Our theme for the month of October is “This Day in History.”
Have you ever tried to love something, someone, on purpose? I don’t mean in the way you keep choosing to love someone once you’ve waded past the shallows. I mean: have you ever tried to love something by skipping straight to obligation and persisting doggedly down that road, dragging your feelings along like a suitcase with a bad wheel? That’s how I feel about Ursula Le Guin—the late queen of science fiction.
Ursula K. Le Guin was born on October 21, 1929 and from thence proceeded to prolifically and radically shape the speculative genre—a space that, despite numerous foundational contributions by female authors, reeked of “old boys club” cigar smoke in the mid-to-late 20th century. Ursula stepped boldly into magical and extraterrestrial lands, producing thirty-six fictional works for children and adults in addition to essays, poems, and short stories. These earned her practically every award out there, including six Nebula Awards and seven Hugo awards. In short, she was spectacularly cool.
My devotion to Ursula is chivalric. It’s a matter of honor, not passion. I probably would have decided to like her on the basis of her name alone. Strange. Primordial. (I forgot that the name’s much more common association is with a Disney villain. Perhaps I ought to strike it from my list of names for future offspring?)
I’m fairly certain the first work of Ursula’s I experienced was a short story—“The Flyers of Gy”—from the later years of Ursula’s career. It’s strange. Written as an extra-terrestrial ethnographic essay on the feathered (and sometimes winged) inhabitants of Gy, it eschews most of the rules and structure of fiction. It has characters, but they appear late in the story. The humor clashes abruptly with the serious academic tone, which flatly describes events and customs of great cruelty. I loved it simply because I’d never read anything like it before. It’s hard to identify the plot or a particular moral. I think it’s about joy. It’s about how purpose, happiness, success mean radically different things to different people. Among what I’ve read of Ursula’s work, this inconclusive point is the most straightforward I’ve seen.
Ursula’s tendency to be opaque frustrates me. It feels, often, as if Ursula has created a fascinating world and refuses to let me in. Her works make the reader’s voyerism more tangible than is comfortable—one is always aware that they are pressed against the glass of the fourth wall.
I confess: I don’t actually like or enjoy Ursula’s work.
It’s for no lack of trying. I picked up a copy of Lavina in Seattle over a year ago. It remains unfinished on my shelves.
Lavinia is a retelling, or perhaps a companion to Virgil’s epic, The Aenid. Set in what would become Italy, it follows the titular character’s girlhood as she grows from a dutiful, priestly princess into the destined wife of Aeneas, fore-father of Rome. I don’t really know how it ends; I lost interest in the princess. Ursula’s characters often feel, to me, less than real. It’s difficult to get into their heads, hearts, and shoes.
That was my primary complaint with The Left Hand of Darkness, which follows Genly Ai, a terran emissary from a humanoid coalition of worlds as he works to persuade the various nations of Gethen to make an alliance. Gethenians are androgynous. Genly is male and not terribly likable. He’s short-sighted, arrogant, and unmovably committed to observing everything through his male terran lens, even his relationship with Gethinian politician, Estravan. The use of default male pronouns and terms create a setting that feels exclusively male rather than androgynous. I felt viscerally excluded and was surprised to feel so shut out by the work of a fellow woman.
But I think I am to blame for my own feeling of betrayal. It’s a rather audacious expectation to have of an author, for her to sit serenely and perfectly on a pedestal as the queen of science fiction. It’s unfair of me to applaud her merely as some hero of feminism. Equality would let her work stand exclusive of her. And it’s not entirely fair to burden flights of fancy with leaden morals and philosophies.
I think Ursula disliked simple points, generalizations, figureheads, and rally cries. Her sci-fi isn’t designed for easy consumption—microwave morals in futuristic packaging. In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, she insists that the work of science fiction is to describe the present rather than predict the future. She distances her work from profound sweeping revelations, promising instead ordinary and odd observations. She says that when we finish a book, “we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.”
I still don’t like Ursula’s writing. And I still like her. I like her strange brain and her unpretentious eloquence. I like her unromantic approach to the messy parts of humanity—religion, violence, love, justice. I like her name.
So, happy birthday, Ursula! You hold a special place on my shelf and my heart. It’s not first-place, but it’s important.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.