Ursula Le Guin: Short Stories

Themes

Le Guin exploits the creative flexibility of the science fiction and fantasy genres to undertake thorough explorations both of dimensions of social and psychological identity and of broader cultural and social structures. In doing so, she draws on sociology, anthropology, and psychology, leading some critics to categorize her work as soft science fiction.[46] She has objected to this classification of her writing, arguing the term is divisive and implies a narrow view of what constitutes valid science fiction.[10] There are also the underlying ideas of anarchism and environmentalism that make repeated appearances throughout Le Guin’s work.

In 2014 Le Guin was asked whether science fiction writers should strive to accurately predict the future world. She replied:

" ... the task of science fiction is not to predict the future. Rather, it contemplates possible futures. Writers may find the future appealing precisely because it can't be known, a black box where “anything at all can be said to happen without fear of contradiction from a native. The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in, a means of thinking about reality, a method.”[47]

Sociology, anthropology and psychology

The Left Hand of Darkness, along with The Dispossessed and The Telling, are novels within Le Guin's Hainish Cycle, which employs a future galactic civilization loosely connected by an organizational body known as the Ekumen to consider the consequences of contact between different worlds and cultures. Unlike those in much mainstream science fiction, Hainish Cycle civilization does not possess reliable human faster-than-light travel, but does have technology for instantaneous communication. This allows the author to hypothesize a loose collection of societies that exist largely in isolation from one another, providing the setting for her explorations of intercultural encounter. The social and cultural impact of the arrival of Ekumen envoys (known as "mobiles") on remote planets, and the culture shock that the envoys experience, constitute major themes of The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin's concept has been borrowed explicitly by several other well-known authors, to the extent of using the name of the communication device (the "ansible").[48] Being so thoroughly informed by social science perspectives on identity and society, Le Guin treats race and gender quite deliberately. The majority of her main characters are people of color, a choice made to reflect the non-white majority of humans, and one to which she attributes the frequent lack of character illustrations on her book covers.[49] Her writing often makes use of alien cultures to examine structural characteristics of human culture and society and their impact on the individual. In The Left Hand of Darkness, for example, she implicitly explores social, cultural, and personal consequences of sexual identity through a novel involving a human encounter with an unpredictably androgynous race.[50]

This prominent theme of cultural interaction is most likely rooted in the fact that Le Guin grew up in a household of anthropologists where she was surrounded by the remarkable case of Ishi—a Native American acclaimed in his time as the "last wild Indian"—and his interaction with the white man’s world. Le Guin's father was director of the University of California Museum of Anthropology, where Ishi was studied and worked as a research assistant. Her mother wrote the bestseller Ishi in Two Worlds. Similar elements are echoed through many of Le Guin’s stories — from Planet of Exile and City of Illusion to The Word for World Is Forest and The Dispossessed.[51]

Le Guin's writing notably employs the ordinary actions and transactions of everyday life, clarifying how these daily activities embed individuals in a context of relation to the physical world and to one another. For example, the engagement of the main characters with the everyday business of looking after animals, tending gardens and doing domestic chores is central to the novel Tehanu. Themes of Jungian psychology also are prominent in her writing.[52]

Environmentalism

Le Guin, as Elizabeth McDowell states in her 1992 master’s thesis, “identif[ies] the present dominant socio-political American system as problematic and destructive to the health and life of the natural world, humanity, and their interrelations.”[53] This idea recurs in several of Le Guin’s works, most notably The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Word for World Is Forest (1972), The Dispossessed (1974), The Eye of the Heron (1978), Always Coming Home (1985), and “Buffalo Gals, Won’t you Come Out Tonight?” (1987). All of these works center around ideas regarding socio-political organization and value-system experiments in both utopias and dystopias.[54] As McDowell explains, “Although many of Le Guin’s works are exercises in the fantastic imagination, they are equally exercises of the political imagination.”[55]

In addition to her fiction, Le Guin's book Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, a collaboration with artist Roger Dorband, is a clear environmental testament to the natural beauty of that area of Eastern Oregon.

Anarchism and Taoism

Le Guin’s feelings towards anarchism are closely tied to her Taoist beliefs and both ideas appear in her work. "Taoism and Anarchism fit together in some very interesting ways and I've been a Taoist ever since I learned what it was."[56] She has participated in numerous peace marches and although she does not call herself an anarchist since she does not live the lifestyle, she does feel that, "Democracy is good but it isn't the only way to achieve justice and a fair share."[57] Le Guin has said: "The Dispossessed is an Anarchist utopian novel. Its ideas come from the Pacifist Anarchist tradition - Kropotkin etc. So did some of the ideas of the so-called counterculture of the sixties and seventies.”[58] She has also said that anarchism “is a necessary ideal at the very least. It is an ideal without which we couldn't go on. If you are asking me is anarchism at this point a practical movement, well, then you get in the question of where you try to do it and who’s living on your boundary?”

Le Guin has been credited with helping to popularize anarchism as her work “rescues anarchism from the cultural ghetto to which it has been consigned [and] introduces the anarchist vision…into the mainstream of intellectual discourse.” Indeed her works were influential in developing a new anarchist way of thinking; a postmodern way that is more adaptable and looks at/addresses a broader range of concerns.[59]


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