Ursula K Le Guin
The legendary American author reflects on a truly brilliant career
Let’s begin with the bad news. According to Ursula K Le Guin, she’s unlikely to write another novel. “As you get very old, which I am now, there’s the energy matter,” says the octogenarian down the line from her home in Portland, Oregon. “I don’t think I could possibly write a novel now, I just haven’t got the stamina.” She speaks so clearly and with such precision this seems hard to believe, but a lack of new novels doesn’t mean she’s not busy. Not only has Le Guin “spiraled around” back to writing poetry, as she did when younger, but she’s been looking anew at her previously published work, working with her agent to see “what’s gone out of print that can be brought back into print, what can be collected”.
This year, it’s work that’s led to the UK publication of two collections, collectively entitled The Unreal And The Real, which together find Le Guin personally selecting the best of her short fiction. While What On Earth focuses on what Le Guin calls her “more mundane” tales, Outer Space, Inner Lands is devoted to more fantastical fiction.
“Mostly, I was just trying to get an order of stories where either one led to another, or they at least wouldn’t destroy each other by coming subsequently,” she says. “Putting poems together and putting stories together is really very difficult.” Taken together, they’re volumes that show Le Guin’s extraordinary range, built up over a long writing life. That said, it’s perhaps telling that even some of the more mundane tales are set in a fictional European country, Orsinia, which Le Guin invented in the 1950s.
“I was obviously kind of steering clear of contemporary politics at that point,” she says. “I wasn’t ready to cope with what the real world was doing at the moment. So Orsinia gave a room for my imagination, it gave me perhaps a little bit of a hiding place for my imagination. And yet I could deal with matters that were morally important to me in an imaginative space, so it’s not all that different perhaps from the other planet in a science- fiction story, which gives you the same escape from immediate Earth to a place where your imagination can arrange things.”
“I am classed and referred to as a sci- fi writer. And that I think is unfair and untrue”
So was inventing Orsinia also about breaking free of what we call realistic fiction? “It was, yes,” she says without hesitation. However, having studied Italian and French literature, she also points out that “my reading was mostly formed on 19th- century and 20th- century realistic fiction” – hence Orsinia being in Europe rather than the Americas, “where my imagination could just be itself in a landscape of literature it was familiar with”.
Politics entered Le Guin’s work gradually, as the revolutionary spirit of the ’ 60s drew Le Guin into more direct political engagement. “It began with protest against bomb testing and then general leftist activity,” she says, “and then of course came feminism in the late ’ 60s and ’ 70s, and that was after all a very highly political movement.”
Both reflecting and sometimes criticising the spirit of the times, these were years when Le Guin wrote the extraordinary sequence of novels that established her reputation. Books such as A Wizard Of Earthsea ( 1968), which followed the story of a ( crucially in the context of the USA in the 1960s or indeed today, red- brown skinned) magical practitioner, and feminist SF tale The Left Hand Of Darkness ( 1969), set on a planet where the inhabitants are neither male nor female, adroitly subverted emerging genre conventions.
As someone who was at the leading edge of new ideas in the 1960s, how does she react to living through a more conservative era? “I hesitate to talk about it because famously when one is quite old, one is always sitting around saying, ‘ My country isn’t what it was and things are going to the dogs,’” she says. Nevertheless, she adds, it’s “really disappointing ” to see “what they call conservatism, but what I call reactionism” in full Reaganite flower. “I respected conservatives, but these are not conservatives, they’re reactionaries, they’re simply reacting against, they have no positive programme at all,” she says. Then there are her ecological concerns, “what we are doing to the larger economy of the entire planet, the ecology that supports us”, which she has been writing about “directly or indirectly for 40 years”.
Maybe the world is beginning to come round to her way of thinking. Recently, the National Book Foundation in the USA awarded Le Guin the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and you suspect that, while she doesn’t come across as the least bit vain, she’ll enjoy the recognition. Returning to the subject of the poetry that now takes up so much of her writing time, SFX asks her if she’s frustrated that she’ll be remembered more for her novels than for her verse? “My only frustration is that I am still classed and referred to as a sci- fi writer,” she says. “And that I think is unfair and untrue.” Not because she’s “ashamed” of her SF work, she stresses: she’s proud of it.
She doesn’t say this, but it would be true: calling Ursula K Le Guin a sci- fi writer is to overlook the fact she’s one of the most significant American writers of recent years.
The Unreal And The Real Volumes 1 & 2 are out now.