this was the late thirties, and there were refugees coming in, people from all over the world. Among the guests were a couple of Indians who had been “informants,” as they called them then—they don’t use that word anymore—tribal members my father had come to know as friends through working with them, learning their language and customs from them. One of them, Juan Dolores, was a Papago, or O’odham—he was a real family friend. And he would stay for a couple weeks or a month. So we sort of had this Indian uncle. Just having these people from a truly other culture—it was a tremendous gift.

INTERVIEWER

What was the nature of that gift?

LE GUIN

Maybe simply the experience of the “other”? A lot of people never have it, or don’t take the chance when offered. Everybody in the industrial nations now sees “others” on the TV, and so on, but that’s not the same as living with them. Even if only one or two of them.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that you were “raised as irreligious as a jackrabbit.” And yet an interest in religion is present in a great deal of your writing.

LE GUIN

I think I have—well, I can’t call it a religious temperament, because the trouble is the word religion. I am profoundly interested in both Taoism and Buddhism, and they’ve given me a lot. Taoism is just part of the structure of my mind by now. And Buddhism is intensely interesting to me. But if you don’t call it a religious cast of mind, then you have to call it something like spiritual, and that’s woo-woo and wishy-washy. There are these big issues that religion tries to deal with, and I’m quite interested in that.

INTERVIEWER

Could you say a bit more about what Taoism and Buddhism have given you?

LE GUIN

Taoism gave me a handle on how to look at life and how to lead it when I was an adolescent hunting for ways to make sense of the world without going off into the God business. Returning to Lao-tzu throughout the years, I’ve always found—and find—him offering what I want or need to learn. My translation, version, whatever it is, of the Tao Te Ching is a by-product of that long and happy association.

My knowledge of Buddhism is much scantier and more recent, but it’s become indispensable in showing me how to use meditation usefully and in giving a steady north to my moral compass.

INTERVIEWER

Kurt Vonnegut, in his Art of Fiction interview, in 1977, described anthropology as his only religion.

LE GUIN

That’s not quite enough for me, but I know exactly what he means, and it is what I fall back on. If I had to pick a hero, it would be Charles Darwin—the size of his mind, which included all that scientific curiosity and knowledge seeking, and the ability to put it all together. There is a genuine spirituality about Darwin’s thinking. And he felt it, too.

INTERVIEWER

Could it be—I’m going out on a limb here—that this search for a satisfactory or sufficient religion might have influenced your direction as a writer? If none of our extant religions satisfy, in other words, why not invent one yourself?

LE GUIN

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. I’m just not a good candidate for conversion.

INTERVIEWER

What it is that draws you to this “trying on” of other existences?

LE GUIN

Oh, intellectual energy and curiosity, I suppose. An inborn interest in various and alternative ways of doing things and thinking about them.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.

INTERVIEWER

When you were starting out, did you know that you wanted to write speculative fiction?

LE GUIN

No, no, no. I just knew from extremely early on—it sounds ridiculous, but five or six—that writing was something I was going to do, always. But just writing, not any mode in particular. It started as poetry. I think I was nine or ten before I really wrote a story. And it was a fantasy story, because that’s mostly what I was reading. By then, my brother and I were putting our quarters together to buy, now and then, a ten-cent magazine called something like “Fantastic Tales”—pulp magazines, you know.

INTERVIEWER

Amazing Stories?

LE GUIN

Yeah! So the fiction I read, because I was an early beginner, tended toward the fantastic. Realism is a very sophisticated form of literature, a very grown-up one. And that may be its weakness. But fantasy seems to be eternal and omnipresent and always attractive to kids.

But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer. I didn’t want to be a writer and lead the writer’s life and be glamorous and go to New York. I just wanted to do my job writing, and to do it really well.

INTERVIEWER

In relation to other writers?

LE GUIN

How else can you judge? It has to be, in a sense, competitive or comparative.

INTERVIEWER

Against whom were you measuring your work?

LE GUIN

Writers I’d have liked to be as good as, although not like?

INTERVIEWER

Right.

LE GUIN

Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. And then, when I finally learned to read her, Virginia Woolf. Shoot for the top, always. You know you’ll never make it, but what’s the fun if you don’t shoot for the top?

INTERVIEWER

When you began sending your work out into the world, did you have some idea of the writer you wanted to be?

LE GUIN

I knew by then that my main shtick was fiction, but that I would always write poetry. My first publications were all poetry, and that’s partly because of my father. He realized that sending out poetry is quite a big job. It takes method and a certain amount of diligence and a good deal of time. And he said, I could help you do that, that would be fun! He got interested in the subculture of the little magazines and realized that it is a little world, with rules all its own.

INTERVIEWER

So he studied it anthropologically?

LE GUIN

He was curious about everything! And he actually did some of the mailing-out stuff.

INTERVIEWER

How old were you at the time?

LE GUIN

I would have been in my twenties. I was also writing fiction and submitting it, and, again, my father comes into it. The first novel I ever wrote was very strange, very ambitious. It covered many generations in my invented Central European country, Orsinia. My father knew Alfred Knopf personally. I’d had recorder lessons with Blanche Knopf when I was seventeen. Blanche—she was a real grande dame, oh God, she was scary. And I’d go in with my little tooter.

INTERVIEWER

Was this in New York?

LE GUIN

This was in New York. When I was about twenty-three, I asked my father if he felt that my submitting the novel to Knopf would presume on their friendship, and he said, No, go ahead and try him. So I did, and Knopf wrote a lovely letter back. He said, I can’t take this damn thing. I would’ve done it ten years ago, but I can’t afford to now. He said, This is a very strange book, but you’re going somewhere! That was all I needed. I didn’t need acceptance.

INTERVIEWER

I’m guessing that was not Mr. Knopf ’s typical response.

LE GUIN

And I don’t think he was just being nice to my father, either, because Alfred Knopf was not a very nice man. My dad called him the Pirate.

INTERVIEWER

And this Orsinia novel never saw the light of day?

 

LE GUIN

No, it didn’t. May a curse fall upon any academic who digs it out and publishes it.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written that you can’t get underway with a project until you have the characters clear in your mind. But I suspect that some of your books may have begun not with a set of characters but with an idea you wanted to explore.

LE GUIN

That is probably truest of The Dispossessed. Although it started as a short story. I had this physicist and he was in a prison camp somewhere. The story just went nowhere, but I knew that character was real. I had this lump of concrete and somewhere inside it was a diamond, but getting into the lump of concrete—it took years. For whatever reason, I started reading pacifist literature, and I was also involved in antiwar protests, Ban the Bomb and all that. I had been a pacifist activist of sorts for a long time, but I realized I didn’t know much about my cause. I’d never read Gandhi, for starters.

So I put myself through a sort of course, reading that literature, and that led me to utopianism. And that led me, through Kropotkin, into anarchism, pacifist anarchism. And at some point it occurred to me that nobody had written an anarchist utopia. We’d had socialist utopias and dystopias and all the rest, but anarchism—hey, that would be fun. So then I read all the anarchist literature I could get, which was quite a lot, if you went to the right little stores in Portland.

INTERVIEWER

Where you got your books in a brown paper bag?

LE GUIN

You had to get to know the owner of the store. And if he trusted you, he’d take you to the back room and show you this wealth of material, some of which was violent anarchism and would have been frowned on by the government.