What Ursula K. Le Guin has taught SF

(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 WorldPlanet 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 shards of the previously unnoticed are why we should read Le Guin.


Writing about women in SF: Le Guin, Finkbeiner, Bechdel…

Doing some preparation for a post about Ursula K. Le Guin, I began to get worried. I am part of the problem. In wanting to say that I think we have something to learn from Ursula K. Le Guin, and in suggesting that she is different from main-line SF, I implicitly, accidentally set up a dichotomy. It is all-too-easy then to retrofit this onto a framework of gender, and then we just have another piece of text which has been sucked into the same old sexist vortex of male SF authors are from Mars, and female SF authors are from etc. Even looking up a copy of Worlds of Exile and Illusion online, I read that here we find that ‘three classic novels are offered in one volume by SF’s greatest living female writer.’ Greatest living female writer. Right. Even to get rid of the problematic italicized word there, it would still be read as ‘greatest living female writer.’

To deal with this to my own satisfaction, I am going to borrow from male gay David M. Halperin’s wonderful book, How to be Gay. In a chapter detailing the development of his book from a seminar he offered at the University of Michigan, he delineates his own attempts at developing a theoretical framework for his project. Gay studies, scholars of homosexuality, and queer theorists do not often speak the same conceptual language. Continue reading

Do androids dream of remarkable things?

One notable difficulty which science fiction – and sci-fi – has is that while it is a discourse of possibility, it makes too few concessions to social reality for it to be regarded as a part of literature as conceived as a liberal art. Literature had become, via grammar and rhetoric, a liberal art in the sense of it being that which the free [Latin: liber] person (man originally) would study. Now it is also something we tend to do in our free time, though the professor of literature spends remarkably little time actually reading literature, and more time keeping up with other responsibilities, with writing about writing (about writing) having become more professionally rewarding than reading. Either way, it is a concern to us as a form via which we can be circumspect about aspects of our existence.

Science fiction is different to speculative fiction or to the fantastic (I think of Calvino’s Cosmicomiche as an example of the latter, perhaps Margaret Atwood falls into the first loose bracketing) in that it is more concerned with being a type of thought experiment, than the fullness of life as is (apparently) found in realism. The most basic description you can give of a classic of science fiction starts with the sentence “Imagine if…”. That goes for hard science-fiction in the line of Tau Zero or Ringworld. These are opportunities to chase after the myriad implications of an event or an idea.

There is then the question of the more nuanced texts, such as those of Philip K. Dick, Sheri S. Tepper, Dan Simmons, Walter Tevis etc. In these examples it is not the idea that is made the master of the form, and there is an interplay between character, setting, and form that makes this field more interesting as literature rather than as “ideas texts”.

There is also that popular realm of Dune and Star Wars, which is (as Voegele notes above) is little more than swords and sorcery at faster than light speeds. Star Trek I would put in a sub-group, as the United Nations and the balance of power at FTL speeds.

What all of these have in common is that the overriding ideology defining the discourse is one of willful elitism. We have an unapologetically aristocratic system (as with Tepper’s Grass; and in all of the positively feudal Dune series, notably with examples such as the priestly ‘Bene Gesserit‘ and the ‘Spacing Guild‘), or a elitism of apparent intellectual entitlement. Even in those examples where we supposedly encounter the underworld (as in much of Dick), there is still yet the idea that they are subject to some powerful capitalist or some cosmic corporation. The reason for this is, according to Fredric Jameson’s excellent Archaeologies of the Future is that all literatures write about now, and that at best the future is a distancing device.

The question becomes, then, why are authors of science fiction so perversely conservative, so reactionary? The objection might be made that the elitism of the ‘scientist as hero’ is but the meritocracy of the universities. Even the Jedi, you could argue, do not exclude people on the basis of sex or species, but only on the basis of ability. Very well and good if that is so, but my question would be a bit distanced from all that. If we consider the bustling, space-faring civilization either on the page or on the screen, more often than not we see things from the heights, from a privileged perspective. An exception might be in Bladerunner, where we are in the muck and mire of a decaying Earth, but the governing principle is still ‘higher = better’. Indeed, in the text on which the film is based, the entire narrative hinges on a consumerist desire for nicer things, a cyborg keeping up with the Joneses.

For me, one of the most frightening examples of this blindness to any kind of social inclusion comes from Star Wars, and the fact that it is the most successful series of science fiction texts in history. It is a sub-genre unto itself. In my view, all six films should not be regarded as the story of princesses and knights, and the turn of Anakin to the Dark Side is irrelevant, for to my mind there is too much grey to be entirely comfortable with a fast distinction between Dark and Light (though that is Sith talk…). That is the history of the industrialists, the war-mongers, the bureaucrats. In my mind, the entire story can be seen in the arc from Jango Fett to ‘the clones’. The reason for this is that within the Galactic Empire, these are the only non-Jedi, non-diplomats we encounter. Basically, from the perspective of anybody who matters, everybody else are just clones: interchangeable, replaceable, expendable. They are us.

In all those shots of busy worlds, where the people look like ants, those tiny dots are us, and they have as much an impact on their lives as does the average North Korean. The giant farms where the clones are grown on Kamino for the empire are not so different from the nightmarish world of The Matrix. The clones are but biological robot soldiers, and there is no notion of them having any autonomy. They are in Kantian terms an abomination, humans designed to be a means, and not an end.

What then, is the alternative to all this? Ursula Le Guin as always presents us with both sides, both the mirror of the world as we know it (as Deleuze’s identity, under which I perhaps perversely also include the other three pillars of reason, namely: opposition, analogy, and resemblance) and that difference that ‘makes a difference’. Examples of this are in the anarcho-utopia in The Dispossessed, as well as the properly alien (though Jameson finds echoes of medieval Muscovy) of The Left Hand of Darkness.

My favourite example of an alternative is in a short story collected in Cordwainer Smith’s The Rediscovery of Man. The story is “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” and concerns the attempts by the underpeople of Smith’s cycle of stories (huge in scope, spanning thousands of years) to get the franchise for themselves. It concerns them as people (though not necessarily human), and relegates the controlling apparatus of the galaxy (aptly named ‘The Instrumentality of Mankind”) to the status of a blocking mechanism. It is but another example of attempts to shut down the opening up of citizenship, of rights as well as obligations, of personhood. These are the ideas informing this short story, but it is the execution of it that elevates this text above most others in this genre, bringing it to a level of literary greatness. The conclusion is as emotionally affecting as Flowers for Algernon, and indeed anything else in science fiction.

For the next stage of science fiction, we need to pass beyond the echoes of big science (as in the 40s and 50s), the counterculture (of the 60s and 70s), of neoconservatism (of the 80s and 90s, v. Cyberpunk), and of globalization (the 90s and 00s). For science fiction to remain an important discourse for examining ideas that confront us here, now, then it must step out from behind its blanket of distance, of cool examination, or of intellectual revenge. We must allow the clones, androids, the cyborgs, the robots, the underpeople to have hearts. This is how we can bring our ideas about technology and the future into contact with the human reality of our lives now.