Column: Patt Morrison asks: ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ author Ursula K. Le Guin

Celebrated science–fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin poses in front of a portrait painted by Henk Pander.
(Benjamin Reed / For The Times)

Comic-Con, that massive San Diego convention that spawned an international franchise for fans of sci fi and fantasy comics, films, television and genre books, began in 1970, in the basement of a San Diego hotel. The year before, the singular writer Ursula K. Le Guin had already published the best science fiction novel of the year: “The Left Hand of Darkness,” a book not about ray guns or rocket ships, but about other planets, other cultures, other sexualities.

As Comic-Con begins yet another flashy fest, one of alternative fiction’s true masters — author of children’s books, poetry, novels and nonfiction — is shaping her forthcoming book, “Words Are My Matter.” Worlds too are her subject matter, the deep currents of politics, race, culture, ecology, sexuality — our own earthly conundrums played out and spun out on alternative worlds. Le Guin’s parents were the remarkable Berkeley anthropologists and ethnologists Alfred and Theodora Kroeber, a couple as influential in the field of anthropology as on the imagination of their daughter, and the planets and people of her creation.



When you see the popularity of events like Comic-Con, and television and films with alternative fiction, it seems like it’s mainstream — it’s not a genre apart anymore.

Right, the barrier finally fell. I will take a little credit because I spent about 40 years saying, why isn’t imaginative literature literature? Why do you say you know this stuff is for kids and all that? There’s so much good imaginative literature that has been written that to deny that it was literature I think seems ridiculous to most people, to readers and to critics and to teachers. There are still some holdouts. Some people just don’t like imaginative literature. They just want realism and nonfiction.

I think what has brought imaginative fiction, imaginative literature, back into central centrality is that so much of it is very good, and so much of it is kind of needed because of the fact that it sort of opens doors to other possibilities — and that it gives the imagination exercise. The imagination is a very important human faculty and it needs to be exercised.

It almost seems as if the walls we raise in literature are like the walls we’ve raised in gender: that you’re either one thing or another.

It seems — doesn’t it? — that human beings want things to be all very clearly black and white, but the only way you can really live fully is to live in that great big gray area that’s uncertain.

But that’s scary for a lot of people.

It is scary for everybody. Uncertainty is very scary.

There’s a usefulness to imaginative fiction, that maybe it’s easier to deal with reality if you don’t look it directly in the face.

What does that Emily Dickinson poem say — “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” It’s a beautiful line, and it kind of describes the way a lot of imaginative literature takes the world very seriously but doesn’t describe it realistically, in order to describe it better.

Especially maybe for adolescents and young adults, it’s a way of coping with a real world that’s very puzzling to them.

I think a lot of adolescents, the world comes after them and says, this is the way I am and you can’t change anything, and you can’t do anything about it. Which is not entirely true, but it does seem that way. And through imaginative fiction, they can live in alternative worlds and find out that they are possible.

As we’re having these national discussions about transgender issues, your book “The Left Hand of Darkness” really set a tone for saying you don’t have to be one thing or another.

That is exactly where the use — the social and psychological usefulness of imaginative fiction — can operate. I pulled a trick in my “Earthsea” books: Almost all of the people are people of color, including the hero, but you don’t realize. I don’t say anything about it for quite a while.

And all the fantasy novels at that point were all white, everybody was pure, lily white, and it was a way, it was almost tricking the reader into identifying with young Sparrowhawk and then finding out that he was not a white man! OK, it is a kind of trick. It’s a useful one — you know, it worked!

It’s a way of laying a trap for people with their own assumptions, I suppose.

That’s it precisely. You’re going to insist that the world is this way? Well, here’s what happens to you!

As I remember, the television version of “Earthsea” didn’t do a very good job with that.

Let’s just not talk about that. It’s so horrible!

OK, we’ll put that aside.

Your work ranges over these cultures and creations, and there has to have been from your family — from your father, your mother, ethnologists and anthropologists — something that you absorbed, something that caught your attention, that said, I am not just of this time, this moment, this body, this place?

Well, I feel very strongly that I am of this body and this place and this time. But you’re right, it was something in the air my father breathed as an anthropologist. And the people he knew, the people who came to the house and the things they talked about — you could say I grew up in a house where all the doors were open. There just weren’t a lot of shut doors, and no locked ones, and that does something to a kid’s mind. It gives him a freedom and a kind of security in the world: OK, people are different, there are all kinds of different people — isn’t that interesting? Instead of, uuugh, isn’t that horrible?

Certainly anyone who reads your books may find strangeness in the settings but so much familiarity in the characters.

People do seem to be people wherever they are, whatever they look like. In “The Left Hand of Darkness,” I kind of tried to experiment to see if you took gender away from people for most of the month, would they still be human? And yeah, they did — they do.

How does it feel to create worlds, to create populations? It’s pretty powerful.

It’s tremendous fun. It’s hard work — that’s why I can’t do it anymore. I’m too old, I haven’t got the strength to create whole populations anymore. But I certainly enjoyed doing it very much.

How did it make you feel, besides the fun part?

Well, sure, you are the creator and ruler and god of your little invented world. But after all, you only go partly insane when you’re writing a novel, and part of you remembers that after all it is just a novel. It is not the world.

It is your little — what Tolkien calls your little sub-creation, and you can do with it what you will, within limits, because you find this world has its own rules and you have to obey them.

There’s the world you created. Everything you say about it establishes some facts about it and you have to stick to them. So it’s a kind of interplay between the creator and the created, all the time.

Is it hard to close the book literally on those worlds you’ve created? Saying goodbye to them when you’re done writing about them?

Oh yes. Oh, finishing a novel can be awful. Very depressing. And I was always absolutely certain that I would never write another, that I was done, that was it, it was all gone. And then, somehow, another one would start simmering.

What can you characterize, in general, about your readers, and what they tell you about what your work means to them?

They’re people of a certain courage because when I first started writing, particularly they were reading a kind of fiction that was frowned upon, that most college English departments didn’t admit existed.

People who read imaginative fiction very often — most often — start reading it as kids and adolescents. And they just stick with it. And they won’t be shamed out of it by being told that’s just for children, Tolkien writes for the nursery, and so on. They just say, Oh nonsense, it’s not true, and go on reading what they want to read.

So they’re people of courage. And they’re very, very generous. I must say that the fan letters I get are just lovely, from age 5 on up.

Really? Age 5!

They get some help, usually from mama. But they send me pictures and the pictures are wonderful.

Does this mean that your books are now on syllabi in high school and college classes?

Oh yes, oh yes. Actually, high school teachers have been putting science fiction and fantasy, have been teaching it for years, sometimes I think a bit surreptitiously, and sometimes with a lot of resistance from fundamentalist parents who think that every imaginative, every fantasy is witchcraft and evil.

But high school teachers, after all, have to communicate with high school students and high school students like fantasy and science fiction. They find there are things they need, and they will read it, whether they’re told to or not.

You made a speech in 2014 when you won the National Book Foundation’s medal for distinguished contributions to American letters. I think you said the speech has more hits than a cat video, which is saying something. You spoke about your concern about the state of American literature, that it’s getting sold down the river, and your concerns that the online use of content for free could be depriving writers of their livelihoods.

My concerns are not about the state of literature, which I think is quite healthy, but the state of publishing, and the fact is that the publishers have been taken over by mega-corporations which are not interested in publishing books — they are interested in making money. It’s all the bottom line. And literature does not happen on the bottom line.

And the capitulation of publishers to their own sales departments, and sacrificing editors to what the sales department says is going to sell, and so on, sacrificing writers to how well their last book did — it’s all pretty sick. Capitalism and art do not really get on together.

And I just was putting it out — a protest, because I was there in New York, and all my publishers were there, and Amazon had a whole table there, and so on.

And I just wanted to say, the way you are handling and selling books is not the right way to do it. It’s just — you’re degrading the art. Stop doing it!

You have also been concerned about the digitizing of books.

That is only hitting one part of it. That is only part of the problem. I am very concerned about the breaking copyright. A writer cannot be independent without copyright. The copyright is only about 100 years old, or a little older in some places, and there is a fairly strong, concerted capitalist movement to break it — in other words, to make artists, writers that they cannot be independent anymore.

They will have to find sponsors or sell via advertising and so on, or go find a rich man who will publish their books for them. Aaagh.

I think it’s very important that our government understands what’s happening to copyright and strengthens copyright, rather than letting it get continually weakened.

How do these people think writers are to live? Where does the peanut butter come from? Sure, I could give away all my writing and put my work in common domain, but then how would I make a living? Everybody has to eat, and writers are workers, just like everybody else.

Reading your books makes me think of one common issue in alternative fiction, imaginative fiction — it’s the role of women. Even if you watch a “Star Trek” movie nowadays, the men are still wearing long pants 2000 years in the future, and long sleeves, and women are still in sleeveless short dresses. C’mon!

You know, film, Hollywood, TV they’re so conservative and kind of reactionary. It’s so timid, it’s kind of depressing! People who know science fiction only through movies don’t know they haven’t any idea what it is. They just know what movies are. I like movies, but gee.

Have you ever been invited to Comic-Con?

Invited, yes, years ago. I never went to many, even the science fiction conventions. The big cons, that’s not my scene. I’m too introverted.

Because I have an image of you being carried in shoulder-high on a sedan chair, to the cheering of throngs.

Ew – I bet when you’re in a sedan chair, you get seasick!

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