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.