DeFlip Side #185: Le Guin’s Legacy

DeFlip Side #185: Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Sadly, the Science Fiction community has marked the passing of one of its leading lights. Ursula K. Le Guin died on January 22nd. She was 88. And she leaves behind a literary legacy foundational to genre fiction.

It was foundational to me as well. As I once recounted on a previous show, Le Guin’s Earthsea series helped shape the man I am today. In that I join the ranks of genre giants like Karen Joy Fowler and Neil Gaiman who have marked her passing with heartfelt essays on how Le Guin inspired their personal writing journeys — and the literary landscape in general. Gaiman called her a rabble rouser with a gentle smile.

Le Guin started rabble rousing by selling short stories in the early 60s. Her first novel, Rocannon’s World, came out in 1966. It was the beginning of what has since been dubbed her Hainish Cycle, which imagined human populations scattered across different worlds, attempting to reconnect — despite distance and ideological differences. And it included two works seminal to Science Fiction: The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.

Despite these other-worldly settings, Le Guin’s books were unique in the genre, in that they were grounded mainly in the so-called soft sciences — mainly social. And she carefully mined that ground to unearth larger human truths — truths that transcend worlds. As her character Shevek said in The Dispossessed:

“If you can see a thing whole, it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives. . . . But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you loose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful earth is, is to see it from the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.”

Since Le Guin’s death, Internet memeists have been getting a lot of mileage out of another quote from The Dispossessed:

“Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I’m going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I’m going to go unbuild walls.”

This decades-old sentiment seems oddly prescient, here in the age of Trump. But to shackle it to our current political free-for-all kind of misses the point. The fact is that Le Guin’s ideas were so true, so universal to the human experience, that people would have been able to find something that spoke directly to the social-political moment, no matter when she passed.

That’s because while her stories unfolded across vast distances in the far future, Le Guin was never really writing about the future. As she laughingly said in this talk with The Nation in 2015:

“I never did think much about the future. I’m only interested really in the present and the past. Who knows what the future is. Who knows? It’s not there. We don’t know what it is. The future in Science Fiction is just a metaphor for now.”

I chose that statement not only for what Le Guin says, but the way she says it. Go online and listen to any of her talks or interviews, and you’ll find an abundance of good-natured, wry humor — a grounded self-assuredness, without a trace of ego in sight. But her modest tone belied a rigorous standard to which she felt Science Fiction must be held. Here she is at the 1975 World Con in Australia:

“When a science fiction book is written, the writer really ought to be aware that he or she is in an extraordinarily enviable position, an inheritor of the least rigid, the freest, the youngest of all literary traditions. And therefore should do the job just as well and seriously and entertainingly — as intelligently and as passionately — as ever it can be done. That is the least we can ask of our writers, and the most. You cannot demand of an artist that he produce a masterpiece. But you can ask that he try.”

Le Guin not only tried, but succeeded many times over. And in holding herself to that standard, her work transcended genre, resonating with readers of all kinds. And that, ultimately, is what will enable it to endure.

Rest in Peace, Ms. Le Guin.