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Ambiguous Utopias
Ursula K. Le Guin
interviewed by Duncan Lawie
"The emptiness of the future is why it is so useful to SF."

"Writers need and respond to intelligent, informed
criticism, just as they need intelligent, informed readers"

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of science fiction's key contributors. 2002 is the 40th anniversary of her first published story and she is still producing new and interesting work. Her debut works quickly displayed differences from engineering and science centred SF, focusing more on character and the 'softer' sciences. This approach marked her as a part of the New Wave movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Ursula K. Le Guin
   Her two primary science fictional universes are the Ekumen and Earthsea, whilst she has also written a pair of non-SF books set in 19th century Europe. Beyond these sequences, she has written many standalone novels and over 100 shorter works. A good collection of her early short stories is The Wind's Twelve Quarters, published in 1975. For a later collection, try Buffalo Gals And Other Animal Presences from 1987. Le Guin has collected awards for her work at every length, and in four different decades.
   The Ekumen or Hainish universe has been the setting for much of Le Guin's most successful writing. A 1964 story became the short novel Rocannon's World, published in 1966. Planet Of Exile and City Of Illusions followed in quick succession. These books were all Ace Doubles and show a writer learning her craft and rapidly increasing in competence. With City Of Illusions, she pushed beyond the boundaries of her burgeoning ability and the result is less successful. Le Guin sidestepped into Earthsea at this point but returned to the Ekumen in 1969 with The Left Hand Of Darkness. Here, she truly found her voice and her subject. The book towers over her early work. It won her both the Hugo and Nebula awards and contributed to a broadening of the genre. That this novel now seems less astounding in its ideas is an indication of its influence on the whole field.
   Le Guin has continued to work in the ever more convoluted Hainish universe. In the 1970s she was awarded a Nebula for The Dispossessed and a Hugo for The Word For World Is Forest whilst her most recent collection of short stories - The Birthday Of The World And Other Stories - contains several more Hainish tales. Much of her science fiction has a political undertone, from the outright anarchist utopia of The Dispossessed to the questioning of gender and identity for which she is perhaps best known.
   Over the years 1968 to 1972, Le Guin wrote the Earthsea trilogy - A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs Of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. This story of the education of a young wizard is a classic fantasy, founded on a rather different conception of magic. The cycle was extended with Tehanu: The Last Book Of Earthsea in 1990. Le Guin has returned to the setting several times since, with The Telling in 2000 and a new collection Tales From Earthsea.
   Recently, I had the opportunity to ask five quick questions...

You studied Romance Literatures at University. How did you get from there to science fiction?

I was working towards a degree in Romance language and literature so I could get paid as a teacher and support my habit (writing). Then I married a man with his own degree, and he supported my habit, until I was able to support his. I did teach French on and off for years. Rien ne se perd.

Did you consciously feel you were part of a new movement in science fiction when you started getting published?

I don't think I knew I was part of a new movement in SF, really; a movement would have a programme, wouldn't it? I was aware that there were a lot of us of about my age breaking in, that a lot of us were bringing more literary interest and literary technique to SF than it had mostly had, and that quite a lot of us were women. Now that was new.

The Orsinian stories have a convincing sense of place in European history. How does the process of creating that setting differ from science fictional world building?

Fitting an invented world into the future is easy - the future is empty. The emptiness of the future is why it is so useful to SF. Fitting an invented country into 19th - 20th century Europe - well, Europe is full. So is history. So, you make sure you know what was going on where at the moment, and then you slide your country in very tactfully and politely where it won't disturb anybody too much, and make it behave like its neighbours. It really is not too difficult, except you have to be persistently vague about the neighbours. If you cross the border into Poland, or Austria, or wherever, you've blown it. All of a sudden, you're on the map.

Earthsea and the Hainish universe were a significant part of your early career, which you are now writing about again. Is this a return to earlier interests or have these places persisted in your imagination?

Almost every place I have invented, and a lot of my invented people, tend to stay quite lively in my mind. I like to return to places I found particularly interesting, just as one returns to Yosemite or London. Earthsea is rather peculiar, in that events there seem to pursue their course whether I'm noticing or not. Ged and Tanar and the others go on living, at about the same rate as I do. So I have to go and find out what they've been up to while I wasn't noticing. The Ekumen is far messier. How can history/ies run straight when time dilation confuses everywhere/when relative to everywhere/when else? I gave up much pretence of continuity between worlds or books long ago. I'll leave that to the Hainish. As for Orsinia, I have not been able to go back there since 1990, though I have tried several times. The borders are closed. I don't know what's going on. It worries me.

What effect do you think increasing academic interest is having on the field of science fiction?

If academic interest in SF really is increasing, perhaps it will lead to there being more critics and reviewers capable of understanding the stuff, saying why its good or bad, and comparing it usefully with other literature. (That would spare us such revelations of critical ignorance as Harry Potter brought out, with reviewers gushing that nothing like this had ever been written before.) It might even lead to Tolkien being given his rightful place in the academic literary canon. It would be good for us all, I think. Writers need and respond to intelligent, informed criticism, just as they need intelligent, informed readers (critics are merely readers, after all, who have been given power they may or may not deserve). Given the current tendencies in academic literary studies, there will also be a lot of theoretical articles about SF using terminology invented by the latest Frenchman and comprehensible only to six or seven unfortunate graduate students; this stuff would be harmless, except that it keeps people from doing real criticism.

Books by Ursula K. Le Guin A-Z selected fiction titles:
Always Coming Home (1985),  The Birthday Of The World And Other Stories (2002),  Buffalo Gals And Other Animal Presences (1987),  City Of Illusions (1967),  The Compass Rose (1982),
The Dispossessed: An Anbiguous Utopia (1974),  The Eye Of The Heron (1982),  The Farthest Shore (1972),  A Fisherman Of The Inland Sea: Science Fiction Stories (collection, 1994),
Four Ways To Forgiveness (1997),  The Lathe Of Heaven (1971),  The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969),  Malafrena (1979),  Orsinian Tales (1976),  The Other Wind (2002),  Planet Of Exile (1966),  Rocannon's World (1966),  Searoad: Chronicles Of Klatsand (1991),  Tales From Earthsea (collection, 2001),  Tehanu: The Last Book Of Earthsea (1990),  The Telling (2000),  Threshold (1980),  The Tombs Of Atuan (1971),  Unlocking The Air And Other Stories (collection, 1997),
A Very Long Way From Anywhere Else (1976),  The Wind's Twelve Quarters (collection, 1975),
A Wizard Of Earthsea (1968),  The Word For World Is Forest (1976)
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Related item:
tZ  The Lathe Of Heaven - TV movie adaptation (1980) review



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