Ur­sula K Le Guin

The leg­endary Amer­i­can au­thor re­flects on a truly bril­liant ca­reer

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Dragons - Words by jonat han wright por­trait by Mar­ian Wood Kolisch

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.

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