(Or, on two kinds of science fiction): With Worlds of Exile and Illusion, Ursula K. Le Guin presents us with an alternative notion of what science fiction can be. In a previous post, I was somewhat concerned about setting up a gender-based dichotomy of this genre, but this doesn’t worry me so much now. As such, I want to suggest that Le Guin gives us an alternate vision, a departure from traditional space operas, those great books that extoll the great works of great men.
In giving us tales in this collection of Hainish cycle novels (namely: Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions), we read about an interstellar civilization, and we would superficially appear to be in a realm similar to Asimov, Banks, or Simmons. But we are not privy to the thoughts and memories of galactic administrators, generals, or politicians, those most powerful in our imagining. What we get are not the great ceremonial city squares, the heraldry, the displays of might that cross the gulf of immeasurable distance (in time, space, imagination). Instead, we are told of the weeds growing up between the flagstones in these grand civic spaces, the forgotten semi-sanctioned research foray, and of those who have escaped the attention of Greatness.
This is a rueful SF, possessed of a knowledge that the greatest effort of all is not to be found in priapic displays of techno-prowess, but in attempting ever greater fidelity to discovering what the human is. Unlike some other SF authors, Le Guin is not interested in trouble-shooting the implications of products which have not yet been invented. She does not mine as yet undeveloped markets for narrative fodder (nor in so doing, hasten their coming). She treats us as essentially human, rather than incidentally so. She treats the human as an end in itself. By doing so, her readers are considered with greater respect than by any other author I can currently think of. This is the animating spirit of everything Le Guin writes, never way-laid or silenced for cheap pay-offs or lazy plot effects.
In this reading experience, we are not played, nor led, nor otherwise dictated to. Authorial imperiousness is nowhere to be found – and what a relief this is. There is no “LOOK AT ME. Amn’t I terribly clever?” which can infect this genre of ideas. Curiously, Le Guin’s authorial voice is one that listens, and one which encourages us to do the same through its willingness to quieten itself. It is silent in that manner of walking along a path with a companion, and having our conversational gambit go unanswered. We look askance at our friend, but in that precious moment we see, and hear their attention directed away from us. So we stand in silence – and listen. With Le Guin, we quieten the din that accompanies living and reading. We still the contact between author and reader, moving beyond trust to something else. This something else, this elsewhere, this otherwise, these fringes, these lapidary sheaves of the previously unnoticed are why we should read Le Guin.